It’s been called the “Pearl of the Danube” — and no wonder. For elegance and feel, Budapest easily rivals any other major capital city in Europe. The artery that defines it is the Danube, one of the world’s most celebrated waterways and also one of the most popular for European river cruising. Spend any time at all in this grand city, and it’s easy to understand why the riverbanks of Budapest — that’s right, the riverbanks — have been assigned UNESCO World Heritage status.
The first thing you need to know about Budapest: It, in effect, operates as two cities with distinctly different personalities. Buda, on the west bank of the Duna (as the Danube is called), is hilly and houses the restored Castle District, a cultural and arts center known for its famed Matthias Church, Royal Palace and Fishermen’s Bastion, a rampart that offers the best views in town. The entire district is a real scene-stealer.
Pest, on the east bank, is the hub for dining, shopping, banking and nightlife. There you’ll find the pedestrian shopping zone, Vaci Utca; Heroes’ Square; the old Jewish quarter; the not-to-miss Andrassy, Budapest’s grandest avenue; and the imposing neo-Gothic Parliament, modeled after the British version in London.
Budapest’s history dates back to the third century, when Celtic warriors occupied the area. Study the place a bit, and you’ll find yourself wondering: Who didn’t invade the city? The Romans, Magyars, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Austrians, Germans and Soviets have all played starring roles in Budapest’s longstanding municipal drama. Hungarians are said to be famously pessimistic and cynical — maybe that history explains why. As one guide told us, “We lost all our battles, but we celebrated all our defeats.”
Budapest is a town that’s been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries — part of the reason for its eclectic architecture. Its current skyline reflects the building programs and styles of the turn of the 20th century. For my part, I agree with Claudio Magris, who writes in his travel memoir, “Danube,” that “Budapest is the loveliest city on the Danube. It has a crafty way of being its own stage-set.”
What to See
A maze of cobbled streets and medieval courtyards, the Castle District is Budapest’s crowning achievement — literally. It hangs grandly above the city, and the lovely Matthias Church that is its centerpiece is known locally as “the coronation church.” Austria’s Franz Josef was crowned king of Hungary there in 1867 to the strains of Franz Liszt’s coronation mass, composed especially for the occasion. Today, as it has for centuries, the rampart next to the 700-year-old church offers incomparable views of the Danube and Pest. (There’s also a tourism office next to the church.) The scene of battles and wars since the 13th century, the Castle District is home to the former Royal Palace, one of Hungary’s most important national symbols.
There are shops and restaurants in the complex in addition to a number of other attractions, including the Budapest History Museum and the House of Hungarian Wines. The wine shop houses more than 700 wines from the country’s 22 growing regions. For a small fee, samples are available.
Andrassy Ut, the city’s grandest boulevard, is a 2.5-kilometer expanse, considered so special that the street was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2002.
There you’ll find the stunning State Opera House, opened in 1884; chic boutiques and grand villas with gardens; Franz Liszt Square with its open-air cafes; and, at the very end, Heroes’ Square. No visit to Budapest would be complete without a walk around the magnificent square, dominated by the Millenary Monument. The monument is topped by the Archangel Gabriel, credited with converting the pagan Magyars to Christianity. At the base of the column are seven figures on horseback, representing the Magyar tribes.
Across from the square is the Museum of Fine Arts and its showcase of Old Masters from outside Hungary. The Spanish, Italian and Dutch collections are particularly worth a look.
The architecturally eclectic St. Stephen’s Basilica is the largest Roman Catholic church in the country, and took more than five decades to build. The main attraction here is the mummified hand of St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary and founder of the nation; his hand is housed in the reliquary.
In the late 1930’s, the Old Jewish Quarter was a thriving community with about 200,000 Jews. Most perished in the Holocaust.
Today, the Great Synagogue, the world’s second-largest after Temple Emanu-El in New York City, stands tall in the now-shabby neighborhood. Seating 3,000 people and built between 1854 and 1859 by a Viennese architect, the synagogue, with its onion-shaped domes, looks Moorish. The complex also includes a Hall of Heroes, where a Monument of Hungarian-Jewish Martyrs was erected in 1991; a Jewish Museum; and a Holocaust memorial room.
