My house in Budapest
My, my hidden treasure chest
Golden grand piano
My beautiful Castillo
Budapest is difficult to write about. It seems as though the city is continuously being re-born at an exponential rate. That means that writing a quick introduction and trying to capture the city in a few sentences does not do it justice.
There’s the energy of the ruin pubs and their kitsch collections of yesteryear home goods in a falling down courtyard that makes you feel like you’re drinking in secret. There’s the sadness that comes with seeing the balls of cannon shot just steps from Parliament from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution or touring the former KGB headquarters and the Terror Museum. There’s the conviviality of bathing in hot springs outside on a Sunday afternoon. And then there’s the sights that are breathtaking.
Budapest offers some of the most dramatic views in all of Europe; and some of the biggest surprises.
A grand welcome to Budapest occurs on the Danube River. The walk along the river must begin at the Mercado Central. The massive building houses each and every souvenir that you’ll need to take home. Buy the paprika on the first floor. Buy Hungarian lace on the second floor. Easy. Just like that, you’re shopping’s done.
Across the street in a brand new building and in the midst of a small mall, there is a micro-brewery called Jonas Craft Beer House. Have a seat outside on the Danube for an interesting brew experience. The 20 minute walk north along the Danube to the Chain Bridge is really enjoyable especially on a summer day.
The Chain Bridge was the first permanent stone-bridge connecting Pest and Buda, and only the second permanent crossing on the whole length of the river Danube. It is one of the symbolic buildings of Budapest, the most widely known bridge of the Hungarian capital. At the end of the Second World War, retreating German troops blew up the bridges in Budapest and only the pillars of chain bridge remained. On the Pest side of the Chain Bridge is St. Stephen’s Basilica.
The Basilica is named for the first King of Hungary whose petrified right hand resides in the reliquary. The building’s height is identical to the Hungarian Parliament building. It is a very enjoyable walk through some civic buildings and a large park to get to the Hungarian Parliament.
We’ve all seen the sponsorship for Masterpiece on PBS from Viking River Cruises and that famous shot of the Hungarian Parliament building. Seeing it in person, however, cannot be understated. It is a massive building with statistics that stun: 879 feet long, 404 feet wide, 10 courtyards, 27 gates, 691 rooms, and a 16-sided (hexadecagonal) central hall.
In all, we probably took 100 pictures of it at all times of the day. In a weird way, each picture appears a little different. The reflection off the Danube could be obscured or the reflection of the sun on the stained glass windows makes the building appear on fire. Any way you look at it, it surprises.
Considering Hungary’s place in European history, it is difficult to escape the haunting feeling of Hungarians that came before when touring Budapest. From 1867 – 1918, the Hungarian people formed part of the second-largest empire in the world: the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and World War I began. Despite attempts at peace, Hungary, for its part, drafted 4 million soldiers to fight on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Bulgaria, and Turkey).
In 1918, as a result of the German defeat on the Western front in World War I, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy collapsed. At this time, throughout Europe, there was significant uncertainty and nationalistic tendencies. In Hungary, Count Mihaly Karolyi came to power as prime minister and then president. In response to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s ideas on pacificism, Karolyi disarmed the Hungarian army. Following attacks by the Czechoslovak, French, and Romanian armies, Karolyi lost power to the Republic of the Councils (the Hungarian Soviets), who made up a small army. The Hungarian Soviets (made up of Hungarian Jews and backed by the Soviet Union) engaged in the “Red Terror” in Budapest and killed scientists and intellectuals.
A new fighting force called the Conservative-Royalists (or “Whites”) organized in Vienna as a counter-government to the Hungarian Soviets. In the absence of strong national police force or regular military, the Whites began a period of “White Terror” where communists, Hungarian Jews, and leftists were tortured and executed without trial.
After the Great Depression, Hungary’s prime minister Gyula Gombos signed a trade agreement with Germany that made Hungary dependent on the German economy for raw materials and as a destination market. At this time, the Arrow Cross Party began embracing Nazi policies and secured the passage of the First Jewish Law in 1938 to limit Jewish involvement in the Hungarian economy.
In 1940, Hungary affiliated with the Tripartite Pact and supported Germany’s invasion of Yugoslavia. Hungary annexed small parts of present-day Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia.
During World War II and feeling pressure from eastern front, Hungary began secret negotiations with the British and U.S. governments. Fearing that Hungary would engage in its own separate peace, Adolph Hitler ordered Nazi troops to occupy the country. Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, Nazis deported 437,402 Jews to Auschwitz. In late 1944, the Red Army invaded Hungary and occupied Budapest. Nazi troops were expelled by May 1945.
One part of this terrifying story is recounted with the Memorial to Those Victims Shot into the Danube. These shoes honor Jews killed by the fascist Arrow Cross during World War II. During the war, the head of the Swedish Red Cross in Budapest housed many Jews in the Swedish embassy and attached buildings. The Arrow Cross (Nazi affiliated) forced the inhabitants out into the street, walked them to the edge of the Danube, told them to take off their shoes, and shot them so their bodies fell into the river and drifted away.
