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Europe Hungary Travel

Budapest: A Tale of Two Cities

December 4, 2017
BudapestCoverPhoto

Budapest is a breathtaking city with a long and dramatic history. It was originally two separate cities – Buda and Pest – located on opposite sides of the Danube River. In the 1500s, Hungary was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, who built numerous Turkish bathhouses in Buda and thankfully, many of these still remain. In the late 1600s, the Habsburg Dynasty gained control of Hungary and in 1873 Buda and Pest were united as one city. If you want to wow the locals (or anyone) with your linguistic skills, refer to the city as “Boo-da-pesht”, which approximates the Hungarian pronunciation.

Budapest suffered greatly in WWII as it was occupied by German troops who destroyed much of the city upon their retreat in 1945. A communist government came into power and Hungary was declared a republic until the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Many civilians lost their lives in the Revolution and gunfire damage can still be seen today on many of Budapest’s magnificent buildings.

In 1989, Hungary became a democracy and later joined the European Union. Today, much of the city is designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Many of its attractions are within walking distance of each other and budget travellers will be delighted to find that the cost of accommodation, food, and entertainment in Budapest is much lower than in Western Europe.

What to See

Budapest is full of incredible architecture, particularly in the art nouveau style, and a striking amount of street art can be found throughout the city. Make sure to look up and look back over your shoulder every now and then when you walk – you never know what beauty you might see.

One of the most impressive and iconic sights in Budapest is the Hungarian National Parliament Building located on the banks of the Danube. Built in Gothic style, it is the largest parliament building in Europe and is spectacularly lit up at night time. If you’d like to go inside and view the Hungarian Crown jewels and some of the 691 rooms, you must book a guided tour.

A short stroll from the National Parliament is the Great Market Hall, which is a vast, airy building filled with locally-grown fruit and vegetables and locally-sourced meat. Many Hungarians do their daily grocery shopping here and it’s a great place to pick up nutritious, budget-friendly food while supporting local farmers. The mezzanine level has several souvenir stalls selling lace, handmade chess boards, tote bags, and is also a great place to get some freshly-cooked Hungarian specialties such a goulash, sausage, and lángos. Do you know what lángos is? A disk of deep-fried dough bigger than your face, slathered with sour cream and garlic, and piled high with shredded white cheese. Hello, soulmate.

Since the city is bisected by the Danube river, Budapest has seven major bridges connecting the Buda and Pest sides. The first bridge was opened in 1896 with Emperor Franz Ferdinand hammering in the last silver rivet himself. The bridge was originally named for him, however, this bridge (and every other bridge in Budapest) was bombed by the retreating German troops in 1945. This bridge was the first to be rebuilt and was renamed Liberty Bridge. Today it is decorated with Hungary’s coat of arms and statues of turuls – falcon-like birds, common in Hungarian mythology. Another gorgeous bridge is Chain Bridge, which has two stone lions standing guard at either end and is beautifully floodlit at night.

A particularly moving sight in Budapest is the sculpture Shoes on the Danube, located on the eastern banks of the Danube, near the Parliament building. It is comprised of 60 pairs of shoes cast in iron and attached to the ground in various positions. The sculpture gives remembrance to 3,500 people (800 of them Jews) who were shot into the Danube River by fascist Arrow-Cross militiamen during WWII. The victims were lined up on the banks and shot into the river so the current would carry their bodies away. They were told to remove their shoes first, because shoes had value (the implication being that their lives did not).

What to Do

If you are lucky enough to be in Budapest from mid-November to early January, make a beeline for the Christmas Market – it’s one of the best in all of Europe. You can get all your Christmas shopping done in one visit as there are countless stalls selling beautiful handicrafts and decorations. But the real highlight is the food – lángos as big as your head, pigs roasting on spits, doughy chimney cakes baked in front of your eyes, and every flavour of mulled wine imaginable being ladled up from massive, steaming barrels.

