by Diana in Travel Life Magazine in Fall 2018
A stunning urban landscape, the Hungarian capital is visually beautiful—with its cobblestone streets, churches, synagogues and castles—and the Danube river cutting through its centre.
The river divides Budapest into what were once two separate cities. Buda on one side is quieter, with medieval streets, rolling hills and an imperial palace. Pest on the other is flatter and more bustling, and as Budapest’s commercial centre, has the greater concentration of shops, hotels and restaurants.
Ten bridges straddle the river: the oldest is the Chain Bridge, which first connected Buda and Pest in 1849. While it’s fun to wander along the banks of the river, and cross its bridges on foot, this “city of lights” is most dazzling from the water. Many Danube river cruises begin or end in Budapest, and in the darkness, travelling beneath its bridges, you can gaze up at the brilliance of the Parliament building lit up against the night sky.
Paprika is a staple of Hungarian cuisine, and the basis for many of its dishes, which tend to be rich and heavily meat based. Be prepared for spicy sausages, rich pork stews, delicious beef goulash, and their specialty, goose liver pâté.
I loved wandering along the aisles of Budapest’s three-storey Central Market Hall, where you can buy everything from souvenirs and handicrafts to their local paprika, saffron and other food items that you can then sample in traditional dishes like strudel, stews and fish soup from eateries on the top floor.
There are literally thousands of restaurants to choose from in Budapest. My travelling companion (my mother) and I loved the laid back, cozy vibe of Castro Bisztro in the Jewish quarter for our mid-day bowl of goulash. For the feel of an old world coffee house, we enjoyed the Astoria Café & Restaurant in the Danubius Hotel Astoria.
If you’re here on a Sunday, go for brunch at the Gellért Hotel’s Panorama Restaurant and Terrace overlooking the Danube. Or have a meal on one of their boat restaurants moored on the bank of the river, or better yet, take a river cruise of the city.
We stayed at the four-star Danubius Hotel Astoria in Central Pest, which is reminiscent of the one in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The Astoria first opened in 1914 and is now a landmark in the city. Its lobby exemplifies old-world charm, with a hanging glass chandelier, marble inlay floors and dark wood. The rooms are simple and a bit dated, but clean and comfortable. With its central location and vintage feel, it’s a fine place to stay.
For a more luxurious option, the Danubius Hotel Gellért is an iconic art nouveau hotel on the river, where you can also enjoy its famous baths at the spa.
With hundreds of natural thermal springs under the city, Budapest is considered the spa capital of Europe. Don’t miss spending a few hours at one of the many thermal baths around the city that are known for their healing effects. Gellért is famous for its neoclassical main pool, and its outdoor pools and terrace are perfect in summer. The Széchenzyi Baths are classic Hungarian, with a complex of 15 indoor and three outdoor pools where you can play chess in the water! Rudas Bath is one of the oldest thermal baths in the city, with parts built by the Turks in the 1500s.
A day trip option is to escape the city as many locals do on Margarita Island, which is located in the middle of the river: no cars allowed, and it is an ideal place to jog, bike or swim.
Don’t miss visiting Castle Hill in Buda. Getting there involves a steep climb, so if you don’t want to walk, you can also take a bus or the funicular (expect a line up to access the latter). Here you will find the Royal Palace, which houses the Hungarian National Gallery as well as the Bupadest History Museum. Also in the Castle District is the Fisherman’s Bastion, with its impressive turrets and colonnades, and a great view of the city. Next to it is the Màtyàs Church, which is built in the 1200s. Even if you don’t pay to enter, its gothic exterior and multi-coloured tile roof is impressive.
Hungary has a rich Jewish history, and also a painful one. About 600,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and moving memorials pay tribute to their suffering. Dohanty Street Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world. It houses a Jewish museum in one wing and a Garden of Remembrance to commemorate the 2,281 victims who lived in the
ghetto and were buried in 24 mass graves. Another moving memorial is the the 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes lining the banks of the Danube near the Parliament that are a reminder of the Jews shot on the embankment by the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross party.
St. Stephen’s Basilica, visible from all over the city, is the largest church in the city, and—along with the Parliament—the tallest building in Budapest. It is particularly striking when lit up at night.
Although the availability and choice of Hungarian wines in Ontario liquor stores tell a different story, Hungary actually has 22 wine regions producing some excellent wines, including Tokaji, one of the best dessert wines in the world. To sample some great vintages, head to the charming Doblo Wine Bar on a quiet street in the Jewish Quarter where you can hear live music, enjoy pairings with homemade cheeses and be surrounded by exposed brick and a friendly vibe.
For spirits, head to one of Budapest’s iconic “ruin pubs,” so called because they are located in dilapidated buildings that have been converted to bars. The first ruin bar, Szimpla Kert, opened in the Jewish quarter in 2004, and boasts classic mismatched furniture and an outdoor garden.
IF YOU GO
The Budapest Card will give you free entry or discounts to many galleries and attractions around the city, as well as free public transport.
Many people speak English in Budapest, which is fortunate for English speakers because its unique 44-letter language is distinct to the country, and very difficult to learn.
Hungary is relatively inexpensive. The main currency is the forint (there are about 20 forints to the Canadian dollar). Euros are also accepted, but for a worse exchange rate.
Winters here are relatively mild. March to May, and September to November tend to be the best time to visit if you want to avoid the crowds.