Budapest – Queen of the Danube

About a week ago, we spent five days in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. This was our first time in the city and we were very impressed with it. Budapest has nearly two million people and is a sprawling metropolis, but for the average traveller, it presents an easy to manage visit.

We landed at the Budapest Liszt Airport and caught the Airport Bus #100E into the central city. The 2200 Ft (Hungarian Forint) ticket is easily purchased from the machine at the bus stop and is an affordable (~$10 Cdn per person) and carefree way to reach the central core.

Our hotel, the Three Corners Lifestyle Hotel, was in a great location. The executive double rooms were very roomy, the breakfast was exceptional and the staff were extremely friendly and helpful. We highly recommend this hotel.

Mimosa breakfast

The city sits on the both sides of the Danube River, Buda to the west and Pest to the east. Unlike some other European cities, it does not have a central ‘historic core’ – the sites are found in several areas.

Our first day was spent exploring downtown ‘Pest’. From our hotel, we headed to the Danube, which currently is looking more like the brown Danube than the blue Danube of song.

Across the street from the many river cruise boats in dock is Március 15 Tér (March 15 Square). The site of a third century fortress, it now is a fine park bordered by the Town Centre Parish Church, the oldest building in Pest, and the Orthodox Church, with its mismatched steeples (one was blown off in WWII).

Budapest has statues everywhere and strolling along the Danube, we passed many – from the national poet, Sándor Petôfi to a Greek god outside Starbucks to whimsical creations with no backstory such as the Little Princess and the Girl with a Dog.

The views of Buda across the Danube are spectacular. For those who choose not to walk, the number 2 tram ride along the promenade is said to be one of Europe’s most scenic rides.

Vörösmarty Tér is a hub of activity in the town centre with a statue of the poet Mihály Vörösmarty presiding over the hubbub. At the north end of the square sits the landmark Gerbeaud Café. Considered ‘the’ meeting place of Budapest, it’s worth a look inside to appreciate its grandeur (and excellent water closets).

Mihály Vörösmarty

The M1 metro stops out front of the café. This shallow underground sits just below ground level and was the first subway on the European continent.

The Váci utca is one of the oldest streets in Pest and stretches out from the square. This street is crammed with tourists visiting the multitude of souvenir shops and sidewalk cafés. We chose to follow the advice of many and give most of it a miss.

We continued north to the Leopold district. This area is dominated by the massive and ornate Hungarian Parliament Building. Built in the late 1800’s to celebrate the Hungarian millennium of 1896, the building is mixture of architectural styles. It is one of the most grandiose parliament buildings we have seen in our travels.

On the day of our visit, the adjacent Kossuth Tér was a hive of activity and was mostly roped off as it was being prepared for a Papal visit the next week.

A striking sight along the Danube in this area is the Holocaust Memorial. Fifty pairs of bronze shoes commemorate the Jews who were killed, with their bodies falling into the Danube when the Nazis’ puppet government, the Arrow Cross, came to power in Hungary in 1944. It is a very sobering memorial to this event.

We then wandered through Liberty Square, with its grand fountains and statues.

Finally we visited Szent István Bazilika (St. Stephen’s Basilica). This is Budapest’s largest church and although it looks very old, it also was built for the 1896 celebrations. The interior is dimly lit, but beautiful to view with gold gilded decorations.

On day two, we caught the Metro line M4 to the end of the line at Kelenföld and then hopped on Bus #101E to Memento Park. Under communist rule, many massive statues were created in Budapest as propaganda to evoke feelings of power. Whereas many Eastern European countries destroyed these reminders of an oppressed time, Budapest moved many of the statues to an area on the outskirts of the city. The park does not glorify the statues or their subjects – they are just presented to demonstrate the ‘art’ of this era.

The park also had a Trabant on display. This series of small cars was produced from 1957 to 1990 by a former East German car manufacturer and with its two stroke engine was ubiquitous in the communist bloc countries.

Returning from Memento Park, we walked through the Jewish Quarter. The Great Synagogue dominates – it is the second largest synagogue in the world. We chose not to pay the ~$40 / person entry fee. At the rear of the synagogue sits the Tree of Life statue. This weeping willow, cast in steel, has more than 4000 metal leaves, each etched with the name of a holocaust victim.

