The Hungarian capital of Budapest always seemed exotic to my mind, with its unfamiliar language, communist history and stodgy cuisine rarely spotted in the UK. But when I finally got round to visiting the city, Budapest defied my expectations by feeling simultaneously more like home and more multi-faceted than I’d imagined – thanks in part to its two contrasting sides, Buda and Pest.
Sightseeing in Pest
Flat, urban Pest on the east side of the Danube river felt particularly familiar. In fact, as we admired Parliament and Széchenyi Chain Bridge while cruising down the Danube, browsed the groceries at Central Market and drank among hipsters in a ruin bar, I felt I could have been in London. There’s even a big wheel resembling the London Eye.
However, in my opinion (having lived in London for four years), Pest bests London on many of these fronts. Its red-roofed Parliament is more beautiful; its buildings more uniformly elegant (no walkie-talkies here); its cathedral more spectacular; its historic cafes more opulent. But just to compare Pest to London ignores the many things that make it unique. My favourites of these are detailed below.
St Stephen’s Basilica
St Stephen’s Basilica is free to enter and stunning to behold. Its interior is filled with gold, marble and high domed ceilings that will leave you mesmerised, whether you’re religous or not.
It’s well worth travelling up Andrassy Avenue to Victory Square, especially at dusk. Time it right and you’ll be able to admire the grand turquoise statues and colonnades, as well as the colourfully illuminated letters spelling out Budapest.
Budapest’s magnificent, red-domed Parliament is perhaps best viewed from the river. Cruising past it allows you to view it from different angles, which really helps you to appreciate the scale of its intricate architecture. We had a daytime river cruise included as part of our bus tour ticket.
This fun, crazy, junkyard-resembling bar is an attraction in itself. Read about our visit to Budapest’s original ruin pub, Szimpla Kert.
New York Kávéház
A visit to this elaborately opulent cafe is another experience not to be missed. Find out about New York Kávéház and the rest of Budapest and Vienna’s grandest cafes.
Sightseeing in Buda
Hilly, beautiful Buda on the west side of the Danube is strikingly different to its other half. This is where almost all the city’s parkland lies, as well as the majority of its tourist attractions.
While the view from the riverside is comparable to London’s Southbank, that’s where the similarities end. For tourists, Buda is defined by the historic, old town streets and architecture of Castle Hill. Next to it is Gellért Hill, which hosts the city’s largest park and the Citadella fortress.
The castle and palace complex at the southern tip of Castle Hill have an interesting history, which was explained to us during a walking tour of the area. Elements of the castle date back as far as the Middle Ages, and it has undergone a number of drastic renovations to suit the fashions of the times. Sadly, the communist government of 1948 destroyed a lot of the building’s elaborate decorations when they remodelled it in a simpler style. But the castle and the area around it are still beautiful to behold.
Just a few minutes’ walk from Buda Castle lies Fisherman’s Bastion, which was probably my favourite building in Budapest. Today it’s simply a fancy terrace from which to view the city below, but its name derives from the ramparts that stood in its place in the Middle Ages and which were defended the city’s guild of fishermen.
What makes Fisherman’s Bastion so special, besides the panoramic views, is its fairytale-like design. The cylindrical towers at its corners, with spiralling staircases and conical roofs, put me firmly in mind of Harry Potter and looked especially magical at night.
You can’t miss this unusual church as it is right next to Fisherman’s Bastion. During the day, we marvelled at its colourful patterned roof. Returning at night, we stumbled upon some kind of Easter ceremony: priests and children in long gowns, as well as crowds of normally dressed people, all solemnly walking around the church holding burning candles as the church bells tolled. It made for quite the spectacle.
The greener of Budapest’s two hills, Gellért hosts a number of tourist attractions that we didn’t make it to: the Hospital in the Rock Museum, the Cave Church, and the Gellért thermal baths. But just walking down the hill past its trees and flowerbeds provided a pleasant escape from the otherwise predominantly urban city. Not to mention the amazing views it offered of the Danube!
The Citadella fortress was built by the Habsburgs in 1849 to defend against potential civilian rebellions. Today it’s yet another impressive terrace, offering panoramic views across the city. It hosts several eye-catching turquoise statues. Among them is the elevated Statue of Liberty, which was built in 1947 to commemorate Budapest’s liberation from Nazi rule.
Once you’ve seen the inner-city attractions it’s well worth venturing out to the Buda Hills, which are just a short drive or bus/tram ride away. Find out about the Buda Hills and the Children’s Railway.
In my next post I’ll be writing about another of Budapest’s greatest attractions: its richly tasty, paprika-spiced, gloriously comforting food. Until then, you can see inside the city’s grandest cafes.