With its fascinating history, beautiful streets, and impressive sights, Budapest won’t disappoint.
We arrived in Budapest from Vienna on Good Friday and left at night on Easter Sunday, so our plans changed many times due to unexpected and unreported closures. I didn’t really know what to expect from the city, but it ended up being a really nice stop on our trip, despite having to adapt to closures. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to stop by the baths and the Great Synagogue was closed the entire time we were there, but we made the most out of everything else!
A quick note: On our travels, I usually tried to learn a couple basic words (please, thank you, yes, hello, two), but Hungarian was another story. In fact, English has more in common with Russian and Sinhala (a Sri Lankan language) than it does with Hungarian, so there is no hope with the complex, incredibly long words. I’d like to go back to Budapest with a Hungarian speaker to take advantage of someone who can actually decipher what everything says!
Our first stop was St. Stephen’s Basilica. We were meant to give a small donation to enter, so I reached out to put a couple pennies in the donation box, but the priest standing there wouldn’t let me, saying I was giving too much! It was quite a funny interaction as I tried to show him that in fact, I was only giving a few cents. Anyways, he wouldn’t accept my generosity and we continued inside. The Basilica is dedicated to the Holy King St. Stephen, the founder of the Hungarian state. Construction began in 1851 but was not completed until 1905. The interior was tastefully opulent and mesmerisingly beautiful, and we spent quite a while walking around, making sure we could get the best angles of the beautiful dome.
A highlight in the basilica was the Holy Right Hand Relic of King St. Stephen “Founder of state history,” which was housed in a rather large side chapel. The plaques on the wall nearest the hand were translated into dozens of languages, probably to make sure that everyone knew the importance of this relic.
King Stephen died on 15th August 1038. On 15th August 1083 he was canonised in Szekesfehervar. His right had found intact has been highly esteemed by the nation ever since. It had an adventurous fate: it had been kept in Bihar, Transylvania, Ragusa, Dalmatia, now Dubrovnik, then Vienna, from where it was brought to Buda in 1771. In 1944 it was carried away to the West. It was returned to Hungary on 19 August 1945.
The crowd around the hand was surreal, and if you look close enough, you see a hand balled into a fist. It was disturbing and hard to snap a picture through the layers of glass and people. This was the least troubling image I got (I didn’t think creepy fingers from 1038 would be appropriate to show), but it captures just how revered his hand is.
After making it out of the basilica before the Good Friday services began, we stopped for a snack in an Easter market. I got Kürtőskalács (I couldn’t tell you how to pronounce that), which is basically a cinnamon-covered, spiral shaped pastry that originated in Transylvania. It is delicious and will definitely get you on that sugar high you need to finish exploring the city.
After our refreshing, sugary snack and a quick photo-op with the letters that make up ‘Budapest’, we decided to walk across Chain Bridge to Buda and Buda Castle.
As most of you know, Budapest is actually two cities: Buda and Pest. Buda castle sits atop the imposing Castle Hill, overlooking the river and Pest. You can either take a funicular up, or walk. Not gonna lie, we took the funicular up the first time because we were so tired, but the walk up is doable and a great workout. You’ll also get amazing views across the Danube…perfect for those photo-ops!
The museums in Buda Castle were closed, so we spent some time walking around the complex and made our way over to Fisherman’s Bastion.
Fisherman’s Bastion was built in the late 19th century and is a viewing terrace on Castle Hill. It takes its name from the guild of fishermen responsible for defending this stretch of the city walls in the Middle Ages. It’s made up of 7 turrets, which represent the 7 Magyar tribes who settled there in 896. The balconies are free, but you will have to pay to get to the top of some of the turrets.
In the same courtyard as Fisherman’s Bastion lies the beautiful Matthias Church, constructed in the 14th century and restored in the late 19th century. It has been the site of several coronations and was even used as a camp by Germans and Soviets during the 1944-5 Soviet occupation of Hungary. Unfortunately, this church was closed for Good Friday and, oddly enough, Saturday, so we postponed visiting until Easter Sunday when it was open to tourists.
Before we stopped for dinner, we walked along the Danube to get a closer look at the Hungarian Parliament Building. It is one of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings (completed in 1904) and is still the tallest building in Budapest (and the largest in Hungary). Interestingly enough, it was inaugurated in 1896, the 1000th anniversary of the country. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to take a tour of the Parliament building (yay weird closing times and lack of information about how to book a tour!), but if you look at the interior photographs, it looks like we really missed out! Something to do for next time, I guess.
