Our too-short trip to Europe: Fourth stop - Budapest

The last city we visited on our too-short trip to Europe was Budapest. It is the capital and most populous city in Hungary, and the ninth-largest city in the European Union by population within city limits with an estimated 1.7 million people living in about 525 square kilometers, or 203 square miles.

It may also be the most photogenic.

Arriving at the Budapest Keleti train station, our first order of business was obtaining day passes to the city’s public transportation network. Thus armed, we could go pretty much wherever our noses led us without worrying about a taxi and possibly unscrupulous drivers. More on that later.

The metropolis called Budapest is actually two separate areas. Buda, on the west bank of the Danube, is the mountainous area that is home to the Royal Palace of the Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion, the Budapest History/Castle Museum, Várkert Bazár, the Citadell and the Hungarian Statue of Liberty, the Castle Hill Funicular, and a great many statues and memorials. Because of its elevation, it provides great views of the entire metropolitan area, and brings into sharp focus the stark contrast between hilly Buda and the basically level Pest.

Panorama of Budapest from Castle Hill

The previously separate towns of Buda, Óbuda, and Pest were officially unified in 1873 and given the new name Budapest. Importantly when interacting with locals, the name is properly pronounced “Buda-Pescht”, not “Pest” despite how it’s spelled.

 Buda Castle on the Pest side

Given its size, many guide books recommend committing plenty of time to exploring the city, and there is indeed a lot to see. However, it’s also possible to get a flavor for this majestic city in a shorter time, then plan a return trip to see what you might have missed, or didn’t see enough of.

St. Stephen's Basilica

Depending on how close one’s hotel is to the Danube, visitors can get to a number of sites on foot. On our first day, after the train ride from Wien and U-Bahn rides to our hotel, we set out walking and soon found ourselves at St. Stephen’s Basilica which, as it turned out was only about 500 meters from our hotel. It’s a vast building that took more than 50 years to construct and today is a Roman Catholic place of worship that also offers regular concerts.

The Parliament Building from the Danube

There are a number of statues of statesmen important in Hungary's history located around Parliament. They include a monument to Count Gyula Andrássy. He is considered to be one of the founders of Hungary's independence, and is remembered for this political commitment to obtain autonomy from the Hapsburg Empire. 

Statue of County Gyula Andrássy

One monument in the area seems to draw less attention that the others, and that is the Monument of National Martyrs. Unveiled in 1934, it commemorates the victims of the proletarian power after World War I.
The Monument of National Martyrs

Both St. Stephens and the Parliament Building are located in Budapest's 5th District, which many travelers recommend as the ideal area to stay because of its proximity to the Basilica and other sites including Liberty Square and the German Occupation Memorial, and because of the large number of shops, stores, restaurants and bars. The western end of the 6th District is also very convenient, and the hotel prices tend to be a bit lower. 

Opera House at night

The 6th District is also home to the Hungarian State Opera House and a station of the European continent's oldest subway line: the Opera Station for Metro Line 1, or M1. 

Subway car in the vintage style

Built between 1894 and 1896, it was the first underground on the European mainland and originally thought to be the first subway line in Europe, until officials learned that one line of London's Underground was actually older. Now, locals are fond of saying the M1 is the oldest on the European continent.

Ticket booth as it looked in the 1890s

After taking in St. Stephens, we headed for the shore of the Danube. Intent on finding the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial, we walked about 600 meters along side streets and quickly arrived on the shoreline. Walking north, it was obvious from the crowds that we were in the right place.

Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial

The memorial commemorates Jews who were massacred at the river by fascist Hungarian militia belonging to the Arrow Cross Party in 1944 and 1945. The victims were ordered to take off their shoes, as shoes were valuable and could be sold by the militia after the massacre. When they were shot at the edge of the water, their bodies fell into the Danube and were carried away. It is a somber memorial, and most people displayed a quiet respect when visiting.

From there, we continued north and walked by the Hungarian Parliament Buildings and the memorial to the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. That uprising, also referred to as the Hungarian Revolution, was an attempted revolution against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and the policies caused by the government’s capitulation to the Soviet Union.

Memorial of the Hungarian Uprising

It lasted a very short time. By many accounts it began October 23 when protesters toppled a 26-foot tall statue of Soviet leader Josef Stalin in front of the National Theatre in Budapest and ended November 4 when thousands of Soviet tanks and troops entered Budapest to crack down on the protests. 

We walked through the Kossuth Lajos Square, past the Ministry of Agriculture building and the Kossuth Lajos building, both of which were undergoing renovations.

Parliament and Monument to Prince Francis II

Heading back to the hotel, we asked the front desk clerk to book us a taxi to the Carl Lutz rakpart, the port on the Danube where our “Budapest Sightseeing Cruise & Unlimited Prosecco” was to depart. The taxi from the company Bolt was waiting at the appointed hour, the driver used the meter, and the charge came up to 4000 HUF, to which he said, “10 Euros.” That was actually a slight discount over the prevailing exchange rate, but was fine.

Bálna Budapest aka The Budapest Whale

For about 60 minutes, we cruised the Danube, sipped Prosecco, nibbled hors d’oeuvres, and listened to periodic, recorded explanations of the sites we were passing. One was the Budapest Whale, a mixed-use center with shops, cafes, bars and an art gallery. It also boasts a terrace with great views of the city. 

Our cruise, booked through Viator prior to leaving home, was very pleasant and provided an overview of the city from the water.

Heading back to the hotel was a bit of an adventure.

