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 River, 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 Fisherman’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.”
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 Joseph 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. 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, which offers excellent historical background for a visit to the city.
Andrassy Ut, the city’s grandest boulevard, is a 1.5-mile expanse, granted World Heritage status by UNESCO. There you’ll find the stunning Hungarian 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 Millennium 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.
Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Hungarian National Gallery, which displays a vast range of local works dating from medieval times to the present.
The architecturally eclectic St. Stephen’s Basilica 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 1930s, the Old Jewish Quarter was a thriving community with about 200,000 Jews. Most perished in the Holocaust. Today, the Dohany Street Synagogue (also known as the Great Synagogue), one of the world’s largest, 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 Heroes’ Temple, a Jewish Museum and a Holocaust memorial room.
It’s not in the Jewish Quarter, but the Shoes on the Danube — 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 into the icy Danube on that spot by fascist militiamen in World War II.
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 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 the Royal Palace of Godollo. A favorite resort of Emperor Franz Joseph and his Austrian Queen Elisabeth, this Baroque palace has a Grand Hall with marble-covered walls and gilded stucco ceilings; a Riding Hall; and the restored Baroque Theatre, now the venue for performances of chamber music and opera. If you’re lucky, you might catch a concert. Viator offers excursions that include stops at the palace.
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 — also coronated there in 1000 A.D. Be sure to stop at the massive Basilica, which was completed in the 1860s. There you’ll find the Bakocz Chapel, built in the early 1500s 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. Viator offers a day trip to Esztergom Cathedral and Visegrad Castle.
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 to 15 percent, but be sure to check the bill first. Increasingly, the tip is included (look for a 10 percent service charge).
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 more than 150 years ago. The patisserie is sweetly situated on Pest’s Vorosmarty Square. The neoclassical building also houses a pub with beer that’s brewed on-site, as well as a gourmet restaurant, Onyx.
For elegant dining, Gundel lives up to its legend. The award-winning restaurant, open since 1910, is located 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 brunch buffet. In the evening, men should wear jackets.
A local favorite for special outings, Karpatia, with its medieval interiors, will remind guests of Matthias Church. Situated in the courtyard of a former monastery, the restaurant specializes in Hungarian cuisine, accompanied by traditional gypsy music.
Budapest has a surprising number of Italian restaurants, and Fausto’s Ristorante is one of the best established and most beloved. This elegant restaurant is the perfect place for a splurge, featuring dishes like veal with cauliflower cream and Mediterranean fish soup. For a less formal atmosphere but equally delightful Italian fare, try its sister restaurant, Fausto’s Osteria.
Hearty Jewish and Hungarian dishes — like matzo ball soup and homemade duck sausage — 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.
Shopping in Budapest
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.
–written by Ellen Uzelac