Open the Map and find a small country in Eastern Europe between Austria and Romania and you will discover Hungary. Hungary’s capitol is Budapest, a beautiful and interesting city where I was lucky enough to visit in November, 2015. The only image I had in my mind before our trip was of Budapest’s beautiful parliament building frequently used as the backdrop in Viking River Cruise commercials. The building is definitely iconic, but during my stay there I found out Budapest was full of endless discoveries.
Budapest is the tenth most populous city in Europe with 2 million inhabitants, but ranked as the No. 2 most livable city in the world by Forbes Magazine. The city is divided into two halves by the Danube River, Buda and Pest. Buda is a hilly, more residential area and Pest is flatter and more of a commercial hub including the famed parliament building. First Roman, than Celtic tribes settled here in ancient times and then Hungarians moved in by the 9th century. There was little time for peace after sustained invasions by Taters, Mongols and the Ottomans over the centuries. The Turkish baths from the hot mineral springs in the city exist today and are still hugely popular with tourist and locals alike. The Ottomans persecuted the Christians in Budapest until there were less than 100 by the mid 1600’s. During the Crusades, the city was taken from the Turks and by 1718 the entire country of Hungary was liberated. Budapest became the co-capitol of the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled by the Hapsburgs. After WWII, the Soviets took over and communism stifled their culture and economy. In 1991, Soviet occupation ended and the city has undergone a transformation with capitalism and Hungarian culture flourishing. There is a bronze statue of Ronald Reagan in Liberty Square erected in appreciation of his efforts to end the Cold war and liberate Eastern Europe. The hands and feet of the statue are shiny where the patina has been rubbed off affectionately by those passing by. The people of Hungary love their newfound freedoms after centuries of occupation.
I traveled to Budapest with my family in November of Thanksgiving break. It was very cold but a bowl of goulash was the perfect way to warm up on a busy day of sightseeing. The famed Christmas markets were already up and put our family in the holdiay mood. We had a private guide and driver who showed us their magnificent city with great pride. There is a reason Budapest is called the Pearl of the Danube.
We started our tour at Heroes Square at the end of beautiful Andrassy Ave, opened in 1872 lined with high-end shops and luxury mansions and townhomes, including the home of famous composer Franz Liszt. We saw the Academy of Arts and Crafts where Professor Erno Rubik created his famous 3-D puzzle, the Rubik’s Cube. The train station is a sight to behold of glass and iron designed by Gustav Eiffel. We toured the iconic parliament building, built in 1902 and is the third largest parliament structure in the world. Outside of the Parliament is the bank of the Danube River where there is a moving exhibit to the 20,000 Jewish Hungarians who were lined up and shot by the Nazis. It is the Shoes of the Danube Memorial to those who were forced at gunpoint to remove their shoes before being murdered and their bodies wahsed away in the river. Shoes of all kinds for men, women, and children are bronzed and line the banks. The Great Synagogue is not far away. It is the largest in Europe, built in 1859, and second in size only to the synagogue in New York City. We also toured the amazing Central Market Hall built in 1897 as an indoor market and emporium. It is 3 stories tall and sells produce, meats, sweets, crafts, wine and of course paprika. Our guide also took us to the Szechenyi thermal baths, the largest in Europe built in 1913. It was freezing outside but bathers abounded in their swimsuits splashing about as clouds of steam from the natural hot springs warmed them like a giant Jacuzzi.
All of these sights were on the Pest side. We crossed the Danube on the famous Chain Bridge of 1849 to get to the quieter but just as beautiful Buda side of the city. We took a little sightseeing boat along the river. Our next stop was the Fisherman’s Bastion where the best photo ops of the Parliament are. It overlooks the Danube River and surrounds the impressive 1300’s Catholic Church of St. Matthias. We popped in a Herend store so my mother could buy a piece of the exquisite Hungarian porcelain. Gifts to loved ones at home include not only Herend porcelain but Hungarian paprika and Hungary’s most famous wine: Tokaji. Tokaji is made from over-ripe grapes and is very sweet.
One of our last stops on the Buda side was the Liberty Monument on Gellert Hill overlooking the city. The locals call it “the bottle opener” as it is a figure extended with arms overhead grasping a palm leaf. Citizens of Budapest found its name, Liberty Monument, ironic since it was erected by the Soviets in 1947 after their occupation and takeover of Hungary. It is visible from around the city as it sits atop the highest hill. The views are magnificent from the monument, especially at sunset when we arrived. If you don’t have a car, expect to walk uphill a very long way.
We took in many lovely sights and saw much more than is described here. The food was amazing with lots of goulash and schnitzel on every menu. Those working in the hospitality industry speak very good English. The Four Seasons was a well situated hotel in Pest for tourists wishing to explore on their own. Hungary is fiercely independent after centuries of invasions so it’s no suprise they have their own currency. Bring Hungarian Fiorints and not Euros. There is no direct flight from Dallas so we flew Lufthansa and had a brief layover in Frankfurt. There may be direct flights from other major US cities but I am not aware.
Ever since seeing that beautiful Parliament building on a commercial, I asked my parents to please take me to Budapest. I am so greatful they did. It was such a wonderful city with such rich history and interesting people. So Open the Map! Plan your next trip to this Pearl of the Danube.