I was wholly unprepared for what was awaiting me on a last-minute trip to Budapest. When a return flight ticket costs 26€, you buy first and ask questions later. A very unplanned, but exhilarating two days in Budapest were ahead for me. And while Budapest during the day was breathtaking, at night it gave me full on heart palpitations!
Hungarian Winter Weekend
Going in winter gave me some great advantages, with only minor disadvantages. The first, main advantage was the crowds, or lack of. Of course there were other tourists, I don’t think you can find a time in any European capital when its’ streets will be devoid of tourists. But it was definitely less crowded than my weekend in Prague, and I can imagine much less crowded than what it’s like in the height of summer.
The trade-off of this is of course, the less than stellar weather. I had actually hoped to see the city with a light dusting of snow, but instead was greeted with warmer, and wetter, weather. Not deterred, I was able to explore the further emptied cobblestone streets and alleys in the fascinating and stunning capital of Hungary.
The other advantage in winter is the reduced daylight hours. In most places this is considered a negative, but when a city like Budapest looks so beautiful at night, you’re counting down the hours until the sun sets and you see the city erupt in a cacophony of golden light.
The River Danube
The main artery through the city, the Danube River runs through or drains into almost 20 European countries, and is the second longest river in Europe (second to the Volga in Russia). The majority of Budapest sites are around the river area, and with trams running up and down either bank, it makes for a pretty easy couple of days sightseeing.
One one side you have the iconic and impressive Parliament Building, right next to the haunting WWII memorial Shoes on the Danube Bank. Created in 2005 by a Hungarian film director working with a Hungarian sculpture, this memorial pays tribute to over 3,500 (mostly) Budapest Jews shot, killed, and dumped in the Danube during WWII. Prior to being murdered, they were instructed to remove their shoes, which would fetch a high price on the black market. The amount of candles and flowers around the iron shoes shows that this tragedy is still deeply felt by many citizens of Budapest.
On the bank opposite the Parliament, rising up on hills of Buda, is the old Buda Castle as well as many of the other standard tourist fodder, including a roundabout that dates back to Roman times. All roads really do lead to Rome! I highly recommend visiting this area, even more so at night. But more on that later!
Speaking Hungarian (Well, Trying To!)
With 44 letters in its alphabet it can seem a bit daunting to try to translate and pronounce the words you see. Luckily, there is a great trade off to this increased alphabet. With only a few minor exceptions, each letter is always, and only, pronounced one way. So once you learn the letters, you don’t have to worry about how the letters will sound in other vowel groupings or depending on adjacent letters. The only notable exception to this rule I encountered was with “s” and “sz”. The “s” sounds like “esh”, that’s right, that annoying guy in college who studied abroad in Europe was right all along. It is pronounced Budapesht. But he’s still annoying for other reasons, I’m sure! However, when the “s” is preceded by a “z”, it is reverted back to an English “s” sound.
Being part of the Uralic language family, it is hard to describe exactly what Hungarian sounds like. Due to its proximity to Russian speaking countries, and its place in the USSR, the language tone may sound a bit Russian, but the words and letters are entirely different from those in any Slavic language. Equally fascinating is the degree in which Hungarian has relatively few borrow-words from the neighboring Slavic, Germanic, and Latin based languages. It’s a very unique tongue and was worth eavesdropping in cafes to try to get a grasp on the rhythm and feel of the language.
So, armed with that knowledge I invite you to learn a little more about the Hungarian language. I found this brief tutorial very helpful to learn some of the basics. After learning a few of these simple words/phrases (however butchered), they did seem to put a smile on most Hungarian faces I encountered. While most people (especially younger and those working in tourism/hospitality) in Budapest speak some English, it’s always nice and respectful to at least attempt a smattering of local vocabulary.
Heroes Square and City Park
Flanked by museums on either side, the Heroes’ Square (completed 1900) pays tribute to past rulers (back to the first century) and the seven historic Magyar chieftains. Directly behind the square is the City Park, which is home to several other monuments, like the modern and somewhat controversial 1956 Revolution Memorial. Built on the former site of statue of Stalin (toppled in the revolution), it symbolizes the coming together of the Hungarian people and the united force of community. I enjoyed the monument, but others would have preferred a more standard memorial.
