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Sightseeing in Budapest
Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is a city of epic faded grandeur with elegant historic coffee houses, art noveau architecture and stylish boulevards. The city boasts about 125 lavish thermal baths, beautiful views from the many bridges and the atmospheric river Danube, which separates hilly Buda from more regular Pest, and whose “gentle waves,” in the words of the great Hungarian poet Attila József, “embrace past, present, and future.” Don’t forget to take the rickety screeching ride on the second-oldest metro line in the world, the Millennium Underground Railway!
It takes about four days to see everything in Budapest; more, if you want to take your time in the thermal baths and the museums. But if you have just one day, you can enjoy the city as well. Below I’ve prepared a one day sightseeing itinerary.
We are going to start our day with a thermal bath. Budapest has been called the Spa City only for 80 years, yet the first 14 baths were already established 2000 years ago. Their remnants can still be seen in Obuda, part of District III. The baths in operation today were founded by the Turks 500 years ago, for example the Rudas and the Kiraly Baths. Because thermal waters had beneficial effects for the health, Budapest was called “the Mecca of Rheumatics” at that time. The most popular baths are Szechenyi, Gellert, Kiraly Bath, Rudas and Veli Bej Bath. (More information: http://visitbudapest.travel/activities/budapest-baths/).
Get up very early. All cafés are closed at this time so head straight for Gellert Baths (Kelenhegyi út 4, metro: Szent Gellert ter) – they open at 6 a.m. You can have a coffee in a café inside. Get your ticket(s) and go down to change. At this time there aren’t going to be many people there so you’ll have the thermal bath (36 C = 96.8 F) and the swimming pool almost to yourself. You might want to get a massage as well. Spend about two hours at the Baths.
When you leave the building, cross the street and go up a few steps to the Gellert Hill Cave with the statue of Saint Stephen in front. The cave is also called "Saint Ivan's Cave" to commemorate a hermit who lived there and healed the sick with the thermal water from a nearby lake. In 1926 the church was built in the cave (the Cave Church) to be used by Hungary’s Pauline order. It was closed during the communist years and then reopened in 1992.
Have a look inside and then go down to admire the Liberty Bridge, connecting Buda and Pest. The bridge has 334 metres, which makes it the shortest bridge in the city. It was constructed for the Millennium World Exhibition in 1896 and opened by Francis Joseph I, the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, during the celebrations held for the 1,000 year jubilee of Hungary. At the end of World War II the bridge was destroyed by retreating German soldiers but after the war it was the first bridge to be rebuilt.
Cross the bridge and find a nice café for breakfast. After breakfast walk along Petofi Sandor Street with cafes and souvenirs, looking up to check out some of the more interesting buildings. From Deak Ferenc Square take the metro red line one stop to Astoria station. Get to the Grand Synagogue on Dohany Street, the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world.
Between the wars anti-Semitism grew in Hungary and anti-Jewish policies were passed in the country. Hungary became Germany’s ally. The Arrow Cross Party, a fascist group, which gained more supporters then damaged the Synagogue. During the war the Synagogue was used as a base for German Radio, then it was included in an internment camp for the city Jews. After the war it became the prayer house again.
The synagogue has Moorish and Romantic architectural elements. The most interesting things inside are the central rose window, the organ and the Jewish Museum (with a collection of religious relics). The complex consists of the Great Synagogue, the Heroes' Temple (a memorial to Hungarian Jews who died during WWI), Jewish Cemetery (with 2,000 people who died in the Jewish ghetto in 1944-45), and the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial, (a weeping willow tree with the leaves inscribed with the names of Holocaust victims). Dohany Street itself was the border of the Budapest Ghetto. If you have some spare time, you can go to Goldmark Hall (Wesselényi u. 7) to see the Jewish Quarter Exhibition with interactive displays, showing what life was like in the Jewish Quarter from the 18th century onward.
