History of Budapest
The ancestors of the modern Hungarians are the Magyars who migrated from the Urals in 896. Hungary crowned its first King, Stephen, in 1000. The country, becoming one of the largest monarchies, flourished under King Mátyás ’ rule from 1458-90.
The Ottomans, however, captured Buda in 1541 and made it the capital of Ottoman Hungary. To quell their advance, Habsburg led Austria occupied western Hungary. In 1686 Christian armies led by the Habsburg finally defeated the Ottoman.
After 150 years, a major uprising 1848 caused Emperor Franz Joseph to unite the two nations creating the Dual Monarchy of Austro-Hungary in 1867. Following World War I, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory to Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Romania.
In order to regain these territories, Hungary joined Germany in World War II. Unfortunately, during December of 1944 through January 1945, Budapest came under siege as the German fought the Russians.
The Russians freed the Jews and as our tour guide put it, we were free for a day before being occupied for the next 45 years! A strict communist party ruled through the 1950’s and 1960’s. Borders were closed and people were not allowed to leave. Hungary had a two-color passport system. A red passport allowed citizens to travel to other socialist countries. The blue passport, which was basically never issued, granted the people access to western states.
People lived in fear as secret police infiltrated the communities. Peaceful protestors were gunned down by the soviet army in what turned out to be the 1956 uprising. The people lost this battle, but soft communism soon ruled and people were allowed to travel, though sometime they had to wait 10-12 hours at the border to be checked for no western wares. It wasn’t until 1989 that Hungary won its freedom and a new government was elected in 1990.
Geography and Demographics of Budapest
Today Budapest is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The city was unified in 1873 and comprises three separate towns – Buda and Obuda on the west bank of the Danube and Pest on the east bank.
The west bank of Budapest is very hilly while the east bank is very flat. The Pest is very busy with many businesses. Two-thirds of the population, including most young people, live on the Pest side. The Buda side is home to more families and expensive neighborhoods.
Where to Stay
We found a reasonably priced hotel on the Pest side of Budapest just outside the Jewish quarter in the city center. For $150, we booked a twin bed room at Danubius Hotel Astoria City Center. This four-star, historic hotel with 138 rooms is over 100 years old.
It is only blocks away from the Great Synongogue and easy walking distance from the popular Váci Utca, a pedestrian street lined with restaurants whose northern end terminates at Vörösmarty Square, home to a fun Christmas market in December.
Things to Do
Budapest, population 2 million, has many places to see and things to do. We only scratched the surface in our two days in the city. We arrived in the evening and after checking into our hotel, headed straight to the Christmas Market for some food.
Váci Utca and the Christmas Market
Fortunately, Váci Utca was only four blocks away from Danubius Hotel Astoria, and we only strolled a few blocks on the pedestrian walkway to reach Vörösmarty Square. Friday evening invited a lively, yet courteous crowd to taste the traditional foods.
Kristin ordered stuffed cabbage on a placki (or potato pancake) while I ordered pork knuckles with vegetables on a placki. At the time, we didn’t know what we were ordering and just pointed. The hearty and greasy meals filled us up before we strolled the Christmas market while listening to a Hungarian band play traditional music.
We took two laps around the square, one to see all the local, artisanal wares and another to check out the food. Many booths sold traditional Hungarian food such as langos, kürtőskalács, and goulash. Of course, mulled wine and palinka are a must to wash down the traditional food. Both the hot wine and fruit brandy definitely warmed our insides on the cold evening!
If street food doesn’t make the bucket list, dessert at the internationally acclaimed Café Gerbeaud on the north end of the square is a nice alternative. The coffee house and confectionary which is famous for its cakes, opened in 1858 and is decorated with wood paneling and grand chandeliers.
From the Christmas market we turned down Fashion Street lined with many fancy retailers. This pedestrian area, also decorated in lovely Christmas lights, led us to the main drag, Károly street which we followed to our hotel. Of course, we browsed the small Christmas market here too! The vendors sell a variety of trinkets, hats, gloves, Christmas ornaments, chocolate and more.
Sightseeing in Budapest
We had the day to explore Budapest before boarding our ship, the Emerald Sun, for our Danube Cruise to Nuremberg. The city is very walkable, and we visited many sights on our nine-mile journey.
We stumbled upon Nika just minutes away from our hotel. The modern restaurant turned coffee shop in the morning offered five breakfast choices on their menu ranging from continental to the typical English breakfast. The food was excellent and the service friendly.