Further in the Jewish Quarter, we strolled down Kazinczy Utca. This street is the home to the ‘Ruin Pubs’. These pubs originated around 2001 with young men looking for cheap places to drink. Derelict buildings and unused outdoor spaces were made into chaotic bars. They have now become some of the trendiest bars in the city.

In the afternoon, we visited the House of Terror. This museum is located in the building where many victims were killed by both the Arrow Cross and the communist secret police. Although we recognized the sombre nature of the display, we found the exhibits somewhat underwhelming.

On our third day in Budapest, we crossed the Liberty Bridge to Buda. We first climbed Gellért Hill to the Liberation Monument, which features a lady holding aloft a palm branch. We couldn’t quite reach the monument as there is construction occurring but we came close enough for a good view.

We strolled down the hill past the Citadella, the remains of a fortress built in 1848.

Continuing along the Danube, we entered the castle gardens at the Várkert Bazár and took a quick escalator ride up to the Buda Royal Palace (Királyi Paloma). There is extensive reconstruction and renovation work taking place, and as it was a sunny Saturday afternoon, there were a LOT of people about. Therefore, we didn’t take in all of the area, but we strolled alongside the castle, enjoying views of prominent statues and fountains.

We passed the Sándor Palace, home to the Hungarian President’s office. The President holds a largely ceremonial position; the Prime Minister is the head of the government.

From the Fisherman’s Bastian, we took in a beautiful panoramic view of Pest across the Danube.

We passed by Matthias Church, a beautiful building that has been rebuilt a number of times in the 800 years since it was founded. Due to the crowds, we chose not to visit the interior, although it is reported to be quite ornate.

Leaving the hill, we strolled through the neighbourhoods and stopped for a coffee break at a small interesting café – one that dates back to the communist days and doesn’t appear to have changed much since then. It was fun – and delicious!

We finished the afternoon with a walk along the Danube, stopping in at a couple of delightful squares and churches.

On day 4, we walked to the City Park, Városliget. This is a delightful large park, that was the private hunting ground of wealthy aristocrats until the mid-19th century. It is filled with vast green areas, multiple play and sports venues for all ages and a number of great museums, as well as a Renaissance castle.

Vajdahunyad Castle

We especially admired the architecture of two of the newest museums. The Museum of Ethnography opened in May 2022 and is a spectacular building with its design evoking a pair of mirroring hillsides. The exterior is made up of almost half a million pixels presenting a contemporary adaptation of twenty Hungarian and twenty international ethnographic motifs. The 7000 square meter roof gardens rise on both sides of the centre of the building and the stairs lead to panoramic views. Inside, there are multiple displays of cultural artifacts.

The House of Music also opened in 2022. The building’s roof structure is pierced with 100 crater-like holes, inspired by the varying form of sound waves. Trees are integrated with the architecture filtering light into the bottom level of the building. Visitors feel as if they are walking under the trees within the interior space. We enjoyed a lovely lunch on the terrace overlooking the park.

The grand Heroes’ Square sits at the entrance to the park. It is the home to numerous statues of notable Hungarians, surrounding the iconic Millennium Monument. The square is flanked by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Hall of Art.

We strolled down Andrassy Ut – the main wide thoroughfare that transverses the city. It is lined by lovely mansions and high-end stores.

Day 5 started at Bubbles Laundromat. Harvey & I then tried to visit the Great Market Hall. For the second time, we found very large crowds. What probably once was a great market hall seems to have become a tourist mecca.

So we found a lovely sidewalk café for goulash soup and coffee. A side note – what we tend to think of as goulash is actually Hungarian stew whereas goulash in Hungary is a delicious soup.

We found a number of great restaurants in Budapest and tried many of the local dishes.

Strudel at Elsö Pesti Rétesház

Karavan Street Food on Kazinczy Utca

A treat we tried from a street vendor was a chimney cake. This is dough wrapped around a spindle, sprinkled with sugar and slowly roasted on a rotisserie until it is deliciously caramelized. We had ours sprinkled with cinnamon although there are numerous toppings that you could have.

It was also suggested that we sample the local drink, Palinka. We definitely don’t recommend it!! While it comes in a variety of supposedly fruit flavours, we found that it mostly just tasted like raw alcohol. Harvey commented that it could be substituted for camp stove fuel.

Budapest was a great experience. We understand why one of its nicknames is ‘Queen of the Danube’ and we are so glad that we visited this great city!


Bev & Harvey

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