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Budapest

Situated on both banks of the Danube, Budapest unites the colorful hills of Buda and the wide, businesslike boulevards of Pest. Though it was the site of a Roman outpost during the 1st century, the city was not officially created until 1873, when the towns of Óbuda, Pest, and Buda united. Since then, Budapest has been the cultural, political, intellectual, and commercial heart of Hungary; for the 20% of the nation’s population who live in the capital, anywhere else is simply vidék (“the country”).

Budapest has suffered many ravages in the course of its long history. It was totally destroyed by the Mongols in 1241, captured by the Turks in 1541, and nearly destroyed again by Soviet troops in 1945. But this bustling industrial and cultural center survived as the capital of the People’s Republic of Hungary after the war—and then, as the 1980s drew to a close, it became renowned for “goulash socialism,” a phrase used to describe the state’s tolerance of an irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit. Budapest has undergone a radical makeover since the free elections of 1990. Change is still in the air. As more and more restaurants, bars, shops, and boutiques open their doors—and with fashion-conscious youths parading the streets—almost all traces of communism may seem to have disappeared. But then look again: the elderly ladies selling flowers at the train station are a poignant reminder that some Hungarians have been left behind in this brave new world of competition.

Much of the charm of a visit to Budapest lies in unexpected glimpses into shadowy courtyards and in long vistas down sunlit cobbled streets. Although some 30,000 buildings were destroyed during World War II and in the 1956 Revolution, the past lingers on in the often crumbling architectural details of the antique structures that remain.

The principal sights of the city fall roughly into three areas, each of which can be comfortably covered on foot. The Budapest hills are best explored by public transportation. Note that, by tradition, the district number—a Roman numeral designating one of Budapest’s 22 districts—precedes each address. For the sake of clarity, in this book, the word “District” precedes the number. Districts V, VI, and VII are in downtown Pest; District I includes Castle Hill, the main tourist district of Buda.

POINTS OF INTEREST

MINIVERSUM

Built and maintained by a group of modeling enthusiasts, Miniversum offers beautifully detailed miniature dioramas of Budapest and Hungary’s top sights and landmarks, complete with moving trains and tiny pedestrians. Interactive screens provide historical information on highlights and allow you to compare the miniature re-creations to the original locations. Several Austrian and German locations are also re-created, and separate tables offer typical views of communism-era life and industry. Children will appreciate the benches surrounding the displays offering them a higher vantage point. A behind-the-scenes guided tour is also available; English-language tours should be arranged several days in advance.

GYERMEKVASÚT

The 7-mile Children’s Railway—so-called because it’s operated primarily by children—runs from Széchenyi-hegy to Hűvösvölgy. The sweeping views make the trip well worthwhile for children and adults alike. Departures are from Széchenyi-hegy. To get to Széchenyi-hegy, take Tram 56 or 61 from Széll Kálmán tér, and change to the cog railway (public transport tickets valid) at the Városmajor stop. Take the cog railway uphill to the last stop and then walk a few hundred yards down a short, partly forested road to the left, in the direction most others will be going. The railway terminates at Hűvösvölgy, where you can walk downhill for a few minutes and catch Tram 56 or 61 back to Széll Kálmán tér.

Various stops along the railway also act as embarkation points for hikers into the Buda Hills.

MÁTYÁS-TEMPLOM

The ornate white steeple of the Matthias Church is the highest point on Castle Hill. It was added in the 15th century, above a 13th-century Gothic chapel. Officially the Buda Church of Our Lady, it has been known as the Matthias Church since the 15th century, in remembrance of the so-called just king who greatly added to and embellished it during his reign. Many of these changes were lost when the Turks converted it into a mosque. The intricate white stonework, mosaic roof decorations, and some of its geometric patterned columns seem to suggest Byzantium, yet it was substantially rebuilt again in the neo-baroque style 87 years after the Turkish defeat in 1686. One fortunate survivor of all the changes was perhaps the finest example of Gothic stone carving in Hungary, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, visible above the door on the side of the church that faces the Danube.

The Szentháromság Kápolna (Trinity Chapel) holds an encolpion, an enameled casket containing a miniature copy of the Gospel to be worn on the chest; it belonged to the 12th-century king Béla III and his wife, Anne of Chatillon. Their burial crowns and a cross, scepter, and rings found in their excavated graves are also displayed here. The church’s treasury contains Renaissance and baroque chalices, monstrances, and vestments. High Mass is celebrated every Sunday at 10 am, sometimes with full orchestra and choir—and often with major soloists; get here early if you want a seat. During the summer there are organ recitals on some Sundays at 7:30 pm.

GELLERT HOTEL AND BATH COMPLEX

At the foot of Gellért Hill, the beautiful art nouveau Danubius Hotel Gellért is the oldest spa hotel in Hungary, with hot springs that have supplied curative baths for nearly 2,000 years. Its baths are the most popular among tourists, both because you don’t need reservations, as you do at most other hotel-based thermal spas, and also because there’s a wealth of treatments—including chamomile steam baths, salt-vapor inhalations, and hot mud packs. Many of these treatments require a doctor’s prescription; prescriptions from foreign doctors are accepted. Most staff speak English. Most of Budapest’s baths, once segregated, are now primarily co-ed (with special hours for segregated bathing for some baths), including this one. Men and women can now use all steam and sauna rooms as well as both the indoor pool and the outdoor wave pool at the same time.

