A city that graces both sides of a legendary river, crossed by a succession of regal bridges. At night, the lights on the monuments and bridges gleam in the dark like jewels. Grand, tree-lined boulevards and neoclassical buildings from the 19th century. Neighborhoods with winding, narrow, cobblestone streets from medieval times. Antique-filled flea markets, fascinating book stores, inviting cafés with strong coffee and sweet confections, museums and concerts to delight the eye and ear. Paris? No, Budapest.
name that conjures up an image more exotic and mysterious than any other
Western capital. A stop along the fabled Orient Express. Inaccessible
behind the Iron Curtain for nearly half a century. A city destroyed many
times by invasions and wars - most devastatingly and recently during
World War II. And lovingly rebuilt every time by a proud and creative
people, who give the place its tremendous warmth and singular charm.
Budapest offers the sophisticated traveler the familiarity of European culture with a tantalizingly distinctive Hungarian flavor. You see it in the domed baths, originally built by Turks during 150 years of occupation, and in the Eclectic style of turn-of-the-century architecture throughout the city. You taste it in the complex cuisine influenced by the Magyar founders from Central Asia, Turks, Serbs, Austrians and French (see Year of Wine and Gastronomy, p. 12). You hear it in the folk music and unpronounceable language, unlike any other. (In Budapest, though, you will find many who speak English, particularly among the young.) And you especially feel it in the verve, the humor and the sparkle of the people.
Hungary - unlike many former Communist bloc nations - did not destroy its Soviet monuments. The Liberation statue on the Citadel - commemorating the defeat of the Nazis - remains where the Communists erected it. Other colossal statues in Socialist Realist style were moved to a fascinating open-air Statue Park Museum (just a cab ride outside Budapest), dedicated exclusively to these relics of Soviet domination. When you return, stop and have a drink and a chuckle at a café that spoofs Communism, called Marxim (a cross between Marxism and Maxim) in Buda, near Moszkva tér whose name also recalls the recent past.
city known as Budapest is actually three cities: Óbuda, the oldest
section, with Celtic and Roman ruins, on the Buda side of the Danube;
Buda among the gently rolling hills on the western bank, famous for its
historic Castle Hill and beautiful residential area; and bustling Pest
with its shopping, government and commercial districts on the flat plain
of the east bank.
A City for Walking
United in 1873, Budapest is ideal for walking. And exploring the city on foot is the best way to burn off all the calories from the delicious food and wine you'll be enjoying. Afterwards, there is no more rejuvenating way to relax than in one of the city's many soothing spas - fed by 80 thermal springs.
At the top of Castle Hill visit the Royal Palace, which houses the Budapest Historical Museum, Hungarian National Gallery and National Library. The 700-year old Matthias Church with its Gothic spire and multi-colored tiled roof is where the nation's kings were crowned and now the site of organ and choir performances. Be sure to catch sunset at Fisherman's Bastion, with its view of the river, Chain Bridge, Parliament building and Pest spreading out across the horizon.
For a view that takes in sights on both sides of the river, go up Gellért Hill to the Citadel. The hill is home to three famous and historic spas: the Art Nouveau-era Gellért and the 400 year-old Rudas and Rác Baths, the latter two built by the Turks.
City of Caves
It is a cave on the southeastern side of Gellért Hill which gave the city half of its name. Seeing the hollow in the hill, and the other caves that underlie the Buda Hills, the Magyar conquerors from Asia - with no word of their own for cave - borrowed the Slavic word, "pest," from tribes living in the area. They named what is now Gellért Hill "Pest Hill" - or hill of caves. In 1926 a lovely chapel, known as Rock Chapel, was built inside the hollow of Gellért Hill and can be visited today. The miles of caves under the city are the inactive vents of hot springs, the source of thermal water for all the city's spas. Sections of the labyrinthine cave system may be toured, for example Castle Cave at the corner of Országház and Dárda streets. Many caves have served as wine cellars and air raid shelters.
If you're looking for antiquity, Óbuda (Old Buda) is the place to see excavated ruins of the Roman city of Aquincum. An amphitheater once holding 16,000 seats, discovered under the houses in Királydomb, is considered one of Europe's largest open-air arenas. Relics from the Romans' occupation are on display in the Aquincum Museum.
you cross the Danube from Buda to Pest on the Margaret Bridge you enter
the enchanted oasis of Margaret Island, Budapest's largest park, where
no cars are allowed except an occasional taxi. Explore on foot, by
rented bicycle or minibus the gardens, medieval church and chapel, game
reserve, swimming pools, spa-hotels, tennis stadium and 10,000 trees
that make the island in the middle of the river seem miles away from the
bustle of a modern city. Originally housing a convent (still being
excavated), Margaret Island was turned into a harem by the Turks!
Stepping back into the urban action on the Pest side, you can stroll along Andrássy Boulevard, very much like the Champs-Elysées, and admire the mix of neoclassic, Romantic, Art Nouveau and uniquely Hungarian Eclectic style of architecture in the buildings - mostly from the turn of the century.
