My Favorite International Cities - #18 - Budapest
First published August 17, 2022 by the Morning News and SCNow and reproduced here with permission.
Budapest, nestled on the Danube River, is Hungary’s capital and largest city with about a third of the Country’s population at about 2 million people with about 3.5 million in Metro. Like Barcelona, most folks are home born, 90%, and diverse in religion, 40% Christian.
Budapest is ancient, standing at the eastern edge of the West and so has been buffeted from the West by Austria and Germany and from the East by the Vikings, the Russians, the Turks and the Chinese. But its name is modern from the combination of Buda, Obuda and Pest in 1873. The doldrums of the recent Russian occupation have faded; the old exuberance has returned. I have been there about five times.
Florence’s own Tom Grossman grew up in the Budapest suburbs until made a slave at age 13 in the Holocaust, surviving, returning home after the War albeit his family fortune was lost and most of his family destroyed, until fleeing to Sweden as an engineering student to escape communist controls.
The economy is now diverse with trade/commerce, finance (the financial center of Hungary), media, art, fashion, research/education (with over 40 colleges and universities and now even a Chinese Research Institute), technology and entertainment. Like Barcelona, Budapest hosts about 12 million tourists a year, about 50% international; its multiple geothermal springs and spas add to the tourist draw.
Budapest began as a Celtic-Roman village and military camp at the start of the current age, called Aquincum which is now a museum with electronic guides, both indoors and outdoors along with excavations and excellent models of the old town. The Magyar came from the north to settle the area and one of their leaders, King Stephen about 1000 AD, is still honored and venerated as a Saint, crowned by Pope Sylvester II, because he turned Hungary Christian and brought temporary peace. The Hungarians then had to defend against invasion from the Tartars and about two hundred years later, the Turks, who eventually prevailed, not sent back eastward by a unified European Union army and ironically some Russian help, until 1718. Between the two invaders, however, the city flourished and even sustained the largest European library outside the Vatican. The Austrians and the Germans replaced the Turks until Hungary became mostly independent in 1920 although losing significant territory. But World War II brought back the Germans and then the Russians, until 1991 and independence.
The Jewish population fell by about 50% during World War II, before the war a prosperous population, in fact Budapest was called a “Jewish Mecca.” Raoul Wallenberg, Carl Lutz and Giorgio Perlasca, rescued tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the war. Be sure to visit the Dohany Street Synagogue bult in 1859 and still seating 3000, Europe’s largest, and its Weeping Willow steel sculpture, commemorating the Holocaust.
When the Russians finally left, their monuments were mostly moved into Monument Park, often with the Russian inscriptions removed, which is outside the city, requiring a tram ride and admission fee, but worth the trip. Amusing, but during the Russian era, the locals mostly ignored the many Russian monuments including the huge Liberation Monument on the West side of the Danube, perched on Gellert Hill top overlooking Pest, and central city statues of Lenin and Stalin, as if they were not even there at all. However, all this demonstrates the longstanding Hungarian character of independence, even though often controlled by outside empires - note their famous revolutions of 1686 (against the Turks), 1848 (against the Austrians/Germans) and 1956 (against the Russians).
Touring Budapest requires consideration of both sides of the Danube, a notably tourist attraction itself, with river trips, some visiting its several islands in the area; the Danube really is beautiful with folks always enchanted by the evening dinner cruises. There is also tragic history along the Danube, with about 20,000 Jews shot after removing their shoes and pushed into the river; erected in 2005 stands in silence 60 pairs of shoes cast in iron, bronze and steel, just south of Parliament, in stark memorial (vandalized in 2014). Except for the old Buda Palace (unfortunately, cruelly gutted by the Russians) and Cathedral, most significant tourist sites are on the Pest, eastern, side of the river.
Budapest has escaped major destruction and so has some classic gothic architecture to enjoy. It’s very pleasant to just stroll the streets and parks. Public transport is excellent and complex, the Tourist Bureau at its “Info Centers” will give you free passes, but most routes are on the Pest side, except for a major route along the West Bank. I must admit I spent most afternoons and evenings exploring on foot along the River on the Pest side, its shops, clubs, pubs and restaurants – the small family restaurants are all excellent and very friendly – often I was asked to join parties already in progress or already seated for dinner and even though I tried to dress like everybody else, they could often “just tell” that I was an American and they wanted to chat with me.
Budapest has over 220 important museums. The Buda Royal Palace with Sandor Palace and the magnificent Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion and proximate statues to King Saint Stephen and to the famous Turul bird, all on the Buda side of the Danube; cross over the river to the Museum of Fine Arts, the Hungarian National Gallery, Vajdahunyard Castle, Kunsthalle Budapest (and of course city government), Parliament with the Crown Jewels, St. Stephens Cathedral and museum with relics of Stephen, first King of Hungary, the Aquincum Museum, the Nagyteteyn Castle Museum, the House of Horrors (Nazi Headquarters), the Victor Vasarely, the Brody Studios, the Ludwig Museum and the Koller Galleries .
Be sure to stroll the astonishing tree lined Andrassy Avenue with shops, fine homes, some museums, parks and squares, to include Heroes Square with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to end at the sumptuous Opera House where I once attended a performance of the Russian Ballet Company.
Dr. Rubik’s cube was invented here and sold in many shops; surprisingly, a proposed Rubik Cube Museum in 2012 has yet to “get off the ground.” Enjoy the street art that is now all the rage.
Budapest is a great health site because of its many hot springs, about 100, first marketed for health benefits by the Romans in about 300 AD and later the Turks in the mid 1500’s; three of the Turkish baths remain in use today. Most folks slip into the warm, healing waters naked (in case you are wondering, I never have used the baths). Be sure not to fall asleep and be careful with alcohol. Szechenyi is the most famous, largest in Europe, with outside swimming along aside stunning architecture. The baths remain favorite gathering places and even date sites, many staying open until about midnight and some actually allowing for bathing suits. Enjoy your day or evening “at bath” even if the medical benefit is controversial.
I recommend basically any riverside restaurant particularly if you like lamb or chicken; and of course you must have some Hungarian goulash stew with beef and paprika. But you must know, I seldom had better chicken paprikash then served by Tom and Kirsten in Florence, SC, including the classic garlic, onions, paprika, noodles and thick cream with the chicken – ah….wonderful summertime memories. Budapest particularly enjoys white wine (22 wine regions nearby), if the wine is with soda, Froccs, medicinal Unicum, Palinka (a fruit brandy, the average Hungarian consumes about 70 liters of Palinka per year) and despite their distaste for Russia, Vodka. Curiously, in addition to riverside and downtown, many great restaurants are in the Jewish Quarter. As you might expect, the Turkish influence continues, particularly in foods.
Should you have extra time take a cab or train 20 miles east to the Sissi Palace complex (the Royal Palace of Godollo); Princess Elisabeth (Sissi – the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria) was a topic of discussion in our previous essays on Vienna and Geneva.