This city was pretty highly hyped before I came, being billed as one of the most beautiful cities anywhere. Naturally I was skeptical, and arriving at the train station my skepticism was initially proven correct. The area around the station reminded me much of Romania with its old Gothic buildings. However, when we came up on the other side of the metro, closer to where our hotel was located, my views started to change. Already without even venturing into the main part of the city I had seen a wide variety of architecture, and green spaces were everywhere.
We checked into the hotel and changed our money. My wallet was stocked with around 40,000 Hungarian Forints or some ridiculously super-inflated number like that, which really isn't a lot, but it went a long way and I still had some left after leaving.
Our hotel was located on the Buda side of the Danube River, the more residential side of a city that was originally 2 different towns - Buda and Pest. Buda is a bit less dense, and the main attractions on its banks are the Fisherman's Bastion and Buda Castle. We made our way to the Fisherman's Bastion, and stayed only for a short time since it was super touristy. The whole place seemed like something out of the Magic Kingdom without the rides and with just as many tourists. I think the place itself was built just recently in order to serve as a viewpoint across the Danube. There is a beautiful cathedral located here, and a pretty nice old town area, but overall much nicer from a distance.
The Pest side quickly salvaged things, already living up to its billing as one of the most beautiful cities even as we were crossing the bridge over the Danube. From the middle of the Danube, the scope of the city was made evident, and magnificent buildings line each side of the river. King of all these was the Hungarian Parliament, topped with what seems like hundreds of little spires. Buda Castle gracefully looks down from the other side, looking more like a stately library or museum (which it now is) rather than a castle.
After walking around Pest for a while, seeing the
Around the time of WWII, the Jewish Quarter was walled off from the rest of the city, and the people inside left to starve in this makeshift prison. Today, the quarter has been declared a World Heritage Site, and has become a somewhat eclectic neighborhood of collapsing buildings and monumental synagogues (including the largest in Europe). Tons of restaurants and cafes lurk inside many of the buildings, making for a truly unique atmosphere.
On our second day in Hungary, we took off on a day trip to Esztergom - home of the largest church in Hungary. We arrived after riding by commuter train and bus for about and hour and a half. The journey was well worth it, as the Basilica is a gigantic work of art. The sheer size is impressive enough, but even more so is the interior of blue marble, creating a beautiful space more than fitting to be the seat of religion in Hungary. We climbed to the top of the dome at the Basilica, which gives an incredible view of the area, including the town and across the Danube into Slovakia.
The rest of the day was spent bumming around in the charming center of Esztergom and then returning to Budapest where we took a stroll along the Danube for a bit. There we came across one of the most moving memorials in the world. A collection of bronzed shoes lines a section of the Danube near the Parliament, marking the location where Nazi soldiers regularly shot residents of the Jewish Quarter into the water. Most were never seen again or given a proper burial. As such, the shoes are filled with candles, flowers, and other mementos to keep their memory alive and to ensure that nothing so brutal ever happens again.
Our final day in Hungary continued the pattern of walking a ridiculous distance every day, this time deeper inside Pest, where we saw Vajdahunyad Castle, where a local fair was taking place. After stuffing our faces with marzipan and various meats, we watched some local kids doing a performance of some Medieval tradition, followed inevitably by some hip hop. The castle was enough of an attraction. I swear I've seen some parts of this thing in Fantasy Land at the Magic Kingdom. The thing that set this place apart and on a different level from the Fisherman's Bastion, however, was the authenticity of the place. From what I could gather, most of the visitors were locals, and the place just had a nice vibe about it, rather than the rushed and overpriced nature of the Bastion.
Our day, and our time in Hungary, came to a close at the top of Gellert Hill. The highest point in the city, the hill is covered with a massive park and is topped by an old fortress and a Communist era statue. From the fortress, the whole scope of the city unfolds before your eyes, making the climb a worthwhile experience. Bisected by the Danube, the dual nature of the city is made clear - each side trying to outdo the other in terms of grandeur. It's a lot to take in.
Overall, I think that Budapest's reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in the world is truly deserved. I think that's because its very nature sets it apart from other places. It's one unified place competing against itself, giving it the motivation to keep itself beautiful and to keep pushing the envelope to keep it ahead of... itself. Yet the city is a paradox in other ways as well - wonderfully classic and fashionably modern, touristic and yet with a nice local vibe, gigantic and yet liveable and eminently walkable. All of these things make Budapest a place that cannot just fade into the depths of your memory. Like the shoes that line Pest's promenade, the city remains in your mind as a place that reminds the visitor what life was once like and yet also what it could be.