Budapest: the Best of Hungary
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're soaking up the cultural wonders of Hungary...in Budapest. Your move!
Budapest is a heavyweight city filled with subtle charms. It's cosmopolitan, complicated and a bit challenging at first. Seasoned travelers like it more with each visit. For many, Budapest is Eastern Europe's most fascinating and rewarding destination.
We'll soak in elegance at thermal baths, stomp and slap with traditional dancers, visit the communist all-stars now in a statue park, remember Hungary's secret police, sample some paprika and cruise under floodlit monuments.
Hungary, landlocked deep in central Europe and formerly part of the Warsaw Pact, is now part of the European Union. The separate cities of Buda and Pest once straddled the Danube River. Now they've grown together to make Budapest.
This mythic bird, the Turul, was the bird of the original Hungarians — the Magyars — who migrated out of the plains of Central Asia. In the year 896, the bird dropped its sword here, indicating that this was to be their homeland. The Magyars settled here setting into motion a tumultuous and fascinating thousand-year story which ultimately gave us the modern nation of Hungary...and this great capital.
Situated on a crossroads between Europe and Asia, those original Magyars absorbed waves of migrating ethnic groups. Who are the people of Budapest? Start with those first Magyar settlers, mix in Germans, Slavs, Jews, Gypsies, spice with a dash of Turkish paprika...and simmer for a few centuries in its famous thermal baths. Each group had an impact. All this ethnic piling on created a cultural goulash that is distinctly...Budapest.
Starting in the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks ruled for about 150 years. Later, as part of the Hapsburg Empire — ruled from Vienna and energized by an influx of German-speakers — the city became more European.
The last half of the 1800s was a boom time for Budapest — cafes were packed as was its opera house. The Hapsburgs agreed to a treaty making Hungary a junior partner in a vast realm they now called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As Vienna's second fiddle, Budapest governed a huge chunk of Eastern Europe. The boom peaked with a flurry of construction preparing for a huge festival in 1896 — Hungary's 1,000th birthday.
Like so much of Budapest, Hungary's parliament was built for the big 1896 party. Its elegant neo-Gothic design and riverside location were inspired by its counterpart in London. It's enormous — with literally miles of grand halls — designed to help administer that sprawling multinational Hapsburg Empire.
With the end of World War I, the Hapsburgs were gone and Hungary, while much smaller, was fully independent. But then came the Nazis...followed by the Communists. That illusive freedom was finally won after the fall of the USSR in 1989, and since then the city has blossomed.
Today, Hungary rules only Hungary, and it's ruled not by an emperor, but by democratically elected representatives who legislate from what is now a palace of democracy.
Like Vienna, Budapest feels more grandiose than the capital of a relatively small country. But the city remains the cultural capital of Eastern Europe with a keenly developed knack for good living.
You can enjoy that Hungarian joy of life at the Széchenyi Baths. Soak with the locals. Of the city's two dozen or so traditional mineral baths, this is the most accessible and fun.
Budapest is hot — literally. It sits on a thin crust over thermal springs, which power all these baths. Both the ancient Romans and Ottoman Turks enjoyed these same mineral springs. They still say, "poke a hole in the ground anywhere in Hungary, and you'll find hot water."
Magyars of all shapes and sizes squeeze themselves into tiny swimsuits and strut their stuff. Babushkas float blissfully in the warm water. The Speedo-clad old-boys club gathers pensively around soggy chessboards. And the circle of rapids brings out the kid in people of all ages. After 2,000 years of experience and innovation, Locals have honed the art of enjoying their thermal hot springs.
Budapest straddles the Danube River. On the west side of the Danube is hilly Buda, dominated by Castle Hill. The royal palace marks the place where one of Europe's mightiest castles once stood. Since the 14th century, Hungary has been ruled from this spot.
As World War II drew to a close, Buda became the frontline between the Nazis and the approaching Soviets, who laid siege to Castle Hill for several months. Today's palace — rebuilt from the rubble of WWII — isn't really worth touring. But it sits on soil drenched in Hungarian history and is close to the soul of this nation.
Another Castle Hill landmark, the 800-year-old Matthias Church, has also been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Its flamboyant steeple and other frilly elements were added for the 1896 celebrations. The opulent and gilded interior tells a thousand years of local history: Crusader heroics — beating back the Turks — all painted in a fanciful neo-Gothic way.
The church's prize possession hides in a chapel in the back. Peer through the black iron grill to see the 500-year-old statue of Mary and Jesus, which comes with a story.
