Budapest Tips: Sightseeing

In the 3rd installment of my Budapest Tips & Tricks, we’ll focus on the sights. There are endless guidebooks out there for Budapest (my trusty Rick Steves guide has been particularly helpful), and much of this is personal preference. Still, as someone who’s lived here nearly 3 years now, these are my must-sees.

Budapest is comprised of Buda and Óbuda on the western bank of the Danube, and Pest on the eastern bank. Formerly three separate cities, they were united in 1873 to form the city we know and love today. While some love Óbuda for its charm, it’s not of much interest to tourists unless you are incredibly excited about the remains of Roman ruins (the city of Aquincum stood here in the 1st century AD). I’ll focus on Buda and Pest instead.

Buda

The Buda side of the Danube is full of hills and caves, making it fun to explore both above and below ground. When we have guests, we usually spend about 1 day of their visit on the Buda side.

Buda Castle – Budapest’s castle looks rather imposing as you view it from the riverbanks below. The castle has gone through many iterations over the centuries, constantly ravaged by fires, occupations, and battles – and in its current form, it wasn’t even really a royal residence. Franz Joseph and Elizabeth of the Austro-Hungarian empire were the only royals to stay there, and then only occasionally. Today, the castle’s buildings hold the Budapest History Museum, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the National Library, so you can’t view the castle interiors unless you’re interested in checking out those museums. However, the grounds of the castle are gorgeous. You can get an excellent view of the Danube and the Pest side of the city from the viewing areas in front of the castle. The newly renovated Castle Gardens and Bazaar are lovely to walk through on a sunny day (the Bazaar is closed Mondays, but the gardens are open), and the courtyards have one of our favorite fountains in the city, known as the Matthias Fountain. Behind the castle you can view the ruins of previous structures; along the fences keeping you out of those ruins are posters showing the previous incarnations of the castle and its surroundings, including one showing the damage inflicted by WWII.

Matthias Church – This is my favorite church in the city, mainly due to the unique interior with hand-painted walls. A several-year restoration was just completed at the beginning of 2014, and the result is stunning.

Fisherman’s Bastion – As you tour Budapest, you’ll notice that many sights were constructed to celebrate Hungary’s millennial in 1896. The Fisherman’s Bastion is one such place. It’s purely decorative, and was built as a viewing promenade above the spot on the Danube where fishermen once hauled in their catch. During the summer months, a portion of the promenade is restricted to only those who buy a ticket. Don’t do it! The view on the other side of the promenade is just as gorgeous and is free – or, you can come back in the evening for a free view on all sides.

Gellért Hill – A hike up this hill provides the best views in the city by far, and it’s not too strenuous. For those like me who are less athletically-inclined, there are plenty of lookout points along the way to take a great picture (read: stop and catch your breath). Partway up, there’s a statue of Gellért, who was allegedly placed in a spiked barrel and rolled down this very hill by pagans who didn’t take kindly to his proselytizing ways. At the top of the hill, visible from nearly everywhere in Budapest, is the Liberty Statue, erected by the Soviets to mark their “liberation” of Budapest from the Nazis at the end of WWII. You can access the hill through several walking paths – the easiest access points are at the bases of the Szabadság or Erzsébet bridges on the Buda side.

The caves offer lots of interesting opportunities to delve deeper (pun intended) into the Buda side. For those interested in medicine or WWII/Cold War history, the Hospital in the Rock is a fun choice. It’s a former secret hospital and nuclear bunker, built into the natural caves underneath the Castle Quarter and used during the end of WWII and during the 1956 Revolution against the Soviets. A guided tour is required (it would be incredibly easy to get lost in the labyrinths otherwise) and it’s a bit expensive by Budapest standards (currently 3600 forints), but I really enjoyed the tour.

Another underground option is touring the caves directly underneath the Buda Castle. These caves were closed to the public for several years and only reopened in 2014, so I haven’t yet checked them out, but word on the street is that they’re interesting and worthwhile.

