Budapest is a fascinating city, with lots to see and do. In my last post, I took you on a whirlwind trip around some of the city’s must-see sights, on a Viking Cruises “Up Close” walking tour. But Budapest has a lot more to offer, as I learned during an extended stay after my river cruise. So I’d like to share my idea of what to see in Budapest, after you’ve seen the famous Parliament building.
First, a quick orientation: Budapest straddles the Danube River (called the Duna around here), and it’s the product of a marriage between the former cities of Buda and Pest, on opposite sides of the river. Modern Pest is where most of the population lives, and Buda is where many of the ancient sites and neighbourhoods are located. It’s also where many of the city’s well-heeled citizens live.
If you visit for more than a day or two, you’ll likely spend much of your time in Pest, where the city’s daily life goes on. And the good news is that it’s relatively compact and walkable. The downtown core is concentrated within a few blocks of the river, and anywhere you can’t walk is easily reachable by tram or the Metro: Budapest’s transit system is very good.
What you’ll find throughout the city is a vibrant urban scene built on a deep foundation of history — one that runs from the Magyar horsemen of the past to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazi invasion and domination by the Soviets. It’s a history that has given the city’s psyche a dark undercurrent, but modern Budapest is far from a dark place. It’s full of places to have a good time, and enjoy some fascinating culture.
So, if you have a good pair of walking shoes and a few forints in your pocket, here’s my version of what to see in Budapest: the “other” top 10.
Let’s start at the top: the Vár, or Buda Castle, is not exactly an alternative choice. But this huge building — more accurately called Buda Palace — towers over the waterfront on the Buda side, so it’s a sight that’s not to be missed. It’s home to the Hungarian National Gallery (seen here), with its excellent collection of medieval art, as well as the National Library and the Budapest History Museum. Descend into the basement of the history museum and you can see parts of the earlier Renaissance and medieval palaces that once stood on the site. As well, the courtyard in front of the National Gallery provides some of the best panoramic views of the city.
After you leave the palace, take some time to stroll the district around it. The streets leading to the Vár are some of the oldest in the city. You’ll see a hodge-podge of architectural styles, and many of the buildings bear plaques identifying them as historic sites, with connections to luminaries such as Franz Liszt. For a chuckle, check out the Trabant parked on one of the main streets; this paper-and-plastic car, driven by many of the locals during the communist era, is remembered as a kind of wistful joke.
Called the Mátyás Church in Hungarian and named after a legendary king, this is another iconic building that can be seen across the city. It’s impressive up close, too, with its tall, neo-Gothic spires and bright, patterned roof tiles. The interior is lavish, as well, with rose windows, gilded altars, statues and frescoes done by noted 19th-century artists. And there’s a treasury, whose treasures include what’s claimed to be the right foot of St. János.
The current church is the reconstruction of a 19th-century building by architect Frigyes Schulek — which, like the palace, was bombed during WWII. Making it look even grander is the complex of towers and ramparts behind it, called the Fishermen’s Bastion. Built by the same architect, this is something of a folly, looking like a fairy tale castle, and it has no real connection with fishermen. But it’s fun to walk around, and provides city views almost as good as those from the palace.
Descending from the Vár district to Pest, you find yourself crossing the famous Chain Bridge, or Széchenyi Lánchid, almost as much an emblem of Budapest as the Parliament building. This was the first permanent bridge joining Buda and Pest, so it symbolizes the unification of the city. The “chain” part refers to the long, flat links that hold it together, rather than a huge chain like the ones that support medieval drawbridges – sorry. (You can see the Chain Bridge in this post.)
Like many cities located on rivers, Budapest treats its bridges both as landmarks and as an essential part of the cityscape. They’re your guide as you navigate the city, each one defining a neighbourhood: the Margit or Margaret Bridge, in the north, then the Chain Bridge, the Erzsébet or Elizabeth Bridge, the Szabadság or Liberty Bridge and the Petöfi Bridge, named after a Hungarian poet, in the south. Each is a different colour and design, and each is constructed so as to frame a landmark on one side or the other. They’re a wonderful sight, especially after nightfall: the photo above shows the Liberty Bridge by night.
Shoes on the Danube
One of the most sombre memorials anywhere, this moving display marks the spot where hundreds of Jews were shot en masse by fascist militiamen during World War II, and their bodies thrown into the Danube. They were forced to remove their coats and shoes for use by Germans, and in remembrance, the city created a monument consisting of 60 pairs of shoes cast in iron.
Located almost at the foot of the Parliament building, the memorial gets many thousands of visitors, some of whom leave offerings of flowers and other keepsakes. It is a moving place to visit – another reminder of Budapest’s dark history.