Back in the 16th century, as Turks were about to overrun Buda, locals — anticipating a complete ransacking — hid this precious statue — plastering it into a niche. The occupying Turks used the church as their main mosque for over a century, whitewashing everything...hanging carpets on the walls. Then, during a later siege, an explosion shook the building causing the plaster to crumble and there it was: Mary looking down on the Mosque. This spooked the Muslims. According to legend, the Turks fled, making this the only part of town taken without a fight.
Just outside, the Fishermen's Bastion — an icon of Budapest. It offers sweeping views over the Danube to Pest. In the Middle Ages, the fish market was just below here, so this part of the rampart actually was guarded by fishermen.
The current structure, though, is a fanciful rebuild — constructed for the big bash of 1896. Its seven towers symbolize the tents the nomadic Magyars (those original Hungarians) called home before they moved west to Europe.
Hungary's first Christian king, St. Stephen, tamed the pagan Magyars. He established strict laws, introduced the concept of private property, and made his people — whether they liked it or not — Christian. The pope crowned St. Stephen in the year 1000, making Hungary part of Christendom.
This was a pivotal point in Hungary's history. While Steven could have accepted his crown from the leader of the Eastern or Byzantine Church, he choose to legitimize his rule by accepting his crown from the leader of the Roman Church. This gave Hungary more of a western orientation.
The Buda Funicular is a popular landmark. Built in 1870 to provide cheap transportation to Castle Hill workers, today it's a fun little tourist trip. It shuttles visitors every few minutes up and down between the top of Castle Hill and the mighty Chain Bridge.
Guarded by lions which symbolize power, the Chain Bridge — the city's first great bridge — offers a pedestrian-friendly way to connect Buda and Pest.
Before this bridge was built, people needed boats or a good freeze to cross the river. People often walked across the frozen Danube only to get stuck on the other side during a thaw. A city big shot was once stranded for a week trying to get to his dad's funeral. After missing the funeral, he was so frustrated he commissioned the city's first permanent bridge.
The Chain Bridge, finished in 1849, immediately became an important symbol of Budapest. While this and all other great bridges of Budapest were destroyed in World War II, they were quickly rebuilt.
Pest is the flat and urban commercial half of Budapest. The main square of its inviting pedestrian zone is Vörösmarty tér.
The landmark Gerbeaud café is a fixture. Between the World Wars, the well-to-do ladies of Budapest met here after shopping. It remains the meeting point in Budapest. It's classy and central, perfect for people watching and a little high-calorie 19th-century elegance.
Nearby, the Hungarian State Opera House offers more of that 19th-century splendor. The opulence rivals Paris and Vienna, from its plush halls and staircases — designed for socialites making the scene — to its ranks of gilded box seats in the velvety theater. Whether you actually take in a performance or just enjoy an opera house tour, it's clear that the people of Budapest have that Hapsburg appreciation for fine music in their blood.
There're musical events all over town. Tonight, we're opting for a "Gypsy and Hungarian folk concert."
Like most Eastern European countries, Hungary has fine folk music and dance. The countries large Roma or Gypsy population has helped keep this fast fiddling tradition alive. While many visitors limit their Gypsy music experience to guys dressed in red vests out for big tips in touristy restaurants, I get my traditional music fix in concert halls like this. Nightly shows are inexpensive and high-powered — mixing Teutonic style slap-dancing and Slavic Cossack-style foot work.
We're sleeping at the Art'otel. Every detail here — from the stylish lobby to the breakfast buffet is designed with flair. This big mod hotel is a classy splurge or a bargain if you book during slow times. It's a good example of the impressive building that's been going on here since the fall of Communism...and it all comes with a Danube view.
While the city is becoming increasingly modern, many buildings survive from the communist age. These are reminders of what happens when you lock out your artists and let party loyalists design your buildings.
One positive legacy of Communism is Budapest's colorful, subsidized and very practical network of buses, trolleys and subways. Locals get around cheaply and effortlessly. I'm joining a Hungarian tour guide friend of mine, Peter Polczman for the day. Guides like Peter help me research my guidebooks and when I find a good one, that's a person I love to recommend.
Peter: Hungarian is a unique language we are only related to Finnish and Estonian but it's easy...(speaks Hungarian) Can you say that?
Rick: (tries to speak Hungarian)
Peter: Not too bad...
Europe — especially Eastern Europe — has many excellent young guides who speak fine English and enjoy showing off their hometowns. Considering their reasonable fees and how meaningful they make your visit, hiring your own personal expert can be an excellent value — and you'll know just were to get the best strudel.
