Budapest is not polished and gleaming like Vienna or Prague, and I think that was what made me love Budapest more. Amidst all its grandness, there was a familiarity, some ordinariness in everything and every face. There were signs of struggle, of humanness, which I found comforting. I didn’t feel ‘new’ in the city, it felt ‘Normal’.
Budapest is the capital of Hungary and its first settlement dates to before 1 AD. Budapest was officially established in 1873 with the unification of either side of the Danube River – Pest (east bank), Buda (west bank) and Obuda (West bank near Margaret Island). Buda side is hilly and pest is plainer and they are connected by eight bridges including the very famous Chain Bridge or Széchenyi lánchíd. Like any other great cities of the world, it had been ruled by several empires and its history is long and mostly gruesome. The city had been destroyed numerous times but had always survived and rebuilt. It was only in 1989 that the Hungarians or the Magyars finally got to decide for themselves when it became a democratic country, earlier attempts had been crushed.
Budapest has something spectacular and inspiring to show in every nook and corner. If not its art galleries and museums, palaces and churches, operas and bridges, ruin pubs and parks, statues and markets, even the most basic building will have something to impress. We stayed in an apartment right there in Vörösmarty Square, in an ancient building next to Café Gerbeaud (since 1858), and we were amazed by every detail. The 14 feet high (approx.) ceilings, the gigantic windows with iron blinds that reminded of tank tracks, the original wood and glass doors that reminded me of public hospitals, the wood panel flooring, and the hot water radiator; that building looked like one that had seen battles and maybe even haunted. The balcony was about 5 feet in breadth, too small to even fit my feet but enough to glance over the buzzing Christmas market taking place below. It was the perfect place to stay.
The Hungarian Parliament Building to me, was the show-stopper, be it during the day or at night. Designed by an architect named Imre Steindl, it is luxurious and extravagant. No building in Budapest can be taller than 96 meters and the Parliament and St. Stephen’s Basilica are both 96 meters signifying the equal importance of worldliness and spirituality. The other must-see and must-visit places in Budapest are the Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias Church, Liberty Statue, Gresham Palace, Heroes’ Square, Hungarian State Opera House, National Gallery and the Great Market Hall. Every one of these places is worth a detailed description but I’ll keep that for another day. I always feel that whenever we visit any country, it is a responsibility and a sign of respect to visit its museum. Museums consume time and they may seem boring but I feel it teaches us about the foundation of the city and the country and therefore after visiting one, we learn to see and celebrate the place to its fullest. The National Museum of a rich and historical country like Hungary is not something to be missed and the time spe
nt there is worth it.
Budapest is also famous for its natural thermal baths and spas. In fact, in 1920s, Budapest used to be called the city of spas. There are centuries old baths that are still functional and we can even see ruins of older baths in the Buda side. It is great for relaxation and is believed to have healing properties. The most popular thermal bath is probably Gellért Thermal Bath attached to Hotel Gellért at the foot of the hill. Gellért Hill offers a panoramic view of the city and is a great place for hiking. There are plenty of great things to explore in this hill. The bridges of Budapest of course are stunning and especially, the Chain Bridge I think deserves a separate post of its own.
Of all the wonders I saw and experienced in Budapest, the most unforgettable was what lied underground. I really liked the underground metro stations (the old ones) and the rides on the old communist era trains. The yellow line (M1), inaugurated in 1896 is world’s second metro system and is a major tourist attraction and is a well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Deák F. ter station, the junction for all the four metro lines, is 37.85 meters below the ground, that’s like a 10-storey building. I always had an eerie feeling whenever I was at such a station but it was charming and fascinating at the same time. The escalators were equally old, rusty, steep and very noisy (like an un-oiled machine), and since it is a long distance down, it takes time to ascend or descend. It was a ‘time-traveling’ experience, one that will haunt me forever.