Bijou Budapest... a truly unique gem of a city that sits quietly astride the mighty Danube in the heart of central Europe, and a place I am fortunate enough to call home. Having travelled to many European cities I now find myself in a magical place that on occasion seems to be no different than the city I remember seeing in my brother’s old pictures of Freddie Mercury on tour here in 1986 with Queen. You can still see the occasional Trabant puffing through the cobbled streets, the proud Hungarian in national dress and not forgetting the faded yellow trams of the BKV screeching and rattling along the banks of the Danube. These mixed with the aged battle scarred and leprous looking buildings give you a real irreplaceable rawness to the history this city holds so close to her heart. I don’t believe anywhere comes close to this city in terms of what it can offer a visitor and if you are expecting to see the ‘Paris of the East’ as is often used in comparison then you will be surprised at just how vastly more inspiring Budapest can be... in fact I challenge you to find the similarities.
Whatever your time frame may be, whether a 24-hour stop over or a 7-day visit, there is an overwhelming amount of attractions, eateries, hotspots and experiences to whet your appetite and truly something for everyone. After 18 months living and working in Budapest I am still managing to find new haunts and hangouts with regularity; only recently discovering the Varosliget flea market with its wealth of bizarre yet fascinating offerings. In terms of must see spots I can recommend to you an eclectic mix of history, culture, nature and architecture in no particular order.
Magyar Állami Operaház (Hungarian State Opera House)
There is no plausible way that you can enter through the heavy wooden doors from Andrassy Avenue and not feel transported back to the grandeur and opulence of the 19th Century. The beautiful marble with its gold gilding guides you into a labyrinth of worn staircases that still throng with well-dressed individuals every day of the year en route to a ballet, opera or symphonic concert. Every aspect of the Opera House will enthrall you in a variety of ways and if you can get a ticket for a show you will be in for a real ‘red velvet’ treat... but be sure to dress nicely!
Városliget (City Park)
Although nowhere close to the scale of other city parks the uniqueness of this little garden of tranquility is definitely something to be enjoyed whilst in Budapest. Approaching under the gaze of the Archangel Gabriel from Andrassy Avenue you will enter Heroe’s Square before entering the start of the park. In the summer months you can relax in a rowboat whilst exploring various art installations placed in and around the recently renovated lake by the Vajdahunyad Castle (stop by and visit Anonymous whilst there). If this sounds a little to energy sapping then you can sit and watch the locals walking their glamorously pampered dogs, or enjoy a group of joggers avoiding the expected rollerblade posse performing their wide range of skills. The City Park also houses the Széchenyi fürdő (thermal medicinal baths) where you can wind down with a spot of chess with the locals in one of the numerous hot pools. During the winter months the steam from the pools rises into the air in an entrancing fashion almost calling you in hypnotically. Winter also sees the Műjégpálya Ice Rink replace the art on the lake and offers visitors the chance to showcase their balancing act on Europe’s largest ice rink followed by a soothing ‘Forralt Bor’ (Hot Wine). Whilst at the park you should really stop by the Monument of the 1956 Revolution. I will leave it up to you to research the meaning behind the structure but guarantee you will enjoy exploring it from the many different angles that are possible.
Országház (Hungarian Parliament Building)
The sheer scale of this gothic revival building will take your breath away when you first come across it whether approaching from the Danube side or from the main entrance on Lajos Kossuth Square. Home to the Holy Crown of Hungary as well as 256 statues, numerous paintings and other ornaments this building has seen it all. Flanked across the road by the Museum of Ethnography and the Ministry of Agriculture the Parliament building stands the proud winner of the architecture competition launched in 1880. Ironically the building took so long to build the winning architect went blind before its completion; even today it is often impossible to see the entire building devoid of some form of scaffolding due to the lengthy restoration program currently in operation. The square outside the building has also seen many political rallies with the most notable being the 1956 student uprising and the tragic shooting of the unarmed protestors by snipers on the rooftops around the square. To fully enjoy the splendor make sure that you cross the river; the view is even more spectacular at night (but be prepared to fight through the throng of photographers). Nestled quietly on the edge of the Danube and in front of the Parliament is one of the most moving monuments to be found in Budapest. A collection of bronze shoes in all shapes and sizes are placed on the edge of the river to represent the true story of a group of Hungarian Jews forced to undress in this very spot before being pushed into the Danube and shot by members of the ruling Arrow Cross Party.
Hősök tere (Heroes Square)
With its Millennium Memorial and tomb to the fallen Heroes Square is a must see site whilst in Budapest. It acts as the gateway to City Park or either of the fabulous art museums either side of the Archangel Gabriel. Every statue tells a story so be sure to consult your travel guide whilst admiring the scale and beauty of this large square. If you are lucky you may even catch a flashmob of dancers or a canine display team.
Zugligeti libegő (Budapest Chairlift)
If you are feeling a little more adventurous and want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city then I urge you to take a short bus ride out to the Budapest chairlift. A 15-minute ride up to the Janos-Hegy heights will afford you some purely breathtaking views across Budapest but also allow you to explore the beautiful forests and woodlands. Hidden quietly in the trees are numerous picnic locations as well as the Children’s Railway (an old fashioned cog railway system that takes you up or down the hillsides whilst being organised and run by children). Whilst at the top be sure to visit the wedding cake structure of the Erzsébet Lookout Tower. At 570m tall it will offer you even more of a lookout only this time in 360°. In winter you can enjoy the skiers and toboggans carving their way across the hills although all year round you will enjoy the serene journey through the trees.
Szent István Bazilika (St Stephen’s Church)
Named in honor of the first King of Hungary the imposing structure sits quietly in amongst the buildings of downtown Budapest. Home to the incorruptible right hand of King Steven as well as 6 large bells visitors will be in for a treat once they pass through the velvet curtains. Some beautiful stained glass windows, tiling and paintings adorn the church and make for some wonderful photographic opportunities. However, for a true glimpse of heaven you can take the elevator or stairs to the top of the dome for a stunning and complete panoramic view of downtown Budapest.
Gellért-hegy (Gellert Hill)
Home to the cave church, Citadel, thermal baths and more this beautiful yet small hill gives you an escape from the city whilst still being central to everything you may want. Named after a saint thrown from the hillside this is a worthy destination for all historians. For the super fit they can run or powerwalk their way up to the top, but no matter what your speed you can enjoy the stroll up the various paths to the statue of Liberty and glimpse the city from her eyes. There is a lot of history at the top and the battle scarred Citadel will certainly give you an idea of the bombardments this area received not so long ago. The cave church is certainly an interesting site to take in and I recommend an audio guide as it explains in depth yet another side of the fascinating history that Budapest holds onto. Depending on the snowfall this area offers the city skiers an opportunity to show off their skills on a natural and quiet piste under the direct gaze of Liberty. Another joy of walking up to the citadel is that it affords you a clear view across to the castle district and beyond plus it is all downhill on the way to your next Budapest location; which if you head down to the white Erzsébet híd will guide you past a lovely waterfall to cool you off in the summer heat.
Budapest is an amazingly vibrant city and I hope that you get the opportunity to visit and enjoy some of the sites that I have mentioned above. No matter what time of the year, what your interests are or what your budget is you will not be disappointed with a stay in Budapest and will leave with memories to cherish for a longtime to come.
Phil Watkins is an expat, a photographer and a teacher living in Budapest. Connect with Phil on Facebook and enjoy more of his photography.