Part 1 of a two-part series on our weekend trip to Budapest, featuring our discovery of Budapest’s resilient charm and exploration of Buda.
Our trip to Budapest is our first foray to Eastern Europe. If we were to base our expectations solely on stereotypes, we would have anticipated to see scars of war and post-communist poverty. But thanks to online research & our Eastern European friends, we knew that such was not the case.
To our surprise, just two minutes outside the airport on our way to Central Budapest, we started to see that the Hollywood hyperboles were not entirely untrue. I remember doing a double take on an old strip mall we came across—the first one we’ve seen in Europe. Some streets were lined with buildings that looked abandoned, with paint chipping off, broken windows and boarded doors. Certain residential areas looked down-and-out. And overall, it looked like an impoverished North America—a side Europe we never thought we’d see.
As we inched closer to Central Budapest, the improvement of the surroundings, better lit roads and buildings, and the overall lighter feel of the city is unmistakable. When we got off the taxi at the Four Seasons, Budapest stood in front of us in all its grandeur:
Within a short 25-minute cab ride from the airport, we saw a glimpse of Budapest’s resilience. The city has relentlessly repaired itself after being left in ruins by the Nazis in the 1940s and ravaged by the Soviets until the late 1950s. Apparently, the hope is that the development make its way slowly from the big cities to the rest of the country. Reminders of Hungary’s dark history are still palpable just a few minutes outside the city centre, but if the photos in this blog post are any indication, we can be assured that the less-than-pretty areas will soon be restored to its former glory in no time.
WINTER WEEKEND BREAK
Spending a weekend in Budapest gave us a good idea of how beautiful it really is. The city is so magical in the dead of winter, I can just imagine how pretty it must be in warmer weather. I’ll say that 3 days will be perfect for Budapest, but if all you have is 2, then that will work, too. Here’s the breakdown of our 48-hour winter weekend break:
Friday, 8:00pm: Night photography
Just outside the Four Seasons Gresham Palace is the a beautiful view of Buda cross the Danube (River). Buda Castle, Matthias Church and the Chain Bridge are all beautifully lit so a photo session is definitely mandatory:
About 5 minutes walk from the Chain Bridge area is St. Stephen’s Basilica. The church’s dome is a prominent figure in Pest’s skyline so seeing it up close is an absolute must. The entire church is beautifully illuminated at night:
Saturday, 9:00AM: St. Stephen’s Basilica
We kicked off Saturday right where we ended our Friday evening, at St. Stephen’s Basilica. This time around, we went inside to appreciate the tallest building in Budapest, and most important church in all of Hungary. Entrance is free and once inside, be ready to strain your neck looking up the entire time at the church’s most impressive ceiling:
Saturday, 10:00AM: Crossing the Danube to Buda from Pest
The plan for Saturday is to visit the must-sees in Buda. Since our hotel is in Pest, we had to cross the famous Chain Bridge. The picture of the bridge, Buda Castle & Matthias church in daylight is very different from when we saw it the night before— just as beautiful, but different.
Once at the Buda side, we immediately headed to the part of the bank that faced the magnificent Hungarian House of Parliament. I would have loved to have been able to visit and take part in a guided tour of the building, but there was not enough time in our trip (hence my suggestion of spending 3 vs. 2 days):
Now at the Buda side of the Danube, I was able to take a photo of the Chain Bridge with Pest in the background:
Saturday, 11:00AM: Funiculaire to Castle Hill
By midday we found ourselves lined up at the funiculaire to make our to the top of Caste Hill where we’ll be able to see Buda Castle, Matthias Church and other must-sees in the Buda side upclose. If you do not wish to spend the roundtrip fare of 1,700 HUF (6 EUR) in the 2-minute ride, you have the option of climbing up the stairs.
When we reached the top of Castle Hill, we noticed a large group of people gathered around. Although unplanned, we actually arrived just in time for the changing of the guards. It was so amusingly different from what we’ve seen in London, Copenhagen or Stockholm. The guards’ way of marching is definitely distinct; at certain points they pronounce how their toes hit the ground first and they almost look like ballerinas. I want to say toy soldier ballerina, but I don’t think the memories triggered by that uniform is anywhere near to be toyed around with.
After the changing of the guards, we started to explore the cobbled streets of Castle Hill. We got to appreciate Buda Castle (now the National Gallery) up close, as well as stunning views of Pest from high up.
If you have time, you can spend time in the small crafts market atop the hill and buy yourself a souvenir. I particularly loved the lace work and embroidery especially those that feature the Hungarian matyó motif:
Saturday, 1:00PM: Matthias Church & Fisherman’s Bastion
Soon we found ourselves at the steps of Matthias Church, named after King Matthias himself. Beautiful on the outside with its oh-so-colourfully tiled roof, most first time visitors in Budapest stop at taking photos of the church’s facade. At 1,000 HUF per person, the entrance fee to the church seems quite high compared to St. Stephen’s Basilica which is 100% free. But in my opinion, you might as well just miss it entirely if you do not see the interior of the church. I can only compare it to going to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and not seeing Gaudi’s forest canopy inside.
What’s inside Matthias Church is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Although under construction, it already gives you a glimpse of how beautiful it will be once renovation is completed. Unlike other Gothic & Late Renaissance churches, Matthias Church does not have a single gold leaf moulding or fresco. Perhaps owing to the fact that it was turned into a mosque during the Turkish invasion, the interior decór of the church is unlike any other with its many colours, shapes and patterns.
Outside Matthias Church is the Fisherman’s Bastion (also known as Halászbástya) which gives you another panoramic view of Pest. The 7 towers are for the 7 tribes that started off Hungary or Magyar in 895AD, and the name is in honour of the fishermen who defended the terrace back in the Middle Ages. As you can see from these photos, one of the perks of going to Budapest in the winter is that it’s off season therefore there are less tourists in the city. This means we got the terrace all to ourselves for some time.
Saturday, 2:00PM: Gellért Hill & the best panoramic view of Budapest
It’s a 2-kilometre 30-minute climb up from Castle Hill to Gellért Hill which is the highest point of Buda. This is definitely walkable if you have time and energy to spare. Since we were short on both, we decided to hop on a cab.
Getting to the top will give you a close look at Budapest’s version of Lady Liberty symbolizing Hungary’s liberation from the Nazis at first, and then the Soviets much later. But the real reason we went up is to see the promised best panoramic view of Budapest. And the promise was fulfilled; even on a grey, snowy winter day, the view of the Danube with Buda & Pest flanking it on either side, is nothing short of breathtaking.
Continue to Part 2 of the series featuring the Pest side of Budapest and the world famous Széchenyi thermal bath.