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Queen of the Danube: Budapest, Hungary

 

 

Stroll by Parliament after dark and, like the other spectators, you will be mesmerized  by the view of birds circling the illuminated dome and awed by the enormity of this magnificent structure. Budapest was a capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its architecture reflects those glorious days.

Tram #2 stops by Parliament every few minutes for what has been described as the most beautiful tram ride in the world. Magnificent buildings from the times of the Hapsburg monarchy are illuminated and reflected in the moonlit Danube.

St. Matthias Church and Fishermens' Bastion by night, Budapest
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St. Matthias Church and Fishermens’ Bastion by night, Budapest

Couples stroll hand-in-hand along the riverside promenade. Others are out  enjoying an evening sightseeing cruise. Little wonder Budapest is called the Queen of the Danube.

Chain Bridge and Castle Hill by night, Budapest
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Chain Bridge and Castle Hill by night, Budapest

The Danube is the second longest river in Europe. It runs from the mountains of the Black Forest to the Black Sea.

The part that runs through Budapest is lined with glorious buildings that have been restored to former grandeur. Today’s Budapest is the cultural capital of Eastern Europe, a treasury of World Heritage Sites, and home to about 20% of Hungary’s population.

Budapest is a port city often at the beginning or end of river cruises along the Danube. With so much to see and do in this city it is great fun to stay a few extra days to explore independently,  luxuriate  in one of Budapest’s elegant thermal baths, and, if this is the embarkation city, combat jet lag before your cruise.

Viking Kvasir in Budapest
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Viking River Cruises’ Viking Kvasir in Budapest

Turning points in Budapest’s history

You might wonder how Budapest, the capital of a country about the size of Maine, grew to be one of the most powerful cities in Europe. It was the culmination of a thousand years of history and a fusion of cultures.

Hungarians are often referred to as Magyars. This refers to the people who migrated here from Central Asia in 896 A.D. with Chief Árpád, who is believed to be a direct descendant of Attila the Hun. According to legend, a divine bird known as the Turul dropped a sword at this crossroad between of Europe and Asia, indicating the place to settle.

Turul, Budapest
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statue of Turul, Castle Hill, Budapest

Hungary became more European when the Magyars were converted to Catholicism a century later by its first Christian king, Stephen (975-1038 A.D.), of the Árpád dynasty. He was rewarded with a crown from the Roman pope and sainthood. St. Stephen’s Day, August 20, is Hungary’s biggest national holiday.

statue of St. Stephen outside St. Matthias Church, Budapest
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statue of St. Stephen outside St. Matthias Church, Budapest

After 500 years of independence Hungary was occupied by the Ottoman Turks. The Turks were expelled over 150 years later and Catholicism returned.

Budapest became a hub of world power with the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 that united Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary with a Dual Monarchy headed by Franz Joseph II and his wife, Elizabeth (Sisi), whose fondness for Hungary facilitated the alliance. As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire each country retained internal autonomy and shared power in foreign policy.

approach to St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest
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approach to St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest

Buda, Pest, and Obuda were united into one grand city. Construction of Budapest’s magnificent buildings, boulevards, mansions, Underground, parks, and monuments peaked in preparation for Hungary’s 1896 Millennium celebration, which Pope Leo XII attended.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after defeat in World War I. Hungary was occupied by the Nazis and heavily bombed during World War II, then controlled by the Soviets until the fall of Communism in 1989.

It has since been independent, a democracy, and a member of the European Union. It retains its own currency, the forint (HUF). Budapest flourishes once again.

Getting around

Budapest’s Liszt Airport is named for the  19th-century Hungarian pianist and composer. Kiosks in the baggage claim area offer the best transportation options to the city center, the Super Shuttle, around 3000 HUF, and FöTaxi, with regulated rates averaging 6000-8000 HUF.

The Budapest Card, available at hotels and main metro stations, includes unlimited use of the public transportation system of the Underground, trams, trolleys and buses, free walking tours, free entry to one of the thermal baths, free or discounted admission to 60 museums, and other discounts. It is available for 24 hours, 4500 HUF;, 48 hours 7500 HUF, and 72 hours 8900 HUF, 5% less onlinie. A ticket for transport only is 1500 HUF (24 hours) and 3700 HUF (72 hours).

The Hungarian language is difficult to decipher, but English is widely spoken.

Sightseeing

Budapest’s points of interest are easily accessed on foot or with public transportation, but for a quick overview of both sides of the Danube begin with a city tour like the Gray Line City Tour.

