The city split in two: Budapest. A grand dame of a city on the Danube River, with Buda on the east side of the river and Pest on the west side, Hungary’s capital city offers rich history, rich cuisine, richly detailed architecture (amongst the Communist drabness!), and some of the friendliest people.
Get caffeinated – Check out Central Kavehaz Cafe, one of the oldest Vienna-style cafés in Pest. Opened in 1887, the high-ceilinged Art-Nouveau café became a favorite, frequented haunt for journalists, writers, actors, painters, musicians and university professors as it was open 24 hours. Also, worth seeing is the glitzy and beautifully painted ceiling or the Lotz Hall Cafe at the Alexandra Bookstore. Be sure to grab a slice of dobos torte, a yummy Hungarian sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel.
Take a ride – Take the three-minute ride up to Buda Castle and Citadella on the funicular from the end of Chain Bridge. First opened in 1870 to cheaply shuttle workers up to the Castle District, now it offers great panoramic views and is a quad saver for those that don’t want to make their way up the hill via their own conveyance.
Get educated – Join Absolute Tours for their Hammer and Sickle Tour and learn all Hungary’s Communist history from the end of WWII to the 1956 Revolution to the fall of the Iron Curtain and about life and culture under big brother. Later, check out House of Terror, a fantastic museum exhibiting the history of Hungary’s Fascist and Communist dictatorships. The building once served as the former headquarters of the Nazi party in 1940, and its basement, a prison. During the time of Communism, the building was taken over by the State Security (Hungary’s version of the KGB), and hundreds, possibly thousands, were tortured there.
Go for a walk – Admire the Neo-Gothic design of the famed red-roofed Hungarian Parliament building (the world’s third largest!) before walking over to Shoes on the Danube, a moving memorial to those victims who were shot into the river by Arrow Cross militiamen between 1944-1945. For the best straight-on view of the Parliament building, head to the other side of the river via the Chain Bridge towards Batthyány Square, the site of a temporary bridge that once spanned the Danube following the destruction of all of Budapest’s bridges during World War II. Random fact for you: Hungary’s crown jewels were safeguarded during the Cold War at the United States Bullion Depository in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Take a bath – Budapest lies on a geological fault resulting in numerous thermal and mineral springs, making the city a major spa center and ‘taking the waters’ is an essential Budapest experience. There’s a plethora of them to pick from. The oft-photographed grandiose Neo-Baroque Széchenyi Baths are a popular choice with visitors and the largest in Europe, but there are also plenty of smaller, less touristy options such as the Racz Thermal Baths, Rudas Baths, Veli Bej, Gellért Baths, and Király Baths.
Wander the Jewish Quarter – The absolutely stunning Romantic and Moorish architectural beauty of Budapest, the Great Synagogue, is the largest Jewish house of worship in the world outside of New York City. It is home to the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives as well as the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial. Stop for lunch at Kőleves Vendéglő for some amazing farm-to-table, Jewish-inspired cuisine.
Go for a drink – Unique to Budapest, “ruin bars” have been built in the city’s old Jewish quarter in the ruins of abandoned buildings, stores, or lots that were left to decay after World War II. Looking like a normal home and shops from the outside, the inner courtyards hide hip, artsy, funky, laid-back bars. Szimpla Kert is the most well known of them.
Go to church – The over 700-year-old St. Matthias Church located on Castle Hill in Buda and the nearby Fisherman’s Bastion offer sweeping views of the Danube and the Pest side of the city. You can climb up to the bell tower for an even better view. The colorful roof tiles added such a nice, cheery touch of color to the grayness of the November weather.
Get out of the city – A Communism trash heap of sorts, Memento Park outside the city is an outdoor, open-air museum of Communist-era public sculptures removed after the fall of Communism in Hungary in 1989. You’ll see bronze comrades such as Lenin, Marx, Stalin, Béla Kun, and Engels.
Play the VW slug bug game– But with Trabants! The famous “people’s car” built in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall are still plentiful in Hungary.