Oh, Budapest, you gorgeous, wonderful thing, you. How did you make me love you so much over the course of only three days? What witchcraft is this?
After our lovely days in Vienna and Bratislava, we set off for lands further east. It was an easy three hour drive from Vienna to Budapest, and we managed to make it with only a quick stop to buy a vignette at the border of Hungary.
The first thing we did after checking into our gorgeous apartment (which I would highly recommend to traveling families--perfect, central location, elevator to 4th floor, 2 bedrooms, beautiful decor, clean, spacious, full kitchen and bathroom 70 Euro/night), and letting the girls get some energy out, was to set off for the Hungarian State Opera House, just a few blocks away. It was a stunning building from the outside, and the interior blew us away even further. We found it even more impressive than the Vienna Opera House. As an interesting holdover from the communist era, it is also one of the most affordable opera venues in Europe--maybe the world?--as you can purchase a ticket for as little as 2 Euro and the most expensive tickets available are only 50-60 Euros.
From there, we walked back over toward our apartment, with a stop at St. Istvan's Basilica. Like many of Budapest's grandest buildings and monuments, it looks old, but was actually opened in 1896 for the millennial celebration of country-hood. Unlike many other European countries, Hungary has been united for over a thousand years now, though wars and occupations have changed the borders over time. One of our tour guides joked that Hungary is the only country that borders itself on all sides as all of the surrounding countries were once a part of Hungary.
The next day, we took a wonderful walking tour through Absolute Walking Tours, where we got a wonderful overview of Buda and Pest, formerly two separate cities, separated by the Danube, that now form Budapest. We visited Heroes Square, the Szecheny Bath House, walked across the Chain Bridge that connects the two parts of the city, and Castle Hill, which included the Fisherman's Bastion and Matthias Church, with more stops along the way, including a delicious break for Hungarian strudel.
Following the walking tour, we made our way back across the river to visit the Shoes on the Danube memorial. Between 1944 and 1945, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, essentially the Hungarian version of the Nazis, rounded up an unknown number of Jewish men, women and children, had them remove their shoes as they stood on the bank of the river, then shot them so that they fell into the river and their bodies were washed away. It's a beautiful memorial to an awful period in history.
From there we walked to the Parliament and took a tour, viewing the 96 steps leading into the building (a common numeric theme from the 1896 celebration), the Hungarian crown jewels which were hidden in Fort Knox when the Russians took hold of the country following WWII, and the Upper Parliament chamber. We finished our day with--what else?--a Mexican feast at Iguana!
For our final day in the city, we did our favorite thing to do when exploring a new country, we took a food tour, once again through Absolute Walking Tours. We began the tour at the Central Market where we jump started our digestion with the Hungarian alcohol, Unicum, then tasted a multitude of sausages, included horse sausage and cow tongue, goat and sheep cheese, a sheep cheese based candy bar, a fluffy garlic bread and more. Then we hit the streets for chocolate tasting, a hearty Hungarian lunch, pastries, and wine. By the end, we'd gotten a fascinating look at the mix of East and West that makes Budapest so unique, and were stuffed to the gills!
From there, we made our way to the Great Synagogue, the third largest synagogue in the world. It was bombed in 1939, but underwent a remarkable restoration from 1991 to 1998, and now houses a beautiful Jewish cemetery where over 2000 Jewish Hungarians died of starvation, exposure and disease during the war. There's also a beautiful memorial in the form of a tree with the names of victims inscribed on each leaf.
Our last stop in Budapest was at the House of Terror, a former Soviet headquarters building that has been transformed into a museum about life under the Hungarian Arrow Cross and the Soviets. Hungary endured many horrific years throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s, and while the Soviet grip loosened a bit from the 60s through the 90s, Budapest is experiencing an awakening as tourists are rediscovering its charms, and residents are taking advantage of the freedoms that come with their new, more democratic government. We absolutely adored our time there, and I'm confident in the fact that 10 years from now, the city will have grown and flourished even more. If you're looking for a European destination a little off the beaten path with beauty, grandeur and history in spades, look no further than Budapest!