By Jim Ferri
I arrived in Budapest with my luggage, and also a bit of trepidation since I had heard about Budapest’s unofficial taxi drivers charging tourists hugely inflated fares.
I quickly felt better, however, when I saw an official taxi kiosk right in the airport’s luggage area that directed me to the right taxi.
I headed outside and my driver was soon speeding me into the city, doing her personal best to break every traffic and speeding law en route. While enjoying the view of the city from my taxi I realized how much I had been looking forward to re-visiting this historic city.
A (Very) Short History of Budapest
Most people know that today’s Budapest is actually an amalgamation of cities (but it’s three, not two – Buda, Obuda and Pest) but if you want to appreciate and understand the city it’s helpful to know a bit of its history.
The area of Budapest was originally settled by the Celts in the first century BC and then subsequently occupied by the Romans, Huns and other tribes until the Magyars arrived and set up house at the end of the 9th century.
Under “Good King” Mátyás it reached its zenith in the Renaissance before the Ottoman Turks arrived in 1526 and hung around for 145 years building, among other things, a lot of nice bathhouses that still survive and are popular with both Hungarians and tourists.
The Hapsburgs ousted the Turks and erected a lot of imposing buildings and palaces, so nice that some rate the city as the finest of the Hapsburg triumvirate of Vienna, Prague and Budapest. Then, of course, there were World Wars I and II, the Soviet occupation and, finally, the birth of the democratic republic in 1989.
I had come to Budapest to join Viking River Cruise’s “Passage to Eastern Europe,” which departed from the Hungarian capital. I arrived a few days early to reacquaint myself with the city, which I hadn’t been to in decades.
I was quite surprised to find the modern city bearing little resemblance to the one I had known years earlier. I found that the once dour Budapest had blossomed into a metropolis of beauty and energy with much to see and do. In fact, there was so much to do in the few days I was there I had trouble keeping up with my self-imposed schedule.
Fishermen’s Bastion, located in the Castle District in Buda, the hilly side of the city, is a good place to start a tour since it provides a great panorama of the city, giving you the opportunity to get a good sense of where you’ll be heading. The fortification was named for the fishermen who defended the castle from that position on the old city walls.
You’ll find plenty of things to do in the Castle District, which was once a medieval town and where, miraculously, several of the original buildings have survived incessant wars. The entire town inside the old walls is a fantastic place, quiet and away form the bustle of the city below.
Be sure to visit the beautiful and historic Mátyás Church adjacent to the Bastion, a redesigned Neo-Baroque church sitting on a Gothic foundation with a multi-colored tile roof. Time you visit for the afternoon since the entire area from the Bastion – especially the view of Parliament and down the Danube – is especially spectacular at sunset.
Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial
The morning after I arrived I followed the concierge’s advice and took a taxi from my hotel in the Castle District to the other side of the city. His suggestion was that I start my walking tour at Heroes’ Square and continue on down Andrassy Avenue, a route that would show me many of the city’s places of interest. It turned out to be a great piece of advice.
On the way though, I asked the driver to go by the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial. Created in 2005, it’s a tribute to the Jews murdered on that spot in 1944-45 by the pro-German, anti-Semitic, Arrow Cross militiamen. Jews were brought there, ordered to take their shoes off and then shot by the militiamen, who let the river carry their bodies away.
The monument is 60 pairs of rusted period-shoes in different sizes and styles cast out of iron. It is one of the most moving memorials you’ll see anywhere in Europe, its utter simplicity making it all the more somber. Don’t miss it.
When my taxi reached the square my driver pointed out Budapest’s famous zoo just a few hundred yards away. Next to it, he told me, was the renowned 19th -century Hungarian restaurant Gundel, “very good, very expensive” he told me in his broken English. I walked down past Gundel to the zoo where I was met by several groups of schoolchildren on an outing.