It’s not in the Jewish Quarter, but the Holocaust Shoe Memorial — on the riverbank, just south of Parliament — is especially moving. The simple memorial, erected in 2005, features 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes, representing thousands of Jews who were shot on that spot by soldiers in World War II. Many fell or were pushed into the icy Danube and died.
Said to be one of the most beautiful McDonald’s restaurants on the planet, the fast-food outlet at Nyugati Railway Terminal is the largest in Hungary with its two-story Baroque interior crafted in the style of early 20th-century Budapest. Next door is the WestEnd City Center, the best shopping mall in Budapest.
The crowded Turkish baths are to Budapest what coffeehouses are to Vienna. This is where friends come to meet, gossip and relax in healing waters that are fed by the 120 thermal springs that feed the Danube. Among the most popular is Szechenyi Bath and Spa, located in a sumptuous yellow building at City Park, just above Heroes’ Square. There are indoor and outdoor pools, and it’s not unusual to see bathers playing chess on floating game boards. It’s a neat way to mingle with the locals.
Take a 20-minute detour out of the city to Godollo Royal Palace, the second-largest Baroque palace after Versailles. A favorite resort of Emperor Franz Josef and his Austrian Queen Elisabeth, the palace has a Grand Hall with marble-covered walls and gilded stucco ceilings; a Riding Hall; and the recently restored Baroque Theatre, now the venue for performances of chamber music and opera. If you’re lucky, you might catch a concert.
For a day trip into medieval Hungary, head to Esztergom, which delivers on two fronts: historical tradition and location. Situated on the scenic Danube Bend on the border between Hungary and Slovakia, this was the birthplace of St. Stephen — crowned there on Christmas Day in 1000 AD. Be sure to stop at Basilica, which was completed in the 1860’s, and the Bakocz chapel, built in 1510 by Florentine craftsmen, dismantled in the Turkish occupation and reassembled in 1823. You may also want to continue to Visegrad, whose heritage dates to the New Stone Age.
Where to Eat
Hungary has tasty national cuisine, much of it seasoned with paprika, which appears on restaurant tables beside the salt and pepper. Among the country’s signature dishes: goulash, a thick beef soup cooked with onions and potatoes; fisherman’s soup, a mixture of boiled fish, tomatoes, green peppers and paprika; chicken paprika; grilled fresh-water fish; and fried or grilled goose liver. Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants. As for tipping, it’s customary to tip your waiter 10 percent, but be sure to check the bill first. Increasingly, the tip is included. It’s okay to tip in U.S. dollars or euros.
Long the centerpiece of Budapest’s cafe society, Gerbeaud is more than a sweet shop — it’s a Hungarian cultural institution. Known for its coffee and torte cakes, the cafe has classic high ceilings with crystal chandeliers, polished wood and marble, and thick curtains. Little has changed since it opened 150 years ago. The patisserie is sweetly situated on Pest’s Vorosmarty Square. The neo-Classical building also houses a pub with beer that’s brewed on-site, as well as a new gourmet restaurant, the Onyx.
For elegant dining, Gundel lives up to its legend. The award-winning restaurant, open under its current name since 1910, is located in a late 19th-century palace at Allatkerti Korut 2 in City Park, just a two-minute walk from Heroes’ Square. Gundel, with its innovative menu, is known — and deservedly so — for creating new spins on traditional classics. It can be a little stiff, though the formality eases up a bit during the Sunday lunch buffet. In the evening, men must wear jackets.
A local favorite for special outings, Karpatia Etterem, with its medieval interiors, will remind guests of Matthias Church. Situated in the courtyard of a former monastery, the restaurant specializes in traditional Hungarian cuisine, accompanied by traditional gypsy music, but also offers Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American fare. In addition to the restaurant, which is only open for dinner, there’s a less formal brasserie where you can grab lunch or snacks.
Budapest has a surprising number of Italian restaurants, and Fausto’s is one of the best established and most beloved. This elegant restaurant is the perfect place for a splurge, featuring dishes like lamb chops with goat cheese-flavored gnocchi and Mediterranean fish soup. For a less formal atmosphere but equally delightful Italian fare, try its sister restaurant, Osteria.
Hearty Jewish and Hungarian dishes — like matzo ball soup and roast goose leg with mashed potatoes and steamed cabbage — are on the menu at cozy Koleves (Stone Soup). The menu, which emphasizes seasonal and fresh ingredients, changes on a regular basis, and the wine list offers a selection of Hungarian options. Due to its popularity with visitors and locals alike, reservations are recommended.
