It’s been said that in Budapest, happiness is not a destination, it’s a way of life. Our trip to Budapest made me very, very happy, along with 30 million other tourists each year. Record-breaking numbers of travelers are visiting this extremely affordable city. Why? You’ll find centuries of architectural history along with a wealth of Unesco World Heritage Sites, steamy thermal baths, the beautiful Danube River, outstanding wine, delightful people and delectable food.
Although we arrived to a grey and rainy Budapest, you could still feel the brightness and beauty of the city. The Opera Garden Hotel () was a welcoming boutique hotel in the middle of the city. It was a great home base with modern, comfortable rooms, a good breakfast buffet with made-to-order omelets, easy walking distance to attractions, plus reasonable rates. After crashing for a bit, we shook off the jet lag and headed out for a Danube evening river cruise. Fortunately the rain subsided so we could view the glittering lights of the Buda Castle, Parliament, seven bridges and other buildings we’d learn about later. The commentary was a good introduction to this charming city.
Hungary is famous for its vineyards, and we understood why after sampling wines from the Sauska Wineries. () I was introduced to this country’s furmint grape varietals at a Chicago tasting last year, and became a great fan of this rich, dry white wine. Now I got to try many more varietals which Sauska produces, and also sparklings. I found them all exciting, especially the Bordeaux-style with Cabernet Franc. A highlight was meeting the remarkable couple behind the successful Sauska brand, Andrea and Christian Sauska. Charming and unassuming, their wines have won gold medals, named the Best Hungarian Wine in a London competition and are consistently rated 90+ by respected wine writers.
As we began to explore Budapest which is Hungary’s capital, we found that Buda was on the hilly side of the Danube; Pest was on the flat side. Chain Bridge, the stunning suspension bridge from the 19th century straddles them across the Danube. The view was resplendent from the middle of this 1,250 foot long bridge where statues of lions guard each end. North of the Chain Bridge is a moving monument called “Shoes of the Danube.” Sixty pairs of bronze shoes memorialize a horrific World War ll event. In the winter of 1944, the ruling party rounded up Jews and forced them to strip naked. Then they shot them on the banks of the Danube so their bodies would fall into the river and be washed away. In all, 50% of the Jews in Budapest perished in the Holocaust, over 100,000 victims. Surprisingly, Budapest now has the largest Jewish community in Central Europe. Budapest is home to the 3,000 seat Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe which is beautiful inside and outside. It looms high in the Jewish Quarter, a ghetto where Jews of Budapest were herded into during the war; a small section of the ghetto’s wall still stands. This area also has many restaurants of international, local and Jewish cuisine and drinking spots in abandoned buildings called Ruin Bars. These are all the rage throughout Budapest.
Budapest is walking-friendly city; one stroll we found pleasurable was Andrassy Avenue. It is akin to 5th Avenue in New York City, with an octagon intersection of illuminated billboards that is sometimes called the “Times Square” of Budapest. It is a wide street lined with trees and bordered by magnificent mansions, apartments, shops, cafes, embassies and museums. Be sure to look up at the elegant architecture. The south end is more commercialized with upscale stores and restaurants. It extends past the impressive Opera House and House of Terror Museum. It has also been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Our favorite walk was along the banks of the Danube River, the second largest river in Europe. This easy, peaceful walk is romantic at night as golden lights bathe the city, especially seeing both banks glowing in the mirror of the water. If you’re not a walker, you can still get the experience on the tram that follows the river. If you want to keep walking and cross the bridge, you’ll find the 1.4 mile long Margaret Island floating in the Danube. It’s a beautiful park where no one lives, but there are two hotels. Stroll or cycle around to relax at the rose garden with 2000 roses, a little zoo with birds and a fountain playing music every hour.
One of the most visited landmarks in Budapest is Heroes’ Square, situated at the entrance to the City Park. This World Heritage Site was built in 1896 to celebrate the first 1,000 years of Hungary. It is flanked by the classical Fine Arts Museum and the Palace of Art. In the center of this sizable square is an empowering monument featuring a tall pillar topped with the statue of Archangel Gabriel holding the Hungarian cross. At its base are statues of seven chieftains of the Hungarian tribes who conquered the area. Behind this are 14 statues of Hungarian leaders. Heroes’ Square has been the site of numerous special events since its creation.
