Budapest – the little-known, but up-and-coming gem of Eastern Europe. It is a pure treat to fly into this old-world Mecca and take a rickety van from the outskirts of the city into the hub of Hungary’s capital. With over two million inhabitants, the city accommodates a fifth of the country’s total population.
Budapest was founded in 1873 after the unification of three individual towns: Buda, Óbuda and Pest. The western part of the city, Buda, stands on a series of hills. Pest lies in a basin to the East of the Danube River. To this day, the hustle of Pest, the curve of the Danube and the relative calm of Buda remain intact.
It’s amazing that anything in Budapest has survived the centuries based on the city’s tumultuous history. It was plagued with foreign occupation by the French and Polish and devastated at the hands of the Huns, Mongols, Turks and Hapsburgs. It was also one of Europe’s most impressive cities, embracing the Gothic period and Renaissance in the 15th century. Ironically, the city also flourished under the Hapsburg monarchy during the 1800s. More recently, Budapest shrugged off Communist rule in 1989 and regained its autonomy.
Now that we’ve got the history out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff! The hill is a leafy haven compared to other parts of the city. Cool breezes and chilly Hungarian beer – dreamy.
Refreshed, we explored the remainder of the Citadel (check out the hotel built into the structure), the Liberation Monument, the Gellért Monument and the Cave Church. This unique church is supposedly housed in a holy grotto. Definitely don’t miss this one, especially since it doesn’t take very long to explore.
Exploring Gellért Hill is a great way to get acquainted with Budapest. The sights provide a glimpse of the history and flavor of the city. The observation terraces in the park allow sweeping views of downtown Pest and locales to the South.
Our Super Hotel
We were also very pleased with our bunking location – the Hotel Gellért. Spacious, historical, architecturally appealing, well equipped, reasonably priced, guest friendly and handsomely located. We even got a room with a balcony for a song compared to what we would have paid in the United States. And you can access the internet from your room, provided you have your laptop with you.
Whether you want to lollygag in the baths, exchange money or enjoy traditional singing and dancing performances, the Gellért’s got it. And, it’s a perfect jumping-off spot for exploring Buda or Pest.
North of the Castle
North of the castle is Water Town or Viziváros. To get there, walk down the main street, Fő Utca, from the Gellért past the Rudas Baths and the Tunnel in Clark Ádám Tér (check out the funicular that takes you up the hill to the Buda Castle). The Clark Ádám Tér traffic circle is actually a pleasant one. Landscaping anchors the center, the Tunnel is dramatically solid and the huge stone lions that adorn the Széchenyi Iánchíd Bridge lend an appropriately somber tone. Apparently the sculptor of the lions, János Marschalkó, was so devastated that he forgot to include tongues on the beasts that he drowned himself in the Danube.
Farther down lies the Kapisztory House with its turret window, the Capuchin Church, the Calvinist Church with its amazing ceramic-tiled roof and St. Anne’s Church across from Batthyány Square. Although St. Anne’s was closed when we were there, the Baroque main portal was a treat in itself.
We passed the Lukács Baths and turned left by the Margaret Bridge to ferret out some dinner. We ended up at Margitkert Étterem and had our first dose of goulash with plenty of paprika. Yum. The live entertainment was a bonus too.
Next up – the Castle District or Old Town. Take the funicular to the south of the Tunnel, or traverse the walkways starting at the base of the Tunnel to get to this lofty neighborhood. At the top lies the Royal Palace. The palace was rebuilt after its destruction in 1945 according to the 1905 design. Part of the 15th century Gothic palace remains, which cohabitates with the current structure.
Be sure to stop in at Hungarian National Gallery as you wander around the palace. It doesn’t have air conditioning and the café is pretty lousy, but the range of artwork is extensive and provides more insight into the history and culture of the country.
Also of interest is the Mátyás Fountain, the Lion Gate and the Sándor Palace. A lone violin player in one of the archways gave an eerie, evocative quality to the walk.
By then we were getting pretty thirsty – so we headed for higher ground in search of some liquid nourishment. (Did I mention it was about a hundered degrees or so outside?)
Other Places We Visited
Farther north up Tárnok Utca we stopped in for a beer and then wandered by Holy Trinity Square, the Fisherman’s Bastion (more great views of the city and libations await), and the big daddy, Mátyás Church. This Neo-Gothic beauty is impressive both inside and out. We were wowed by the ceramic-tiled roof and the thin spires. Once inside, we admired the pulpit, the creepy tomb of King Béla III and Anne de Châtillon, the triptych in the main altar and the stain glass windows. There is a Museum of Ecclesiastical Art in the crypt, which we missed.
A walk down Lords’ Street is well worth the façade viewing, but more importantly, it houses the little-known Labyrinths of Buda Castle. The small entrance at Úri Utca No. 9 descends into a section of the complex of cellars, caves and dungeons that sprawl beneath Castle Hill. The place is surreal – half museum, half theme park – with dank corridors and spooky music. Think “nigh vision” on your camcorder. If you really want to get creeped out, come for the night tour from 6:00-8:30 P.M. or brave the individual tour. Yep, they will send you into a section of the Labyrinth closed off to everyone else but you. And yep, it is only offered at night. No thank you/Thank you God -depending on your proclivities.
We emerged back into broad daylight and checked out the surviving tower of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene and the unimpressive Hilton Hotel before heading down into the heart of the city.