Next walk around Gozsdu-Udvar, the four-floor antique flea market. On the other side of the passage check out Spinoza Café (Dob u. 15) where you can have coffee. Go to the neo-classical St Stephen Basilica, the largest church in the city named after the first king of Hungary whose "incorruptible" right hand is kept in a glass case in the reliquary. The basilica is 96 metres high, which is the same height as the Parliament. What is interesting is that the building regulations in Budapest allow no building to be taller than 96 metres. The interior is decorated by famous artists of the era. There are two bell towers in the basilica; the one in the south tower is the biggest in the country and weighs 9.5 tons. You can go up 364 steps or take an elevator to the dome’s observation deck for the spectacular views of the city.
If you are hungry, I recommend Hummus Bar (Október 6. u. 19) which offers delicious vegan, vegetarian and meat dishes. Then go back to Andrassy Avenue and walk down the street. On your way you will see the Opera from the 19th century (Andrássy út 22) and Alexandra Bookstore with a grand Book Café (Andrássy út 39). You can have a coffee and some traditional Doboi cake there or save room in your stomach for the same thing later in New York Café. Continue down Andrassy Avenue looking up at the facades of the buildings until you reach House of Terror (an exhibiton connected with fascist and communist regimes in 20th century Hungary).
Take the metro to Blaha Luiza Square and walk down Erzsebet Boulevard (9-11) to Boscolo Budapest Hotel, formerly called New York Palace. There’s New York Café inside, called “the most beautiful café in the world,” frequented by writers and editors at the turn of the 20th century. There’s usually a line in front of the cafe so you might want to make a reservation in advance: http://www.newyorkcafe.hu/reservation.html
Take the metro to Heroes Square. On your left there is the Museum of Fine Arts (Dózsa György út 41) and on your right Kunsthalle (Dózsa György út 37) (there’s a restroom in the information point). Both are worth visiting, if you have more time in the city.
Go straight ahead, cross the bridge and go in the direction of the Vajdahunyad Castle in the city park by the boating lake. The castle was built in 1896, first from cardboard and wood, but because it was very popular, it was rebuilt from stone and brick at the beginning of the 20th century. The castle features a kind of an overview of Hungarian architectural evolution through centuries. Various parts of the castle are imitation of many fine historical buildings to make up this eclectic palace.
Take the metro to Kossuth Lajos ter station and walk to the impressive Hungarian Parliament Building in the Gothic Revival style, third largest Parliament building in the world. It was inspired by the British Houses of Parliament. It has 20 km (12,5 miles) of stairs and 691 rooms. When the National Assembly is not in session, you can take a guided tour (about 45 minutes) of the Parliament (it’s best to book the ticket online https://www.jegymester.hu/eng/Production/480000/Parliament-visit). The tour covers the Main Staircase, the coronation jewels in the Dome Hall, the Old Upper House Hall and the Lounge. Walk around to admire the 242 sculptures on the walls. Then walk down to the bank of Danube and along the river to the left.
The Shoes on the Danube Bank is a memorial “to the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by arrow cross militiamen in 1944-45.” The victims were ordered to take their shoes off before they were shot at the edge of the river and their bodies fell into water.
Walk along the river to Chain Bridge (about 15-20 min.) guarded by the lions. Cross over to the other side. Take the funicular up to the Castle Hill (there’s also a path starting to your right). You need about 2 hours to walk around the Hill. There are the Buda Castle (the Royal Castle with the Budapest History Museum and the National Gallery exhibiting Hungarian painting, sculpture and photographs), Trinity Square with Matthias Church (with a unique coloured tile roof and the interior inspired by orientalism and romantic historicism), Fisherman’s Bastion (lookout towers and decorated fortifications from the 19th century; the 7 towers stand for the 7 tribes which founded the present day Hungary) and the pretty houses from the 14th, 15th and 18th centuries along the cobbled streets. Take in the great views of the Parliament.
For a snack you can have a potato pancake, chimney cake or other traditional dishes at the food market nearby. You can also try killer palinka (traditional strong fruit brandy)!
On your way back don’t forget to look at the Parliament by night.