If Buda is the more ancient hilly district, Pest is the bustling, sprawling modern sister.
Not to say that Pest is too modern. After all, it still houses continental Europe’s oldest underground railway system which runs below the famous Andrássy út, an elegant street lined with beautiful buildings from Budapest’s shining era before the desolation of war and the following oppression. You will also visit the largest synagogue in Europe (and the second largest in the world), one of the largest parliament buildings in the world, as well as lavish bath houses, restored coffee houses and ruined bars (literally!).
Buckle up, fans, this is a long one!
On our first day, we visited one of Pest’s greatest landmarks: Parliament. Constructed between 1885-1904, it houses not only houses of parliament, but also the national crown jewels, which are guarded at all times. We were fortunate to see the changing of this guard while we were touring the building.
If you have time while visiting, I think the tour was worth the cost. Our guide was both very well informed and very funny, in a dry, unassuming way. We learned a bit more about the politics of the country, the symbolism of the building, and the history of this proud nation. We also saw the large red star that shone atop the building during the soviet era. Be advised, however, to book your visit in advance ad English tours sell our quickly and often days or weeks ahead of time. If you do not have the time, just be sure to take a walking tour around the exterior, which is also fantastic!
While walking along the Danube on the Pest side, it would be difficult to miss this small bronze installation, Shoes on the Danube Bank. As the plaque states, it is “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944–45.” Small, simple and moving, this small monument honors the Jews who were forced out of their shoes and onto the ice, to be shot into the river, and their bodies taken away. The shoes are all period appropriate, and appear to be well worn, from men’s boots to the shoes of a small child. As you can see, many people leave flowers or trinkets inside the shoes in memorium.
Off of the river banks, a hard-to-miss sight is St. Stephen’s Basilica, as it shares the title of tallest building in the city with the Parliament building, at 96 meters (referring to the conquest of the Kingdom of Hungary in 896). We had a lovely view of the building from our hotel room and used it as our homing beacon to orient ourselves throughout the stay.
As one of the most important Catholic buildings in the country, it was decorated with palms and smelled of incense as Easter Sunday was approaching. It is worth a tour through the inside to enjoy the beautiful marble work and to appreciate its scale.
Just a touch farther into the city we found charming street markets aimed at ensnaring tourists, such as ourselves. I can hardly resist the smell of street combined with adorable wooden huts; besides, it is OK to be a tourist! Silly markets like this are a great way to experience a (generally marked-up, watered down) version of a country’s culture. I think it is always worth the visit. Plus…it just smelled so good! (Oh and there was beer.)
One thing that you will see all over this part of Europe are these Kürtőskalács -Sekler Cakes. In Prague they were called Trdelnik (and are widely mass produced all over town). They are made from a strip of sweet yeast dough, rolled on a cylinder and then roasted over coals and basted with melted butter. The outside caramelizes into a golden brown crust and can be sprinkled with a number of toppings. We watched ours be hand rolled over a charcoal fire (as opposed to automated spinners) before it was rolled in cinnamon and handed straight to us, piping hot. It was divine.
One of the great memories of pre-war Budapest are its opulent coffee houses. As a city previously occupied by the Turks, coffee was an essential part of the culture for hundreds of years. However, these magnificent houses came to rise around the early turn of the 19th century, as artists, writers, musicians, students and more would gather to see, be seen, share ideas and work. Ravaged by the wars and then suppressed by the following communist regime for fear of their breeding subversive ideas, the great houses fell to ruin.
In recent decades, however, many have had the good fortune of generous investors and have been restored to their former glory. The most famous would be the New York Cafe, followed by Gerbeaud. However, in the interest of not spending 50eu on coffee and cake, Jimmy and I ducked into a smaller house off the beaten path, near Vati Utca-a popular shopping street. Still opulent and beautiful, the Cafe Central featured a beautiful dining room as well as a refreshments-only side, divided by an impressive glass and brass art-deco bar. Jimmy deemed his coffee quite good and my hot chocolate required a spoon-which is maybe the best kind! Easy enough to find, a coffee house is a must visit in Budapest.