The Great Synagogue
From the restaurant, we visited the Great Synagogue, the largest in Europe. It is located in the Jewish Quarter, once the “ghetto” created for Jews who were deported to camps, including Auschwitz, during World War II. In total, 600,000 Hungarian Jews were victims of the holocaust.
Seeing as it was Saturday, the grand Byzantine-Moorish building was not open to the public, thus we only admired the structure from the outside. In accordance with Orthodox tradition, the synagogue, which seats 3,000 worshippers, includes three naves and a seating area for women. Interestingly, however, it strays from the Orthodox style as it is the only synagogue to house an organ and have a cemetery.
Over 2,000 Jews are buried on top of one another in the small, makeshift cemetery created as a result of dire circumstances during World War II. The complex also includes a Jewish Museum, the Heroe’s Temple and the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park. The park features a weeping willow statue whose leaves bear the names of the victims.
From the Great Synagogue we headed west across the Elisabeth Bridge, named for a popular queen of the Austria-Hungary empire, to Gellért Hill.
Gellért Hill is named for Bishop Gellért who was instrumental in convincing King Stephen, the first King of Hungary, to convert the pagan Magyars to Christianity. Not all Magyars wished to convert, and the bishop was killed in a rebellion. Gellért is regarded as the patron saint of Budapest and his statue overlooks the Elisabeth Bridge.
Many trails criss-cross this grassy knoll. We climbed to the top to see the Citadel and the Liberty Statue, as well as to admire the panoramic views of Budapest. The Citadel was constructed in 1851 and occupies most of the high plateau. Video (11 seconds): View of Budpest
Next to the Citadel is the Liberty Statue. The monument was erected in 1947 in honor of the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi Germany. The original bronze held a propeller and was mounted on a pedestal with a soviet star. Upon liberation from the soviets in 1989, the propeller was replaced with a palm leaf which symbolizes peace and the star was removed. Due to its shape, the monument is affectionately referred to as a bottle opener!
After our visit to the Gellért Hill, we walked to the Castle District. Beneath all the popular attractions such as Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastian, Mátyás Church, and the famous Ruszwurm Confectionary, is a system of limestone caves.
Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum
On the backside of the hill, in the limestone caves, is where we found the Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum. The cave system was previously used for storage and to dump waste, however, in 1939 the mayor of Budapest ordered the construction of an emergency the hospital and bomb shelter.
World War II
The hospital was completed in February 1944 with the capacity to support sixty patients. The hospital included a switchboard to warn of air raids, a registrar, a kitchen for only heating food, an operating room, a doctor’s office, a bathroom and a barracks. While the hospital had its own generators, water, and air filtration system, it relied on food and supplies from a nearby hospital.
During the 50 day-long Siege of Budapest, from December 28, 1944 to February 13, 1945 when the Soviet forces encircled the city, the hospital was cut off from food and supplies. The forty doctors and nurses had to treat up to 600 patients. Rampant infection spread with the forced reuse of bandages when supplies dried up.
Patients slept four-across on bunk beds pushed together, on stretchers on the floor and even in other caves. The ventilation system wasn’t built for so many people, thus the smell of rotting flesh and heat were unbearable.
Hitler declared Budapest a fortress city, thus the German soldiers were expected to fight until the death. Eventually, the soldiers tried to escape, though of the 20,000 only 600 survived, and the city was surrendered.
After the siege, the hospital, which was a Red Cross facility and safe for anyone during the war, wasn’t used again until 1956 during the uprising against the Soviet rule. During the uprising, peaceful protesters opposed communism and cut out the communist symbol from the Hungarian flag which ultimately became Hungary’s new flag. The Red Army open fired, killing and injuring many. Now, ample bandages were available, but not enough doctors and nurses. Students at the nursing school volunteered to treat the injured.
1960’s to Present
In the 1960’s, the bunker was equipped with more generators, a better air filtration system, two water tanks and gas masks in case of a nuclear attack. There were enough supplies to survive for 72 hours. A caretaker maintained the hospital and bunker until 2004. The hospital went under renovation in 2007 and was opened to the public in 2008.
It may only be visited via tour and photographs are not allowed. The hour-long tour costs 4,000 forint for adults, or about $14. Aside from the wax figurines, which are somewhat kitschy, the tour is informative and interesting.
After visiting the Hospital in the Rock, we climbed the stairs to the top of Castle Hill where we passed by Ruszwurm Confectionery and the Herend China store on the way to Mátyás Church.
The history of the Ruszwurm Confectionery dates back 200 years. Noblemen and aristocrats visited the shop regularly. Now it is popular among tourists and the line for pastries goes out the door!
