Budapest: A tale of two cities

March 20, 2010

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY, Mar. 20, 2010/ Bon Voyage / – Each side of Budapest is different and unique. Buda is Budapest with hills; the Pest side is flat. Each part of this city offers its own surprises.

In Buda, you’ll see Castle Hill  and Gellert Hill on your city map. You can get a lot of exercise hiking up and town those hills. To save yourself a steep hike up, catch the Budavari Skirlo. This is an old funicular railway which takes passengers from the Chain Bridge on the Buda side to the top of Castle Hill.

From the funicular stop at the top you can get a great view back over to Pest. After you’ve enjoyed the view, start out and have fun exploring the walled Castle District and Old Town.

Castle Hill has two distinct parts:

The Old Town  of the Castle District is where the commoners lived during medieval times. It’s off to your right as you get off the funicular, and it’s full of sloping and twisty street with attractively painted houses and decorative churches. It’s one of the most romantic pedestrian sections in Budapest.

There is where Buda is Budapest at its best. It still looks like a little medieval town. Stop at the Fisherman’s Bastion. This is really a fanciful viewing terrace which is on the site of the old city walls, and it’s great for more views back over the Danube and Pest.

Centerpiece of the Castle District

Trinity Square is the centerpiece of the Castle District. Here you’ll find the Holy Trinity Column, which is historic and quite a confection of saints and floating angels and clouds. Buda’s Old Town Hall is on the square. This is also where you’ll find the Matthias Church. It’s worth visiting for its pretty stained glass windows, carvings and statues.

The Royal Palace is also known as the Buda Castle  or the Budai Var. It’s to your left as you get off the funicular. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries. Today it houses a number of museums.

Gellert Hill is south of Castle Hill. It is topped with the Citadella, a type of fortress, and that is topped with the Independence Monument. Below Gellert Hill are several thermal baths.

So, Buda is Budapest, but Pest is also Budapest… cross over any of the bridges and start exploring that side of the Danube.

One of the major landmarks on the Pest side is the Parliament building. This huge Neo-Gothic structure sits right on the river north of the Chain Bridge. You can take a guided tour and see paintings, tapestries and the Hungarian Holy Crown and the Crown Jewels as well as the sumptuous interiors.

Large squares and other government buildings and banks dominate this area.

Wandering south along the river you come to the Chain Bridge and Roosevelt Square. Go ahead and take the time to walk over the bridge and back. The Chain Bridge, Szechenyi Ianchid, is one of Budapest’s most famous landmarks, and it was the first permanent bridge over the river to unify the two halves of the city

South from the Chain Bridge you can walk along the Danube promenade, also known as the Duna Korzo. It runs from the Chain Bridge to the Elizabeth Bridge.

Pest is where the “downtown” is. Parallel to the Duna Korzo you will find Vaci Street (Utca Vaci). Part of this street is pedestrian only and it is along this street that you’ll find high-end shops and some great architecture. Utca Vaci also has great cafes. We found a great little wine shop… they had a tasting room in their cellar. The proprietor was very helpful in teaching us about Hungarian wines and recommending wine regions to visit and places to stay.

Stroll through the colorful Great Market Hall. It’s a treasure trove of fresh vegetables, fruits, meat, fish and local delicacies. Try some paprika – which can be hot or sweet – and get some to take home for a souvenir. Taste some real Hungarian goulash. You can even find Hungarian folk textiles and embroidery which make great souvenirs.

Running out from the river is Andrassy Avenue, which is where you’ll find museums and nightclubs and the Opera House. This broad avenue runs all the way out to the Heros Square and the Varosliget, or City, Park. You’ll find more museums in the park, and one of Budapest’s largest thermal baths.

Play chess in a hot pool

You can join in the experience at the baths or just stop by for a look. You may have seen pictures of men sitting in hot pools playing chess: well this is where it happens.

Walk along the promenade in the late afternoon, take a twilight cruise on the river, or have a beer or dinner or both on one of the boats permanently tied up along the promenade. Sure it’s touristy but you’re a tourist! And any of those boat restaurants offer dining with a great view of Castle Hill and the bridges which are all lit up at night.

Pest is Budapest’s best bet for a sweet treat late in the evening. Find the Gerbeaud Cafe on the Vorosmarty Ter (Square) at one end of Utca Vaci. For a 150 years it has been one of the finest coffee houses and pastry shops in Europe. It was renovated in the late 1990s and has a very nostalgic feel with brocade wall coverings, fine wood panels and little marble tables. And the pastries are yummy too!

Buda may have the castle, but Pest is definitely Budapest too.

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