Now I know why the Hapsburgs were hanging in Budapest. Itâ€™s visually stunning and in comparison to the other two Hapsburgs happeninâ€™ towns Vienna and Prague, I would say Budapest comes in number one. For me it was the vista from Buda across the Danube that tipped the scale over Prague. For history buffs, it has more than its fare share of sights to see including the Neo-Gothic Parliament, authentic Turkish bath houses and real deal Roman ruins.
On the flip side, itâ€™s certainly a modern city when it comes to nightlife. The city has some top-notch restaurants where you can get a modern take on classic Hungarian dishes as well as cool watering holes were locals and tourists gather when they are in the mood to party. Unfortunately, I canâ€™t say so much about Hungarian locals. They donâ€™t seem to be the mingling sort. However when it came to service they were very courteous, and attentive. I was also pleasantly surprised at the level of angol (English) they spoke. I am not sure if it was the places I was going but everyone, from the metro attendants to the cafÃ© baristas, spoke a basic level of English, which was impressive.
You can definitely get a good feel for the Hungarian capital in a quick three-day tour, which is what I did with a friend of mine. While she worked I toured the city mainly on foot and only took advantage of the metro and trams when I needed to warm up from the 20 degree temperature.
For a three-day whirlwind trip to the Hungarian capital try out my tips below!
Day One: If itâ€™s early enough, donâ€™t let the jet lag keep you down. Get out and go!
-Walk across the Chain Bridge from the Pest side of the Danube. Be sure to look up and behind you before you get too far across the bridge and set your eyes on Gresham Palace and its faÃ§ade as it twinkles with golden accents. Or if you are high roller, you can stay there as it was restored to its original 1907 grandeur in 2004 and reopened as a Four Seasons Hotel.
Once you hit the Buda side, take the antique funicular up to the Royal Palace of the Hapsburgs. From here the views are amazing. You can also tour the grounds if you like or stop in the neighboring Hungarian National Gallery to view the countries most prized pieces of Hungarian artworks.
Cruise past Sandor Palace where the Hungarian President works and head straight to the Neo-Baroque Matyas Church. The brightly tiled roof reminded me of a beautiful quilt or African printed cloth. The Fishermanâ€™s Bastian is right next to Matyas church and from its curved terrace you get the best views across the Danube of the Pest flatlands. From here, wander around the exclusive residential neighborhood of Vizivaros and the famous Lordâ€™s street to view the medieval facades of the homes. If you arenâ€™t too tired after you head back down the hill, take a quick tram ride to Betthany Square for the best across-the-river-photo of the Parliament building.
**Its suggested that you stop in the Ruszwurm (founded in 1824) to have a coffee and a traditional Hungarian pastry treat. I tried twice to pop in for their famous strudel but it was impossible. Itâ€™s tiny and crowded.
Day Two: Start off the day with Budapestâ€™s top sight â€“ The Hungarian Parliament. The structure is a mass of Neo-Gothic architecture which was completed in 1902 and at one time was the largest and finest of its type. Even if you shy away from guided tours, itâ€™s worth chucking your principles to get a peek inside one of the cities defining landmarks.
From there, make your way south to St. Stephenâ€™s Basilica. I know, whoopee, another church. Europe is overflowing with them but itâ€™s a must-see and in fact, its huge dome is visible from any vantage point in Budapest. Inside you can view the mummified forearm of St. Stephen (bizarre) located in the â€˜â€™The Holy Right Handâ€™â€™ Chapel. I kid you not! Supposedly on St. Stephenâ€™s day they march the forearm around the Basilica amongst throngs of visitors to see the spectacle. Eh?
After leaving the church, stroll down Andrassy Utca, the stylish boulevard where you can find shops for all tastes and budgets intermingled with fine cafes and restaurants. Chose one to your liking and re-energize with a bottle of local Hungarian beer Soporoni and then continue down Andrassy until you come upon Heroeâ€™s Square; a striking plaza that dates back to 1896 where in modern history communist demonstrations took place. After oooh-ing and aaah-ing at the statue of Archangel Gabriel shoot across the square and visit the Museum of Fine Art. Here is where Hungary houses its largest collection of international fine art by the likes of Raphael, Bruegal, Goya, Velazquez and the biggest collection of El Grecoâ€™s outside of Spain. Vaya!
Day Three: If you havenâ€™t yet picked up any souvenirs or made any real purchases, today is the day. But itâ€™s a chill day, spent shopping, eating, and relaxing in warm thermal waters. On the Pest side, Vaci Utica is the commercial hub of Budapest. The northern end is where you go for drinking and eating (day and/or night) and the southern end is purely for buying. Ideally, you should start at the top and work your way down the promenade. Be sure to peruse Herendi market. If you or someone you know is into the fine art of ceramics, pick them up a platter or a tea pot. Hungary is known for its ceramics and Herendi is the best. But the star market in my opinion is Central Market Hall, and youâ€™ll run right into it at the south end of Vaci. Its like Barcelonaâ€™s La Boqueria- selling fresh fruits, veggies, Hungarian cheeses, cured meats, spicesâ€¦ anything pertaining to Hungarian cuisine is there and on the weekends its packed with locals shopping and tourists marveling at the lively stall vendors. It even has iron work detailing the interior as well as its high vaulted ceilings. Central Market Hall’s first floor is relegated to food stuffs and delicacies and on the second level you can find a variety of handicraft stalls.
After purchasing a stick of salami, paprika (a main Hungarian spice) and a kitschy babushka doll, walk across the Elizabeth Bridge and bee-line to the famed Gellert Hotel. The day I made this walk it was below 20 degrees with a blustery wind that threatened to blow me over the railing. I could have taken the tram but the work-out of walking into a gusty wind made the thermal bath at Gellert much more rewarding. They say the bathhouse at the Gellert Hotel is the finest in all of Budapest and I wouldnâ€™t disagree. Its over-the top Neo-Classical design shamed all my favorite spas in Spain and America. But there is also something very utilitarian about the Gellert Spa. There isnâ€™t anything frou-frou about the service, which is good. Instead, the process is betrays that thermal bathing is a huge part of city life. Young and old residents go frequently because they have a great deal of faith in the water’s healing properties. Its not seen as a retreat but rather a necessity to staying healthy like popping a daily vitamin. Stay as long as you want and pay for extra services like a massage, or do what I did and leave at the two-hour mark and receive a full refund for the entrance fee. Put your returned Forint (Hungarian currency) to good use in CafÃ© Eszpresso, an old fashioned coffee and tea house in the Gellert before returning to your own hotel for your last night out.
Here are a few bars and restaurants that impressed me while in Budapest:
21 Restaurant â€“ Go here for traditional Hungarian food with a modern twist. Great lunch spot near Castle District
Deryne â€“ Great, fine bistro food with a cool atmosphere. This is a must for dinner. Located on the Buda side
Mini â€“ Same owner as Deryne and serves a version of its cousinâ€™s menu but is mainly a spot for cocktails. Be sure to be very specific about how you want your drink or else your Baileyâ€™s might come back in a shot-glass.
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