Budapest… the city of lights, history and architecture, thermal baths and spas, ruin bars, and so many interesting things! My introduction to the city was through the Bollywood movie Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam almost two decades ago. I remember being awestruck by the grandeur and almost instantly falling in love with the city!

This year, two decades after watching the movie, I spent ten days in Budapest in April. Spring had just begun and the weather was idyllic. Tourists were yet to start flooding into the place. It was the loveliest time to be in this lovely city.

Things I loved to do in Budapest

While I did look at the “must-do” and “must-see” lists for Budapest, I ended up visiting a few places multiple times and skipping some of “must-do” things. Here’s what I loved doing in Budapest.

Walking Across the Chain Bridge

Budapest is formed by merging two cities (well, actually three if one were to include Old Buda or Obuda) on the banks of the Danube river – Buda on the west bank of the river and Pest on the east. While Buda is hilly, Pest is flat. There are a number of bridges connecting the two sides of the city, but the Chain Bridge remains my favorite, maybe due to the stories associated with it or due to the Bollywood connection.

Chain Bridge – The First Glimpse

The Chain Bridge or Szechenyi Lanchid was the first bridge built over the Danube river. Before this bridge, people would use temporary floating bridges to cross the Danube from spring to autumn. The bridge would be out of use during winters when the river froze. Istvan Szechenyi, a Hungarian politician, proposed the construction of a permanent bridge after he missed his father’s funeral as a result of being stranded for a week on the Pest side in the winter of 1820. The construction of the bridge was completed in 1849. The bridge was destroyed by Nazis during World War II and was rebuilt to its original form in 1949.

One of the lions on the bridgehead

There are lion statues at each bridgehead, which symbolize power. There’s a story about how the sculptor forgot to carve the tongues of the lions and committed suicide by jumping off the bridge into the Danube when people mocked him! In reality, the sculptor did nothing of the sort and the lions do have tongues.

While walking over the bridge, I saw love locks for the very first time. And then I saw them almost everywhere! Thousands of them! Hmm… Should love be locked or should it be set free? If it should be set free, why do couples feel the need to lock it and throw the key away for their love to be everlasting? Imagine realizing that the one you’re love-locked with for an eternity is actually an idiot! What do you do then, if this whole love lock thing really works..?

Walking up the Castle Hill or Varhegy

Cross the Chain Bridge from the Pest side to reach to the Buda side of the city and there you are – at the bottom of the Castle Hill. There’s a funicular to take you up the hill, but walking up is likely to take a lot lesser time than standing in the long queue for the ticket. Also, the funicular ride lasts perhaps just a few seconds and costs a considerable amount for a return ticket.

On the top of the hill is the Buda Castle or Royal Castle or Royal Palace, which is the complex from where the kings ruled Hungary. The castle has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times and represents Hungary’s tumultuous history. The castle now houses the Budapest History Museum, Hungarian National Gallery, and National Szechenyi Library.

The other structures frequented by tourists on the Castle Hill are the Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. Matthias Church, like the castle, has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Its spire and the colorful roofs look quite pretty. Fisherman’s Bastion is a collection of seven lookout towers, which represent the seven Magyar or Hungarian tribes, who founded Hungary. The white-stoned towers provide panoramic views of the city. I loved those towers – there’s something immensely romantic about them!

I went up the hill a couple of times, but didn’t really feel like going inside the Royal Palace. I pretty much enjoyed walking around in the gardens and the areas around the palace – oh, how I loved those streets flanked by blooming trees and those exceptionally beautiful views!

Walking up the Gellert Hill or Gellerthegy

Gellert hill or Gellerthegy, a dolomite rock rising above the Danube, is on the Buda side of the city. The hill is named after bishop Gerard (Gellert), who was brought to Hungary by King Stephen (Istvan) to aid in converting Hungarian people to Christianity. The bishop was later thrown off the hill to his death by some Hungarian pagan rebels, in an attempt to abolish Christian rule in Hungary and revert to paganism.

Gellert hill seen from the other end of the Liberty bridge

While you can reach the top of the hill by hop-on-hop-off buses as well as local transport, the real fun is hiking up the hill, which takes about 30 minutes. Besides providing the most gorgeous views of the city, the hill has some attractions that hold importance in the Hungarian history. The Liberty statue commemorates those who sacrificed their lives for independence of Hungary. Then there’s Citadella, the infamous fortress built by the Habsburg (Austrian) emperor after a war of independence by the Hungarians against the Habsburg dynasty. The purpose of the fortress was to instill fear among the Hungarian rebels and to avoid an uprising.