The tour begins at the Széchenyi Bridge, the “Chain Bridge”, named for the count who proposed it after a storm kept him from crossing the Danube by boat to see his dying father. The bridge was completed in 1849 and connects Buda’s elegant Castle Hill District with the flat metropolis known as Pest.

The tour continues up Gellért Hill, where panorama terraces offer the best birds-eye view in town. The 460’ high hill is named for the bishop invited by St. Stephen I to convert the Hungarians to Catholicism.

After St. Stephen’s death, some pagans threw Gellért down the hill, making him a martyr. The Austrian Hapsburgs built the hilltop Citadel in 1850 to control the population after the Hungarian War of Independence.

The 130’ Liberty Monument of 1947 honors the World War II Soviet soldiers who “freed” the city from the Nazis. Its Soviet soldier was moved to Memento Park, an open air museum dedicated to the Communist dictatorship.

Budapest, “The City of Spas”,  has 118 natural thermal springs. The Gellért Hotel, at the base of the hill, has a beautiful thermal spa.

Next is Buda’s historical Castle Hill, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Rule from this site began in the 14th century. Today’s palace is a post- World War II reconstruction that houses the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum, and the National Library.  A funicular built in 1870 for Castle Hill workers continues to make the ascent easier.

Palace, Castle Hill and Chain Bridge, Budapest
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Palace, Castle Hill and Chain Bridge, Budapest

It is a short walk to the Fishermebs’ Bastion and Matthias Church, which has been rebuilt many times since 1015. King Matthias’ and other coronations and royal weddings were held at this church. The Ecclesiastical Art Museum and replica of the royal crown are inside.

St. Matthias Church and Fishermen's’ Bastion, Budapest
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St. Matthias Church and Fishermen’s’ Bastion, Budapest

This became the main mosque when the Turks occupied Buda. It is said they surrendered after a Madonna statue hidden during their invasion sprang from a collapsing wall during a siege.

The diamond-patterned roof and gargoyles spire were added just before the Millennium.

The bus tour continues to Pest and past St. Stephen’s Basilica, which seats 8,500 and is Hungary’s largest cathedral. Beyond its elaborate gilding,  mosaics, and frescoes is its treasured relic, the mummified right hand of St. Stephen. An elevator goes halfway up to the cupola’s view. Organ concerts can be packaged with dinner cruises for a most enjoyable evening.

St. Stephen's Church, Budapest
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St. Stephen’s Church, Budapest

ceiling dome of St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest
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ceiling dome of St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest

The ride continues down Andrássy Avenue,an elegant shopping, dining and entertainment street. Now a World Heritage Site, it was built, like the Underground that kept public transport below, to connect the city center with City Park for the Millennium celebrations. Some of the Neo-Renaissance villas and palaces built for  nobility and aristocrats are now embassies.

Opera House, Budapest
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Opera House, Andrássy Avenue, Budapest

The House of Terror, on Andrássy Avenue, is the former headquarters for Nazi and Communist Secret Police. It now serves as a memorial to victims from those times.

City Park

City Park, built for the Millennial Exhibition is a popular photo stop. The statue of the Archangel Gabriel atop the 118’ Millennium Monument at Heroes’ Square holds a crown symbolic of St. Stephen’s coronation and the double-barred cross also found on the Hungarian Coat of Arms.

Archangel Gabriel, Millennium Monument, Heroes’ Square, Budapest
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Archangel Gabriel, Millennium Monument, Heroes’ Square, Budapest

It is surrounded by statues of historic Hungarians like Árpád and St. Stephen and a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Grand parades like those  in Moscow’s Red Square were held here during the Communist period.

Tomb of Unknown Soldier, Budapest
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Tomb of Unknown Soldier, Budapest

City Park also includes cultural attractions like the Museum of Fine Arts.

The largest ice skating rink in Europe becomes a lake with rental boats in summer. There is also a circus, zoo and botanical garden.

The Transylvania-style Castle of Vajdahunyad was repurposed as an agriculture museum.

Budapest has more thermal springs than any other capital in the world. City Park’s Széchenyi Baths  is the largest medicinal spa complex in Europe.

The buildings are so beautiful that bridal parties come there for photographs.

Fifteen indoor thermal baths and three outdoor  swimming pools are inside and in the courtyard of its elegant buildings, as are Hungarians of all ages, shapes, and sizes. Massages and spa treatments are offered at quite reasonable prices.

