The name Budapest conjures up images of the mighty Danube flowing past fine buildings. Older readers will possibly also think of the desperate fighting in the city during the 1956 uprising. For some the name of the composer Liszt may come to mind and possibly fine wines supped whilst enjoying goulash. Budapest is mixture of all these and much, much more.
I first visited Budapest about 25 years ago, not long after the communist regime had been overthrown, and have since been back on many occasions. I have seen lots of changes. Generally the city is that much brighter and has a more dynamic feel, and many of the bullet holes scarring central buildings from 1956 have now been removed.
But, Budapest still has very much the same attraction to me as when I first visited, including the friendly vivacious manner of its citizens and the great food and drink available on almost every street in the city.
Budapest is particularly welcoming to senior travellers, with public transport in the city free of charge to EU citizens aged 65 and above – as also is the whole Hungarian railway network! Similarly, museums and other places of interest tend to have much reduced charges for seniors.
My list of ten highlights is very much the same now as 25 years ago. Superficially Budapest may look different, but the Danube still flows through very much the same city as established 140 years ago when Buda on the west of the Danube joined with Pest on the east.
My Top Ten Highlights of Budapest
1. Danube Banks and Chain Bridge. Strolling along the banks of the Danube is a pleasant experience at all times of the year.
During the daytime there are great views across the Danube from Buda towards the Parliament Building. After dark, Castle Hill is magnificent when viewed from the Pest side of the river.
Stop awhile along the way and admire the Chain Bridge. Built in 1849 by the Scottish engineer Adam Clarke, it was the first permanent bridge across the Danube and has great cultural and social significance for the city.
2. Castle Hill dominates the Buda bank of the Danube and provides great views of the city from the Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque terrace built just over 100 years ago. Stroll around the courtyards of Buda Castle and maybe visit the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest Historical Museum housed within. Nearby is the 13th Century St Matthias Church with its diamond pattern roof tiles and rich, ornate interior.
3. The Parliament Building was completed in 1904 to a design inspired by the Palace of Westminster. It is now instantly recognisable throughout the world and always seems to feature in Danube cruise promotions. It is well worth visiting the rich interior. On display in the central hall is the symbolic Holy Crown of Hungary.
4. Gellért Hill and its distinctive Statue of Liberty can be seen from many parts of the city. Walk or take the bus up to the top of the hill and enjoy sweeping views of the city before visiting the nearby Citadel and the Cave Church.
5. Hungarian State Opera House. This fine neo-Renaissance building on the elegant Andrássy Avenue is only really appreciated when attending a concert. Ticket prices are a fraction of those in Western European capitals. Just a couple of blocks away is the classical style St Stephen’s Basilica, the largest Roman catholic Church in Bupapest.
6. Váci utca. This main shopping street in the city may be a bit touristy now, but I still enjoy strolling down, stopping at one the many bars long the way and enjoying a pálinka or two whilst watching life pass by. The Central Market Hall (Nagy Vasarcsarnok) at the south end of the street should not be missed.
7. Great Synagogue (Nagy Zsinagoga) in Dohany utca is the largest synagogue in Europe. It can be visited every day but Saturday. Marvel at its magnificent architecture whilst learning about its very sad history.
8. Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden. There is not much to the Botanical Garden, but I can happily spend a whole day wandering around the Zoo, one of the oldest in the world dating back to 1866. It has nearly 1100 different species, including a Komodo dragon and four species of lemurs, housed in some fascinating art nouveau buildings.
Near to the Zoo entrance is the famous Gundel Restaurant, with its trademark chocolate palacsinta (pancake) prepared to a secret recipe. Close by is the historic Heroes Square at the top of Andrássy Avenue.
9. Margit Island in the middle of the Danube provides a green oasis in the centre of the city not far from the Parliament Building. I like to walk all the way round, about 3 miles, dodging keen joggers along the way. There are romantic walkways through flower gardens, a small zoo and some medieval ruins. The open air theatre has a wide range of musical events. I thoroughly enjoyed an instrumental version of Carmen one warm spring evening.
10. The Children’s Railway provides a fun way to explore the Buda Hills overlooking the city. Run by very smart children under adult supervision, the journey each way takes about 40 minutes. There are seven stops at popular recreation spots, including Janos Hill the highest point in Budapest. The return fare is about £4.
If you wish to escape the bustle of the city, then travel a few miles north up the Danube. On the west bank is the small town of Szentendre which has a distinctly Mediterranean character. Churches, museums and galleries nestle on a hillside sloping down to the banks of Danube lined with restaurants.
On the east bank, the town of Vác is equally beguiling, but much quieter. It has a long landscaped promenade beside the Danube, some fine buildings, including the White Friars’ Church, and one of my favourite restaurants, the Remete Pince.
Both towns can be reached by train, bus or boat from central Budapest.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Budapest has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The citation refers specifically to the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue.
Come and check it out yourself – I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Don’t try to learn Hungarian before visiting – it’s far too difficult. But a few odd words, such as good day (jó napot – pronounced: yo nopot) and thank you (köszönöm – pronounced: kersernem), will be received with great pleasure.
Don’t buy Hungarian currency (forints) before you arrive. The exchange rates are much better in Hungary and credit/debit cards are very widely accepted.
POSTED 28th DECEMBER 2015 by STEVE HANSON