When we were planning this trip we couldn’t decide whether to stay in the quieter hilly Buda side or in the busier, flat Pest side of the Danube . Our solution? Stay in both. First half of our stay we stayed in the Castle Hill area and we just love it there! At night it gets pretty empty and quiet with only few people walking around (reminds me of the Mala Strana neighborhood in Prague). It gets busy during the day and the castle hill does get a bit crowded but in general Budapest does not get nearly as crowded as most European cities, which is one of the things that I love about this city. People are very friendly and helpful too. The only downside of being in the Castle Hill is that, it is in fact a hill so going back to our hotel was a pain in the butt – specially on our first day when we still didn’t know how to use public transportation yet. But on our second day we learned to use not just the metro but the trolleybus and the regular buses – ever since then it became so easy to go anywhere (yay unlimited pass card!). It is quite difficult to remember and pronounce stations though and some trolleybuses don’t have English translations when it announces the stops. ha. (Thanks to Google maps for making this easier).
Castle Hill provides a gorgeous view of the river and Pest. The magnificent Parliament Building and the bridges that spans the river. The Mary Magdalene Tower offers amazing views of Budapest and is worth going up to. And nothing beats the view of the river as you walk past Buda Castle into the Hungarian National Museum.
Then there’s the neo gothic Matthias Church, with it’s delicate Gothic turrets but mixed in with colorful ceramic tiles which makes it unique. This ceramic tiled roofs seems to be a signature of Budapest. There are other significant buildings in the city sporting the same ceramic tiled roof. Right next to the Matthias Church is the Neo-Romanesque Fisherman’s Bastion. It is not quite as medieval as it looks, as this was built only in 1905 as a viewing platform (and indeed has best views of the river). The 7 turrets symbolizes the 7 magyar tribes that had entered the Carpathian basin in the late 9th century.
On our second day in the city, we went to a Sweets and Chocolate Festival that was being held in front of the St Stephen’s Basilica on the Pest side of the river. I mainly wanted to go because I had been looking forward to fill up on Kurtos Kalacs, a pastry that’s cooked over a bed of coals. I was addicted to these when we were in Prague few years ago and was excited to see it at a Sweets & Chocolate Festival. I promised myself I will have at least one each day we were in Budapest. It’s a spit cake (but tastes more bread-y than cake-y), crusty on the outside and soft inside. The cake is sprinkled with lots of sugar which caramelizes during baking. In Czech Republic it’s called trdelnik (it’s a bit smaller there so I can eat more than one in a day 😂). There are different “toppings” that you can have over it , coconut sprinkles, Coco sprinkles, almond bits, cinnamon and in some cases cocoa syrup and it can even be filled with ice cream. I can live on these.
We didn’t plan on it but ended up doing it anyway since it’s a Budapest thing: Thermal Baths. Bathing has been traced all the way back to the Romans but the Hungarian bathing culture flourished during the Turkish era. Budapest lies on top of many thermal springs but back in the middle ages the there springs were used mainly for curing and health purposes. There are many thermal baths nowadays some are more in the Turkish/Ottoman style and some in neo-classical neo-renaissance buildings. I’ve been to a Turkish hammam in Istanbul before, so we opted for the neo-classical backdrop this time. As this was unplanned, we had to spend one morning in a mall looking for swimsuits. We chose the Gellert Baths, which is not the biggest but apparently the most beautiful. I don’t have many pictures because we were in the baths most of the time and actually there weren’t many people taking photos. It was an ok experience, doing it once is probably enough.
One exciting thing I did though while staying in Castle Hill was go to a capoeira class! I have never gone to a capoeira class outside of my own school back home, more so in another country! But I found Capoeira Budapest Cordao de Ouro in Buda and close to where we were staying. It was just a short bus ride away and definitely walkable. It was a fun experience, and as soon as we started doing ginga and armadas and meia lua de compasso, it felt like I was instantly back home.
A memorial thats not to be missed in Budapest is the Shoes on the Danube. This is a memorial to honor the Jews that had been killed by the fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during WWII. They were ordered to take off their shoes, and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. It represents their shoes left behind on the bank.
You can also go up the St. Stephen’s Basilica towers but the views are much better from the towers on the Buda side.
Another sight we visited in Budapest is the rock church. Sziklatemplom (Rock Church) was founded by the Pauline monks in 1926. It is also called Szent Ivan-barlang after a hermit who used to live there who was believed to heal people. During WWII, this cave church was used as hospital and asylum. After the war, the Pauline monks were arrested a s their superior sentenced to death by the communist regime and the church entrance was sealed with concrete wall. The church reopened in 1991 and was given back to the Pauline monks. It continues to serve as a church today with service 3X a day (4X on Sundays).
In the middle of our stay in Budapest, we took the train and spent a couple of days in Vienna. When we got back to Budapest, we stayed in the Inner City district on the Pest side of the Danube. It’s a totally different experience than being in Castle Hill district. The streets are bustling with people walking, lots of shops, restaurants, ice cream stands and souvenir shops. When we were in Castle Hill we took the trolleybus and metro everywhere. This time we walked. We repeatedly walked the pedestrian street Vaci utca , the wide tree-lined Andrassy Ave, walked the promenade along the Danube, admired the mix of neo classical, neo gothic, art nouveau architecture of the city, sat and had a beer (or kurtos kalacs) to rest our weary feet, then walked again. We went to the Great Market Hall, and to the relatively new “whale” (Balna) building, a multi-functional whale-shaped glass and metal structure on the banks of the Danube. We ate at one of the restaurants with outdoor seating and passed some time watching the Danube. But my absolute favorite thing to do is sitting by the banks of the Danube as the sun sets, and watch the sky turn pink, then blue before it gives way to darkness. Then that’s where the magic of Budapest happens – you’d see the lights come on the bridges, the Castle Hill, the church towers along the river, the Parliament, and all other buildings along the river. The river boats starts to set sail for their evening cruise, leaving us with even better view of the bridges. Budapest is beautiful during the day, but in the evenings, it will just take your breath away.
Ruin bars. It’s a Budapest thing. These are basically ruins of buildings (say, those destroyed during the war) and without fixing them, they were just converted to bars. The oldest and most famous one (which means also touristy) is Szimpla Kert, which was the first one we checked out. Saying it’s crazy is an understatement – in a cool kind of way. Take an old dilapidated building, put flea market furnitures, or “stuff” that you’d otherwise throw away, put them anywhere, hang old lamps upside down, hang chairs, unmatched shoes, name it, it’s there – even an old trabant (communist car). Put a few bars on the side and voila you got a ruin bar. We checked out a couple more but it’s still early in the day so one of them was still closed, the other one was still pretty empty so we just took a peek inside and left. The Jewish quarter seems to be where the nightlife is, with so many bars and places to eat but without the constant stream of tourists that DistrictV has. We also passed by a Jewish festival with live music and craft tents, just a block or so away from the Dohany Synagogue, Europe’s largest functioning synagogue.
And for an “off the beaten track” experience, what about a visit to the Fiumei Road cemetery ! It’s actually a pretty one. Its a huge bright and airy space with lots of trees and well maintained lawns and interesting sculptures. There were several people milling about and a few other tourists taking photos.
And we managed to squeeze a quick stop at the Hungarian National Museum for the World Press Photo Exhibition 2019.