Budapest is an incredible city. The capital of Hungary, it is nestled amongst Slovakia, Romania, the Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, in the very heart of Europe. A city with a complicated history, a walk though it reveals clues of its expensive and luxurious past, as well as hints of its darker history, throughout World War II.
We visited in early November, a time when the leaves were changing and there was a wintery chill in the air. We spent three nights here, which probably wasn’t enough time. Split in two: Buda and Pest, each part straddles either side of the vast Danube river. With golden bridges scattered across, it’s easy to move between the two areas, although you should dedicate a significant amount of time to both. Below are our favourite spots in this enchanting city:
1) Take a Bath
Hungarians love a soak in a thermal bath (or ‘taking the waters), which is good as Budapest has 123 thermal and over 400 mineral springs. Early one Saturday morning, we decided to experience this uniquely Hungarian experience, which stretches back to the Roman period. We visited Gellért Thermal Bath, an art-noveau inspired bath, with eight thermal pools. After getting changed and mentally prepared, we initially took to the indoor bath. Full of silent Hungarians, this was an enjoyable experience, until a stag party, full of wandering eyes, joined us. We promptly left and decided to try the outdoor pool. This was much better. With sights of Budapest, you float in a pleasantly warm pool of 28 degrees, whilst steam rises into the cold, crisp air. Full of elderly friends, catching up on a week’s news and gossip, the baths had a relaxed, sociable and uniquely Hungarian feel. It was a fantastic experience! If you are not able to visit these particular baths, we would recommend Szechenyi Baths, perhaps the most well known baths in Budapest, complete with chess boards in the outdoor pool!
2) The House of Terror
Perhaps not the most inviting sounding place, this grey, cold and imposing building once housed Hungary’s AVH Secret Police HQ. It was here that enemies of the state (this changed depending on who was in charge at the time) were brought to be interrogated and tortured. The walls were built to be thick enough to ensure the victim’s screams were not heard.
Now a museum, you are able to not only learn about this sinister side of Budapest’s history, but walk throughout the now reconstructed prison cells and torture chambers. These include cells with slanting ceilings, ensuring that prisoners were never able to fully stand up. Instead, they were forced to kneel in water on stone floors. The pain must have been unbearable. Towards the end of the tour, there is also a fascinating gallery with the photographs of those, many of whom are still alive, allowed these awful events to unfold. Although deeply unsettling, this museum provides a fascinating glimpse into Budapest’s troubled and disturbed past.
3) The Castle District
Located in historical Buda, this beautiful area sits 170 metres above the Danube. Strolling through the cobbled streets, this area is a UNESCO World Heritage site and houses much of Budapest’s medieval history. At the top of the hill sits the Royal Palace, a huge sprawling building which overlooks the sparkling lights of Pest. A good place to come for those picture-perfect views of the city below, we would advise visiting at night to see the golden, twinkling lights of Budapest’s Parliament. The best way to reach the Palace is by Syklo, a small railway that weaves its way up the hill. Unfortunately for us, this was closed, and so we were faced with a long walk (not hugely challenging, but not advised if you have an ankle injury, as Laura did!)
4) Shoes on the Danube
Another fantastic way to see Budapest is to enjoy a walk down the banks of the Danube. On a beautifully sunny, winter’s day, we wandered down the river until we reached the Shoes on the Danube memorial. This memorial consists of 60 pairs of shoes, of all shapes and sizes, belonging to men, women and children. Glinting and shining in the sunlight, these shoes sat in a quiet and peaceful part of the city. However, what they represent is more chilling. They are a monument to the many Hungarian Jews who were ordered to take off their shoes and were shot into the Danube, by members of the pro-Nazi, Arrow Cross Party in 1944. Around 20 – 40% of Budapest’s 250,000 Jewish population died during this period.
A small, perhaps unassuming memorial, it nonetheless has a huge impact and is well worth a visit.
5) Andrassy Avenue
No European city break would be complete without a stroll around a beautiful neighbourhood. Luckily, Budapest ticks this box, with the wonderful Andrassy Avenue. This pretty neighbourhood dates back to 1872 and is another of Budapest’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. Lined with mansions and townhouses, opera theatres and boutiques, this street has an almost Parisian feel, and is a reminder of the city’s rich past. A beautiful neighbourhood to explore!
6) Sweet Tooth?
As a visitor to Budapest, you will never find yourself short of a delicious, cake or ten. We would highly recommend visiting Gerbeaud for delicious cake, pastries, macaroons and heavenly thick hot chocolates. Founded in 1858, this is a historic and popular meeting place, sat proudly on the edge of one of Pest’s many squares. We gorged ourselves here and enjoyed watching Budapesters hurry across the square as evening fell. Another great place to visit, if you are, like us, chocolate-addicts, is the cosy and lovely Aztek Choxolat, which we have previously blogged about.
Budapest is a wonderful, beautiful and historically layered city. It is a place most certainly worth visiting, especially if you are looking for somewhere a little different to Paris, Vienna or the other popular European cities. As an aside, there would be one place we would suggest not visiting: Budapest Zoo. Visiting here was not a pleasant experience, especially if you are an animal lover. We advise you keep away and spend your money on some of our recommendations above!
NB: We successfully managed to forget our memory card for our trusty camera on this trip and so photos are credited to their owners below. Our blurry phone pictures didn’t do the city justice!
Featured image: Dimitry B, Flickr
Second image (Gellert baths) Alcuin Lai, Flickr
Third image (Bridge): Joiseyshowaa, Flickr
Fourth image (Shoes on the Danube): Archer10, Flickr