As the flight prepares to land in Budapest, you get a glorious view of Buda and Pest (pronounced Pesht) divided by the Danube with verdant Margaret Island nestled in the middle. This city is considered one of the most beautiful in the world and as I explored it, I discovered that it is indeed true.
My desire to travel to Budapest was fueled not just by its beauty but also by its glorious history. A city dotted with castles, Jewish settlements and spas and a throbbing music and art scene, this city is unique in Europe. Hungary is a country that is steeped in history and culture, which is a fusion of its Turkish invaders and Jewish settlers. And this reflects beautifully in Buda and in Pest.
While the tourist spots are listed out extensively in travel guides, there are many hidden gems that a local will tell you about. But I started my exploration along the Danube with the Shoes on the Danube by sculptor Gyula Pauer and conceived by film director Can Togay. This is to honour those died in the hands of fascist Arrow Cross militiamen and signifies their shoes as they fell into the river. Given the Me Too movement of 2017, this was a poignant reminder for me that even today men and women are fighting for their rights and equality in society. And that’s what the Jewish settlers fought for in Budapest as well.
There are around 110,000 Jews who live in Budapest today, the largest in Europe and incidentally, the city houses the second largest synagogue in the world at Dohány Street. The Dohány Street Synagogue is the only one in the world to have a cemetery alongside it but it’s a splendid mark of respect to those who died during the Holocaust. Today, the Jews have integrated with the local people to a great extent so the visible elements of their presence in the city is the Jewish quarter in Budapest along with numerous kosher restaurants.
As I explored the city by foot, I noticed that it was vibrant financially like its high-end Deák Ferenc or Fashion Street surrounded by luxury hotels like the Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons. The Fashion Street is not just about fashion but is known for its exquisite architecture and 18th and 19th-century buildings which find their place in the Hungarian revolution. The street is dotted with Italian restaurants, cafés and local shops selling the famed Hungarian paprika and dolls.
Classical music, opera and theatre are integral to the city and the State Opera House regularly showcases performances including the Budapest Philharmonic Society. Budapest Müpa is another cultural institution where you can catch performances at.
Sipping on hot chocolate at Anna Café on Deák Ferenc, I watched a group of young men trying to sell Segway tours to tourists while a band was playing some live music on the street. Prosperity seemed to be in as people were making the best of the year-end sales in these designer stores. But the Christmas stalls that were selling hot wine, roast wchestnuts and the sweet delicious Kürtőskalács (chimney cakes) were doing brisk business as well with families flocking around them.
With its cobbled streets, Budapest is a haven for those who love to walk and I made the most of it by walking from the Parliament right upto the Liberty Statue on Gellért Hill. The Liberty Statue towers over the city a staunch reminder of Hungary’s liberation from the Nazi forces. Standing atop Gellért Hill, you are treated to stunning 360-degree views of the city—from the Budapest Whale and Parliament to the Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion linked by the Chain Bridge, Liberty Bridge and the others.
Classical music, opera and theatre are integral to the city and the State Opera House regularly showcases performances including the Budapest Philharmonic Society. Budapest Müpa is another cultural institution where you can catch performances at. I managed to snag tickets for Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and it was a beautiful treat for the eyes and ears. A perfect Christmas-time treat indeed.
Of course, you can’t leave Budapest without getting your feet and body wet in one of the famous thermal spas and Széchenyi and Gellért Baths are where most tourists go to. But I went to the less crowded and the oldest bath in the city, Király Baths. Built in 1570, this place literally takes you back to that era.
The city has many more secrets that are left to be uncovered and as you walk along the bylanes exploring, small eateries call out to you to taste local delicacies like Goulash, Kolbász (sausage) and Paprikás Csirke (Chicken Paprika). Surprisingly, vegan and vegetarian food is also easy to find. Most of meals ended with dessert and at Café Gerbeaud, I made sure I had the Gerbeaud Slice, Dobos Cake, and the Emil Gerbeaud’s Legacy and Hennessey Fine Cognac.
The union of Buda and Pest in 1873 has created a magical city which gives you a glimpse of the best of Eastern Europe. The first task as soon as I landed was to arm myself with a Budapest card that allowed me access to all forms of public transport and free entry to most tourist spots. But I discovered the city on foot and that’s what I would highly recommend. Oh yes, on a night out when you’re savouring the local nightlife, don’t clink your beer glass (it’s a no-no) but do toast it to the city’s splendour.