RUDAS GYÓGYFÜRDŐ

This bath is on the riverbank, the original Turkish pool making its interior possibly the most dramatically beautiful of Budapest’s baths. A high, domed roof admits pinpricks of bluish-green light into the dark, circular stone hall with its austere columns and arches. The central octagonal pool catches the light from the glass-tiled cupola and casts it around the surrounding six pools, capturing the feeling of an ancient Turkish hammam. Fed by eight springs with a year-round temperature of 44°C (111°F), the Rudas’s highly fluoridated waters have been known for 1,000 years. The thermal part is open by day Monday and Wednesday–Friday to men only, Tuesday to women only, and Saturday and Sunday to both sexes. A less interesting outer swimming pool is also co-ed. A 20-minute massage costs 4,300 Ft. Soak after-hours here on Friday and Saturday nights from 10 pm to 4 am.

PARLIAMENT

The most visible symbol of Budapest’s left bank is the huge neo-Gothic Parliament, mirrored in the Danube much the way Britain’s Parliament is reflected in the Thames. It was designed by the Hungarian architect Imre Steindl and built by 1,000 workers between 1885 and 1902. The grace and dignity of its long facade and 24 slender towers, with spacious arcades and high windows balancing its vast central dome, lend this living landmark a refreshingly baroque spatial effect. The exterior is lined with 90 statues of great figures from Hungarian history; the corbels are ornamented by 242 allegorical statues. Inside are 691 rooms, 10 courtyards, and 29 staircases; some 88 pounds of gold were used for the staircases and halls. These halls are also a gallery of late-19th-century Hungarian art, with frescoes and canvases depicting Hungarian history, starting with Mihály Munkácsy’s large painting of the Magyar Conquest of 896.

Parliament’s most sacred treasure isn’t the Hungarian legislature but rather the Szent Korona (Holy Crown), which reposes with other royal relics under the cupola. The crown sits like a golden soufflé above a Byzantine band of holy scenes in enamel and pearls and other gems. It seems to date from the 12th century, so it could not be the crown that Pope Sylvester II presented to St. Stephen in the year 1000, when he was crowned the first king of Hungary. Nevertheless, it is known as the Crown of St. Stephen and has been regarded—even by communist governments—as the legal symbol of Hungarian sovereignty and unbroken statehood. In 1945 the fleeing Hungarian army handed over the crown and its accompanying regalia to the Americans rather than have them fall into Soviet hands. They were restored to Hungary in 1978.

The only way you can visit the Parliament and see the crown is on one of the daily tours. Lines at the newly built visitor center on the north side of the edifice may be long and tickets are in limited numbers, so it’s best to purchase tickets in advance (www.jegymester.hu/parlament). A permanent exhibit about the thousand years of Hungarian legislation is available free through the visitor center until 2 pm. Note that the building is closed to the public during ceremonial events and when the legislature is in session (usually Monday and Tuesday from late summer to spring).

ST. STEPHENS BASILICA

Handsome and massive, this is one of the chief landmarks of Pest and the city’s largest church—it can hold 8,500 people. Its very Holy Roman front porch greets you with a tympanum bustling with statuary. The basilica’s dome and the dome of Parliament are by far the most visible in the Pest skyline, and this is no accident: with the Magyar Millennium of 1896 in mind (the lavishly celebrated thousandth anniversary of the settling of the Carpathian Basin in 896), both domes were planned to be 315 feet high.

The millennium was not yet in sight when architect József Hild began building the basilica in neoclassical style in 1851, two years after the revolution was suppressed. After Hild’s death, the project was taken over in 1867 by Miklós Ybl, the architect who did the most to transform modern Pest into a monumental metropolis. Wherever he could, Ybl shifted Hild’s motifs toward the neo-Renaissance mode that Ybl favored. When the dome collapsed, partly damaging the walls, he made even more drastic changes. Ybl died in 1891, five years before the 1,000-year celebration, and the basilica was completed in neo-Renaissance style by József Kauser—but not until 1905.

Below the cupola is a rich collection of late-19th-century Hungarian art: mosaics, altarpieces, and statuary (what heady days the Magyar Millennium must have meant for local talents). There are 150 kinds of marble, all from Hungary except for the Carrara in the sanctuary’s centerpiece: a white statue of King (St.) Stephen I, Hungary’s first king and patron saint. Stephen’s mummified right hand is preserved as a relic in the Szent Jobb Kápolna (Holy Right Chapel); press a button and it will be illuminated for two minutes. You can also climb the 364 stairs (or take the elevator) to the top of the cupola for a spectacular view of the city. Extensive renovation work here has, among other things, returned the cathedral from a sooty gray to an almost bright tan. Guided tours (available in English) cost 2,000 Ft and leave five times a day on weekdays (the first at 9:30) and twice on Saturday (at 9:30 and 11).