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The Paris of the East. That’s what they call Budapest, Hungary. We’ve had many friends visit Budapest and all have raved about the city. At times, this city has an identity crisis. Budapest’s rich architectural and cultural traditions stand in stark contrast to the bleak austerity under communism. We found ourselves overwhelmed by the sights and tastes along the Danube. We love visiting Budapest!
Of all the cities we’ve visited in Europe, we were least prepared for Budapest. The city existed for over 40 years behind the Iron Curtain making it a bit of a question mark for us on the travel map. What would we find in Hungary? Would we enjoy visiting Budapest?
The capital of Hungary is nothing less than a feast for the senses:
See Budapest’s Beauty
There is perhaps no city in the world more beautiful than Budapest. We realize that’s a bold statement, but this city can make that claim. One of our top things to do in Budapest is to walk around and see the city’s rich architectural beauty.
Budapest is divided by the Danube River into the older Buda/Castle Hill district and the newer Pest area. Start in the historic Castle Hill district in Buda for stunning views of the Danube from the Fisherman’s Bastion. This is a great view to take in the Hungarian Parliament Building. Before riding the funicular down to the river, be sure to visit Matthias Church. This might be my favorite church in the whole world.
The Chain Bridge crosses the river and connects the two cities. In the newer Pest part of the city, the Hungarian Parliament Building is a highlight. At some point, anyone visiting Budapest will end up on the touristy Vaci Utca pedestrian street with its many restaurants and shops. St. Stephen’s Basilica is as grand as any you’ll find in the Europe. Lovers of the arts swear by the Hungarian State Opera along Andrássy Boulevard, the only boulevard in Europe to rival the Champs Elysees.
Hear the Echoes of the Past
From 1945 to 1989, Hungary was a communist nation ruled as a puppet government of the Soviet Union. Communism was not kind during the 20th century and 85-100 million people were killed in the name of communism – including many Hungarians. While visiting Budapest, we took a Hammer & Sickle Communism Walking Tour and were able to hear some of the echoes of the past. A young man who was indoctrinated into the communist system as a child told us about how children were encouraged to turn their parents in to the authorities for even the most minor of Communist Party infractions. In the words of Vladimir Lenin, “Give us the child for 8 years and it will be a Bolshevik forever.”
The history of Hungary is one of occupation. Hungary was conquered and destroyed by the Mongols, who were followed by the Turks and their fledgling Islamic state. Hungary was then liberated (and subsequently) occupied by the Hapsburgs of Austria, then the Germans during World War II, and finally the Soviet Union’s liberation of 1945 (a liberation in which they didn’t leave until 1989). Visiting Budapest is walking in the footsteps of 1,000 years of complicated history and around every corner you can hear the sounds of this past.
Finally, no visit to Budapest is complete without visiting the Shoes on the Danube sculpture and hearing the haunted voices of the Holocaust in Hungary.
Smell the Caffeine
Visiting Budapest is like walking back in time. Hungarians have a love of coffee that dates back to when they were conquered by the Turks. A robust café culture developed in Budapest during the 19th and 20th centuries to serve the needs of local residents and visitors. Efforts by the communists to suppress coffee and the conversations that took place here were unsuccessful.
Today, walking into any of the Budapest cafés is like stepping back in time. Breathe deep and enjoy a cup along with a cake and experience life as it was meant to be.
Taste the Rich Culinary Heritage
Budapest doesn’t have a reputation as a worldwide gastronomic capital…and we don’t know why. Our absolute favorite thing to do was to indulge in the city’s amazing culinary offerings on a Budapest food tour. And there are many culinary offerings.
The focal point of the Budapest culinary scene is the Central Market – a large, three-floor indoor market selling all kinds of foods. This isn’t a made-for-tourists market. We were visiting Budapest in October and found little old ladies buying their fall vegetables – leaks, root vegetables and squash. Late summer cucumbers that had been pickled were just brought out and old men were lined up for them. Other stalls specialized in charcuterie or paprika spices.
On the upper floor, we encountered a small, unremarkable stand with a huge crowd around it. In the stand, a guy was turning out small, personal pizzas. But these aren’t pizzas. This is langos and it’s practically the national dish of Hungary. We ordered the traditional bread with sour cream, cheese and garlic – assured by a local that this was the authentic way to enjoy the langos. And enjoy them we did!
But at the Pesti Disznó gastropub, we discovered the Mangalica. The Mangalicas are an ancient and rare pig breed that grows hair and looks like a sheep. And the Mangalica tastes delicious! The Pesti Disznó makes a life-changing Mangalica burger. Trust us. It’s that good. [Random trivia: It’s rumored that the Mangalica was the inspiration for Miss Piggy from the Muppets.]
And no trip to Hungary would be complete without a bowl of Hungarian goulash.
Feel the Thermal Waters
Hungary, like much of Central Europe, is blessed with a large number of naturally occurring hot springs. Within the city limits of Budapest are a five major hot springs and thermal baths complexes with over 45 different pools. One of the highlights while visiting Budapest is a trip to one of the city’s many spas to soak in the thermal waters.
We visited two of the Budapest thermal baths. Our first afternoon in Budapest was rainy and we headed to the posh Gellért Baths on the Buda side of the river. Here, we could soak to our heart’s content in the indoor thermal pools. Later in the week, we visited the vast Szechenyi Baths complex. For 101 years, residents of Budapest and visitors alike soak in the three outdoor and 15 indoor pools. We found that the hot springs and baths in Budapest are some of the finest in the world.
Visiting Budapest truly is a feast for the senses!
From our experience, the best time to visit Budapest is the spring (March-May) or the cool fall (September-November). We love visiting Budapest in the fall because there’s just something magical about dipping into one of the thermal baths with the cool temperature in the air.
Have you ever visited Budapest? What was your favorite thing about this city?
While in Budapest, we explored the city as guests of JayWay Travel, providers of bespoke Eastern European travel. As always, all opinions are our own.
And just because you can never have too many Budapest photos: