Check Out Unique, Underrated Budapest
Check Out Unique, Underrated Budapest
Cosmopolitan. Beautiful architecture. A rich history. A river running through it. Public thermal baths. Great food and cafes. Jewish heritage. Budapest is all of this and more. It’s not the old-fashioned Communist era city you may think it is. Budapest is a great city to savor and explore – and with some simple planning, you can find some lovely, tranquil spots. While both halves of Budapest have many charms, they’re very different from each other. Here are my suggestions on ways to experience Buda and Pest.
Until 1873, Budapest was two separate cities separated by the Danube River. What makes Budapest so interesting is that it’s a blend of the old and the new. The older, quieter side of the city, Buda, sits on the hill above the Danube’s west bank. Known as the Castle District, this area houses the former castle complex. From the Royal Palace in Buda, the Hungarian kings once ruled a great empire.
In Buda, many buildings damaged in World War II now feature original designs and traditional materials, thanks to careful restoration. In fact, UNESCO recognizes Buda as “authentic” in its official listings.
History and Architecture
If you’re a history buff, you’ll like the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum at one end of the Castle District. These large museums tell the story of Hungary’s dramatic history, from ancient times to the present. If you like to stroll along quiet, cobblestone streets, the Castle District is also for you. Beautiful Baroque buildings are everywhere, some dating back to the end of the 17th century. Many are striking, with elegant windows and patterned roofs. A great time to visit the Castle District is early Sunday morning, when few people are out.
Buda at Night
As pretty as it is during the day, Buda is especially pretty at night when several buildings are beautifully lit. The Fisherman’s Bastion, a viewing terrace with turrets and other medieval touches, is a great spot for looking out over the city from Buda. Built in the late-1800s, it honors the 1,000-year birthday of the Hungarian state.
Hungarian State Folk Ensemble
Near the foot of Buda, just a couple of blocks up from the river, the Hungarian Heritage House is a very special place. Now a national institution, its elegant marble stairways lead to gorgeous public spaces housing temporary exhibits on Hungarian folk culture. The Hungarian Heritage House also hosts performances by the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, which is a delight to watch. The world class troupe preserves traditional Hungarian folk dance, music, and costumes. We loved seeing the dancers do lots of high energy thigh slapping, stomping, and clapping to the sounds and rhythms of period instruments. It was one of the most exciting dance performances we’ve ever experienced!
Pest, the Commercial Center of Budapest
Pest (pronounced “pesht”), the larger, commercial part of the city, sits on flat land on the Danube’s east bank. In the mid-19th century, Pest was largely rebuilt into a buzzing, modern city, based on the design and scale of Paris.
Jewish Cultural Heritage Walking Tour
In Pest, you’ll find one of the biggest tourist attractions in Budapest, the former Jewish Quarter. David and I took the half-day tour offered by Jewish Cultural Heritage of Budapest. On the tour, you visit the inside of the Great Synagogue, the largest in Europe, and the Jewish Museum filled with artifacts. Also, you get to see inside several historic former synagogues, as well as monuments and memorials. After the tour, you can sample one of the nearby kosher restaurants or the Jewish bakery.
Along the Danube: the Parliament Building
Along the scenic Danube walkway in Pest, you find the grand Hungarian Parliament Building. One of the largest and most beautiful buildings in Budapest, it looks beautiful during the day and especially lit up at night. Completed in 1902, it’s the symbol of Hungary and Budapest. The Gothic facade features 90 stone sculptures of Hungary’s great historical figures. If you want to see the interior, you can take one of the many group tours, which are conducted daily in English.
Shoes on the Danube Bank Sculpture
Not far from the Parliament building is the poignant “Shoes on the Danube Bank” memorial. Along the river, you see 60 pairs of rusted iron shoes from the 1940s, which represent the nearly 3,500 Jewish and Hungarian citizens who were shot there in 1945. The fascist Arrow Cross Party, whom the Nazis put in place to lead Hungary, rounded up the victims and ordered them to take off their shoes before they were shot as part of a reign of terror.
Chain Bridge of Budapest
A wonderful Pest attraction is to walk over the beautiful Chain Bridge, offering great views of both sides of the city. At night, thousands of lights twinkle and reflect light on the water. Chain Bridge, which opened in 1859, was the city’s first bridge connecting Buda with Pest. At the time, the only other way to cross the river was to take a ferry.
The House of Terror Museum
Located in a former headquarters of the Communist Secret Police, the House of Terror Museum is a memorial to all the people – Jews, liberals, intellectuals – who died or suffered under Hungary’s Nazi and Communist regimes because they were suspected of being enemies of the state.
With its more than 1,000 hot springs, Hungary has been a spa destination for hundreds of years. Given the grandeur of some of the public baths in Budapest, taking a bath is one of the “must do” fun experiences. So, David and I tried out the Szechenyi Baths, Hungary’s largest bath complex. Built on a thermal spring in 1938, it has 15 indoor pools and 3 large outdoor pools, which are open year round.
Chess matches are a common site at the outdoor baths, even in winter. Even late in the day, we saw two chess players very engaged in a close game.
Gerloczy Rooms de Lux
For our base, David and I stayed at the funky Gerloczy Rooms de Lux, a 19-room hotel located on a small square in the heart of Pest. The helpful staff at the front desk, the quiet location, and the reasonable prices make this a great off-the-beaten place to stay.
Built in 1892, the Gerloczy also has a popular French-style cafe with outdoor seating. The best part of staying there was eating breakfast on the peaceful terrace. The coffees, cheeses, and breads are fantastic!
Karpatia Restaurant – Old Fashioned Charm
If you want to experience some old world charm and classic Hungarian food, check out the Karpatia restaurant. It’s one of the oldest in Budapest and one of our favorites in Pest. The service is excellent. But the biggest draw might be listening to the live Hungarian gypsy and folk music that begins at 6 pm every evening.
Budapest is a great city to visit, one of my favorite cities in all of Europe. It’s a beautiful and walkable city filled with history and culture. The trolleys and new subway line are modern, clean, and fast. People are friendly and speak English. Plus, there’s great food and wine and compelling things to see and do. You can’t go wrong!
Also, from Budapest, you can easily visit Neusiedler See National Park, which is located on the Hungary/Austria border. In fact, from Budapest, you can drive to Illmitz, which is a great base for the park, in about two hours.
Links to More Information
- Castle District
- Hungarian National Gallery
- History Museum
- Castle Hill Funicular
- The Hungarian National Museum
- Gerlóczy Deluxe Rooms and Cafe
- Carpatia Restaurant
- Shoes on the Danube Bank
- Chain Bridge
- Jewish Cultural Heritage Walking Tour
- Hungarian Parliament Building
- House of Terror Museum
- Szechenyi Baths
- Hungarian State Folk Ensemble