A symbol of Hungary’s independence is the iconic Parliament House situated on Pest’s riverbank. Its neo-Gothic design was inspired by the Houses of Parliament in London. The building’s façade has a magnificent dome, 88 statues of Hungarian rulers, pointed arches, gargoyles and spires. The Hungarian National Assembly still meets here. You can also view Hungary’s crown jewels at the Parliament House.
I’ll wind up with a couple of restaurant recommendations that we enjoyed, although you can choose from more than 1500 restaurants offering Hungarian dishes and most major world cuisines as well. You have to have goulash; my bad for forgetting the names of the tiny restaurants we popped into for that!
Not to be outdone by the Great Synagogue, St. Stephen’s Basilica’s claim to fame is that it contains the “Holy Right” which is the mummified, jewel-adorned right hand of the first Hungarian king, St. Stephen from 1038. Another notable religious site is Matthias Church where coronations were held. Built in the 13th century, you can climb 200 narrow stairs to the summit for a mind-blowing panoramic view of the city. I was especially enamored of the colorful and golden ceramic tiles on the roof.
To reach the Buda Castle District, you can ride the funicular to the top which is quick and has expansive views. Other options include a mini bus or climbing the steep hill. There are mostly pedestrian streets here with cobblestones and grand 18th century Baroque houses that give you a taste of Buda’s Old Town from Roman times. A Unesco World Heritage Site, Buda Castle which is often referred to as the Royal Palace, is home to the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. Within the site is the gleaming white Fisherman’s Bastion with stunning views of the Danube and Pest from its Neo-Romanesque lookout terraces. Its turrets, medieval-looking staircases and arcades give it a fairy-castle appearance, often described as Disneyesque.
To take a break from your sightseeing, indulge in a hot springs spa. Hungary has more than 1,000 hot springs, thanks to its super-thin earth crust. We chose the oldest spa, Szechenyi thermal baths, which is the largest medicinal bath in Europe. (www.szechenyispabaths.com) The expanse of ornate gold- painted buildings is stunning; it looks more like a palace than a spa. There are three outdoor pools of various temperatures; one is a toasty 100 degrees F where people play chess while submerged up to their chest. Inside you can enjoy 15 pools of varying temperatures, plus 10 steam rooms and saunas. The water of the indoor pools has plenty of minerals and are recommended for people with joint or muscle pain. I tried the water aerobics class which was fun, and there are other fitness classes available. We didn’t book a massage or facial, but guests said they were wonderfully relaxing. Upstairs is the beer spa, another popular spot. We felt revitalized after spending the better part of a day at the Szechenyi spa baths. (FYI: In this time of Corona virus fears, you’ll be glad to know that every night at 10 PM, their pools are emptied, cleaned and re-filled from the hot spring several hundred yards under the baths.)
A long-time resident told us that Deryne Bistro is the best café on the Buda side. (www.bistroderyne.com) We agreed after eating the irresistible duck liver on sourdough bread for breakfast with scrumptious pastries. It has been a family-owned restaurant since 1914 with a nostalgic feel and the charm of a French bistro. We didn’t get to experience lunch or dinner, but would like to go back for the crispy schnitzel using Panko flour and incredible jazz. Dining at Borkonyha Wine Kitchen, a one Michelin star restaurant, was memorable. (www.borkonyha.hu) Featuring beautifully presented contemporary Hungarian cuisine, they also have a great selection of Hungarian wines. I started with the duck liver with tokaji aszu (a sweet Hungarian wine) followed by duck breast that was bursting with flavor. They also offer a five-course tasting menu. The ambiance is nice and laid back, and there is also an outdoor garden.
I found Budapest to be unique and magical, not to mention economical. Here’s one last reason to love Budapest: in a recent survey carried out by a travel magazine (www.hoppa.com) Budapest is the cheapest holiday destination in the world!