A sign visible to those leaving the dock advised those departing to choose our taxis carefully. We’d read guide books admonishing tourists to “only engage licensed cabs, which you’ll recognize by their yellow color and yellow license plates,” which is advice we followed. However, unlike the ride from our hotel which was in a cab operated by a named company, we got into a cab that said, “Freelancer” on the side instead of the name of a cab company.

Big mistake.

They look legit but avoid "freelance" taxi drivers

A few moments into the ride, I noticed the meter was not running, so I asked about it. The driver said, “15,000 Forint.” I immediately objected, noting that our ride over was only 4,000 Forint. He said something about a “night premium,” which is not listed anywhere on the cab. The only figures are the meter drop, HUF per kilometer and per minute wait time.

I pulled out my trusty iPhone and started snapping pictures of his cab license, number, and anything else I thought I’d need to file a complaint, which I fully intended to do.

When we got to the end of the street our hotel was on, he pulled over and said, “No charge.” I presume he realized he’d tried to scam the wrong travelers.

The bottom line is this: Look for licensed, yellow cabs with yellow plates AND which are affiliated with companies. Avoid any cab with the word “freelancer” on the side.

Bullet dodged.

For the next morning, we’d scheduled a four-hour van tour with a personal guide. As arranged, she showed up promptly at 9 a.m. Although we had previously sent a list of the things we wanted to see, we pivoted because of the sites we’d seen the day before and asked for a more general overview of the city. Anikó, our guide, was more than happy to oblige.

My wife, aka The Timid Traveler, with Anikó at Heroes' Square

When arranging a tour, particularly a longer and/or private tour, it’s important to know that the tour operator is reputable. I originally contacted Andrea Makkay at PrivateGuideBudapest.com because of a recommendation from travel guru Rick Steves. Andrea was already booked for the dates of our trip, and that’s where it would have ended with many guides: “Sorry; I’m not available for those dates.” But Andrea, a licensed private guide for nearly 30 years, has connections whom she personally trusts and recommends when needed, so she connected us with Anikó. We could not have been more pleased.

Millennium Monument in Heroes' Square

Climbing into the van, we headed toward the eastern part of the city and Heroes' Square. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the centerpiece is the Millennium Monument, with statues representing the seven tribes that founded Hungary. Statues of King Saint Stephen I, King Béla IV, and Lajos Kossuth ring the square. Kossuth served as the Prime Minister, then Governor-President of Hungary while it was fighting its Revolution and War of Independence in 1848–1849 against the oppressive Habsburg Empire. Across the street from the square is a memorial to Pope John Paul II.

Budapest Museum of Fine Arts

From Heroes’ Square, it was less than a kilometer to the Budapest Biodóm, a structure near the Budapest Zoo that will feature a closed ecosystem of animal holding spaces, walkways and park areas. It is designed using a light-transmitting foil instead of glass for weight, and the solar radiation entering the building through the foil will help maintain an appropriate temperature in the dome.

Central Market Hall

Anikó took us to a number of sites, including the city’s famous indoor farmer’s market, the Central Market Hall. The selection of meats, cheeses, vegetables, and all other manner of comestibles was truly impressing, though a bit disappointing for foodies like us, because we were staying in places that did not have kitchens where we could bring back goodies and cook them for ourselves. It was a bit like being a kid in a candy store and being told, “No, you have to wait.” ARGH!

Statue of Ronald Reagan in Liberty Square

From there, we headed to Liberty Square to see the statue of Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” - 1987), the Soviet War Memorial, and the Memorial for Victims of the German Occupation. The dome behind Reagan in the photo is the Hungarian Parliament Building.

Memorial for the Victims of the German Occupation at Liberty Square

We crossed the Chain Bridge to the Buda side with Castle Hill, Buda Castle, the Castle Labyrinth, Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion, the Budapest History/Castle Museum, the Fairy Tale Museum, and the Hospital in the Rock and Nuclear Bunker. Situated in a 10-kilometer long natural cave system underneath the Buda Castle district, the Hospital in the Rock was built to house an air raid hospital. It opened in February 1944 and was in constant use at full capacity during the siege of Budapest (1944-45). It was later transformed into a nuclear bunker.

Hungarian Statue of Liberty

Toward the southern end of the hill is the Hungarian Statue of Liberty and the Citadell, which is presently in the middle of a restoration. It will be beautiful when finished but even amidst the construction hubbub, the view of Budapest from this site is well worth a visit.

Scattered around the city are many whimsical miniature statues by sculptor Mykhailo Kolodko. The one above, on Castle Hill, is called the Checkered-Eared Rabbit. Some visitors make it their quest to see just how many they can locate and photograph.

Matthias Church with its ornate mosaic roof

Of course, tours are available for all sites, museums and attractions. Some things, like visiting the insides of various churches, are free while others entail a small- to modest charge. There is also a “hop on, hop of bus ride” in the Castle District. Although the district is on a hill, the inclines are moderate and walking is not that taxing.

I would recommend spending at least a half day exploring the Castle District. Decide what interests you - history, art, architecture, churches, whatever – pick a couple of attractions and go for it. But also, know your limits. Many tours include estimates of the time to be spent. We are generally good for a maximum of 90 minutes per visit before we hit our limit so a tour estimated to run 2-1/2 hours would not be appealing to us. But everyone is different, so know your own travel style.

With your day pass to public transit, you can get the No. 16 bus at the Deák Ferenc tér (subway station) and head up for your hilltop adventure, then take the same bus back when you’ve finished your exploring.

After our full day, we decided to end our visit to Budapest with a nice dinner out. More on that in our next post.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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