Liberty statue on top of the Gellert hill

During the ten days of stay in Budapest, I went up the Gellert hill almost every other day. I loved taking a stroll on top of the hill, seeing families spending some peaceful time together, artists busy working on their artwork, women making and selling Hungarian dolls. I loved the views of the mighty Danube, the bridges connecting the Buda and Pest sides, and the vast expanse of the city with its numerous monumental buildings. The spring blossom enhanced the beauty of the place and the views it provided.

Evening Walks by Danube

Every evening, I’d head to the banks of the Danube river for a long walk and I’d keep walking until the sun went down. I’d usually walk on the Pest side and admire the view of the enormous structures on the Buda side – man-made as well as those made by nature – against the colorful evening skies.

An evening by the Danube

It was during one such evening walk that I came across the Shoes on the Danube – some 60 pairs of shoes cast in iron. Sometime during World War II, members of the Arrow Cross Party, a Hungarian party that was in power, executed thousands of Jewish people. Apparently, the Jewish people would be asked to take off their shoes and stand at the edge of the Danube river bank, so that their bodies fell in the river after they were shot. Shoes by the Danube is a memorial to honor the Jewish victims who were shot. Humans are capable of being the cruelest of all animals!

Night Cruise on Danube

Budapest is called the “city of lights” for a reason. At night, thousands of lights illuminate the city. A cruise on the Danube is a must to experience the beauty of the city at night. I took a cruise that was included with the hop-on-hop-off bus ticket that I bought one day when I was feeling immensely lazy to walk around. I got most of the information about places on the banks of the river, thanks to the commentary on the cruise. There are cruises that include folk dance show and meals and those are perhaps a lot more fun.

Parliament House
Buda Castle

Watching the Hungarian Folklore Show

An ensemble of musicians playing the traditional Hungarian music and dancers presenting the different kinds of traditional Hungarian dances – sword dance, bottle dance and gypsy dance – attending the Hungarian folklore show at Danube Palace or Duna Palota was a lovely, unique experience. The peppy music and cheerful dancers in traditional Hungarian attires left me with a happy heart and a wide grin!

Hungarian Folk Dance

Spending Time at My Favorite Squares

Budapest, like most other cities in Europe, has some really beautiful squares. The ones I liked to visit were the Heroes’ Square, Liberty Square and Kossuth Lajos Square because of the interesting mix of history, nature and architecture around those.

Heroes Square or Hosok tere is one of the major tourist attractions and it deserves all the attention it gets. The square was one of the many structures constructed as part of celebrations of the thousandth anniversary of the Hungarian state. It’s got the Millennial Column at its center, which has the statue of archangel Gabriel holding the Holy Crown of Hungary. The column is surrounded by statues of chieftains of the seven Magyar tribes who conquered Hungary. The semicircular colonnade around the Millennial Column has statues of key people whose lives impacted Hungarian history and also some statues that symbolize labor, wealth, war, peace, knowledge and glory. The City Park and the Agricultural Museum are pretty close to the Heroes’ Square. I found the the entire place great for a stroll.

Heroes’ Square

I came across Liberty Square or Szabadsag ter when I was trying to locate some other place. The square is less than 5 minutes walking distance from the hostel where I stayed. Among various monuments around the square, the one that I found interesting depicted archangel Gabriel (symbolizing Hungary) being attacked by German imperial eagle. It’s been built in memory of holocaust victims. Apparently, not many locals were happy about the monument because they felt that it was an attempt by the Hungarian government to absolve the active role played by Hungarians, along with the Nazis, in killings of Jews during World War II.

Liberty Square

The Kossuth Lajos Square is where the Parliament House is located, which is on the Pest side on the bank of the Danube river. Again, not too far away from the hostel where I stayed. Since evening walks by the Danube had become quite a ritual during the days when I was in Budapest, this was the square that I visited almost daily!

Kossuth Monument at the Kossuth Lajos Square

Tasting the Local Food and Drinks

I’m not too experimental with food. Also, the fact that I am a vegetarian means that I cannot taste more than half of the dishes on the menu at some places. In Budapest, I wanted to try a few dishes and wondered whether they had vegetarian versions of those. For instance, I’d heard a lot about the Goulash soup, a stew of meat and vegetables seasoned with paprika and other spices. I was tempted more than once to just try it, but couldn’t muster the courage nor did I manage to find a vegetarian version of it. The other dish I’d have loved to try was the cabbage rolls that I saw at the Central Market Hall one noon when I was very hungry. But then realized that those too had pork and beef stuffed in them! Sigh..