For the adventurous types, you can go into the natural caves with Caving Under Budapest. There are two types of cave tours – you can walk through a nice, level pathway with lots of lights and stairs and ladders, or you can crawl, slither and slide through the natural cave formations. We chose the second option, and while it’s not for those who are claustrophobic (or for those who are on the larger side), it was a blast!

Finally, my favorite attraction in Buda for those interested in history (specifically the Soviet occupation and communism) is Memento Park. After the Soviets left in 1989, Hungarians were left with hundreds of monuments, memorials and plaques throughout the city that had been erected by the USSR loudly extolling the virtues of communism, the Russian “liberators”, and the worker. After several years of discussion, it was decided that the most important of these statues should be placed in a museum, where visitors could be educated about the history of the occupation. With the exception of two liberation monuments left in the city (the aforementioned Liberty Statue on Gellért Hill, and another in Pest described below), the major monuments were relocated to a park on the outskirts of Budapest. It’s quite a long trip to get there – you’ll need to take Metro line 4 to the end of the line (Kelenföld railway station) and then grab bus #150 – but it is very worthwhile.

The Danube

There are several bridges that span the Danube – my personal favorite is the Szabadság, or Liberty, bridge that runs from the Great Market Hall in Pest to the base of Gellért Hill in Buda. However, the most iconic bridge of Budapest is the Széchenyi Lánchíd (or the Chain Bridge), with its lion statues at each end. It’s particularly gorgeous at night, when the bridges are lighted.

A fun thing to do on the Danube is an evening wine cruise. We took one through Taste Hungary and had a blast – we tasted three or four Hungarian wines, snacked on traditional biscuits and pastries, and learned a great deal from our guide about the sights along the riverbanks while cruising up and down the river.

Finally, my favorite place to spend a beautiful afternoon is Margit Sziget (Margaret Island). It’s named for Margit, the daughter of King Béla IV, who spent most of her life in a convent on the island. You can check out the ruins of the convent, as well as a musical water fountain, several gorgeous gardens, a miniature zoo, a swimming park, and a jogging path.

Pest

The Pest side of the river has less of the natural beauty of the Buda side – it’s flatter, denser, and full of buildings in various states of disrepair. Instead of hills, there’s architectural gems; instead of caves, there’s ruin pubs. Here are the top sights in the downtown area.

Parliament – A several-year restoration of the exterior of the Parliament building and a renovation of the square surrounding the building was just completed in early 2014. To visit the inside, you’ll need to take a guided tour (approximately 30 minutes in length). It’s a little pricy as far as Budapest attractions go (4000 HUF for most visitors, although you can get a discounted 2,000 ticket if you’re an EU citizen with proof of residency), but it’s very worthwhile. The tour generally covers the House of Lords, the main dome (where you can view the Hungarian crown jewels), and the grand staircase. You can buy tickets in advance here, which I would highly recommend in peak tourist season as tickets sell out extremely quickly. You can also buy same-day tickets at the visitors’ center onsite.

Along the riverbanks on the Pest side is a touching memorial to the Jews who were murdered by the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazi party) in the 1940s. You can easily access the memorial by taking the crosswalk behind the Parliament Visitor’s Center towards the riverbank, then walking along the banks towards the Chain Bridge. Look for the brass shoes – Jews were rounded up in the city, brought to this spot, and told to remove their shoes and coats before being shot and dumped into the Danube. It’s haunting to be in such a spot and to hear the sounds of everyday modern life going on around you.

Szabadság tér (Liberty Square) – This square is quite close to Parliament and houses a few interesting sights. The first? A larger-than-life statue of Ronald Reagan, placed there in honor of the relationship he had with Hungary and the work he did to end the Cold War. Strangely, his statue faces two things: the American embassy, and one of the two remaining Soviet liberation monuments in the city. Theories abound as to why this monument wasn’t removed – most of the tour guides I’ve asked say that it’s to maintain a decent relationship with Russia. It’s no longer the most controversial monument in the square, however. That title goes to the WWII memorial on the opposite end of the square, which pictures an eagle (Germany) swooping down on the archangel Gabriel (Hungary), and is dedicated to “the victims of the German occupation”. As it glosses over the misdeeds done by Hungarians to Hungarian Jews leading up to and during the war, it’s an incredibly unpopular monument and is guarded 24/7 by police.