We didn’t want to risk not getting dinner that night if things were closed, so we picked one of the touristy restaurants along the avenue that leads up to the basilica. With a beautiful view, I ate my goulash soup and chicken paprikash, to check off some traditional Hungarian fare from my list of foods to eat. Because Hungary is so affordable, I even purchased water with my meal! A luxury I couldn’t afford in other countries…
Our next day in this capital city had us wandering around Pest in the morning, making our way over to the Hungarian Parliament Building again, but this time for a closer view from the other side of the river. I’m still obsessed with it.
I also got my picture taken with Ronald Reagan, whose statue was erected here to honour his role in helping end communism. This part of the city reminded me a lot of Paris funnily enough. The buildings and avenues were very similar in architecture and the area has this sort-of Parisian air of sophistication.
My political science nerd freaked out next. The monument below was erected by the seemingly all-powerful Prime Minister Viktor Orban under the cover of night on 20 July 2014. It commemorated Hungary’s German occupation on 19 March 1944 (but the wording has since been changed to “the victims of the occupation”). I’ve put a rather long quote from the front of the monument below. Read it if you like, I find it, Orban, and the Fidesz party really interesting. The protesters have put up photos of relatives sent away during the occupation, as well as what seemed like artefacts from the era, and signs that condemn the monument.
The central figure of the composition is Archangel Gabriel impersonating the innocent Hungary dropping/offering the country’s orb, while the German imperial eagle is preparing to strike. Thus does the work subserviently reflect the populist and authoritarian ruling political party’s new constitution, forced upon the population again without any consultation, suggesting that the state of Hungary bears no responsibility for the genocide following the German occupation, including the deportation of nearly half a million Hungarian citizens to Nazi extermination camps. This monument is a lie serving a political intention…Historians of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences have unanimously condemned the message suggested by this monument, labelling it as an attempt to rewrite history. The protestors point out that, by erecting this monument, the government is making a concession to Hungary’s far right…They call on the government not to monopolise social memory, nor to rewrite history; but to initiate a dialogue with society for carefully exploring the past, in order to facilitate the honest reckoning with old crimes and processing the lessons learned. The monument…is a symbol of the government’s arrogance…it’s removal [will signal] that liberty has returned.
After Siobhan had to pull me away from the monument, we found a burger place for lunch and then headed back up to Castle Hill to visit Buda Castle. We opted for a visit to the Budapest History Museum, which I liked very much.
We got to see a lot of artefacts from Budapest’s history, as well as learn about its baths (another thing we didn’t get to visit), and even see some of the old parts of the castle (chapel pictured below). Definitely recommend a visit!
I had to get one more view from Castle Hill, before we walked over to Heroes’ Square and City Park.
We arrived at Heroes’ Square at the tail end of a giant pillow fight (it was International Pillow Fight Day), so we tried to avoid the flying feathers as we made our way around the monument and into City Park, the largest of Budapest’s parks. Luckily enough, there was a giant Easter market, so we walked around for quite awhile and found some food that smelled good. I still have absolutely no idea what I ate but it reminded me of a fajita on pita bread and it was delicious! We spent the rest of our night at this Easter festival, walking around, listening to live music, and people watching.
On Easter Sunday we walked over to the train station to store our bags until our night train left for Krakow. The change machine ate about $20 worth of money and no one knew what to do about it so I was not happy at all. So beware of change machines.
We started off with an overpriced Easter lunch at McDonald’s and then headed back over to Buda to visit the finally open Matthias Church. I am so glad we got a chance to see the interior because it was immaculately painted in hues of gold, burnt red and blue. It’s not a particularly large church but it will take your breath away. There are no words to describe the detail throughout the church. If you want more pictures of it, let me know!
Our final stop in Budapest was Kerepesi Cemetery, often referred to the Père Lachaise of Budapest. The first burial occurred in 1849 and closed in 1952. In it rest numerous statesmen, writers, sculptors, architects, artists, composers, scientists, actors, etc. Unfortunately, I didn’t know enough about Hungarian history or culture to actually look for someone. The picture below shows the Mausoleum for the Labour Movement, built in 1958. During the Communist period (1948-89), this was the only part of the cemetery mentioned by authorities.
The cemetery itself was eerily quiet and much more spread out than any I saw in Paris. There were wide avenues lined with trees, large, imposing tombs, and intricately decorated grave markers. We spent about an hour walking around and trying to pronounce the names on the graves (to no avail). It was a relaxing, interesting way to end our stay in Budapest.
- Don’t jaywalk
- Be prepared for sporadic opening/closing times and lack of accurate website information (this could just be because we were there Easter weekend)
- Check the currency convertor so you know how much to withdraw. You can use Euros in Budapest in most places, but if you actually do the conversion, its a better deal to use Hungarian Forint.
- Don’t trust change machines
- Everyone speaks English
- Bike lanes are on sidewalks, so keep an eye out
- The metro was very clean and really nice. We used it only once, but it was easy enough to figure out.