Here’s what I did try.

Langos or Hungarian fried bread

Thicker version of the Indian bhatura! 🙂 You can choose the toppings, which include some vegetables or meat or simply sour cream and cheese. My favorite – Langos with sour cream and cheese. Mmm… Yummm! Calories? Who cares! :p

Kurtoskalacs or chimney cake

A sweet dough strip wrapped around what looked like a wooden rod and roasted over coal. I tried various versions of it at various places in Hungary as well as in Prague (in Prague, it’s called Trdelnik). I liked the classic one – with cinnamon and sugar. Actually, I also liked the one with almonds. I could never finish the whole thing though.

Gelarto Rosa Ice Cream

Gelarto Rosa is the name of a chain of ice cream parlors. The way the staff members arrange the “rose petals” using the different flavors – they’re artists! And those flavors are just awesome! If you’re in Budapest, you must try one of these. It’s a cone full of happiness!

Palinka

Apparently, a saying in Hungarian goes – Palinka in small amounts is medicine, in large amounts a remedy. It is basically Hungarian fruit brandy containing anywhere up to 86% alcohol. It comes in various flavors, such as pear, plum, cherries, apricot and berries. I didn’t try it while I was in Hungary, but I did buy a few small bottles at the airport during my return journey and I tried it after coming back home. The feeling after that first sip… I cannot describe it in words! It’s an experience! Try it if you’re brave enough!

Some Interesting Facts

Some interesting facts that I learned about Budapest and Hungary, thanks to some conversations, articles, and to the commentary on the hop-on-hop-off buses and cruise:

  • The name of the city is pronounced as Boodapesht. “S” in the Hungarian language is equivalent to “Sh” in English and “Sz” in Hungarian is equivalent to “S” in English. It is while I was in Budapest that I learned the correct pronunciations of the names of most of the Hungarian places I was going to visit.
  • The number 96 has special significance in Hungary. The important staircases in Hungary have 96 steps. As per the building regulations, no building in Hungary can be taller than 96 meters! The tallest buildings in Budapest – St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Parliament House – are both 96 meters high. Why? Because, in year 896, the Magyar tribes conquered Hungary. In 1896, the millennial celebrations of formation of the Hungarian state took place. The number 96 is a symbolic reference to these two important years.
  • Construction of some of today’s tourist attractions, such as Heroes Square, Liberty Bridge, Fisherman’s Bastion, Parliament House was started/completed in the year 1896 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the Hungarian state.
  • Apparently, the money spent on the oh-so-famous Parliament House would have been sufficient to build a town of about 60000 people! 40 Kg of 23-carat gold has been used in the construction of this building. Wow!
  • The Parliament House and St. Stephens Basilica are the same height, symbolizing the balance between state and church in Hungary.

Places I’d Have Loved to Visit

  • Ruin bars – Ruin bars are old, abandoned buildings that are converted into bars. Budapest is known for its ruin bars, so it’s a shame that I didn’t visit one. I would have loved to, but going alone or even going with a group of strangers to a ruin bar wasn’t an idea I fancied much. Hence, didn’t go. As a solo traveler, I guess I’m yet to overcome some of my inhibitions.
  • Szechenyi baths or Gellert baths – The famous thermal baths in Budapest. I don’t even know why I didn’t go to either of these! But then, I did go for it in another city in Hungary. So, guess I didn’t miss much… hopefully.
  • A day-trip to Holloko – In my original itinerary, I’d planned 8 days in Budapest and 2 days in Holloko, a tiny village in Hungary, not too far away from Budapest. I found it difficult to get to the village using public transport and then a guy at the hostel told me that there isn’t much to do there. So I extended my stay in Budapest. I was curious about the village because from what I’d read, the people there have kept the ages-old traditions alive.

There’s just so much to experience in Budapest. I couldn’t get enough of it in ten days! After almost 2 months of travel to some other places in Europe, I returned to Budapest for my flight to homeland. I spent a day revisiting the places I loved and enjoying my evening walk by the river. Years ago, a Bollywood movie had made me fall in love with the city… a visit made me fall in love with Budapest… yet again! 🙂