By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author
The Eastern European capitals are becoming “closer” to visit each year with better airline routes, and in some cases, reasonably-priced tickets. It’s really not correct to call them “Eastern,” a friend of mine said, because if you look at a map of Europe, they are still close to the “West.” Consider perhaps cities in Belarus, the Ukraine and Romania as “Eastern,” he suggests.
So Budapest, a recent destination of mine and the capital of Hungary, was not particularly hard to reach, after I determined that a Rail Europe train ticket was the most economical form of transportation from Munich. It was, however, a 7 hour and 22-minute train ride from the Bavarian capital, but with trains being an easy and relatively inexpensive form of European travel, I opted for that.
My first impression of this city of about 2 million people (it’s much larger than Prague), came as I departed the train and walked among hundreds of train travelers to the door of the massive train station, where I met hundreds more people on the streets. The city seemed vibrant, active and alive. It also seemed like I should have studied the Hungarian culture a bit more before I arrived, just to ground myself better in what I was about to see.
Divided by the Danube, the city is really two cities in one—hilly Buda in which is located Castle Hill—and Pest, located on the east side, and flat. The most prominent building on the river is the Parliament Building, closed when I was there because of a national holiday. In fact, the whole area was roped off by the police.
My overriding concern about going to Hungary was the language: I didn’t know a word of Hungarian, and I found it hard to pronounce words. I did learn that “Utca” meant “street,” “Hid” meant “bridge,” and “Furdo” meant ”bath.” I also found as I went along that I didn’t necessarily need to know any words in Hungarian. Most of the shopkeepers, hotel personnel and tourist guides knew enough English so that I could communicate well enough.
I’d suggest picking up a guidebook at a local travel store before arrival, and then arranging for a city tour of the highlights before attempting to proceed on your own. The reason for the city tour is that because of the size of the city, you’ll not likely be able to find all the attractions yourself, or want to walk to them yourself.
The tour (www.cityrama.hu), will take several hours, but you will have seen the crème of the attractions of the city. If you plan to stay a few days, the Budapest Card provides free services or discounts at more than 100 places, from public transportation and museums, to thermal baths and restaurants.
The three-hour Cityrama “City Tour” costs 28 euro and includes free taxi pickup at your hotel. The tour starts at the Chain Bridge, which is especially beautiful at night; a romantic walk along the river near the Chain Bridge is memorable. The Parliament Building, built in 1896 for the city’s millennium celebration, features a unique Neo-Gothic design, and reminds one of its counterpart in London. At one time a large red communist star was anchored from the tallest spire. Guided tours are available in the portion of the building which was vacated by the House of Lords.
Chain Bridge at night
Behind the Parliament is Kossuth Ter, filled with monuments such as the one to Lajos Kossuth who led an uprising in 1848. The Museum of Ethography (focusing on folk art and country life) in the old Supreme Court Building houses artifacts from the pre-WWI days in Hungary.
Shops, theaters, cafes and more line the Andrassy Ut as the road connects the City Park where you’ll find the zoo with its playful buildings, the famous Szechenyi Baths with several different pools to soak in, the Vajdahunyad Castle (a replica of the famous castle in Transylvania), the Museum of Fine Arts, the Palace of Art and Heroes’ Square. At the baths, you’ll soak in water containing calcium-magnesium-hydrogen carbondate and sulphate-cloride.
I spent quite of bit of time in this area of the city, and would have spent more if the weather had cooperated. Heroes’ Square is where you’ll meet the most “historic” Hungarians in statue form; the very large open area has as its backdrop the imposing Millennium Monument. In the adjacent City Park is where the famous Gundel Restaurant is located (see sidebar). During the 19th century, citizens used to ride their horses in this place and take along a picnic lunch. In the winter, the lake is frozen, so ice skating is a popular past time.
In the other direction, the House of Terror, former headquarters of the Nazi-sponsored Gestapo and secret police, Budapest Opera House, with its neo-Renaissance architecture, fits well with the similarly-elegant neighborhood on Andrássy Avenue. Hungary’s greatest architect, Miklós Ybl, designed the building for the Millennium celebrations. Construction started in 1875 and the building was finished in 1884. Ybl oversaw the work himself with painstaking care. Hundreds of statues and paintings decorate the building both inside and out.
Another attraction in Pest is the Great Market Hall, a multi-level cavernous structure at the end of Vaci Utca, which should take care of most of your food needs if you’re looking for fresh meats, bakery goods, fruits or vegetables or paprika, and it will also satisfy your need for Hungarian souvenirs. This is a good place to hang out for a couple of hours and find lunch at one of the many fast food stalls,
At Buda Hill, you can walk up the hill (about 30 minutes), or take the chairlift to the top of Janos Hill (1,729 feet). The Erzsebet Lookout tower offers a panorama overview of the city below. The area is divided between the “royal” section and the civilian section, with Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion highlights of the civilian section. Streets that lead away from Trinity Square are dotted with Baroque-style buildings and mansions that hide Gothic ruins.
For a rest and refreshment, try ice cream or a pastry at the Ruszmurm Cafe or sit for a while at Kapisztran Square and listen to the bells of the Magdalena Tower. Be sure to see the Royal Place complex. Once the home of lords and royals, it is now the home to museums.
There are more than 200 museums in Budapest, some of which include the Hungarian National Museum, the Budapest History Museum, the Hungarian National Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Military History and the Ludwig Museum.
An interesting aspect of Budapest that many may not know about are the caves in the area. Monaco is the only other city that can boast a dripstone cave—Budapest has several open to the public: there’s the Palvogy, the Szemlo and Matthias Hill caves (qualified climbers only).
- New York Cafe—The most ornate cafe of 320 that operated in the years preceding WWI, and it has remained the most elegant since. Gilded columns, reliefs and shining mirrors evoke the aesthetics of the early 1900s.
- The square-shaped chocolate cake named after Jancsi Rigo, a gypsy musician, and its original creator Joseph Dobos, is a caramel-covered cake you’ll want to try while you’re in town.
- Margaret Island, in the middle of the Danube, is a large, lovely park where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
What have I left out? Actually quite a bit, but once there you’ll have plenty to do and see. Hungary’s capital is the hub of political, artistic and social energy. It’s full of history and grandeur, big bridges and wide boulevards. With impressive treasures and friendly people, Budapest is a spot you’ll not want to miss.