Budapest: A Guide to the Beauty on the Danube
I remember when people asked me where I was going on my first Europe trip, back in 2005. And of course they smiled and nodded their heads when I mentioned Rome, Paris and London – all they knew. But when I said Budapest there was a pause and a look of questioning. With questions like, “Where is that?” Hungary – and “Why?” I would smile and think ‘why not!’
But it was something deeper that drew me there. Seeing the movie An American Rhapsody, which took place in Budapest was my first introduction and first glimpse of this charming and beautiful city. Something deep and intrinsic pulled me in its direction. I thank that feeling every day, as Budapest has turned out to be one of my favourite places I’ve visited so far.
Budapest is a beautiful city and known for its thermal baths, art nouveau architecture and many bridges. These bridges are not only landmarks but also great vantage points to experience the city. And as Lonely Planet so eloquently wrote about the bridges, they “are stitches that have bound Buda and Pest together since before the two were linked politically in 1873.”
I never knew until I visited, but Budapest is made up of two sections. Pest, the flat area of the city east of the Danube. And Buda, the lush and hilly area to the west of the river. So, I’ve divided my guide into Buda and Pest.
From the top of Gellért Hill you are faced with the most jaw dropping view of the city. You can see the stark contrast of the flat city of Pest and on the other side of the Danube the beautiful green, hilly and rural landscape of Buda. There’s also a large outdoor market here selling Hungarian garb, Hungarian food, handmade Christmas ornaments intricately made of sticks, and magic boxes of which my friend and I bought one.
Royal Palace & Labyrinth
The Buda side, left of the Danube, is beautiful with rich, with lush rolling hills and has an overall old world charm. Here there are various historic sites like the Royal Palace that towered above us with its gardens and many labyrinths beneath it. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has 28km of cave networks that were formed by the thermal springs, and are popular to this day. On my second visit I even descended into the labyrinth beneath the Buda Castle to test my will.
The Buda caves are a great day trip – once you find them. There are approximately 200 caves under the capital formed by thermal springs. There are 9 protected caves and 3 open to the public. Two caves I’d recommend a visit to are the Szemlöhegyi Cave, and the Pálvölgyi Cave. But be sure to bring warmer clothing with you, as the caves are much cooler.
Also on the Buda side is the Matthias Church. Built in 1896 in the neo-Gothic style, this church is part of Castle Hill and was named after King Matthias Corvinus. He was King of Hungary in 1458, at age 14 until his death in 1490. This charming church stands among the walls of the Fishermen’s Bastion.
It looks like it’s been there for hundreds of years, maybe even grew right out of the Buda hillside. The Fishermen’s Bastian was actually only built in 1905. The seven white turrets represent the 7 Magyar (as the Hungarians call themselves) tribes that entered the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century. The name comes from the medieval guild of fishermen who defended this stretch of wall. So far this place has my favourite views and offers great photo opportunities through the turrets and out on the balconies, even looking back on itself.
Nyugati Train Station
The Nyugati Train Station was built in 1877 by the Paris-based Eiffel Company (perhaps you’ve heard of them). And everything about the station is grand. The view from outside is of two large pavilions flanking a massive glass face. Inside the iron framed hall is breathtaking with the hustle of travellers catching trains. The building, at over 6,000 square meters and 25 meters high, feels endless.
The beauty doesn’t stop above ground. Below the rumble of trains is the second oldest underground railway system in the world and the first on the European continent. Below the station you’ll find Budapest’s iconic Line 1 that dates back to 1896. The station still has its old charm and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
Another great site is St. Stephen’s Basilica. Built in a neoclassical style over 50 years, it was completed in 1905. And at 150 meters tall it is Hungary’s largest church. This magnificent cathedral is grand on the outside and even more so on the inside. It was dimly lit but had spotlights on sections of significance like the altar, where St. Stephen stood. Also found here is the Holy Right (Holy Dexter) which is the mummified right hand of St. Stephen in the Holy Right Chapel – strange but true.
From St. Stephen’s Basilica to the Parliament buildings where you’ll find St. Stephen’s crown, the nation’s most important icon, is housed. Completed in 1902, Budapest’s Parliament building, like many other buildings in eclectic Budapest, was built in a blend of neo-Romanesque and neo-baroque. Sitting along the Danube, the Budapest Parliament is the world’s 3rd largest Parliament building. This massive structure, with all its contrast of stark white turrets and large red dome and roof, is stunning from every angle.
In need of a dose of the great outdoors, head for City Park. Here you’ll find a large pond, various sculptures including Anonymous, a statue of a monk sculpted in 1903 that has a strange air of macabre, as well as a number of historic sites. Completed in 1896 when they were celebrating 1000 years of Hungarian history. At over 300 acres the park holds many gems including; Vajdahunyad Castle, Hero’s Square, Széchenyi Thermal Baths and the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden.
Hősök Tere, or Hero’s Square at the edge of City Park is a huge square. Flanked on both sides by beautiful museums, with a 36 meter high pillar with the Angel Gabriel on it, with the Hungarian crown in one hand and the Hungarian cross in the other. And at its base are Árpád and the six other Magyar chieftains on horseback who occupied this area in the late 9th century. Behind the pillar are two arcs. Within are statues of fourteen rulers and statesmen from King Stephen to King Matthias. And standing atop each arcs’ ends are four allegorical figures; (from left to right) Work & Prosperity, War, Peace, and Knowledge & Glory. The square was built in 1896 for their centennial as an entrance to City Park. It’s glorious! There’s something about the symbolism that really resounded in me and it continues to be one of my favourite squares.
A visit to Budapest isn’t complete without a visit to one of their many thermal baths. I visited the Széchenyi Thermal Baths which was built in 1913, and was the first thermal bath in Pest. This grand complex is architecturally stunning. And even though it was busy, getting into the water is refreshing and so relaxing that everything and everyone melts away. There is so much to do; some people were playing chess while in the pool, some were enjoying a spin in the whirlpool and many floated with their eyes closed and in total thermal spa bliss.
* Grab a Budapest card will saved you a ton! It offers free metro, discounts on food and other things, as well as free entrance to attractions like the Buda Caves, museums and many more.
* If it’s your first time to the city consider taking either a free walking tour or hop-on-hop-off bus tour. Both of these can not only help you orient yourself with the city but also teach you about hidden gems and about Budapest’s history.
There is something magical running through the veins of Budapest’s streets, bridges and people. And so many places felt like something right out of the pages of a fairytale.