For the random nerd in all of us, find the Timewheel, the world’s largest hourglass, rotated only once a year. Perfectly quirky, it is very close to the Vajdahunyad Castle, built to commemorate 1,000 years of Hungary. Also located in the park are the famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths, which I didn’t have time to enjoy, but looked pretty darn relaxing!
It would be remiss of me not the mention the circus! I had a pleasure and privilege of meeting a good friend in Budapest who, in addition to playing tourist with me, also got us tickets to see the Hungarian State Circus. Changing every season, the show I saw was interesting as the theme was “neighbors”, and all of the artists in the show came from countries that shared a border with Hungary.
Museums and Churches
For my weekend trip I purchased the Budapest Card, and while helpful, I don’t think it saved me much money. The biggest advantage of the card is unlimited public transit, but you can also buy (multi) day passes for that. It does include some museums for free, but for most it only provides a small discount. And if, like me, you are in town on a Monday, all of the museums are closed so it doesn’t help you that day.
Needless to say I did enjoy visiting some of Budapest’s Museums. My favorite was easily the Hall of Arts, located next to the Heroes’ Square. It introduced me to some beautiful works art by Hungarian (and other) artists that I had never heard of before. Károly Lotz was one of my favorites. He had an immense range, from stylized, almost comic-esque murals, to beautiful nude sketches, to standard oil portraits. The modern art section of the museum however fell under the “is that really art?” category for me, but it was still worthwhile to see the classics.
I also enjoyed the Hungarian National Museum which provided a good overview of Hungarian history, culture, and art from Roman times to the present day. Had I been there for more non-Monday days I would’ve liked to see the Budapest History Museum, inside Buda Castle.
Budapest Architecture: Art Nouveau
Another highlight in Budapest for me was roofs! Sounds like a strange thing to focus on, but trust me, there is good reason. I have always loved tile and mosaics, so when I first looked at the Central Market Hall, the honeycomb tile patterns in gold, brown, and olive on its roof captivated me. Hungarian Zsolnay tiles, all manufactured in Pec, Hungary, can be seen adorning many of Budapest’s famous Art Nouveau buildings. These beautiful, frost resistant, tiles won several prizes at various Worlds’ Fairs during its heyday around the turn of the 20th century.
In addition to the Central Market Hall, I was equally fascinated by the Matthias Church, located by Fisherman’s Bastion. Had I known you can bring some of this UNESCO site home with me, I would’ve! The National Geological Institute and the Postal Savings Bank also provide unique roofs to gawk at.
Budapest At Night
I’ve saved the best for last! As I hinted at earlier, Budapest really shines at night, both literally and figuratively. I’m always pleasantly surprised by how beautiful illuminated buildings look, especially considering most were built in a time before electricity had really been harnessed. Of bridges crossing the River Danube there are several, but my favorite is one in the south, the Liberty Bridge. While most of the city was flooded with golden light, this bridge is illuminated in white light, thus showing off its unique emerald color. Like a bridge to Oz, I couldn’t help but be captivated by it every night I was in town and planned most of my excursions to include a crossing on it.
Located right on the River Danube, on the banks opposite of the Parliament Building, I took a moment to defrost my cold fingers and sample some of the Hungarian viticulture.Wine-Bar Andante has a few wine tasting menus and pairings. With a friendly and knowledgeable staff they tried their best to educate me on their country’s wine regions. However, after a couple of the tastings my brain seemed less interested in learning, and more interested in trying wine! But its central location and awesome view alone were worth eating and drinking there!
But after a few nights in beautiful Budapest it was time to return home to Berlin where I was getting ready to finish my contract at the Wintergarten Variete and start the next phase! I decided to hold off too much more traveling as I was planning a trip to Finland, and you know how expensive it is up there!