Another Pest “must see” destination in the old Jewish Quarter. In fact, you would be hard pressed to miss is, as many of the best restaurants and bars are in this quarter. It is also a great place to simply wander to find the eclectic mixture of run-down buildings, modern bars, ruin pubs, and funky stores that make Budapest so unique.
Pictured below is the entrance to Pest’s most famous “Ruin Bar,” Szimpla Kert. These bars are built into the ruins of once glorious courtyard buildings, left to disrepair during and after the fall of the soviet regime in Hungary. Szimpla was the first bar to be made from the ruins, and many many more followed suit. These pubs are always funky, with odds and ends of fantastical things hanging from walls, railings, and all surfaces. The seating may include an exercise bike, an old bathtub, or maybe a chair, if you get there early. Szimpla is very large, featuring multiple bars as you adventure through the place-up narrow spiral staircases and across skinny mezzanines- each one with a different vibe, and all strictly cash only. If you are the type of person who must see an emergency exit at all times, this bar is not for you- there is nothing about these places that would meet any building code. But if you like to get lost in the maze, you’ll have a screamin’ time!
The highlight of the Jewish corridor is, of course its synagogues. The Great Synagogue, the largest in Europe and second largest in the world, can be found and visited here. Silly Jimmy and I were not paying attention to dates and managed to visit on Jewish Sabbath when in was closed. We did however take a nice tour of the exterior. It turned out being very nice to view the space and courtyard without any visitors walking around.
Having previously visited this site, years ago, I would highly suggest making a visit, especially if the history and strife of the Jewish people in Europe is a topic of interest to you. This site not only houses a beautiful place of worship, but also the Heroes’ Temple, a graveyard and memorial and the Jewish Museum. It is also within the borders of the Budapest Ghetto, put to use during WWII.
Here are some numbers for a general understanding of how deeply effected this country was by the Holocaust, an estimated 861,000 Jews lived withing Hungary pre-war. Post war, there were approximately 255,000; a 29% survival rate. However some calculations only number only 80,000 survivors. This is made all the more shocking by the fact that deportations to death camps from Hungary did not start until the final year of the war; an estimated 1/3 of Auschwitz victims were Hungarian. In the year of 1944, a Hungarian Jew living in the country side had only a 10% chance survival over the next year; city dwellers had a 50% chance, though conditions in the ghetto were terrible and included random massacres. The memorial on the river bank speaks for 10,000-15,000 victims.
Though a thoroughly depressing topic, I do think it is essential to the history and understanding of a city such as Budapest-don’t just go for the cheap beer and hearty food. It is so very important that we acknowledge our history- both its darkest moments and its most triumphant- so we may work towards a better, kinder humanity.
City Park is a good place to spend an afternoon in the city, particularly if you have fine weather. We visited in the evening on our way to one of Budapest’s most famous bath houses. On the way in, we walked through Hero’s Square, which features the important national leaders as well as the national Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
On our way out, we visited an amazingly eclectic castle, Vajdahunyad Castle. Built originally in 1896 for Hungary’s Millennial exhibition, it features various elements of design from important landmark buildings in the nation. Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque can all be seen in one place.
We visited as an Easter fair was closing, and walked around enjoying the festival atmosphere. People were dancing, drinking beer and eating from vendors. We stopped and purchased some amazing cheeses for our long train ride the next day.
Our train departed the train station very early the next morning, which gave us some incredible light to enjoy the beautiful old building! How beautiful is that?!
For the last night of our stay, Jimmy and I swapped hotels for the Intercontinental, as our free nights at the Ritz were up!
Though the rooms are in need of an upgrade, the club lounge was wonderful, with great food and drink selections and friendly service. However, it was the view out over the Danube that could not be beat!
Following will be a post dedicated to the bath houses of Budapest- simply a must-see!