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Budapest has been called the ‘Paris of the East’ and it doesn’t take long walking around this photogenic city to understand how it earned this nickname.
But the truth is that comparing Budapest to another city doesn’t feel right because it is very much its own.
There is so much history to talk about and so many things to see that it’s hard to know where to begin. I want to show you around some of the top spots.
One of my favourite parts about Budapest is how walkable it is and Marc and I went everywhere on foot.
Let’s start with the building that took my breath away the first time I saw it: the parliament building. I mean, just look at it! In the 1880s a contest was held for the design and, if it reminds you a bit of the British parliament building then you’re spot on, because the winning architect – a Hungarian named Imre Steindl – found inspiration there. It took 17 years to build but sadly Steindl went blind before it was completed. He died in 1902, which was the same year construction was finished and the first sessions took place. The parliament has 691 rooms, 20 kilometres of stairs, and is not only the largest building in Hungary, it’s also the third largest parliament building in the world. It’s beautiful at any time of day but especially at sunset when it seems to float on the river. The best view at night is from nearby Margaret Bridge where you can also see the dramatically lit Holy Crown of Hungary. The parliament is 96 metres tall which is exactly the same height as another of Budapest’s iconic buildings: St. Stephen’s Basilica. What I find really interesting is that this is intentional: it represents the balance between church and state in Hungary. St. Stephen was the first Christian king of Hungary and it’s the largest church in Budapest. It took over half a century to build because in 1868, the dome collapsed during a really bad storm and the entire thing had to be torn down and rebuilt again from scratch. It was finally completed in 1905 and it’s been standing tall ever since. Budapest was formerl two cities that united:
Buda and Pest (or PESHT, as you say in Hungarian).
It’s hard to imagine now but there was some question at the time of whether the newly united city should be called Pestbuda. Doesn’t quite roll of the tongue the same way, does it? For a city divided by a river, bridges are obviously very important. The Chain Bridge, also known as Szechenyi Bridge, was the first permanent bridge in Budapest in 1849. Before that, the closest bridge was in Vienna so people either used a boat or walked across when the river froze. The problem was that if the water thawed while you were on the other side, you were stuck until it froze again. This once happened to Szechenyi, an important man in Budapest’s history, and he missed his father’s funeral because he was stuck on the wrong side for a week. This upset him so much that he set to work getting a permanent bridge built. The lions represent power which is fitting when you think about poor Szechenyi being helplessly stuck before the bridge was built. You should feel quite empowered being able to cross whenever you feel like it. When you reach the Buda side you’ll see the funicular right in front of you. It’s been shuttling people up and down Castle Hill since 1870, although it was completely destroyed during World War II and then rebuilt. You can take one of the tram cars 95 metres up to the top where Buda Castle sits looking out over the Danube River and the Pest side of the city. This was formerly a royal palace – and it’s been destroyed and rebuilt many times in its long history – but it’s now where the National Gallery, the Castle Museum, and Szechnyi Library call home.
It’s a nice little walk through pretty streets as you walk away from the castle towards my favourite part of the Buda side:
There are 7 turrets here that represent the 7 Hungarian tribes who founded Hungary in the year 895.
The name comes from the fact that the fish market was just below here in the middle ages and this stretch of the castle wall was protected by fishermen then.
There’s an incredible view from here – one of the best in the entire city. Fishermen’s Bastion was built by the same architect who built the Matthias Church right behind it, which is also very striking. Parts of the church are more than 500 years old but most of it was built in 1896. You’ll notice that year keeps coming up around Budapest’s architecture because it was the year of a huge celebration for Hungary’s 1000th birthday party. To cross back over to the Pest side of the city you can take the Liberty Bridge, which was also built for the 1896 anniversary. It was opened by Emperor Franz Joseph himself and you’ll notice trams also cross this bridge. The Gellert Baths are on the Buda side and when you cross you find the Great Market Hall. It’s the biggest market hall in Budapest and you’ll find fresh food being sold on the main floor and lots of souvenirs available on the second floor.