Backtracking to the square I was then met by a group of soldiers about to take part in a wreath laying on the square by a visiting dignitary. It was quite simple, of course, but the fanfare of the drums beating and the trumpets blowing drew a crowd of about 100 tourists. Many, most with cameras in hand, were waiting for the doors to pen at the Museum of Fine Arts that flanks the popular square.
Leaving the square I started my walk down Andrassy back towards the Danube. One of the main arteries through the city, it’s an elegant boulevard peppered with embassies and old mansions and upscale stores closer to the river. The urban architectural ensemble of the Avenue (including Heroes’ Square) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its beautiful buildings a mix of the old and very old, all quite charming.
One that isn’t so charming is the House of Terror, a museum originally the headquarters of Hungary’s Arrow Cross Party, Hungary’s Nazis in WWII, and the Communist terror organization until 1956. It was there that many Hungarians underwent horrific interrogations lasting for weeks, during which many died. The outside of the building is ringed by a line of small cameo-like photos of many of the men who were tortured to death here.
Further along you’ll find the Paris department store in an art nouveau-style building. Be sure to pay a visit to its famous art-nouveau bookstore cafe on the second floor.
Not far away, set back a block, you’ll find the city’s famous St. Stephen’s Basilica. It was built in the late 19th century and named in honor of the first Hungarian Christian king (you can see his mummified forearm in the back chapel). It’s a beautiful church whose dome is so tall (equal in height to that of the Parliament building) that it can be seen from all over the city. It’s beautiful inside with a mosaic-covered Neo-Renaissance dome built to replace the first, which collapsed.
Not far to the west in the old Jewish Quarter you’ll find the mid-19th century Great Synagogue, built in a Byzantine-Moorish style. The largest synagogue in Europe – it can hold 3,000 worshippers – it also houses a museum with a large collection of historic relics. I didn’t have time to go into the synagogue but other travelers I met raved about it.
The Ottoman’s contribution to the modern Budapest is the beautiful baths the Turks built during their occupation of the city. There are numerous baths all over the city, including Széchenyi Baths near Heroes’ Square, the city’s most popular.
Two other popular are the Rudas Bath, along the Danube near the Elizabeth Bridge, and the Hotel Gellért and Baths complex near Liberty Bridge, both on the Buda side of the river.
The Royal Palace
While on the Buda side of the river don’t miss a visit to the Royal Palace, which is home to the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery, the latter well-know for its collection of Hungarian art from medieval times to the 20th century, as well a wonderful collection of Gothic altarpieces in addition to renaissance and Baroque pieces.
Not all of the museum’s treasures are inside the building, however. The building itself (a reconstruction of the original destroyed in WWII) and its terraces are also masterpieces, as are the ornamental gateways and the Mátyás Fountain. Walk around to the river side of the museum and you’ll discover a spectacular view of the city as well as a small outdoor café that shares the view during lunch. If the weather isn’t good there’s another café inside the museum.
The white building to the left of the palace is the office of the President of Hungary. Go take a photo of the guards.
Other Don’t Misses
Another place to visit is the Great Market Hall at the western end of Vaci Street. It’s a great wrought-iron building near the river that’s a favorite place for local residents to buy foodstuffs…vegetables, meat, fish, spices, various local delicacies, etc. It’s impeccably clean with aisles wide enough to drive two cars through. There are also other things of a non-food variety, as well. On the second level you’ll also find a variety of restaurants and cafes popular with travelers.
Vaci Street is on of the most popular shopping streets in Budapest. It begins near the Sofitel Hotel near the river (next to the Intercontinental Hotel) and runs all the way to the Great Market Hall. The end of the street near the Sofitel is more upscale – with places such as the famous Gerbeaud Café – while the half nearest the market hall is given over to tourist shops.
After you’ve worn out a pair of shoes walking all over the city relax with a drink or coffee and pastry at the lavish New York Café in the Boscolo hotel. It will be one of those Budapest moments you’ll relish for a long time.
If you go:
Hungarian National Tourist Board
450 Fashion Ave #2601
New York, NY 10123
Tel: (212) 695-1221
Viking River Cruises
Tel: (855) 338-4546