The entire city center of Budapest is a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE site.
Day 1: Danube Cruise: Hungary is one of Europe’s oldest countries with a fascinating history and rich heritage. We bid Vienna goodbye and after a short ride we halted at Esztergom to see its fine cathedral, castle and St. Tamas Hill.
We then drove along side the Danube to Budapest, the capital, often referred to as the Paris of the East is actually twin cities of Buda and Pest that are separated by the romantic River Danube. We arrived in Pest around 2 pm and checked into the Radisson. The hotel was a bit of disappointment as compared to the Hiltons in Prague and Vienna. Budapest is the capital of Hungary. It comprises of two cities Buda and Pest on either side of the Danube which united on 17 November 1873 to become one. The population is 1.75 million in the city with 3.25 million people in the overall metropolitan area. Aquincum, originally a Celtic settlement, was the direct ancestor of Budapest,becoming the Roman capital of Lower Pannonia. Magyars arrived in the territory in the 9th century. Their first settlement was pillaged by the Mongols in 1241-42. The re-established town became one of the centres of Renaissance humanist culture in the 15th century. Following the Battle of Mohács and nearly 150 years of Ottoman rule, development of the region entered a new age of prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Budapest became a global city after the 1873 unification. It also became the second capital of Austria-Hungary, a great power that dissolved in 1918. Budapest was the focal point of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, Operation Panzerfaust in 1944, the Battle of Budapest of 1945, and the Revolution of 1956.
Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, an UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE that includes the banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter, Andrássy Avenue, Heroes’ Square and the Millennium Underground Railway, the second oldest in the world. We spent the afternoon exploring the neighborhood and our first stop was the famous railway station, the Nyugati Pályaudvar or West Station. This was designed by August de Serres and the Eiffel Company of Paris (of Eiffel Tower fame). Just beside the West Station is a very ornate McDonald’s Restaurant that is reputed to have the most beautiful interior of any fast food restaurant on the planet. This McDonald’s also has the distinction of being second busiest of all of McDonald’s restaurants worldwide. After a cup of coffee, tasted the same as anywhere, we walked down Andrássy út street, the Champs-Élysées of Budapest, with a photo stop outside the State Opera House.
We then checked out the beautiful St. Stephen’s Basilica, the largest church in Hungary that took 3 architects over 50 years to build and is a fine example of ecclesiastic architecture. The interior of the church is very ornate and includes 50 different types of marble, elaborately decorated chapels, and many sculptures, including a bust of the basilica’s patron saint, who was the first Christian king of Hungary.
Outside the church we met some students who were selling tickets to a Hungarian folklore show. Since the performance hall was right down the street we decided to check out the seating and choose our seats. We then headed back to the hotel and got ready for the evening cruise. Andrea, our local guide joined us and after a short bus ride we arrived at the pier where our private boat was waiting for us. The hour long cruise with the lit up monuments and city light reflections in the water was just magical. To top it all we had plenty of wine, an amazing spread of local cuisine and yummy desserts as well. The Buda Castle and Parliament House looked straight out of a fairy tale.
Day 2: City Tour: Still feeling the effects of the magical Danube Cruise we set out on our sightseeing tour with Andrea. Our first stop was Heroes Square, at the entrance of City Park and flanked by the Palace of Fine Arts and the Palace of Art, which was built to honor the great leaders in Hungary’s history. Be sure to learn about Hungary’s double cross here.
We then drove the length of Andrassy Avenue and over to the Buda side via the Chain Bridge, a magnificent suspension bridge, to the historic castle district that houses the famous Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. Well-known for its breath taking panoramic views of Budapest, the castle-like Fisherman’s Bastion was built in 1905, mainly for decorative purposes. This fairytale medieval castle was a sight to behold. The Matthias Church with magnificent diamond patterned roof tiles and gargoyles adds to the magical charm of this area. We ended the included part of our city tour and headed to the Pest side for our Budapest “secret treasures” optional excursion.
Our first stop was famous Gundel restaurant, best known for its mouth watering pancakes, in the city park area. After delicious pancakes and a drink, we strolled across to the Vajdahunyad Castle, the most interesting building complex in the City Park. In the pretty chapel of this fairy-tale like castle, we enjoyed a short private organ concert by Laszlo Gestesi-Toth, the organist from the Church of the Holy Spirit and a young and very talented organist. We concluded our tour with a guided tour of the Basilica. All that sight seeing left us a little hungry so we got a quick bite at Bombay Express and decided to head out to Váci Utca and the medieval markets which was a short subway ride from our hotel. Váci Utca, or Váci street starts from Vörösmarty Square, where it is pedestrian only and leads to the Great Market Hall (Nagycsamok) near Fõvám Tér. The street has many upscale stores and coffee shops. The market closes by late afternoon, so we missed exploring it that day. We walked back to St Stephen’s church and got coffee at California Coffee Company and proceeded to the Hungarian folklore show. It was a fun show but got fairly loud at times. After a quick dinner we retired for the night.
Day 3: Markets: We set out early to explore the Central Market Hall or the Great market Hall, Budapest’s largest indoor market. This 3 storied bright, colorful market that serves the needs of the city’s residents and tourists. On the ground level, there are mainly fruit and vegetable vendors and in the basement it’s the fishmongers, and vendors selling game meat. On the upper floor, there are stalls selling beautiful Hungarian arts and crafts with some local fast food stands as well.
It’s a great place to sample the local cuisine and culture. We bought souvenirs to bring back home and hurriedly made our way to the Parliament house to make our 1 pm appointment.
The neo-gothic style monument, with Baroque and Renaissance influences was inspired by the Houses of Parliament in London. Our tour included the staircase, the central hall which houses the Holy Crown of Hungary and adjoining Lower House (the National Assembly meets here). Reservations are required to enter the Parliament and you can only enter with a guide.
We then walked back to our hotel passing the famous Gresham, a Four Seasons hotel, Chain Bridge and many more historic monuments with some time to relax before the farewell dinner. After a quick bus ride we went to a local restaurant for our farewell dinner with our new found friends on the tour. A delicious dinner, some local music and conversations with fellow tourists made this a very memorable dinner. This ended our Bohemian Rhapsody with Trafalgar tours.
1. Hungary is still waking up from its communistic lethargy. Be wary of restaurants and the prices.
2. DO NOT eat at Pertu Station restaurant in Budapest. They are cheats.
Journey dates: 1st July – 4th July 2010
Travelers: Shwetha Shrivatsa, Karthik Raja, Jayanthi Bala, Parasuram Bala
Tour: Trafalgar Tours – highly recommended