Public transit allows locals a way to get around the city far easier and cheaper than messing with a car. Many underground stations tunnel deep beneath the city.
Rick: This is deep!
Peter: Oh it's as deep as a 10-story building. In fact, it was built as bomb shelter during the Cold War.
We emerge near Budapest's Great Indoor Market Hall — another souvenir from the party of 1896. The ground floor is a commotion of produce stands, butcher stalls, peppers and spices.
Rick: Ah, there's paprika everywhere
Peter: Yes, the whole market has it. In fact, it's a dominant spice in our cuisine. You take the dried pepper then you grind it and then you get the powder. There're different types. There's hot and sweet.... (samples some) That's sweet.
Rick: Hmm, sweet!
As in markets all over Europe, the fragrant stalls are kept downstairs: tanks of still healthy carp, catfish and perch... and piles of pickles.
Peter: You want to try some?
Peter: Ah, that's my favorite.
Rick: It's a plate of pickled peppers here. Look at this. Now this is pickled pepper filled with kraut?
Peter: How's that?
Rick: That's strong! How do you say strong?
Peter: (speaks Hungarian word)
Rick: (attempts Hungarian word)
Upstairs are Hungarian handicrafts and inexpensive, stand-up Hungarian-style fast-food joints.
Rick: So, this is Hungarian goulash?
Peter: Soup. So this not a thick stew because many Americans think this would be a thick stew. In fact, this is like a clear broth with potato and cubes of meat — pork or beef in it — and as you can see everything seasoned with paprika.
Rick: OK, so this is the actual Hungarian goulash?
Peter: That is the authentic Hungarian goulash soup.
Rick: I remember that, but what is "bon appetite"?
Peter: (says in Hungarian)
Rick: (attempts Hungarian)
As you may have noticed, visitors to Budapest need only remember one date: 1896, the 1000th anniversary of the year those first Hungarians arrived in Europe. In a thousand years, the Magyars went from being a nomadic Central Asian tribe rampaging through the Continent, to a legitimate power, helping the Habsburgs rule one of the mightiest empires Europe had ever seen.
The people of Budapest used their millennial celebration as an excuse to build monuments and buildings appropriate for ruling a huge empire. Ninety-six is the key number — important stairways have 96 steps, domes are 96 meters tall.
Budapest's main drag, Andrássy Boulevard, connects central Pest to the birthday party fairgrounds. Locals claim it's like the Champs-Elysées and Broadway rolled into one. While that's a stretch, it is a fine place to get a feel for today's urban Pest.
And running just 15 feet under Andrássy Boulevard is the Millennium Underground. Also built in 1896, it was the first underground public transit on the Continent — and the shallowest. It's just few steps below street level. Trains were originally horse-drawn. While handy today for stops along Andrassy Boulevard (trains come every couple of minutes), it was originally designed to get the masses of visitors conveniently out to the festival grounds...and that's where we're heading.
Heroes Square at the end of Andrássy Boulevard was the centerpiece of the 1896 celebration. It's a huge square, bookended by two imposing museums. At the Millennium Monument you'll meet the world's most historic Hungarians. The granddaddy of all Magyars was Árpád. Atop the pillar, the Archangel Gabriel offers the crown to Saint Stephen, the king who Christianized the Magyars. But for kids this is just the hottest place in town for stunt biking and skateboarding...as well as the gateway to the City Park.
Budapest's city park is a vast playground built to host Hungary's big birthday bash. It's still packed with huge party decorations: a zoo with quirky Art Nouveau buildings, a replica of a Transylvanian castle (Transylvania was part of Hungary back then), the palatial Szecheni baths, an old time circus and paths for strolling. If the sightseeing grind's got you down, hang out here watching locals play speedy chess.
Budapest's wonderfully restored synagogue is huge — the biggest in Europe. It's a reminder that in the 19th century a quarter of the city was Jewish.
The Great Synagogue looks like a church. With its pipe organ flanking the high altar, long nave and pulpit, it feels like a church with the symbols switched. It was built in the 1850s when Hungary's Jews wanted to feel more integrated into the community. The Eastern-flavored decor is typical of 19th-century synagogues in Europe perhaps designed to recall the Jews' Middle Eastern and Moorish heritage.
Hungary's Jewish community was decimated by the Nazis. The synagogue's "Tree of Life," built on the site of mass graves of those killed by the Nazis, is a powerful memorial. Hungary lost over half a million Jews to the Holocaust. The willow makes an upside down menorah; each individual leaf lists the name of a victim. Pebbles represent prayers.
