Budapest straddles the Danube in a proud manner, a foot on each side, like a regal grande dame. For those of us coming of age during the height of the Communist domination of Central and Eastern Europe, Budapest was not a welcoming place to visit, even if possible. At a distance, we learned of its political and cultural significance at the height of the 19th C. Austro-Hungarian empire and of its drab existence behind the Iron Curtain. But today Budapest sparkles and beckons, rivaling London or Paris as amongst the grand destination cities of Europe. If you have only a few days in Budapest, here’s what should be on every 3 Score traveler’s bucket list…
1. Take a stroll
Ramble above the Danube along the cobblestone paths in the ancient city of Buda (on the western bank). Visit the Castle District including the mash-up of architectural styles of the Vajdahunyad Vara and the lovely Matthias Church.
You’ll want to see this guy, too, known only as Anonymous. The chronicler of a 12th C. Hungarian monarch, he wrote an early history of Hungary. Legend has it that his literary talent can be transferred by rubbing the (now shiny) pen.
Go ahead, try it. I did.
Cross the iconic Chain Bridge, to the Pest (pronounced Pesht) side.
The Pest side is the cultural heart of the city, with a thoroughly modern vibe that is entrepreneurial, bustling with sophisticated cafes and shops. Could this be Paris?
No, Budapest. It just looks like Paris.
2. Visit Parliament
If you have time to see only one of Budapest’s gems, get to the Parliament building. The Visitor’s Center is very welcoming and efficient and the tour itself is great.
One must book a tour of Parliament in advance. It’s easy to do online.
Dusted with 40 Kg (88 Lbs.) of gold leaf, the building is literally the city’s crown jewel.
The legislative hall, where the governance magic happens.
In the hallway, a line of holders awaits smoldering cigars.
3. The Great Synagogue
It’s a profound experience to visit the Great Synagogue. It is the largest in Europe and imbued with pride, humility, and reverence. Sounds a bit contradictory, doesn’t it? It is, as they say, complicated.
I needed to better understand the history of the Synagogue and the contemporaneous evolution of the Budapest Jewish community. That quest brought me to this tour. Our docent Szonja, a Budapest native and academic with expertise in Jewish culture, spoke not just from her extensive knowledge but from her heart. Fascinating!
The most poignant part of the tour came as we entered the cemetery adjacent to the synagogue.
In this peacefulness, we moved on to the touching metal willow tree Holocaust memorial. Its melancholy tinkling was hauntingly beautiful.
The next stop was the Art Nouveau Orthodox Synagogue, completed in 1913. It is integral to this thriving Orthodox Jewish community in Budapest.
4. Hungarian Opera House Tour
Music is central to Hungarian culture. Budapest and Vienna were arguably the heart of European music during the 19th century.
The composer and piano virtuoso Franz Liszt (1811-86) called Hungary home. He is honored in a front alcove of the Opera House.
A Hungarian linguistic custom places the surname FIRST, followed by the given name. Therefore LISZT FERENC becomes Franz Liszt in English.
The high-brow mingled with the folk music of itinerant musicians, but opera reigned supreme in this sophisticated musical city.
Like the Parliament building, the Opera House is awash in gold leaf. Five kilo of gold (approximately 11 lbs.) adorns the walls and ceilings.
The must-do tour takes about 45 minutes. One learns about the 19th C. social significance of being “seen” at the Opera; there was much more to it than the love of music.
Tickets are available at the Opera (no online purchases). You’ll want to add the mini-concert at the end. Here’s why:
These short arias are from two famous operas. Can you name the opera/composer? (answers at the end of the post)
5. Hungarian National Museum
This is a sleeper, to be sure. However, the museum offers a fine collection of Hungarian artifacts which form the basis of the country’s relentless search for national identity. If you’re unfamiliar with Hungary’s thousand-year history – that would be me – it’s a great primer for understanding this complex, diverse land, often dominated by external forces: Turks and Ottoman dynasties, Nazis, and Soviets.
Most Americans, I’d guess, know relatively little about Eastern Europe. It tends to be blurred in our consciousness, in part a function of the region’s jagged history with ever-changing boundaries and the ebb and flow of foreign overlords. The museum helps unravel that confusion. It’s well worth the visit.
6. St. Stephen’s Basilica
Towering above the Budapest skyline the Roman Catholic basilica was named in honor of Hungary’s first king, Stephen, who ascended to the new throne in 1000AD.
It is noteworthy that the dome is the same height – 96 meters – as the Parliament building. No structure in Budapest is permitted to exceed that height.
The building’s intricately carved façade pays homage to a not only a religious figure but also an important, founding monarch.
Stephen brought Christianity to Hungary and in turn, he is revered with his mummified right on display in the reliquary.
The magnificence of the basilica cannot be overstated. It is a huge space, a neo-classical architectural style with a Greek cross (i.e. arm of equal length) footprint.
The interior is sumptuous, similar to other major cathedrals in Europe, with a massive altar, mosaic, and gold Christian iconography.
Given that music plays such a role in Hungarian life it is not surprising that the basilica would boast an organ of monumental proportion.
Further, it is a center for secular music, too. I attended a Friday evening concert, part of an ongoing series. Non-touristy, night out with the locals. Loved it.
Budapest has a sophisticated food scene, from pop-up champagne bars to Michelin-starred restaurants, with plenty of bistros in between.
But, really, good food is everywhere. In Budapest, it’s about the pastries. Unless you have steel-belted discipline, it is impossible to ignore the array of delights at cafes, on dessert menus. Most diet restrictions can be accommodated. Gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free delights abound. But, sugar-free? Good luck with that.
Just take a look:
Then there is the traditional Hungarian Jewish cake, Flodni, popping up throughout the Jewish quarter.
Between delicate leaves of puff pastry lie the prescribed fillings. Poppy seed base followed by layers of apples, walnuts, and jam on top. Exquisite with espresso, let me tell you.
Did you know?
**That Rubik’s cube is a Hungarian invention.
**That the 2 arias showcased above are from Gianni Schicchi (O Mio Babbino Caro) by Puccini and Verdi’s La Traviata (the ‘drinking song’).
And one last thing: I’m usually a big fan of the Eyewitness travel books. I love them for their easy-to-navigate maps and quick reads. In Budapest, however, I found the Rick Steves guide to really ring true; loved the honesty and forthright opinions. It’s my hands down recommendation, and so…
©2017 3 Score & More