A nation long under the control of others, Hungary didn’t have its first public election until the late 1980s after the fall of the Soviet Union (although, as a local confided to me, the democracy part is just nominal). Nowhere are these myriad influences more evident than in the eclectic array of architectural styles in the capital, Budapest. Roman! Ottoman! Gothic! Renaissance! Baroque! Budapest has it all, and then some, which is why (aside from relatively low costs) it’s a popular destination for film productions; the city is easily adaptable to stand in for other European destinations throughout history.
Bisected by the Danube River, austere and gentrified Buda was unified with the more bohemian Pest in 1873, becoming the economic, political and cultural capital that it is today. The city is divided into numbered districts, bringing to mind the Hunger Games when people refer to different neighborhoods. The main exception is the Jewish Quarter, which everyone calls just that. Like Poland, Hungary has a fraught history when it comes to World War II and the Holocaust - both nations were occupied by Nazis, saw the destruction of their Jewish communities and still experience tension over how much the locals aided the Germans. And, just as in Krakow, Budapest’s Jewish Quarter is now one of the main nightlife centers.
Being my first visit to Budapest, I started off with a free three hour walking tour that began in Vörösmarty Square, wound past the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Saint Stephen’s Basilica, through Elizabeth Square, across the Chain Bridge, up Castle Hill and finished at Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. It was the perfect introduction to a new city, allowing me to decide which sites I wanted to revisit and spend more time at. Lunch was spent at Magyar Qtr, a Hungarian bistro along the river that showcases local wines. (If you are unfamiliar with Hungarian wine, according to our tour guide it’s because they only export the very cheapest and the most expensive; in reality there are quite a few that are friendly to both the palate and the wallet).
Intrigued by the storied ruin bars of the Jewish Quarter, I made my way to Szimpla next. The government used to own many of the buildings in the area but, lacking the funds to renovate them, they sold the properties for cheap. Enterprising young people swooped them up and, rather than fixing them up, decided to embrace the shabby chic vibe and turn them into hubs for drinking and socializing, and thus the ruin bar was born. Think dive bar but with more history. Feeling ready to take on more intellectual stimulation, I rounded the corner and entered the Dohány Street Synagogue, the second-largest of its kind in the world. Built in the mid-nineteenth century, its Moorish style brings to mind grand palaces in the south of Spain. The complex also houses memorials for Holocaust victims and those who died in the ghetto, and a museum. Just next door to the courtyard exit, the Shoah Cellar museum honors Holocaust victims inside an actual former Nazi bunker.
Following a brief respite at my Airbnb a short walk away, I sought to relax my legs from a full day of walking at one of Budapest’s famous baths. The capital sits atop over 100 natural thermal springs and, thanks to the Ottomans, makes use of them with bath houses. They differ slightly in admission price and additional spa services available, but the baths all consist of multiple pools (indoor, but some outdoor as well) ranging in temperature from 20-40C. I chose the elegant Széchenyi located in Városliget park. On a weekday evening it wasn’t overly crowded, and held a nice mix of tourists and locals. For dinner I treated myself at KönyvBár and Restaurant, which specializes in crafting tasting menus inspired by literature and whose bookshelf-lined dining room creates a swanky library atmosphere. March happens to be Lord of the Rings month, so my five course meal included “Gollum’s Catch” (sea bass with chives, taters and shallots), “Sam Cooks Coney” (rabbit prepared three ways) and “Mount Doom” for dessert (a chocolate dome with hot blood orange ‘lava’ sauce poured over table-side).
The sun from the first day was nowhere to be found the following morning, instead replaced by drizzly gray skies that reminiscent of my hometown, Seattle, which meant a leisurely brunch at Stika, a cozy coffee shop whose main menu highlight is variations on Eggs Benedict. I returned to St. Stephen’s Basilica, paid the modest entry fee, and was completely blown away by all the ornate gilded details and the impossibly high and beautifully painted dome. Saint Stephen is credited for bringing Christianity to Hungary, and allegedly his preserved right hand is in the reliquary. For an additional fee, visitors can go up to the top of the dome for panoramic views.
Making my way toward the river again, I hopped on tram line 2 - a great and affordable way to see the city’s main sites for those who don’t wish to walk, up to the Hungarian Parliament Building. The Gothic Revival design borrows heavily from London’s Palace of Westminster, but that doesn’t make Hungary’s version any less spectacular. Participation in a guided tour is required to enter the building, but for me admiring the exterior was more than enough. Several statues and memorials stand near the building, my favorite being the large seated figure of poet Attila Jozsef facing the river.
Hopping on the subway this time, I headed west toward Castle Hill for another look at Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. The church looks like any other you’d encounter in Paris, except for its brightly colored tiled roof, whose pattern brings to mind iconic Missoni prints. Nearby Fisherman’s Bastion, whose seven towers represent the tribes that settled the region that became modern-day Hungary in the first century, evoked Minas Tirith, the White City in J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy. Or perhaps I was simply still thinking about the previous night’s dinner.
South of Buda Castle sits Gellért Hill, named for a bishop whose large likeness poses in a colonnade facing the river partway up. The hill is accessible from almost all sides, with many trails winding up toward the citadel at the top, and countless scenic viewpoints. I began the climb from the Danube side, admiring the hill’s namesake before continuing to the summit and taking many panorama photos. Thankfully many of the clouds had cleared up, so views of Castle Hill and Pest were spectacular. Finally, I descended the south side and crossed Liberty Bridge back to Pest.
The Great Market Hall awaited at the other end, a vast three-story Neo-Gothic structure from 1897 that boasts fresh produce, baked goods, meat cuts, preserves, souvenirs and more. It’s an ideal place for both snacking and picking up last-minute gifts. Across the street is the popular tourist watering hole For Sale Pub. I poked my head in, noted the large crowd still waiting to be seated, and remembered that the building next-door to my Airbnb contained a bottle shop aptly named Beerselection, where you can sit and enjoy your purchase or take a case to go. Craft beers are a big thing now in Hungary, and this shop offers over 150.
Unlike other European destinations like London and Paris, which take days to explore properly, Budapest is perfect for a quick jaunt. Sure, there will always be more bath houses to visit and ruin bars to drink in, but even just scratching the surface, as I did, provides a detailed cross-section of what the city is all about. In two days I experienced the city’s history, culture, dining scene and quirks, enough to feel satiated but also excited at the prospect of a return visit.
See more of Budapest here.