Road Trips

Beguiling Budapest

Budapest, the capital of land-locked Hungary, strides the Danube River. On the hilly west bank of the river is the old city of Buda, and on the flat east bank lies Pest. The two halves of Budapest still have distinct characters, and we enjoyed touring both. We stayed on the west bank, looking across the Danube at the magnificent Hungarian Parliament Building. Brilliantly illuminated at night, it is an astonishing site. This particular sweep of the Danube has been a human settlement since Paleolithic times. It was also the site of the Roman city of Aquincum.

We may have stayed in Buda (named for Attila the Hun’s brother, whom Atilla murdered and threw in the Danube), but we started in Pest- with a pilgrimage of sorts to Vajdahunyad Castle to see the bust of Dracula-portrayer, Bela Lugosi. My husband, a big fan of Lugosi, has written a book on him, and wanted to see the only public monument to him outside of Los Angeles.  The castle and its surrounding grounds are certainly worth a visit. Not far from the hop-on hop-off bus stop near the castle is Va’Rosliget Café & Bar, a scenic spot for drinks and a light snack on its garden patio.

A must-see stop in Buda is historic Castle Hill, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. The thirteenth century Buda Castle sits at the top of Castle Hill. Walk the cobblestone streets, take in the medieval atmosphere and dive deep into the city’s history. Below it is Fisherman’s Bastion, an almost surreal neo-Gothic terrace adorned with turrets and spires. Designed and built in 1905 by Frigyes Schulek–the architect who built the nearby Matthias Church–Fisherman’s Bastion is named for a medieval society of fishermen who guarded Budapest from attack from hostile invaders. Some of the finest panoramic views of the city can be seen from here. The streets of Castle Hill are overflowing with cobblestone streets and a delightfully medieval ambiance.

The spectacular Széchenyi Bridge is one of about a half dozen that links Buda with Pest. The 1,250-foot-long chain suspension bridge was designed in the 1800s by English engineer William Tierney Clark. The bridge was badly damaged during World War II and reconstructed in the 1940s. The pillars and stone lions that stand beside its entrances are original. You can drive, walk or bike over this extraordinary bridge.

Budapest enjoys several vintage market halls, most of which are in or close to the city center. Perhaps the best known is Rakoczi Market, at the heart of the city since the 19th century. The many stalls offer fresh food, clothes, bags and accessories, various gifts, local lace and Bohemian glass. There are also street food vendors and a restaurant with seating overlooking the first-floor gallery of shopping. You may visit the hall on your own (as we did) or see it as part of the Market & Food Tour, which reveals the unique history of the market. You may sample traditional foods and get tips for recipes.

We also enjoyed the Jewish quarter and the Dohány Street Synagogue. The Moorish Revival synagogue was consecrated in 1859. It is said to be the largest synagogue in Europe, and the second largest in the world (after Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem). There are plenty of restaurants and “ruin bars” (bars located in the ruins of abandoned buildings) nearby. These bars are artsy and trendy and often full of people drinking in a unique vintage setting. In this district too are plenty of cozy, one-of-a-kind restaurants. Ristorante Fausto is a really fine restaurant within walking distance of the synagogue.

One of our favorite dining places was the Kacsa Restaurant near our Airbnb on the west bank. It has a delightfully old world feel with a piano player and violinist who swept around the room serenading individual tables. The Hungarian goulash there is not to be missed!

The countryside offers some interesting daytrips. One we really cherished was a visit to Hollókö (Hungarian for “raven stone”), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 13th century village was expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is filled with traditional wooden architecture in a rural countryside of farms and orchards. We found the local people to be particularly helpful and kind to tourists.

We really enjoyed Budapest despite the overcast skies cloud cover during our time there.  It is a vibrant bustling city with many historic sites. We specifically appreciated a private tour of the city which we booked through Viator tours. Our guide and driver were particularly helpful and knowledgeable and made our experience there exceptionally memorable.

Our guide helped us settle two parking tickets we received. Yes—figure out how to pay online to avoid problems. Fortunately, handling such tickets is easy in Budapest—just go to a post office, where you not only pay the fine, but may get an earful on the city’s traffic woes!


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