Have you noticed that cities have they own personalities and distinctive characteristics? They are quite similar in fact to people. Some are noisy, bright and dramatic; like New York. While others are bouncy, a bit chilled with some rough undertones; like Kingston. Others are hot and spicy, fast talking and full of rhythm; like Havana. Yet some have a bit of a split personality; with one side being a boastful showoff like Buda, while the other is more down to earth and charming like Pest. Combined, we get Budapest, the capital city of Hungary.
Budapest’s history is rich and embattled, stretching as far back as the Stone Age, which only adds more depth and appeal to its already complex personality. I was intrigued by this attractive city and what must have been an iron will to survive the worst of times: expansion and annihilating warfare, occupation and suffocation. Yet, despite it all; Budapest relays on.
The city is separated into two very distinctive areas; the hilly Buda side and the flatter Pest. The Danube, a wide river, slices between Buda and Pest, while a number of elegant bridges mend the divide. These come in useful, as the city is very pedestrian and the bridges make it easy to move from one side to the next.
My hotel was located in Pest, which is the hub of the city. Here you can find large local markets, the opera house, restaurants, concerts and a pulsing night life. The city is also well known for its thermal bath houses, brought to Budapest during the Ottoman rule. Today it has become a Hungarian tradition for locals and visitors alike to fill these houses almost to the point of overflow. The bath houses also double as vibrant social club as well as spaces of wellness and relaxation.
Pest is also called little Paris, because of its striking turn of the century architecture. A lot of the city was rebuilt numerous times over it tumultuous past, as a result, the city is a hodgepodge of many architectural styles; spanning from neoclassical, art nouveau, baroque and eclectic. One of the most defining architectural landmarks in Pest is the Parliament Building. This stately building towers over the Danube River and is spectacular by day and night. If you find it looks a little like Westminster Abbey in London, you’re not far off with your specualation. In this case imitation is a sincere form of flattery. Interestingly, it was behind the Parliament building on the banks of the river I discovered one of the most heart wrenching memorials I had ever seen. Dedicated to hundreds of thousands of Jewish families that were executed at that very site. The “Shoes of the Danube,” is a haunted reminder of a gruesome past.
Once you are on the Pest side, all bridges lead to Buda. It was once the seat of power and royalty and today there’s still a certain nobility about the place. Buda’s castle district offers a sweeping view of the Danube and Pest, and comprises of a regal collection of must see buildings like the Matthias Church, with its decorative roof and matching tiled floors.
This church was once a mosque during the Turkish occupation and like Buda’s castle, and palace complex, these buildings now memorialize significant events and changes within the country’s history. Wanting to soak up as much of Buda’s ambience as I could, I strolled past the church, the fisherman bastion, the palace, the quaint little fret worked shops and the stone turrets and was transported directly to the Middle Ages. From this vantage point, I was convinced that I was looking at one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Tearing myself away from Buda’s hilltop, I crossed the large chain bridge and I was back in Pest and it was time for a rose shaped gelato. These were as much fun to eat as they were to look at them being made. Budapest was fill of these unexpected delightful surprises. Like the food! Ok, I was expecting hearty meat dishes like their world famous Hungarian goulash, what I was not expecting was the city to have was such a high culinary standard of both local and international cuisine. At least four restaurants in the city have been awarded Michelin stars. If you happen to be a foodie, the restaurant scene in Budapest should be at the top of your to do list.
The other big surprise was cruising the Danube by night. Living in Paris I have cruised the Seine River by night-which is romantically breathtaking. So needless to say my expectations of the Danube cruise was not that high, but I was shamefully mistaken. During the day it is easy to distinguish Buda from Pest, but at night the darkness of the river is broken up by the reflections of illuminated buildings that straddle the river bank. On both sides of the Danube the yellow lights of the buildings glow in the darkness under quietly lit bridges that drape over the water. The Danube at night is incomparable.