Where to Stay
As Budapest’s popularity grows among visitors to Europe, its hotels have filled and rates have risen accordingly — but it’s still a bargain when compared to other major European capitals. Rates are often discounted during the winter months, when tourist numbers are down. Expect rate hikes over the summer and during holiday periods, especially the Formula One Grand Prix event held each August.
The cheapest places to stay are rooms in private homes, which the local tourist office can often help you find. There are also many inexpensive pensions and budget hotels, though these may be located farther outside the city center and lack amenities such as air-conditioning; ask before booking.
For a lavish and luxurious stay, head to the Corinthia Hotel Budapest, with its elegant historic facade and truly opulent spa (indulgences include a swimming pool, Niagara bathtubs and tropical rain showers, among others).
The property first opened as a luxury hotel back in 1896 (Josephine Baker stayed here in the 1920’s), and has since been fully restored. If your budget permits, opt for an executive room or suite; you’ll get free entrance to the business lounge where you can relax and enjoy complimentary drinks and snacks. All rooms, executive or not, offer marble bathrooms and free wireless Internet access. The hotel is comfortably located with easy access to public transportation.
Tucked away in an elegant 19th-century building is the Kapital Inn. Its four guestrooms are colorfully and stylishly decorated, and offer flat-screen TV’s, DVD players with a library of movies, free wireless Internet access and a complimentary minibar. To guarantee a private bathroom, book one of the “Deluxe” rooms. (A single bathroom is shared by guests staying in the two “Standard” rooms.) Weather permitting, breakfast is served outdoors on the lovely rooftop terrace. Note: This historic property is not wheelchair-accessible, and there is no elevator to the guestrooms.
For location and comfort, it’s hard to beat the Hilton Budapest next to Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion in the Castle District. The hotel has everything you’d expect of a Hilton: spacious rooms with flat-screen TV’s; stylish toiletries; and wireless high-speed Internet access throughout the hotel. There’s a restaurant that’s open all day and a lobby bar with views of Parliament across the Danube. Be sure to ask for a room with a view of the river.
A favorite of cruise lines, Best Western Hotel Hungaria is located near the Elizabeth Bridge in downtown Pest, so it’s close to many of the highlights. Best yet, it’s right next to Karpatia, the popular Hungarian restaurant. On-site, the hotel has two restaurants, a cocktail lounge and a fitness center. Computers are available, and there’s high-speed Internet access. The hotel also has excellent public transportation options with the Metro nearby.
The prime attractions at the Carlton Hotel are its affordable rates and its ultra-convenient location for sightseeing — it’s on the Buda side of the city at the foot of Castle Hill, just a short walk away from the Chain Bridge to Pest. Most of the city’s top attractions are within walking distance; for those that aren’t, you can easily catch the bus or Metro nearby. Rooms at the Carlton are basic but clean and comfortable enough, and the nightly rates include buffet breakfast and free Internet access.
Where to Shop
There’s terrific shopping in Budapest — at all manner of venues. Among the most popular souvenirs: hot or sweet paprika, the national spice; dried salami; Tokaji wine; Herend porcelain; cut glass; Helia, a facial cream made from the extract of sunflower seeds; embroidery; and Unicum, an herbal digestive sold in a distinctive round, black bottle with a red cross on it. As they say in Hungary, “It is good before, after and the day after.”
Vaci Utca is a wonderful pedestrian shopping street filled with gift shops, galleries, jewelers and boutiques. Also not to miss: a covered farmer’s market at the foot of Liberty Bridge on Vamhaz Korut at Vaci Utca’s southern terminus. It’s in an unmistakable building that looks like a railroad station with a yellow, green and red roof. Locals go there to buy groceries, but it’s also loaded with inexpensive souvenirs. Many of the market vendors accept U.S. dollars and euros (the local currency is the Hungarian forint), but ask first to be sure.
During the holiday season, you’ll find an outdoor Christmas market in Vorosmarty Square, just off of Vaci Utca.
Typically, shops open around 10 a.m. and close at 6 p.m. Many businesses close at 1 p.m. on Saturdays.
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–written by Ellen Uzelac
for the Independent Traveler.comLink to Article: http://bit.ly/aZA0Vn