Budapest surprised us. Our initial thoughts of an old Soviet- run city was soon replaced by scenes of grand palaces, spring festivals, and a vibrant restaurant and bar scene. My mom’s side of the family is originally from Budapest, and my grandparents escaped communist rule in 1956 when they immigrated to the US. My mom’s first language is Hungarian, and she was our key to communicating with her family members that hosted us for the weekend.
My mom’s cousin and aunt live in the Buda hills, which is separated from the Pest side of the city by the Danube River. We were welcomed to their home with a generous lunch of homemade chicken paprikash, a dish that I have fond memories of my own grandmother cooking.
We immediately set off of a walking tour of the Buda Hills. As we approached the river at the famed Fisherman’s Bastion, we were welcomed by a grand view of Matthias Church.
The fisherman’s bastion area is a beautiful open square that boasts splendid views of the Danube River and Pest side of the city. After a flurry of picture taking, we settled in for some beers and Hungarian desserts at a cafe near the bastion. Before heading back, we stopped at the Koller Gallery, which housed lovely exhibits on Hungarian artists and sculptors.
Dinner was at a local restaurant in Buda called Mezzo, an elegant date spot with a piano playing smooth jazz in the background. My mom’s cousin ordered a mix of Hungarian dishes for us including goose soup with matzo balls (basically a better version of matzo balls with chicken), breaded chicken cutlets, a pork dish under Hungarian fried bread, trout, and duck under a delicious traditional noodle. Everything was delicious, especially the duck and chicken cutlet. Ryan was already enamored with the richness and variety of Hungarian food.
Our first full day started at Vaci street, the center of public life in Pest. The Budapest spring festival was taking place and Vorosmarty square was filled with food vendors selling mouth watering combinations of Hungarian comfort food- from giant latkes to sausages to large bowls of goulash. After a quick stroll down Vaci street, we stopped into St. Stephen’s Basilica. It is the largest church in Budapest named after Saint Stephen who established the Hungarian state. The inside was reminiscent of many of the Catholic Churches in Rome.
We made a quick stop at the Budapest Opera House, but was unable to go past the entrance without a guided tour. My mom ended up buying tickets for a ballet the following week. If we were staying longer, it would have certainly been on our to-do list. My mom also pointed out the building where her and her parents lived before escaping the 1956 Revolution. I noticed many of the buildings on the street were once large single family homes, now turned into apartment buildings. It was evident that Budapest was a city of great wealth before Nazism and Communism.
The Jewish quarter was only a ten minute walk from the opera. The area has become a hip, trendy neighborhood for nightlife and hostels. We even had lunch at a joint called “Risci’s Jewish Street Food.” The most magnificent sight is the Dohany Synagogue on Kazinczy Street. The synagogue was closed for Passover, but I wish we could have walked in to see the interior. The outside was done in Moorish style as Hungary was once ruled by the Turks. The synagogue is the largest in Europe and rivals that of some of the most beautiful Catholic Churches.
Before heading home, we stopped at the House of Parliament, a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. Along the Danube near the Parliament is the highly moving Holocaust Memorial “Shoes on the Danube Bank.” It is a sculpture commemorating the Jews shot into the Danube River by the Hungarian Nazis during WWII. Before they were shot, they were asked to take off their shoes as it was valuable good during the war. The shoes were sculpted in all sizes to depict how every Jew- regardless of age- was a victim.
We met some of my mother’s relatives from her father’s side for dinner, who recommended we go to a “ruin bar.” These pubs were built in derelict buildings and cellars and were transformed into social areas for young people. They were designed without limitations and the furniture consists of everything from sewing machines, bicycles, modern paintings, and graffiti. The ruin bar we visited- called Szimpla Kart- was massive and consisted of many smaller bars each exhibiting a different ambiance. The design was chaotic but the atmosphere convivial and authentic. In addition to the hostel crowds, there were plenty of local Hungarians hanging out on a Saturday night. The ruin pub was probably one of the most unique illustrations of young culture I had experienced in a foreign country.
In addition to the picture of the ruin pub below, we walked across the Chain Bridge connecting Buda and Pest at night. The illuminating lights of the bridge and parliament building were stunning.
Our final day in Budapest was cold and dreary- but it didn’t stop us from heading to Hero’s Square, which is home to statues of Hungarian chiefs and kings. Behind the square was Vajdahunyad Castle in City Park. The building was from the 19th and 20th century and represents a variety of architectural styles. Next to the castles is a pond that becomes one of the most beautiful ice rinks in Europe.
Near the castle is City of Spas, a thermal bathhouse built in Art Nouveau Style. Budapest houses the most number of spas In the world and many people flock to the capital for its healing waters. Even in the icy rain, there were groups of bath-goers basking outdoors in the hot spring.
Our only museum visit was the Kunsthalle, which was featuring a photography exhibit that we all enjoyed. It was certainly a nice break from the medieval and Renaissance art that we see in abundance in Italy.
Our day ended at Herend High Tea at the Four Seasons. Herend refers to the exquisitely painted porcelain that originates in Hungary. The dishes and glasses looked like we were dining in a royal courthouse. Our display of breads and sweets had a mixture of the English pastries/scones and Hungarian desserts. The display was overwhelming and we could barely finish half of the arrangement!
Despite the amount of food we consumed, Ryan and I still had a desire to try one of the savory concoctions at the spring festival. The photos below depict the variety of hearty dishes available. We chose a deliciious giant potato pancake topped with 3 different kinds of sausage and cheese!
I wish we could have stayed longer in Budapest. I would have loved to see Gellert Hill, Margaret Island, and relax in one of the thermal baths. I am certain Ryan and I will return for a more in depth visit of this enchanting city.