Outstanding examples include the Opera House, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Post Office Savings Bank, Museum of Applied Arts, St. Stephen's Basilica and, of course, Parliament, which you have seen at sunset from the Buda side across the river. At the end of Andrássy you will find the magnificent Heroes' Square with statues of Hungary's greatest leaders from the founding of the state to the 19th century.
the National Museum, you will learn about the saga of Hungarian history
and see the legendary crown jewels of King Stephen. Although they
post-date the sainted Stephen by several centuries, the crown jewels
nevertheless have a spectacular history, having been lost, stolen or
misappropriated at various times since the Middle Ages.
Worth seeing for both the building itself as well as the exhibits inside is the Museum of Applied Arts, a fantastic combination of traditional folk elements with Art Nouveau, Islamic, Hindu and Persian motifs. The roof is covered with ceramics from the famous Zsolnay factory in Pécs. The spacious white Victorian interior with glass dome overhead seems a complete contrast to the multicolored Oriental exterior. Exhibits include furniture, textiles, metalwork, ceramics, porcelain and glass.
The superb Museum of Ethnography originally served a different purpose. Its designer was the first runner-up in the turn-of-the-century competition for the Parliament building, and it housed the Supreme Court and Chief Prosecutor's Office. Go inside just to admire the frescos on the ceiling and the splendid staircase.
To make it easy for visitors to see museums and all the city's sights, the 3-day Budapest Card allows the purchaser to travel free on all public transportation, visit most of the city's top museums and provides discounts on guided tours, at selected restaurants and shops. You can buy the Budapest Card in the US or upon your arrival in Hungary at the airport, at hotels, museums, travel agencies and metro stations.
Budapest had the first subway on the European Continent. That first line is still in operation, along with the modern lines built after World War II. One area that must be explored on foot is Erzsébet Town, the charming old Jewish quarter. The Byzantine-looking Dohány Street Synagogue was recently restored to its original grandeur. With 3,000 seats, it is Europe's largest synagogue and the world's second largest after New York's Temple Emanu-El.
In the courtyard is the moving Holocaust Memorial in the form of a weeping willow, its metal leaves engraved with the names of victims. Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, was born nearby. Wander through the courtyards connecting residential buildings, forming a protective cocoon for the quarter. Then stop for pastry or lunch at one of several kosher restaurants and cafés.
Give in to the temptation of shopping for antiques, Herend or Zsolnay porcelain, intricate needlework with folk art motifs, fine Hungarian wines and liqueurs, as well as goose liver pate and a variety of paprikas. The most elegant and popular shopping areas are Váci Street, Petőfi Sándor Street and Vörösmarty Square. For the largest selection of merchandise, check out the many shops along Károly Ring and Kossuth Lajos Street.
you want an insider's tip, go south on Váci past Elizabeth Bridge. There
you'll find excellent shops and galleries for browsing Éand fewer
tourists. At the end of the lower section of Váci, recently converted to
pedestrian-only traffic, stop in the splendid and colorful Central
Market Hall overflowing with food and folk art stalls. A true sensory
experience. On Saturdays, tour buses leave from the Central Market for
the Ecseri Flea Market - a shopping and bargaining paradise.
Some of Budapest's best restaurants on both sides of the river offer music as well as fine food. Be serenaded while you dine at appropriately named Bel Canto near the Opera House, or by Gypsy violins in Kárpátia Restaurant. Try the Fél 10 jazz club or Café Pardon, where you can hear live music every night.
Other outstanding restaurants to sample: Légrádi Antiques, above a charming antique shop; Művész Restaurant with piano music and dark royal blue walls; Múzeum Restaurant with Art Nouveau tilework and stained glass; Fortuna Restaurant on Castle Hill; legendary Gundel Restaurant in City Park, which has hosted Habsburg weddings, or its less formal sister restaurant next door, Bagolyvár (Owl's Castle), staffed entirely by women and serving home-style Hungarian cuisine.
You'll also notice a multitude of boats docked on the Pest side of the city. You can take a daytime or evening sightseeing cruise - and drink in the view with a cocktail in hand. Some cruises also include a dinner and dance music.
All year round, there are concerts, opera, operetta, ballet, modern dance and folk dance performances throughout the city. Listen to the works of Hungary's native sons - Ferenc Liszt, Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók, Ferenc Lehár - in the land and city that inspired them. And don't be surprised if Budapest, the Pearl of the Danube, inspires you, too.
After a day of intensive sightseeing or soaking in a mineral bath, do as Budapesters do and unwind over strong coffee and sweet cake in an old, cozy café. There were more than 400 coffeehouses in Budapest at the turn of the century, attracting everyone from soldiers and aristocrats to poets and actors, and some of the best are still in business today.