Herend Porcelain was founded in 1826. The luxurious hand-painted and gilded porcelain was popular with the Habsburg dynasty as well as other European Aristocrats. Some of its patterns are named after its first customers such as Queen Victoria and Rothschild.
Holy Trinity Statue
We followed the street to Holy Trinity Square which gets its name from the Holy Trinity Statue which was commissioned after the outbreak of a second plague to commemorate those who died.
Across from the statue is the Church of Our Lady Mary, but is known as Mátyás Church. Originally constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries, the Ottomans converted it into the Great Mosque in 1514.
The mosque was almost completely destroyed during the liberation of Buda, and it was later rebuilt in the Baroque style by the Franciscan friars. It suffered further damage in 1723, but was restored in the Neo-Gothic style in the late 1800’s. There is a $5 entry fee for visitors and limited hours on Sundays.
Next to the church is Fisherman’s Bastion. The Fisherman’s Bastion was designed and built between 1895 and 1902. Its seven towers represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in 896. Its terrace provides lovely views of the Danube, Margaret Island, Pest and Gellért Hill.
Just east of the square and past another shopping street is Buda Castle. Also known as the Royal Palace, the Buda Castle has been through many iterations. It is not known exactly where the first castle stood in the 13th century, but the current form dates back to the 19th century after the destruction in February 1945. During the reconstruction, remains of the 15th century castle were exposed and left on display.
The castle complex is enormous. It houses both the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. While we did not go inside the castle, there was plenty to see on the ornate outside such as the Ornamental Gateway, the Lion Gate and Mátyás Fountain.
I particularly liked the Mátyás Fountain (probably because of the dogs). The sculptures of the
Mátyás Fountain depict a hunting scene with dogs, King Mátyás and a peasant girl, Ilonka. Legend has it, King Mátyás fell in love with Ilonka, but their love was doomed due to social classes. The king’s romantic reputation inspires visitors to toss coins into the fountain to wish for their safe return.
After seeing most of the attractions atop Castle Hill, we descended the stairs to the Chain Bridge, the first and most famous of many bridges in Budapest. It is said the engineer, William Tierney Clark, was so confident about the design of the bridge that upon completion, he challenged anyone to find a flaw. If someone did, he’d jump into the river. A five-year old noticed the lions guarding the bridge had no tongues, so the engineer ended up in the river!
Roosevelt Square and Gresham Palace
On the Pest side of the Chain Bridge on Roosevelt Square is Gresham Palace, a five-star luxury hotel. It is also known as the holy hotel as its ornate lobby garners an “Oh My God” and the bill settlement warrants a “Jesus Christ”!
Also, on this Pest side of the Danube is the Parliament building, the tallest in the city. This building, lit up at night, is absolutely spectacular! And this building alone inspires an evening cruise on the Danube. The building is the largest in Budapest and is modeled after the Houses of Parliament in London. The neo-Gothic masterpiece was constructed between 1885 and 1904. The enormous building, measuring 870 by 610 feet, has 691 rooms, 10 courtyards and 27 entrances!
St. Stephen’s Basilica
Not far from Roosevelt Square and the Parliament building is the St. Stephen’s Basilica. The construction of the Neo-Classical church began in 1851 and lasted until 1905. The church, which is dedicated to the first Hungarian Christian king received the Basilica designation in 1938.
King Stephen was instrumental in converting Hungarians to Christianity. Currently, 65% of the population is Roman Catholic. A painting on the right of the main entrance shows St. Stephen, who was left without an heir, dedicating Hungary to the Virgin Mary.
All of these attractions, not including tours inside, may be visited in a day of walking Budapest. The city of 2 million people is easily navigated!
A few attractions in Budapest are a bit farther away including Heroes’ Square, Széchenyi Baths and its main park. Heroes’ Square was constructed in 1896 during the prosperous Austro-Hungarian monarchy for the World’s Fair and serves as the entrance to Budapest’s main park, similar to New York’s Central Park. The square is surrounded by monuments, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Széchenyi Baths, and the Vajdahunyad Castle.
The Millenium Monument which stands 96 meters high, stands in the center of the square. On its outskirts is a row of columns and statues. The four statues on top of these structures represent labor, war, peace, and knowledge and glory.
Underneath the square are hot springs with 170 degree water. The water is used in the famous Széchenyi Baths. The springs are known for their alleged healing properties. While these are the most well-known, there are more springs on the Buda side of the river.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Christmas markets a second time. In December, visiting Budapest isn’t complete without strolling through them. They are everywhere and impossible to miss! We stumbled upon four Christmas markets just while walking the city including one in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica and another at Vörösmarty Square. Budapest is a beautiful and fun European city to visit!
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