In post-war Soviet Hungary, the minister of the interior started the Hungarian secret police (“AVH”). The AVH harassed and arrested opposition party members, closed the opposition political parties, and modified the Constitution. The Communist party executed 2,000 people, imprisoned 100,000 (with 44,000 dying in forced-labor camps), and 15,000 deported.
After years under this oppression, on October 23, 1956, a peaceful student demonstration produced a list of “16 Demands” for reform and political freedom. Tempers rose and the police opened fire on the crowd. The protesters stayed. Days later, Soviet tanks opened fire on protesters in Parliament Square. 12 were killed; 170 wounded.
Imre Nagy and other revolutionaries took control of the Hungarian Working People’s Party. Over the next several months, Nagy oversaw significant liberalizing developments: the freeing of political prisoners, reinstitution of opposition parties, and withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact. The Soviets did not take kindly to Hungary’s freedom. Nagy was imprisoned and executed. Fighting took place all over the country. Soviet rule existed until 1989…
The House of Terror is a museum located in the old KGB headquarters on Andrassy Ut. The exhibits contain material on the Nazi and Soviet occupation recounted above. The darkest of the exhibits are found in the basement where political prisoners were held. Poignant and scary stuff.
Take the funicular to the top or hoof it (yes, we walked). Buda Castle is at the top and the beginning of the Castle District. The castle was built in 1265 and now houses the Hungarian art museum.
In the same complex is Matthias Church, a Roman Catholic church with a gorgeous painted tile roof and an even more impressive painted interior. The church was largely destroyed during the Nazi and Soviet occupations.
The front of Matthias Church looks out over Fisherman’s Bastion. Fisherman’s Bastion is a terrace in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style. The seven towers represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian basin. The name is also derived from the fisherman’s guild, which was responsible for defending this section of the Danube during the Middle Ages.
At sunset, the best view of the Pest side of the Danube is found on these steps. The sun reflects off of the Parliament Building and gives off a beautiful orange glow.
Steam and drink
Széchenyi Baths is the largest medicinal bath and one of the largest public baths in Europe. It appears like a Baroque palace with a large outdoor pool and several different rooms inside featuring pools with different water temperatures ranging from 38 to 45 degrees Celsius.
An easy walk out of City Park gets you to Hosok tere (“Heroes’ Square”). The square is noted for its iconic statue complex featuring the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars and other important national leaders, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Nearby are various museums.
Just down from Heroes’ Square is Andrassy Ut, the Champs-Elysees of Budapest. Lined with spectacular mansions and townhouses featuring fine facades and interiors, it features a promenade lined with trees. Notably, Andrassy Ut was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 2002 and is one of Budapest’s main shopping streets, with fine cafes, restaurants, theatres, Embassies and luxury boutiques.
One of the most amazing parts of Budapest are the ruin pubs. These “pubs” are nothing more than outdoor bars with piecemeal rooms decorated with kitsch flair and festooned with lawn chairs and row seating from ’50s and ’60s era cars. A list of ruin pubs is available here: ruin pubs. Our favorites were the famous Szimpla Kert where there is sometimes a line and Grandio Bar where there are several different rooms around an open courtyard. Ruin pubs are a great place to meet friends and locals and feel the edge of Budapest.
Where to stay, eat, and drink and how to get there
Hotel: Hotel Palazzo Zichy. The hotel is located in a very nice residential area where cobblestone streets are the norm and small cafes, bars, and restaurants serve the locals. The hotel is boutique at its core but the service is amazing.
Dinner options. For a traditional Hungarian feast of three courses with traditional music and dancing, we found the Araz Hotel Restaurant. The best part about this restaurant was the ability to try Hungarian dishes and ungarian wines. Another option is Curry House, which is open on Sundays when all other restaurants appeared closed. Its owned by an Indian fellow who found his way to Hungary. The dishes are authentic and very fun. If in the Castle District during lunch, nothing beats Osbudabar Pizzeria just up the street from Saint Matthias. The pizza options are great and the beer is needed after the hike up the hill. Another pizza option is near the Opera House off of Andrassy Ut at Lisztro Gastro Pub.
Drink: Besides the local vibe at the ruin pubs, check out Doblo Wine Bar. They have an extensive Hungarian wine list and sell bottles to go. With the exchange rate the way it is, you can take one of the most expensive bottles on the wine list home as a souvenir. We did.
Arrival: Transit to your hotel from the airport can swiftly and easily be accomplished by taxi cab especially with the current exchange rate. The official taxi is Fotaxi. There is a cab stand where you tell the attendant where you are going and the receipt tells you an approximate cost. More importantly though, the receipt tells the driver where to go so no need to try and speak Hungarian.
Why we’ll go back
We’ve never experienced anything like the Budapest ruin pubs in any city we’ve been in.