Szechenyi Spa Baths, Budapest
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Széchenyi uszoda, spa and thermal baths in Budapest

 The Jewish Quarter

The tour continues past the Dohány Street Synagogue, built in the 1850s in a Moorish style when the Jewish people comprised a large segment of the population. It is the second-largest synagogue in the world after Temple Emanu-El in New York City.

Hungary lost over half a million Jews to the Holocost. The synagogue’s Tree of Life memorial, also known as the Emanuel Tree, has the name of a Hungarian victim on each leaf. It was financed by a foundation created by Tony Curtis, whose father, Emanuel Schwartz, emigrated from Hungary. Return later for a tour.

Parliament

There is a photo stop at the Parliament building, which was also built for the Millennium. Its dome, like that of St. Stephen’s Church, stands 96 meters high and main staircases have 96 steps.

It is the second-largest Parliament in Europe, after its inspiration, London’s Westminster.

A tour of the interior can be added to the tour or reserved independently.

The Great Market Hall

The city tour’s guide leads a walk through the Great Market Hall, also built for the Millennium, and one of the largest market halls in Europe.

You can create your own picnic from the produce and meats, baked specialties, pickled vegetables, paprika — hot or sweet — or treats like chocolates filled with Pálinka,  a traditional fruit brandy, or cherry, apricot or plum liqueurs. Túró rudi, “Dots”, is  a popular chocolate coated candy bar with quark inside.

pickles, Great Market Hall, Budapest
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pickles, Great Market Hall, Budapest

fruit flavored brandy, City Market, Budapest
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fruit flavored brandy, City Market, Budapest

paprika, Central Market, Budapest
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paprika, Central Market, Budapest

Join the savvy tourists who head upstairs to the food stalls for an inexpensive lunch of Hungarian specialties like lángos (fried dough with toppings), carp soup, or goulash, which in Hungary is a soup.

langos, Great Market Hall, Budapest
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langos, Great Market Hall, Budapest

This is also a good place to find hand crafted souvenirs like embroideries, dolls, decorated eggs.

embroidered goods, Great Market Hall, Budapest
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embroidered goods, Great Market Hall, Budapest

embroidered goods, Great Market Hall, Budapest
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embroidered goods, Great Market Hall, Budapest

decorated eggs, Central Market, Budapest
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decorated eggs, Central Market, Budapest

There’s an Aldi grocery store and more shopping in the basement. End your tour here or continue on to be dropped off in the city center.

A tempting stroll

Restaurant along Váci utca, Budapest
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Restaurant along Váci utca, Budapest

The popular and touristy Váci utca is the site of souvenir and folk art shops, antique stores and restaurants. During the Communist era Western goods not available elsewhere in Warsaw Pact countries were found here.

More attractions

Elizabeth Square is named for Empress Elisabeth, known as ‘Sisi’, and wife of Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph. A nearby stand sells kürtöskalács, or “chimney cakes”.  Sweet yeast dough spun and baked on a wooden spit over an open fire then rolled in sugar are eaten by tearing off strips.

 

We passed through a crafts market that led to Café Gerbeaud.

This elegant traditional coffeehouse is known for its assortment of confections like Esterházy torte, named for a prince and diplomat.

Gundel is one of the best-known restaurants in Budapest. Call to check the scheduling of the gourmet menu and traditional Folkloric Show. (25 000 HUF; with wines: 35 000 HUF).  The multi-course lunch menu is a bargain at 6500 HUF.

coffee at Gundel, Budapest
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Even coffee is elegant at Gundel, Budapest

folkloric show, Gundel, Budapest
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folkloric show, Gundel, Budapest

folkloric show, Gundel, Budapest
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folkloric show, Gundel, Budapest

The artifacts

Begin or end your visit to Budapest by learning more about Hungarian history and culture at the Hungarian National Museum. Count Széchényi’s founded this institution by donating his collection of prints, manuscripts, books, and maps.

Hungarian National Museum, Budapest
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Hungarian National Museum, Budapest

Hungarian National Museum, Budapest
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Hungarian National Museum, Budapest

Note:

  • Prices are for 2014 and subject to change.
  • As of September 17, 2014, $1 = 241HUF, or 1HUF = $.004.

One Comment

  1. Awesome post Linda! Love the pictures! What is your favorite restaurant? Remember to add it to your Besty List! http://www.thebesty.com/notabletravels

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