If you ever seen one of those Viking River Cruises commercials, then you will be more than familiar with Budapest. Located on the Danube River which runs from the Black Forest of Germany all the way across Eastern Europe and into the Black Sea, Budapest is easily one of the most picturesque cities in Europe. The capital of Hungary actually consists of two separate cities: Buda on the Danube’s western bank and Pest on the eastern bank.
To understand the influences that have contributed to what the city is today, let’s take a horribly abbreviated look at the history of Budapest. Sometimes around the 1st Century AD, the Romans set up a military and commercial settlement in a section of Budapest called Óbuda. As the settlement grew, they founded the fortress of Contra Aquincum which would late become the city of Pest. After the Romans fell, the Hungarians moved into the land in the 9th Century and founded the Kingdom of Hungary. The Mongols invaded the Hungarian settlement in 1242 and the King of Hungary decided to reconstruct a more fortified town atop the hills west of the Danube creating Buda. In 1361, the settlement would become the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary. The Italian Renaissance swept the city, but the glory eventually ended when the Ottoman Empire besieged Budapest and took hold in 1541. Thankfully, they constructed the famous bath houses to remember them by. The Hapsburg Empire and Christian forces moved into the lands west of Budapest and conquered the now Muslim city, eventually integrating the Kingdom of Hungary into the empire by 1718. Hungary soon decided they wanted their independence and the Austria-Hungary dual monarchy was formed. The city once again blossomed and the cities of Buda and Pest were finally connected via the Széchenyi Chain Bridge in 1849. In 1873, Buda, Pest, and Óbuda merged into the metropolis we know today. After World War I ended, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved and Hungary declared its independence as the Republic of Hungary, the country we know today. World War II had significant effects on Budapest as well which I’ll get into.
If you are unsure where to start upon arrival in Budapest, I strongly suggest heading to the Danube River. It is such a picturesque and charming scene as you stand on the natural border between the flat lands of Pest and the hilly Buda with its grandiose royal buildings. You can watch as boats and cruise liners make their way down the Danube passing bridge after bridge with passengers marveling at the same things you are.
The first place along the river that I went to was a Holocaust memorial. I traveled to Budapest with a Jewish friend of mine and she spoke of a certain monument that I had never heard of. We weren’t sure of its exact location, but stumbled upon it directly on the water close to the Parliament building. The memorial is called “Shoes on the Danube Bank”.
During World War II, Hungary was allied with the Axis Powers. The Arrow Cross Party was in control of the fascist government who worked in conjunction with Nazi Germany to round up Jews within Budapest. In December of 1944 as the Soviet Red Army approached Hungary and threatened to lay siege on the city, the army of the Arrow Cross began to take Jews from the hospitals and ghettos and brought them to the river. Every Jewish man, woman, and child was ordered to strip and remove their shoes and stand facing the river. The soldiers would then train their guns on them and fire, forcing them to fall into the cold water below so that they would be swept way by the Danube. The city finally fell to the Red Army in February of 1945; before that, however, the Arrow Cross murdered an estimated ten to fifteen thousand civilians and deported some 80,000 to various concentration camps.
In April of 2005, sculptors Gyula Pauer and Can Togay created this monument of 60, cast-iron pairs of shoes facing the Danube. It commemorates all of the victims who were shot into the river by the fascist militiamen. The shoes emulate those of children, women, businessmen, etc. Relatives, Jews, Hungarians, and tourists visit the Holocaust memorial today, laying flowers in the shoes to remember the victims and to reflect on the atrocities that were committed during World War II. It is truly the most moving Holocaust memorial I have ever been to.
As you continue down the road, you will soon come upon the Hungarian Parliament. It is Budapest’s largest and highest building. It is also one of the most beautiful buildings in the capital, built in the Gothic Revival style with the symmetrical façade and a central dome. Construction of the building was completed in 1904 making it one of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings. The completion of the building also happened to come after the architect of the building went blind. It is an iconic building that may bring back memories of that Viking Cruises commercial. The Parliament is also worth a look at night from across the river as it is illuminated turning the normally white building into this marvelous shade of gold.
The walk up to Castle Hill is a daunting task for those opting out of the funicular. The town and homes atop the hill quiet and peaceful. As you walk around the roads, you will come upon Matthias Church. Originally called the “Church of the Blessed Virgin”, it’s name was changed after King of Hungary, Mátyás, held both of his weddings here. The church has Baroque influences that came from having to redesign the outward appearance of the structure after the invading Turks whitewashed whatever they felt was inappropriate to the Islamic faith.
Navigating the streets on top of Buda’s hills will soon bring you to Halászbástya or Fisherman’s Bastion. From here, you will encounter some of the best views of the Danube. Fisherman’s Bastion is a neo-Gothic structure built in 1905 consisting of seven towers overlooking Pest. Each tower is meant to be a symbol of the original seven ethnic Hungarian Magyar clans that arrived into the Carpathian Basin towards the end of the 9th Century. Long ago, the defensive fortifications were the financial responsibility of various fisherman guilds, each who controlled a different section of the city wall. There is also a statue of King Stephan mounted on horseback who was the first King of Hungary and canonized for bringing Christianity to the country. It is a beautiful area to wander and take in the views before you head over to Buda Castle.
The area that is the Buda Castle consists of gardens, courtyards, terraces, and museums. The castle itself was built in 1265. The Hungarian President is also housed on the Buda Castle grounds in the Sándor Palace. The sights around this UNESCO Heritage Site truly add to the allure that have become what the hills of Buda are known for.
Since it is always time for food, you can head back across the Danube and check out the Great Market Hall. This enormous indoor market contains three floors of traditional Hungarian produce, souvenirs, spices, snacks, food stands, and restaurants. Hungarian cuisine consists of hearty stews such as goulash and paprika-rich, full meals like stuffed cabbage. Both are delicious, but you will most likely leave the Great Market Hall absolutely stuffed. Just walk around and find something that you’ll enjoy!
Another area of Budapest that is worth visiting is the Jewish Quarter. The Great Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and one of the largest in the world. Construction was completed in 1859 and was built in the Moorish Revival style. The Viennese architect of the synagogue, Ludwig von Förster, believed that there was no distinctive Jewish style of architecture and decided to go with “architectural forms that have been used by oriental ethnic groups that are related to the Israelite people, and in particular the Arabs”. In the back courtyard of the Great Synagogue is the a Holocaust memorial called the Emanuel Tree. It is stylized as a weeping willow with the names of Hungarian Jews who were murdered inscribed on each leaf.
Before heading out for the night, it might be worth a trip to the Turkish Baths. A great one to check out is the Széchenyi Thermal Bath which is located in a park, Napozórét, that also contains Heroes Square. Similar to the seven towers of Fisherman’s Bastion, Heroes Square commemorates the seven chieftains of the original Magyar tribes that settled in the area of Budapest.
For nightlife in Budapest, I strongly recommend grabbing a drink at one of the ruin pubs. These pubs were formed out of old, run down, and derelict buildings that were turned into bars where one can still grab a beer for the equivalent of $2. The first ruin bar and my absolute favorite is Szimpla Kert. Walking into this pub is like walking into an adult, Dr. Suess book. The bicycles hanging from the walls, decorative plants, hallowed out car frames, eccentric signs and artwork, and themed rooms all create the chill atmosphere of the pub. It’s the perfect way to end your trip in Budapest, mingling with locals and fellow travelers, alike.