For a uniquely “Budapest” experience, hit up one of the many ruin pubs. They are combination bars/pubs/clubs that have been set up in huge, abandoned buildings decorated in all manner of thrift shop chic, including velvet couches, funky art, vintage signs, and disco balls. Szimpla Kert was one of the first ruin pubs in Budapest and remains one of the biggest and most popular. It has several different nooks, each with a different purpose, including a cocktail bar, a wine bar, a hookah room, an open-mic room, an open-air courtyard (with an old Trabant car in the centre that you can sit in while sipping a beer) and, of course, a dance floor with a kickass DJ.

A visit to Budapest would be incomplete without a dip in at least one of their famous thermal baths. The waters are naturally heated by magma underground and contain numerous minerals that are said to improve skin conditions and joint issues. There are many bath complexes to choose from, each with a different style and vibe. Szechenyi baths is one of the oldest, largest, and most popular in the city. It has three large outdoor pools (perfect for relaxing and star-gazing after a busy day) and several indoor pools of varying temperatures, including ice-cold plunge pools and a dry sauna. For a more traditional experience, try Rudas, which is a gorgeous Turkish-style bathhouse built in the 1500s.It has a main pool and a variety of smaller pools, as well as a steam room, dry sauna, and relaxation room. Weekdays at Rudas are gender-segregated and bathing in the nude is the norm, whereas on weekends it’s open to everyone and bathing attire is required.

The Hungarian Jewish Community is the largest in Central Eastern Europe and Budapest’s Jewish District is one of the most lively and interesting areas of the city. A perfect way to experience it is on foot, either with an organized walking tour or doing your own tour. A good place to start is the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street. It’s the largest synagogue in the world outside of Israel and is unique in its Moorish architecture, which is not typical of synagogues. The complex also includes the Jewish Museum, Heroes Temple, the Jewish Cemetery, and Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park.

The Great Synagogue was originally consecrated in 1859. It was bombed by the Hungarian pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party in 1939 and was used as a base for German Radio during WWII. The synagogue was severely damaged during the WWII air raids but during the Communist era it was repaired and once again became a house of worship.

The Jewish Museum holds a collection of religious relics from Pest Hevrah Kaddishah (Jewish Burial Society), ritual objects of Shabbat, and a Holocaust room.

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who helped rescue thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, before his mysterious disappearance. The park contains a captivating Memorial to Hungarian Jewish Martyrs, which resembles a metallic weeping willow tree and has the names of Hungarian Holocaust victims engraved on the leaves. Also part of the memorial are four marble plates, which commemorate 240 other non-Jewish Hungarians who helped to save Jews during the Holocaust.

A quick walk from the Great Synagogue complex will bring you to Király utca, also known as Budapest’s Design Street. It has some fantastic restaurants, pubs, and outdoor cafes, and comes alive every Sunday for a weekly market. Nearby, on Kazinczy street, there is the Orthodox Synagogue, which was built in 1913 and is a magnificent example of Hungarian Art Nouveau architecture.

Where to Stay

Accommodation in Budapest is affordable and plentiful. AirBnB is a great option, with several apartments located in the city centre for easy exploring on foot. I stayed at a beautiful AirBnB close to the river and just a short walk from the centre of town for about $200 for 7 nights.

Budget travellers will be thrilled at the variety and quality of hostels in the city. These are some of my favourites:

Lavender Circus – Super funky style, spacious rooms, and amazing central location. Each room is individually decorated with vintage furniture and drawings on the walls. All beds are doubles so this hostel is ideal for couples or friends travelling together.

Maverick City Lodge – Perfect location in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, immaculately clean, and you can get a palatial double room with a huge bed, tv, ensuite bathroom and clean towels for the same price you would pay for a dorm bed in Western Europe. They also have dorms and free breakfast so it’s great for solo travellers looking to make friends.

Wombats – Part of a high-quality European hostel chain, Wombat’s Budapest offers clean dorms, a well-equipped kitchen, free breakfast, a excellent location in the Jewish Quarter. You can always rely on the “Wombar” for a good time and if you want to get the pub crawl going, Szimpla Kert is just steps away.

Each of these hostels can be booked direct through their websites or through ” target=”_blank”>Booking.com