St. Stephen’s Basilica – This gorgeous church is the main Catholic church in the city. Entry is free (donation of 200 ft requested), and for only 500 forint you can take an elevator up to the dome for effortless views of the city. Don’t miss the small chapel in the back left side of the church, where the holy right hand of St. Stephen (from the year 1038) is prominently displayed in a case. On August 20th of each year, St. Stephen’s Day, the hand is paraded on the square in front of the church. Yep, really.

Dohány Ut Synagogue – The largest synagogue in Europe (and one of the largest in the world – only rivaled by synagogues in NYC and Israel), and the only known synagogue with a cemetery on-site (a WWII mass grave). Your entry ticket includes a guided tour (in English every 30 minutes during the summer; less often during off-peak times), which I highly recommend to get the full story of the Hungarian Jews leading up to, and during, WWII. Don’t miss the memorial garden in the back, including a metallic weeping willow with the names of Holocaust victims inscribed on the leaves.

Great Market Hall – This multi-story market was built along the river so that merchants could easily sell their products (a tunnel, no longer used, connected the building to the waterfront to reduce loss of merchandise through spoilage and theft). Today, it houses fruit, vegetables, meats and dairies on the ground floor, as well as spices and traditional Hungarian delicacies; pickled vegetables and fish in the basement (it smells great down there…); and souvenirs and food stalls on the top floor. This is a great place to buy souvenirs (the prices are much cheaper than the stores on the famous Vaci utca) and to try local Hungarian specialities like lángos.

Városliget (City Park) and Heroes’ Square – You could probably spend an entire day in the City Park. The entrance at Heroes’ Square has a grand monument, dedicated to the heroes of Hungarian history (mainly the kings – check out the really fabulous mustaches on all of the statues!) Museums flank the square (including the Museum of Fine Arts, a favorite of mine). Once you enter the park, there are lots of options to fill your time. The Vajdahunyad Castle, originally built for the 1896 millennial and intended to be torn down afterwards, showcases the various styles of Hungarian architecture – including the Transylvanian “Dracula’s castle”. The exterior was even used for the NBC television show Dracula! The interiors are filled with skippable museums (unless you’re desperate to learn about Hungarian agriculture). The pond near the castle has ice skating in the winter, paddleboats in the summer, and occasionally in-between it’s drained for festivals (like the Budapest Oktoberfest). Across the street from the castle are the Széchenyi baths, where you can soak your tired muscles in the thermal waters that flow underneath much of the city. (There are hundreds of baths across the city, but in my opinion, Széchenyi has the best combination of tourist-friendliness and authenticity.) The Budapest Zoo, just down the street from the baths, is a wonderful place to take kids (or kids at heart). In many of the exhibits, you can feed the animals (the non-carnivorous ones, anyway), and there’s even an entire sloth room where you can mingle with them amongst the trees. Watch out for the bat room.

The Terror House – Just down the street from my apartment (and really hard to miss with the massive sign proclaiming “TERROR” on the roof) is the former headquarters of first the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazi party, and then the AVH, the Soviet-era secret police. This museum is a fascinating way to learn about the 20th century Hungarians and the struggles they went through. The torture rooms in the basement are beyond chilling. The exhibits are mainly in Hungarian – however, at the entrance to each room are sheets of paper in other languages explaining the meaning and the history of each room. You can also request an audioguide from the front desk – for some reason, they try to talk you out of renting one, but it can be difficult to read the full page descriptions in some of the dimly-lit rooms.

There are so many more places that I didn’t mention – the Holocaust museum, the Opera house, the Liszt Academy, Kerepesi Cemetery… the sights are pretty much endless in Budapest, and you could spend weeks here and not see everything. I’ve been here nearly 3 years and there’s still things I’m discovering every week. But if you check off these items, you’ll have a broad feel for the city and its people.

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