Budapest is a great place to eat and drink: in fact, it seems to be the national pastime. The epicentre for the city’s café life is Váci Utca, a pedestrian mall that runs parallel to the river, a block or so inland. It goes for several blocks, and it’s lined with cafés and restaurants, most of which have outdoor patios. You’ll see people enjoying their goulash soup and chicken paprikash al fresco even when the weather turns chilly.
The whole city core is filled with places to eat and drink, from traditional restaurants to chic bars, neighbourhood pubs, burger bars and even (yes) McDonald’s. Food is cheap by North American standards, and the good local beer is even cheaper — $3 will buy you a half-litre of good beer almost anywhere. If you’re adventurous, try a “ruin bar” – one of the pop-up drinking spots operating in deserted buildings and courtyards around the city.
The Great Market Hall
Váci Ter leads south for several blocks to the Liberty Bridge and the city’s main market building, built in 1897 and restored in the 1990s to repair the damage suffered in WWII. Before you go in and get to shopping, take a minute to admire the building’s exterior, with its ornate brick and ceramic decorations around the roof line. Inside, it’s a Victorian treat, too, with beams and decorations made of wrought iron.
The market’s ground floor is mostly devoted to basic foodstuffs, though the stalls at the front and on the right side sell souvenirs, fancy chocolate, Hungary’s famous Tokay wine and more paprika than you ever saw in one place. Downstairs there’s pungent fish and pickles; in the lofts above you’ll find lots of eateries and stands selling souvenirs, t-shirts and fancy embroidered blouses and table ware. This is a nice place to browse, but you’ll find better prices elsewhere.
One of Budapest’s signature experiences is to spend some time in one of its many baths. In reality, many of them are centred around swimming pools rather than thermal baths, but they do also offer the chance to soak your weary bones in hot water. The waters themselves, which well up from underground thermal springs, are considered healthful — some people bring cups and drink them.
Even if you don’t get into the water, it’s interesting to take a look at the baths themselves. Many, like the ones at City Park and at the Hotel Gellért on the Buda side of the river, are many years old and reminiscent of Roman baths, with marble floors, frescoes and ceiling domes. One note: you need to bring a bathing suit.
If you want to see a little green grass during your visit, ride the antique-looking Metro Line 1 up to Hõsõk Tere and spend some time in City Park. This huge, lovely recreation area, created for the 1896 millennial celebrations, is a little paradise replete with gardens, a lake with paddle boats, a make-believe castle and one of the city’s most famous baths (seen in the section above). In winter, the lake freezes over and there’s skating.
Before you get into the park, however, you come face to face with Heroes’ Square, one of Budapest’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. The huge square is flanked by the 1896 Hall of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts. But it’s hard to take your eyes off the 36-metre-high column in the middle, surrounded by fierce-looking Magyar horsemen, and the huge, semi-circular monument lined with statues of Hungary’s past heroes. It’s a romantic picture of Hungarian history — and probably not that inaccurate.
The street life
One of the pleasures of wandering the streets of Budapest is taking in the city’s pulsating social life. Its busy squares and thoroughfares are places for people to meet, have a beer, play music and discuss the issues of the day. On a Sunday afternoon I wandered through the downtown Deak Ferenc Square to find a protest demonstration in progress, while nearby people bought ice cream and waffles from food stands.
Wandering on, I followed the sound of music to find a small band playing traditional Hungarian music while dozens of people took part in an impromptu dance, swirling their partners around the square. Hungarians can seem a little stiff, but when the music plays, they like to kick up their heels as much as the rest of the world.
Not surprisingly for a city with multiple hot springs, Budapest is rife with underground caves. Especially on the Budapest side, a huge network of underground passages runs under your feet almost anywhere you walk. Over the centuries they’ve been used by everybody from the Romans to the Nazis. Places like the Pálvölgyi cave let you set foot in this underground world, and there is a labyrinth exhibit near the Matthias Church.
Perhaps the most famous attraction in the Budapest underground is the Cave Church, an extensive network of chapels running through Gellért Hill. The church was founded in 1926 in a grotto where a hermit reputedly healed people. The crowds it attracted were so big, the city decided to drill a tunnel to the riverfront to accommodate them. But the engineers goofed and the tunnel came out high above ground level, so they decided to use the excavations as an underground church. If life gives you lemons …
That’s my take on what to see in Budapest after you’ve seen the Parliament building. And here’s a handy map from the people at Postcard Travel to help you if you decide to make the trip.
If you’ve been to Budapest and have a favourite sight you think should be on the list, leave a comment and let us all know. And if you haven’t been, this city deserves a spot on your bucket list. You could easily spend a week here enjoying what Budapest has to offer — and we haven’t even talked about the day trips …