The final port on my Viking river cruise was a visit to Budapest, often called the pearl of the Danube. And after a first look at is brilliant waterfront, lit up in the dark, everyone on board was anxious to explore this beautiful and exotic city.
Happily, the last day of the cruise started with a city walking tour. I opted for the “Up Close” version, a new wrinkle that takes you right into the everyday life of the city, using public transit. And once we’d met our guide, the lovely Rita, at the dockside, we were already in the thick of things.
My ship, the Viking Freya, was docked in one of the most strategic spots on the Budapest waterfront – just below the famous Chain Bridge, one of the city’s landmarks and the gateway to Buda, the upper city where many of the top sights are found. And that’s where we were headed. Crossing the bridge, I admired the huge metal links after which it’s named — if you imagined a huge chain out of a dungeons-and-dragons movie, you’d be disappointed.
Along the way, Rita explained that Pest, the more modern side of the city, is where most Budapest residents live, while Buda, the older side, is the fashionable place to live if you can afford the higher rents. But to get there, you need to climb the Buda hill to the district called the Vár. And we did so in the most entertaining way, in one of the old, wooden cars of the Castle Hill Funicular.
Once on top, we were in the middle of the city’s most iconic attractions, including Buda Castle, which takes up a good chunk of real estate atop the hill. The original castle dates back to the 13th century, but the structure that stands today was built in 18th century by the Austro-Hungarian emperors as a show of strength; they never actually lived there. Today it houses the National Gallery, the Budapest History museum and other institutions.
We stopped to admire the Sandor Palace, part of the castle complex. But across the street was a more interesting site: a series of ancient-looking walls that had been partially excavated. These were Roman ruins, Rita explained, and they form an extensive underground network that was used during World War II. Openings like the one shown here were used to hide people and things during the city’s occupation.
The next stop on our Up Close visit to Budapest was another of its iconic structures, the Matthias (or properly, Mátyás) Church, named after a former king, with its huge, neo-Gothic spires. One of the spires has a unique feature: a statue of a raven with a gold ring in its beak.
The story goes that King Mátyás went for a swim, leaving his clothes on the river bank. The raven happened by, spied his gold ring and made off with it. He couldn’t catch the bird, so he made a replica of it and used it on his coat of arms; in fact, Mátyás’ family name was Corvinus, or crow.
The church sits near the cliff that raises Buda above the city, and along the cliff edge runs the Fishermen’s Bastion, a set of walls, ramparts and towers that look like the set from a Snow White movie. In fact, these are 19th-century creations, built by the same architect who restored the church from its damaged state after one of Budapest’s many sieges and invasions.
Many of the old buildings in the Vár are recreations; the whole district was largely destroyed in the fighting between the Russians and the Nazis in 1945. That was reportedly the 86th time (!) it had been attacked and destroyed over seven centuries.
The Fishermen’s Bastion may not be authentic, but it is nice to look at — see the photo at the top of this post. And a walk around its ramparts provides some of the best views of the city: many selfies were taken.
The church’s interior is grand, but I can’t prove it: the day we visited was graduation day, and both the church and the square were filled with students and their families carrying flowers and balloons for the big ceremony. Why the girls were wearing sailor outfits is one of those Budapest peculiarities I can’t explain.
Our tour continued with a bus ride back across the Chain Bridge to the Pest waterfront, lined with river cruise ships, tony restaurants and public art, including this piece, called The Little Princess, being shown off by Rita. This is another statue that’s supposed to bring good luck if it’s rubbed, which explains the shiny knees.
A quick detour brought us to Vörösmarty Square and Váci Utca, the pedestrian mall that is Budapest’s main tourist street. Day and night it’s filled with visitors, buying souvenirs in the gift shops and engaging in Europe’s favourite pastime, eating and drinking in sidewalk cafés. The weather was mild, but it doesn’t seem to matter: when it’s cold, the restaurants hang blankets over the chairs for diners to wrap themselves in.
Váci Utca leads directly to the great Market Hall, at the foot of the Liberty Bridge, another of the major landmarks of downtown Budapest. And it was good for a half-hour’s browse. The market’s huge main floor is filled with fruit, produce, chocolate, Hungary’s famous sweet Tokay wine, and shelf after shelf of the country’s signature spice, paprika. A level down, in the basement, were the fish and pickles (a pungent combination), while a floor up, the balconies offered food stalls and rows of souvenir stands.
A tram ride took us back along the waterfront to the ship, but by that time most of us could have found our way back by ourselves. Unlike many of Europe’s very old cities, Budapest is easy to navigate. Most of its highlights are within an easy walk (or funicular ride) of the river, and with a modest amount of walking, we’d seen most of the city’s major highlights in a morning.
There’s a lot more to Budapest, of course, and in order to discover it, I stayed on for a few days after the cruise. I’ll be showing you more of its treasures, large and small, in my next post.
I was a guest of Viking River Cruises on this trip. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
The photos in this post were taken with the Panasonic DMC-G7 and Sony DSC-WX500 cameras.