Budapest has it all. Fairytale castles, an admirable love of the red powder paprika, architecture that is jaw-dropping, fun entertainment ranging from Escape Rooms to Ruin Bars and, of course, the Thermal Baths, writes Marion Kate.
The rich history of the country dates as far back as the second millennium BC. Engaging with the people is so much fun, and they really do have an opinion on everything… so much so that locals say that if you have three Hungarians in the room they’ll form four political parties! One of the most affordable cities in Europe, I couldn’t wait to set out and discover this vibrant city.
Houses of Parliament
Inspired by the Houses of Parliament in London, this is the third-largest parliament in the world. Built on the 1000th anniversary of the foundation of the state of Hungary, it is the largest building in the county. Located on the west side of the Danube, the choice of location was carefully thought through: as a counterweight to the Royal Palace high on Buda Hill on the opposite side of the river, the placement was meant to signify that the nation’s future lay with popular democracy and not with royal prerogative. Designed by Imre Steindl in 1885, it was completed after his death in 1902. The entire building is dramatically lit up at night. I decided to do the tour and was so glad that I did as words and pictures cannot fully describe the majesty of the interior.
They say that if you have three Hungarians in the room they’ll form four political parties!
As a visitor, we only got to see a handful of the 700 rooms on our 40-minute walk through. We ascended the 132 steps of the highly decorated Golden Staircase and, once up the stairs, we walked through a hallway with a frescoed ceiling and statues representing various trades. In the 66-metre high Domed Hall is the Crown of St Stephen with the slightly bent cross on top. The honour guard here stands duty 24 hours a day, with the shift changing every hour. Watching the guards with swords take such pride in their position was an honour for me, but no photographs are allowed to be taken in this room. The crown has been taken several times over the centuries, and it is the nation’s most important national icon. After its last disappearance it landed up in Fort Knox in Kentucky in the USA, and it was returned to Hungary in 1978 with a great ceremony (and great relief).
Shoes of Danube
60 pairs of bronze shoes modelled on footwear from the 1940s to commemorate those who were shot into the Danube by Hungarian Nazis is a memorial conceived by film director Can Togay. Unveiled in 2005 on the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust, it is one of the most moving open memorials found in the city. Stopping to look at the shoes, I noticed they varied in size and style ranging from toddler, women, businessmen and sportsmen, which was to show how no-one was spared from the brutality of the Arrow Cross militia. Standing there in the snow I took a moment to reflect on what happened at that very spot in 1944-1945. There is a high stone bench behind the shoes with cast iron signs in Hungarian, English and Hebrew. With red roses and a flag flying among the shoes on this icy morning, it made me realise how fortunate we are to be where we are today.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
The most significant and largest Roman Catholic church in Budapest, the Basilica can hold 3500 people at a time and has 308 stairs. In 1845, Jozsef Hild was commissioned to design the largest church in the capital and, when he died in 1867, Miklos Ybl took over. After 50 years of construction, the building was finally complete. The Cathedral was consecrated in 1905 and, with its ground floor shaped like a Greek cross, the Cathedral is the finest example of Eclectric architecture in Hungary.
Burnt down during WW11 and rebuilt in 1948-1949, its 96-metre high dome makes it the highest church tower in Budapest. It also holds the country’s largest bell, weighing 9 tons. The Holy Right, the mummified right hand of King Stephen, is also preserved in this Cathedral. Not only is this church a religious venue, it is also a major tourist attraction and a concert venue. When I went to view the breathtaking interior I realised that one can spend at least half a day inside appreciating the ambiance and the jaw-dropping designs and architecture. No entrance fee was charged but a donation is requested. One of the most popular Christmas markets is found here and I enjoyed watching the 3D visual show that is projected on the front of the Basilica everyday day after sunset. Special 3D glasses are handed out by the stall keepers.
Dohany Street Synagogue
This Orthodox great synagogue was built between 1912 and 1913 in the Art Nouveau style and is the second largest Jewish house of worship in the world – the biggest is in New York. The rose window with an inscription from the second book of Moses is one of the reasons the synagogue is sometimes referred to as the ‘Jewish Cathedral’.
Tours are conducted in various languages throughout the day and, after listening to the tour guide, I went to view the museum and archives. On the North side in the Memorial Park is the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial which stands over the mass graves of those murdered by the Nazis. Nearby is a stained glass memorial to Nicholas Winton (1909-2015) the “British Schindler“ who rescued 700 Jewish children just before WW11.
The synagogue is a good starting point if you plan to spend your day in the Jewish Quarter.
Opened in 1897, the City Centre market attracts both locals and tourists, and the ground floor has maintained its classic market function and atmosphere since this bygone era. Like most European cities, shoppers have a selection of restaurants to eat at on the top level. With a variety of tasty Hungarian meals on offer, it’s advisable to worm your way through the crowds and see what all the offerings are before making a decision. Most places only accept cash, so make sure you have drawn money at the ATM on the lower level. Besides the langos that I found irresistible at lunch-time, I also enjoyed browsing through the various stalls on the upper level that sell traditional Hungarian keepsakes. Anything from embroidered fabrics, to fridge magnets and items made from wool.