The most famous is the Café New York situated in a 19th century Art Nouveau townhouse of palatial proportions. The café's opulent interiors and literary associations have endowed it with near mythical status. Like other cafés, it was originally popular with writers for purely practical reasons: it offered a warm refuge from cold rented rooms that they could scarcely afford - and paper and ink were gratis. Though today you're likelier to rub shoulders with fellow tourists rather than struggling scribes, the New York still counts editors of literary magazines among its habitués.
When the café first opened, one of Hungary's most famous playwrights of the last century, Ferenc Molnár, and his colleagues tossed its key into the Danube so that its doors might never shut. Which means you can still enjoy a steaming hot cappuccino accompanied by a plate of somlói galuska, a triad of creamy, chocolatey dessert dumplings, or a host of other luscious offerings.
Refinement is the operative word at Café Gerbaud. And sugar, too - this is one café where indulging one's sweet tooth is elevated to an art form. For here you'll find the finest range of pastries in the city. Desserts figured prominently from the outset, as one of the first owners was a Swiss confectioner. In fact, Emile Gerbaud invented the Hungarian specialty known as konyakos meggy, dark chocolate with a cognac-soaked sour cherry in the center. Gerbaud is big and always busy, so try to secure a table in the quieter vaulted section to the right of the long, central pastry counter.
Another must on the café trail is the elegant Café Művész whose location opposite the Opera House lends it a certain charged atmosphere. Pick a spot to roost inside, where marble table tops and crystal chandeliers exude an Old World grandeur, or repair to the terrace for prime people-watching. A different sort of setting awaits in the Zsolnay coffee house, located in the Béke Radisson Hotel. Its interior of mint green and brass dates from the 1930s, and coffee is served in distinctive cups made by Zsolnay, one of Hungary's best known manufacturers of fine porcelain.
oldest café is the Ruszwurm in the Castle Hill district of Buda. This
Baroque gem sports the same cherrywood paneling and quality service as
when it first opened, in 1824. And the same high quality treats. The
Ruszwurm's confectionery is so fabulous that couriers were once sent
from Vienna to retrieve it. Whatever you try - and we heartily recommend
the Linzer torte or the ice cream - you can be assured that it's
stops on the Budapest café trail: Café Angelika with neo-Baroque
furnishings, marble floors, and stained-glass windows, Café Pierrot, on
the site of a onetime medieval bakery, and the Lukács, former coffee
house of the Communist police.
Nearby: Medieval History,
you decide to return to your hotel in Budapest or try one of the
historic manor house hotels (with all the modern amenities) outside the
capital, there are several wonderful places nearby that make for easy
day trips by train, bus, car or even bicycle.
Szentendre is the closest, just 15 minutes by car north of Budapest. With its red-tiled roofs, narrow alleyways, brightly painted houses and Orthodox churches built by the Serbians who settled there in the 17th century, Szentendre became an artists' colony in this century and today hosts many festivals throughout the year. Among the town's many famous museums and galleries, the Margit Kovács collection of ceramics is particularly appealing. Hungary's largest open-air folk museum, or skanzen, is also in Szentendre. Between April and October folk crafts are demonstrated in and around traditional houses, churches, mills and other buildings typical of small villages throughout the country.
Travel back to the 13th century as you climb high atop a hill in Visegrád to Solomon's Tower, one of Central Europe's largest and best preserved Romanesque castle keeps. With a commanding view of the Danube as it turns 90ş, this spot was of strategic importance to the Romans, who also built fortifications here. Visegrád was the home of Hungary's kings in the 14th and 15th century. The nation's great Renaissance King Matthias Corvinus made Visegrád the capital and constructed a magnificent palace, now the Mátyás Király Museum, on the riverbank.
Further north and west is Esztergom, the birthplace of Hungary's beloved first King, and later Saint, Stephen. The country's first capital in the 11th century, Esztergom was - and still is - the nation's ecclesiastical center. Dominating Castle Hill is the Basilica, Hungary's largest church with one of the world's largest altar paintings. An unparalleled collection of medieval and Renaissance ecclesiastical art fills the Christian Museum. Climb the dome of the Basilica for a unique view of the majestic Danube.
Two royal and aristocratic residences of a more recent vintage - both built in the 18th century - are only a short ride away from Budapest: the Grassalkovich Palace at Gödöllő to the northeast and the Brunswick Castle at Martonvásár to the southwest.
At Gödöllő, she insisted on stables with marble columns and windows designed so that flies could not enter to bother the horses. Nearly ruined by over 30 years of Soviet misuse as barracks, the Baroque-style palace and stables are now a museum where you can see the royals' private rooms. Equestrian events are frequently held in the beautiful riding park.
Beethoven was the honored guest and music teacher at neo-Gothic Brunswick Castle. He dedicated the Appassionata Sonata in F minor and the Sonata in F sharp major to the Brunswick family. The Beethoven Museum displays his original sheet music and a piano he played. More than 300 species of trees are planted in the 170-acre English-style park and garden around the mansion.
These historical towns, with all their attractions, are eminently accessible from the capital. Have your breakfast in Budapest, explore during the day to your heart's content, and be back by nightfall - just in time for dinner!
History and Culture