Last weekend I visited Budapest with a friend. I had been dying to see Budapest for ages and I was not disappointed. It’s brimming with gorgeous architecture, historical landmarks, amazing food, friendly people and a great atmosphere. It’s fairly cheap to stay and eat there as well. The beautiful sunny weather and the colourful autumn trees were the backdrop for a fantastic weekend.
We arrived in Budapest around noon and spent the day walking around the centre of this ancient city. Quick history lesson: the Romans set up a castellum there around 10 B.C. which lasted until the end of the Roman Empire. The city was then fought over by Slavic tribes and Charlemagne from the 4th century onward. The Magyars invaded the city in 900, led by Árpád. The city is very proud of its heritage and has statues everywhere that commemorate these early settlers. King Stéfanus was crowned in the year 1000. This event essentially gave birth to the country of Hungary. It was invaded by the Turks in the 17th century and was part of the Habsburg empire from 1787 until 1918. From 1867 onward Hungary was part of Austria-Hungary. In the 20th century it was part of the Third Reich, but not as bad a place for Jews to live as the rest of Europe. Nazi occupation didn’t happen until 1944, with the Soviets on the doorstep; in just 3 months hundreds of thousands of Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. In 1945 the siege of Budapest took place. This battle puts the city alongside Berlin and Stalingrad as one of Europe’s most heavily assaulted cities during WWII. For fifty days the Soviet forces encircled Budapest, as Hitler declared Budapest a festung which had to be defended at all costs. Eventually the Germans withdrew to the Gellért Hill. They surrendered on 13 February 1945. In the end, 80 per cent of the city was destroyed, including all five bridges spanning the Danube. About 38,000 civilians died as a result of starvation and military action. After Nazi Germany was defeated the Soviets occupied Hungary and the country suffered under Stalin’s communist regime. A major uprising by Budapest citizens in October / November 1956 was quickly subdued by the Soviets, but put Budapest on the map as a flash point of unrest that would eventually undermine the regime.
All these events have left their mark on the landscape of Budapest. Statues, churches and streets carry the names of famous Hungarians from as early as the 1st century B.C.; history is in the air. Our first stop was the Great Synagogue: the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world. It’s incredibly beautiful on the inside. There was a memorial in the garden and a museum next door that paid tribute to the Hungarian Jews that were deported in 1944. We then walked towards the Danube to admire the view and see the Holocaust memorial (see the photos below) and the parliament building on the banks of Pest. Putting our faith in our travel guide we went to find a nice coffeehouse to sit down and ended up in an alternative cafe, where we had hot chocolate and wound up staying for a delicious traditional dinner and some notoriously cheap beer.
Our second day started out with a visit to Gellért Hill. It was a fairly steep but gorgeous climb to the top that rewarded us with stunning views of Pest and the Danube at every turn. At the top is the Citadella, a bastion that was built in 1853 by Emperor Franz Josef. It was supposed to be part of a nationwide link of fortresses, a plan that wasn’t realised. Hitler saw its strategic importance and it became the site of the German High Command when Budapest was occupied in 1944. It became the main German centre of defense. During the siege of Budapest in 1945 much fighting took place here. The Soviets and Hungarian soldiers captured it in February 1945. After the war, restoration began in 1953.
We descended the hill and went to the Gellért Baths at the foot of it. Budapest has been a certified health resort since 1924 because of the hot springs underneath the city. The Gellért Baths are just one of many public baths that use the thermal springs. The building looked amazing on the inside: lots of Jugendstil architecture, which is probably my favourite art style ever. Just sitting in the hot water was enough to make you feel like a Byzantine ruler on a lazy morning.
We were feeling all zen after the bath and went to have coffee in the most beautiful place in Budapest. Books&Coffee is housed in the Parisian Warehouse and boasts a beautiful ballroom where you can have a drink. As it was getting late we went to the Goszdu Court in the Jewish quarter, which boasts loads of nice cafes and restaurants, to have dinner. Afterwards we saw a Hungarian folk music band in a basement – they were amazing!
Our third day really took a toll on our feet. We started off at the market hall where we made it our quest to find the most reasonably priced bag of paprika powder (inflation prices for tourists, you understand) and we bought some salami to take home with us. We then went to St. Isztván, a staggeringly humongous basilica with beautiful decorations on the inside. You could climb to the top and enjoy a fine view over Budapest – what we mostly noticed was the smog over the city. We decided that we would cross the Danube and see the Buda Hill Castle. On our way to the hills of Buda we stopped by Páriszi Udvar, a warehouse that was supposed to be beautifully decorated in Jugendstil. Unfortunately, when we got there it was being renovated. There was quite a lot of renovation going on in general; a good thing, of course, but a little disappointing at the time.
After that it was on to the old Buda Castle Hill. More than just comprised of one castle, it was a small city with restaurants and churches, museums and a theatre. We walked around in a crowd of tourists as the sun slowly set. Then we made a dash back to the centre to watch the New Zealand All Blacks crush Australia in the Rugby World Cup, together with a crowd of expats in an Irish pub. Around dinner time we ate at a Jewish restaurant and then hung around the Goszdu Court to see if there was anything Halloween-y going on. Not much luck, so we decided to visit one of the infamous ruin bars that Budapest is known for; the one we picked was Instant, a large empty house with bars and rooms with something different going on in just about each of them. When it gets late enough it’s one big party.
To kill time on our last day before we had to fly back, we visited the Heroes Square and the adjoining park. The square is dominated by the Millennium Monument, which consists of the arch angel Gabriel standing on a pillar and holding a cross and the Szent Korona, the symbols of Hungary. At the foot of the column are seven statues of tribesmen on a horse, including the first conqueror, Árpád. A gallery on either side of the monument shows statues of famous Hungarians. Afterwards we walked through the Városliget park and visited the Vajdahundya Castle.