This bridge was built to connect the Fovam and Gellert Squares during 1894-1896. Originally named the Franz Joseph Bridge, it was the emperor himself who hammered the first silver rivet into the steel structure on the Pest side of the Danube. Mythical trull birds and highly ornamented Hungarian coat of arms decorate the turret-like protrusions and gates emphasising the green-coloured lattice structure. Walking over the bridge, I couldn’t help but notice the love locks attached in sometimes precarious locations. With traffic constantly flowing over the bridge and pedestrians moving along at carried passes, the hive of activity on the bridge gives one a sense of a bustling city. I Stood on the bridge gazing down at the calm waters of the Danube watching the odd ferry boat glide through the waters.
During the Middle Ages the fish market could be found on Castle Hill and this part of the wall was defended by Fisherman’s Guild, which explains where its name came from. The crypt of the 15th century St Micheal’s cemetery chapel was unearthed under the Bastion. Designed for decorative rather than defensive purposes, the scenic bastion system provides a worthy frame for the buildings of the Castle and the Matthias Church. Its terraces command a magnificent view of the Philis mountains. The Hilton Hotel close by was built on the ruins of historic buildings. Walking down the cobbled roads there are many delightful hotels and spots to eat – I couldn’t resist the Pest-Buda hotel and bistro with its cosy atmosphere and Christmas tree twinkling in the window. The Christmas cake was nothing like the cake we have at home!
The largest and most symbolic square in Budapest, it also contains the Millenary Monument, a 36-metre high pillar topped by a golden Archangel Gabriel. The legend goes that he offered Stephen the crown of Hungary in a dream. It was designed in 1896 to mark the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian Basin. In the square you will come across artists dressed in various costumes with large birds attached to their arm. For a fee you can take your photo holding one of these great birds. The easiest way I found to get to the square was to catch the millennium underground metro, disembarking at Foldalatti Station. Heroes’ Square is very well located and you can walk to Szechenyi Spa Baths, Vajdahunyad Castle, City Park and the Museum of Fine Arts. Holy mass was celebrated here by John Paul 11 in 1991.
Szechenyi Thermal Baths
With a total of 21 pools, this is one of the largest bathing complexes in Europe, and there are indoor and outdoor pools. First opened in 1913, these baths are one of Europe’s biggest and hottest spas and it is open all year round. The services include steam baths, hot tubs, saunas, a fitness room with massage and the very popular beer spa, where there is unlimited beer consumption while you dip yourself in your own couple sized wooden tubs.
The very popular beer spa offers unlimited beer consumption while you dip yourself in your own couple-sized wooden tubs
Named after Saint Margaret, a princess of the House of Arpad who lived there at the convent of the Dominicans in the 13th century, it’s safe to say it is now the most popular public park in Budapest. Some of the attractions include the 5,35km running tracking around the island where you can appreciate the crisp morning air of the Danube, the Open-Air stage, ruins of the convent, the 107-year-old water tower, a small zoo, a Japanese garden, a swimming pool and the musical fountain. I also found the point of the island to be a great photo spot for taking images of the Danube under a bridge.
New York Cafe
Known as “the most beautiful Cafe in the world“, it has survived several eras as well as some major changes in history. This cafe is more than 120 years old and if you don’t eat here you should most definitely stop by to see the beautiful interior with frescoes, Venetian glass lamps that softly illuminate the marble columns and chandeliers. Bookings are essential to reserve a table at the most beloved coffee house in Budapest. Above the cafe is the New York Palace hotel, a legend of its own.
Little Black Book
www.dohanyzsinagoga.hu – synagogue
www.basilica.hu – Basilica of St Stephen
www.budavar.hu – Fishermans Bastion
www.szabadter.hu – Margaret island
www.budapestinfo.hu – find out about getting a Budapest card for transport & entrance discounts
www.szechenyiurdo.hu – Szecheny thermal bath
www.belvarospiac.hu – City Centre Market
www.pest-buda.com – Castle Hill built in 1948, with a delightful bistro
This was my first visit to Budapest and what a remarkable experience. It was such a great feeling to arrive in this magnificent city illuminated by Christmas lights and to see the sunrise on my first day. It is a modern city steeped in history, and my walk down to the Danube on my first day – and just standing there below the towering Parliament – will forever be etched in my brain as I looked up and down the Danube and then over to the opposite banks, where Buda was beckoning me. The choices were endless. To me this was an open-air museum for everyone to appreciate. I loved every moment of my stay, from the history of the city to the people, the delicious food and the general ambience. I loved every moment and know I will never hesitate to go back.
NOTE: Marion’s trip was in co-operation with Turkish Airlines and the Alanya Municipality. All opinions are those of the writer.
“A special thank you to Yildiz who made my time in Alanya so enjoyable. Without her outstanding organisational skills I would not have seen half of these incredible locations. Also a big thank you to Mr Uyar, the director of Parks and Gardens in Alanya for his assistance in arranging for me to see all the locations and experience this magical town.” – Marion Kate
Photos: Marion Kate