If you walk back towards St. Stephen’s Basilica you’ll come across a lovely park called Erzsebet Square. Just look for the huge Ferris wheel you can see from a distance. It’s called the Budapest Eye and I love the way it looks with the sun beaming through as the cars go round and round. In front of the Budapest Eye is a beautiful fountain that has an interesting history. At the top is a figure who represents the Danube River and the three women below symbolize three tributaries of the Danube. This fountain used to be in a different location until it was heavily damaged during World War II then it was repaired and placed in this park. The park also has a collection of locks, which are not uncommon to find in different cities but, to me, they’re always a nice little reminder that love is everywhere. If you head up Andrassy Avenue, one of Budapest’s major streets, you come across the Opera House, which you can tour the inside of.
The exterior alone is worth the stop though. I loved looking at the Sphinx statues and the painted roof of the entranceway. There are lots of little details to find just looking at the façade. A little further up the avenue is the Terror Museum. This is one of the most memorable museums I’ve ever been to and I can’t recommend going here enough. It’s located in the former headquarters of the Nazis which later served as the headquarters for the Communist secret police. I had a very physical and visceral reaction to this place. The first thing you see when you enter the central courtyard is a Soviet tank and a wall covered in the pictures of people who were victims of the terror carried out here. But the first thing that hit me was the earthy smell and the dampness in the air. To me it seemed the building was rotting so badly from its history that it couldn’t be hidden and I thought about the portrait of Dorian Gray as it becomes more and more disfigured with every act of evil. Every exhibition space is extremely effective in this museum and the Nazi era blends seamlessly
with the Communist era. It’s made very clear that, although the uniform may have changed, the reign of terror did not and people continued to suffer. When I walked out of the elevator into the basement floor I’m not exaggerating when I say that I almost threw up immediately. I’m sure some people will understand and some won’t but I have really strong reactions to energy and it felt so, so bad in the basement of the Terror Museum that I literally had to stop and put my hand to my mouth to stop the vomit. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the basement
is where people were routinely tortured and executed for many, many years. Before exiting the museum there’s a wall with photos of people who perpetrated these acts or supported those who did. Many of them are still alive today
and it serves as a sad reminder that justice hasn’t been served. The more positive takeaway, however, is that the fight against these terrible regimes was not in vain because you can walk away from that building as a free human being. At the end of the avenue is Heroes’ Square – it’s the largest square in Budapest and impossible to miss. The 36 metre high pillar in the center is called the Millennium Monument because this square was also built to celebrate Hungary’s 1000th anniversary.
The Archangel Gabriel standsat the top of the monument and he’s holding the holy crown and the double cross of Christianity.
The seven leaders of the Hungarian tribes who founded modern Hungary are represented as well as other important figures. I’d recommend seeing Heroes’ Square both in the daytime and at night when it’s lit nicely.
It’s a popular gathering spot and we were lucky to see a guy doing tricks on his bike while strolling through. On the other side of the square is City Park where the Szechenyi baths are located. If you want to see more about Budapest’s thermal baths
I’ll link below but City Park is also home to Europe’s largest outdoor ice rink during the winter months. It’s 15,000 square metres and people have been skating here – gracefully or otherwise – since 1869. I loved seeing this because, as a Canadian,
I always feel at home in the presence of a Zamboni. Behind the skating rink is Vajdahunyad Castle.
I don’t know any rinks in Canada with a castle view. This one was modelled after a fortress in Transylvania
and it’s on an artificial island so you have to cross
a little bridge over the moat to get inside the gate.
The best thing I learned about Vajdahunyad is that it was originally built out of wood planks and cardboard because it was just intended
to be a temporary structure. But the people of Hungary loved it so much it was eventually built out of permanent stone to be enjoyed forever.
There’s something really touching about a castle being turned from cardboard paper to stone through the sheer power of human love and appreciation.
There’s a fairy tale quality to that story that extends around all of Budapest. The long history of the city, with all its darkness and lightness,
feels strong to me walking around. You can see and feel how love can not only turn paper to stone but also bring a city out of dark times of terror and into the light.
I hope you enjoyed walking all over Budapest and seeing some of the highlights.
I absolutely loved visiting this lovely cityand we made a bunch there so I’ll link those in the description box
if you want to see more about where we stayed, what we ate,the incredible Christmas Markets, the thermal baths, the nightlife, and all of those things.