Sadly, bad times under the Germans were replaced with bad times under the Russians. While Soviet rule here was harsh, Hungary managed to fashion its milder yet still-acceptable-to-Moscow "goulash" communism. It allowed a little private enterprise, easier travel, and less censorship. Hungary was the envy of its more strictly controlled neighbors.
This pedestrian boulevard — Vaci utca — is the main shopping and tourism artery. Before the fall of Communism, wannabe shoppers from all over Eastern Europe came to this street. They'd drool over Nikes, Reeboks and the fine capitalist cuisine before any of these Western evils were available elsewhere in the Warsaw Pact region. In the 1980s, a stroll down this street was the closest East Germans, Czechs and Poles could get to a day pass to the West.
Peter: Budapest was always a bit more rebellious, a bit more independent in some sense. And our neighbors just loved this place. Czechs and Poles would come here for an American cigarette or to just pop in and out of shops, simply to taste the West. This was Western life.
When some Hungarians are nostalgic for what they consider the good old days of Communism, they drop by Jégbüfé.
Little seems to have changed here at the Jégbüfé. First you choose what you want at the counter. Then you try to explain that to the cashier...and pay. Trade your receipt back at the counter for your goodies. And finally, enjoy it all — standing up, Communist style.
The dark underside of Hungary's 20th-century story is on display at the House of Terror, housed in the former headquarters of both the Nazis and later, the Communists secret police. It welcomes you with a Soviet tank and a towering wall covered with portraits of the victims of this building. This museum makes it clear that while the uniforms changed in 1945, the terror did not. It offers a disturbing look at the grim terror of both the far right and the far left inflicted on the people of Budapest.
To keep dissent to a minimum, the secret police of both the Nazis and Communists imprisoned, deported or executed anyone suspected of being an enemy of the state. Rooms feature the many bleak dimensions of life in Hungary before freedom. Gulag life — countless writers, artists and dissidents spent their best years breaking rocks in quarries. Propaganda preached wave the flag, trust your leaders...and you'll enjoy the material fruits of your obedience.
Both Nazism and Communism celebrated a sham justice... and a sham democracy. Behind the banners were all the domestic spy tools governments use to keep a people in line. Joining the Church was a way to express dissent, and a people's faith was one thing the totalitarian governments could not control. The basement was the grim scene of torture and executions.
While there is a happy ending — video clips show the festive and exhilarating days in 1991 when the last Soviets departed — the wall of "the victimizers" is an evocative send off. It reminds visitors that most local members and supporters of the secret police, many of whom are still living, were never brought to justice.
Statue Park welcomes the curious at the edge of town. When regimes fall, so do their monuments. Budapest saved its souvenirs of totalitarianism and shows them off here. Just think of all these statues of Lenin and company, crashing to the ground to the cheers of the masses.
At Statue Park, you'll see the Communist All-Stars: Marx, local wannabe Stalins and Lenin in his favorite "hailing a cab" pose. In a kind demagogue's hell, they're left with no one to preach to but each other and stony Socialist symbols — the heroic soldier, the obedient worker, the tireless mother.
Under Soviet Communism, censorship was taken to extremes. Art was acceptable only if it promoted the ideology. The only sanctioned art form in the Eastern Block was Social Realism.
This is Social Realism. Leaders were portrayed with unquestioned authority. Individuals were idealized as cogs in the machine — strong, stoic, doing their job well and proudly for the good of the people. Distinguishing features were unimportant. People all looked the same. Unquestioning patriots trusting and serving their nation. These days — with half of the local citizenry having no living memory of Communism — there's just not much respect.
The gift shop offers a tempting parade of communist kitsch. Consider picking up a Red Star lapel pin, a workers pocket watch or even a Communist party vodka flask.
And this is a fun souvenir — the "Greatest Hits of Communism."
Nobody can argue that the replacement of Communism by capitalism hasn't pumped up the energy in this great city. Cafes are thriving — people are enjoying life. And the city's breezy riverfront promenade is lined with diversions.
A romantic way to cap your day — and our visit — is an evening cruise on the Danube.
As the sun goes down, an ensemble of icons grabs your attention: mighty bridges linking Buda and Pest, the stubborn citadel still standing tall and monuments honoring a hard-earned freedom.
Budapest has survived its thousand years of tumultuous history beautifully. And today it welcomes visitors an emblem of the new Europe. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.