I have a confession to make: Budapest was never really on my radar as a European destination until George Ezra’s hit song, Budapest, became mainstream. But, Budapest is one of Eastern Europe’s best-kept secrets, and I had a perfect three days exploring the city. Better yet, Budapest is a budget destination. There are a lot of opportunities to experience the best parts of Hungarian culture without breaking the bank.
Budapest is actually two separate cities: Buda and Pest, both of which are separated by the Danube River. Although there are many bridges which connect the two cities, the first permanent and most iconic is Chain Bridge.
Located on the Buda side of Budapest, climbing to the top of castle hill will give you some of the best views of the city. It has a very rich history, with the first people having arrived in the 13th century in search of protection after the Mongolian invasion. Then, in 1476, King Matthias Corvinus married Beatrix of Naples, making Buda an important European city. After the Turkish occupation, a Baroque city was built, which was then bombed and destroyed during World War II. Today, Castle Hill is recognized as a World Heritage Site, and is home to Trinity Square, Matthias Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion.
Budapest’s Gothic revival-style Parliament building is simply stunning. It is one of the oldest government buildings in Europe, the largest building in Hungary, and the tallest building in Budapest.
Shoes on the Danube
Just in front of parliament, along the Danube, is a Holocaust memorial of shoes, dedicated to the Jewish Hungarian victims who were murdered and shot by racist Arrow Cross militiamen during the war. Victims were required to remove their shoes and stand on the edge of the bank, where they would be shot, and their bodies would fall into the Danube River and be washed away. The shoes represent the ones which the victims left behind.
One of the coolest things about Budapest is its abundance of thermal baths. I’ve experienced public bathing in Iceland, Turkey, and Japan, but this was the only other time I’ve seen such a thing in mainland Europe. During our stay in Budapest, we checked out Szechenyi Baths, which had saunas as well as both indoor and outdoor pools, ranging from 30-38 degrees Celsius! I also splurged on a 60 minute massage. Spending an afternoon or evening in a thermal bath is a very popular Hungarian pastime.
Andrássy Avenue / Heroes’ Square
On your way to the baths, be sure to stroll down Andrássy Avenue, an awesome street filled with lively shops, neighborhoods, and lovely trees. At the end of the road, you will approach Heroes’ Square, or Hósök Tere, one of the major squares of the city. It features an iconic statue of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, other various Hungarian leaders, and the tomb of the unknown solider.
Dohány Street Synagoague
The Great Synagogue is the largest in Europe, and the second largest in the world. The complex consists of the Great Synagogue itself, as well as a graveyard, the Memorial, and the Jewish museum. The Memorial located at the museum is a metal weeping willow, engraved with family names of victims of the Holocaust.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
This Roman Catholic Basilica was named in the honor of King Stephen, the first king of Hungary. Today, his right hand has been laid to rest inside the basilica.
The ruin bars are some of the most unique bars I have seen during all my travels through Europe- you really can only find these in Budapest. Basically, after the Jewish quarter was abandoned post war and left to rot, these secret ruin bars started “popping up” all over the city. Long story short, people found abandoned parking lots, warehouses, and buildings within the Jewish Quarter and made them into bars. From the outside, they look like normal buildings or homes– there is no noise or music or anything out of the ordinary. People decorate and fill the bars with knickknacks from antique shops or furniture from flee markets. Nothing make sense, nothing matches, and it’s awesome.
The bar we went to was Szimpla Kert, and I wish we had time to try out a few more!
House of Terror Museum
This museum is actually housed in the old headquarters of both Nazi and Communist parties of Hungary, along Andrássy Avenue. Now, the building serves as a museum with exhibits related to the dictatorial regimes in 20th-century Hungary. Additionally, the basement of the museum also serves as a memorial to the victims who were detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building– you can tour the torture chambers during your visit. All and all Hungary has been to hell and back over the past 100 years or so and this museum does a fantastic job of summing it all up.