Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
Additional photos courtesy Corinthia Hotel Budapest and Budapest CVB
The trip took place prior to the COVID-19 travel restrictions. Please check with the Corinthia Budapest for COVID-19 updates www.corinthia.com/budapest
Budapest, the capital city of Hungary, is one of the largest and surely one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe. Whether on your first trip or your fifth, the World Heritage Castle District draws one like a magnet to the Buda side of the Danube from which there are wonderful views of Pest.
Yes, Buda and Pest are two sides of the Budapest story. First there was Óbuda and Buda (on the hill) and Pest across the mighty Danube. Eventually the towns became unified with Óbuda merging with Buda on the West bank and Pest on the East bank of the river. Pest is easy walking, mostly on level ground where you can view stunning architecture on beautifully laid out boulevards, while Buda is hilly (great for hikers) and offers the best views over this ancient city.
After landing at Ferenc Liszt International Airport - named after their most famous Hungarian composer – we were transported to the opulent 5-star Corinthia Hotel Budapest and Royal Spa. The Corinthia is a truly luxurious old world property but completely renovated with all the amenities, restaurants, meeting areas and services that are necessary to our contemporary culture. The restored lobby is especially elegant with its sweeping grand staircase, polished marble floors and richly appointed seating areas.
Of note is the size, scope and sheer beauty of the Grand Ballroom, richly restored and updated… not hard to image it dressed for a sumptuous affair. My large room was beautifully appointed, just as I have grown to expect, having visited several of the European Corinthia hotels.
After dropping our bags at the Corinthia, we made a bee-line to Castle Hill. The Castle Hill district warrants exploring for its gothic architecture and when you get too tired… or too inspired… dining in one of its restaurants to experience local cuisine at its finest. There are so many exotic and quixotic medieval 18th and 19th century buildings to visit, many of them recently restored to their original splendor.
Tip: Note the colorful geometric tiles on the roofs that are characteristic of Hungarian design. Buda Castle was originally a medieval enclave with an underground labyrinth constructed by the residents to hide from marauders. Over the centuries and various occupying cultures and architectural styles, the area grew up. So from the neo-Gothic Matthias Church to the Fisherman’s Bastion - with a turret representing each of the original 7 Magyar tribes - there is much to see and enjoy. There were 7 original nomadic tribes that settled in the Carpathian basin in 896. The Magyars were known also as Hungarians and were, and still are, the only people to converse in the Hungarian language.
Next morning we explored the Pest side of the river and began with the stunning neo-Gothic symmetrical Parliament building. Parliament Square is possibly the only square in the world to boast 3 Parliament buildings. There was a competition during the late 19th century to design a building worthy of Hungary’s world-class standing with the 3 winners commissioned to construct their entries. The building completed on time was the ultimate winner and across the square are the two losers (sic) now a Federal Reserve building and a Folk Art Museum, both architecturally worthy competitors.
The Parliament has a visitor’s center on the far right side of the building from where you can visit the absolutely dazzling building reconstructed to its original design after its devastation during WWII. Throughout the building over 20 pounds of gold was used to decorate the ceilings, and the walls are hung with precious works of art. You can also visit the Hungarian Holy Crown which is kept under guard but still used in state ceremonies. Tip: no photographs are allowed in the crown room but there are no restrictions elsewhere in the building. The Crown may or may not have been sent by the Pope to King Saint Stephen according to tradition, but it is the Holy Crown in which the divine power resides to rule the land… the power does not reside in its wearer. No king was considered legitimate unless he was coroneted wearing the Holy Crown.
Behind the Parliament on the riverbank is a moving tribute to the memory of Hungarian Jews killed by Hungarian Arrow Cross Militiamen in 1944/45. Referred to as the “Shoes on the Danube Bank” it is a heart-rending memorial.
On a lighter note, a fun interlude was to visit the Great Market Hall, an 1897 neo-gothic building and oldest, as well as the largest, indoor market in Budapest. It’s renowned for its colorful and very photographic food stalls on the ground floor and craft objects for sale on the first floor, some legit but many mass produced for the tourist market. The market serves both locals and tourists alike but the locals know which shops and stalls to frequent and tourists are mostly at the mercy of the seller’s sales pitch. Unless you speak Hungarian or want the experience of buying souvenirs at inflated prices, shop around and negotiate before making your purchases. Tip: Hungarian paprika makes great souvenirs and is available in multiple combinations and containers in all price ranges.
We had lunch at Fakanal (Wooden Spoon) Restaurant, a large cafeteria style restaurant on the upper level, where we ate a typical Hungarian meal featuring goulash, stuffed cabbage, veal schnitzel, dumplings, and cherry strudel for desert. It was certainly not a gourmet meal but nevertheless it was an experience during which we were entertained by Roma musicians outfitted in traditional costumes. Again, enjoy yourself knowing that you are contributing to the local economy.
Budapest has long been known for the healing properties of its natural mineral springs which may have been one of the original attractions for settlement in the Carpathian basin area. This brings me to another must-do in Budapest, the Széchenyi Thermal Baths. It’s a well organized family friendly operation with outdoor and indoor hot and cold mineral baths. You can rent a locked changing room and towels but remember to bring your bathing suit and skid-free slippers. Once inside you can spend as much time as you like visiting the various bathing opportunities and its fun to try several. Like the Great Market Hall, this is not strictly a tourist attraction but serves the local community. Tip: be mindful, some of the younger couples use the baths as a place for romantic assignations… wink, wink.
We ended our visit to Budapest with a farewell dinner in the lovely atrium at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest. This meal absolutely qualified as a gourmet feast and it was savored long after we waved goodbye to Budapest.
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