Budapest was the next big city on our 2019 trek after a few nights in iconic Paris. In between, we’d visited the Alsace region of France in all its quaint glory and felt recharged and ready for another big city. In Paris, we’d played host to Christine’s parents, who had never been before, and showed them some of the big-ticket items: the Eiffel Tower, of course, and the Louvre, the D’Orsay, the Arc de Triomphe, the burned-out shell of Notre Dame. Check, check, and check.
It was a lovely return to a favorite city. Budapest waited on the horizon, and we didn’t know what to expect. How would we react to Budapest so close on the heels of romantic Paris? How could we be anything but let down? Especially with the gleeful hangover of Strasbourg and Colmar still spinning our heads.
Turns out, we had no reason to worry. Budapest, to our surprise and delight, delivered. In a big way.
The city is just as historic, perhaps even more complex in its turbulent past, just as architecturally decorated as king-of-the-hill Paris. Being there, walking its lighted streets, felt like we’d infiltrated a secret. I didn’t encounter many Americans, and I took that as a good thing—no offense. And don’t get me wrong: Paris is a must-see. I’ve been three times now. But it does take on a bit of a checklist feel: you’ve got a certain number of days and a certain number of places to see on your list, and it can start to feel a little Amazing Race-ish. Budapest, in contrast, feels like a city designed for wandering.
* * *
Budapest, for a thousand years, was not one city but two, divided by the Danube River. Buda, less populated and sitting on a hill overlooking the river and Pest, has the Old World charm, cobbled, winding streets, and striking churches that many tourists are drawn to, while Pest feels more urban and flat, but also has a relaxed, youthful vibe that is welcoming and alive. We stayed on the Pest side and day-tripped across the beautiful Szechenyi Chain Bridge, walking past couples stopped along the bridge to gaze at the marvel of the Hungarian Parliament on the banks of the Danube, its reflection dancing on the water. Other couples embraced and kissed, lost in themselves, while others took selfies. What should be a ten-minute crossing takes half an hour with so much to stop and wonder at.
Some of the guidebooks I’d read described Buda as the sleepier side, with fewer attractions and therefore less to keep a tourist’s interest. But we didn’t find this to be true at all. While it may indeed be sleepier, and while it might possess fewer of the big-ticket eye-candy, we found its hilly charm and sweeping views of the river and Parliament building endlessly interesting. Here, the streets bend and snake like the best ancient, confused streets do. The stonework and churches, particularly the gorgeous Matthias Church, are quite photogenic. Though we’d spent just one afternoon wandering the Buda side of the city, half my camera’s Budapest photos were taken on the Buda side.
Pest, though, has a Bohemian vibe to it that makes walking its streets, particularly at night, a joy to experience. The closer we meandered toward Elizabeth Square, with its vast green spaces and giant Ferris Wheel, the more we felt this. Public drinking is allowed. Heck, to look around, it feels downright encouraged. The stores sell liquor by the individual can, and the square is full of tourists and locals walking and sipping, laughing and telling stories or jokes. The short stone walls are lined with people sharing the summer night. Smoke billows from the windows of food trucks, sausages and other delicious things, while riverboats slide down the Danube in front of us. I had our guidebook tucked in my back pocket, so much to see—but here, in the square, a cider and a beer in our hands, we were in no particular hurry to move on.
We decided we’d start fresh tomorrow and hit the sights.
* * *
Every tourism commercial for Danube River cruises will inevitably feature shots of cruise ships drifting past the Hungarian Parliament—as iconic and recognizable a structure as any in Europe. So Budapest isn’t without its famous, must-see sights. But this is a city whose specialty is wandering. The guidebooks will only take you so far. After we visited the Szechenyi Thermal Baths (the city’s geological situation has given rise to dozens of natural thermal baths), we meandered back down Andrassy ut and ate dinner outdoors under a canopy of leaves and stars, live music flowing down the sidewalks. There was a British couple next to us with their dog. We recognized the dog. Earlier in the day, on the way to the baths, we’d been behind them, and noted that the dog had a pretty strong dislike of pigeons. As his owners walked the sidewalk, the dog paused in his steps when three or four pigeons blocked his path. His owners helped encourage and navigate the dog around them. One block ahead, the dog again tried to move in a wide circle around a pair of strutting pigeons, which in turn made us have to stop in our tracks as well to avoid him.
Eating dinner, we invited him over and he accepted our petting, and even lay by our table for a few minutes, happy for the peace, the pigeon-free evening. It was our wedding anniversary—nine years—and sitting there with some good food and drinks, the summer night warm and welcoming, this dog spending a little time with us—there was no better place to be.
We should talk a bit about Budapest’s well-preserved Neo-Renaissance design we see throughout the city. We had an afternoon coffee at one of the city’s countless classic coffee shops, Alexandra Book Café, where the room itself is the draw. High ceilings, a chandelier, a gold detail design, you feel like you’ve just walked into the best elegance that the past centuries can offer. Its high ceiling is actually a canvas for Karoly Lotz’s colorful frescoes, one of Hungary’s most esteemed 19th century artists.
We finished both our nights in Budapest at Callas Café, built in 1881 and considered an historic monument in its own right. While they offer outdoor seating—something we 99% of the time would probably prefer when in Europe in the summer—here it seemed silly to not sit inside and appreciate the surroundings and classic ambience. A glamorously ornate bar, the room narrow and long, its high ceiling curved and reminding me of an oversized, classic dining train car. One night we ordered coffee drinks and dessert—cheesecake or pastry that were small slices of art in themselves. Another night we ordered dessert with two whiskeys, served neat with our own ice bucket and tongs. Louis Armstrong sang “Cheek to Cheek” from the overhead speakers, with his iconic line, “Heaven—I’m in heaven/and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak…” Another night, to our surprise, there was a live band, a ten-piece orchestra in white tux jackets with black ties and pants. Both nights my wife and I planned on a quick stop for a nightcap before bed, and both nights we couldn’t help but linger long into the night, transported to another time, a room that would’ve felt at home to Hemingway or Fitzgerald a hundred years before.
Budapest has done an impressive job embracing its beautiful and elegant past while also addressing its uglier histories of World War II and its communist takeover. Along the Danube we found sixty bronzed pairs of shoes lining the river wall that represent one such ugly chapter, when sixty Jews were ordered to stand along the river, where they were murdered, their bodies conveniently tumbling into the river and swept away as if they’d never existed, but forever preserved and remembered here. It’s a haunting presentation, and one can’t help but stand and reflect and pay some small moment of tribute of remembrance. The city once showcased dozens of communist statues and communist street names, but those have been long removed. While a reminder of an uncomfortable chapter in the city’s history, today’s Hungarians don’t believe those monuments reflect the country’s contemporary beliefs. Keeping the monuments and statues standing proudly in the city’s squares and gardens would feel like a continued tribute to something that Hungarians don’t believe should be celebrated. Instead, these statues and monuments stand in Memento Park just outside the city, where visitors can come to ponder, to reflect, and learn of this troubled chapter of Hungarian history in a setting designed to give proper context.
Back in the city center, Christine and I sip our whiskeys and share a lemon tarte and listen to music, and wonder at the elegant preserved beauty of these coffee houses and the rest of this charming, lively city. Memento Park says, “This is who we used to be. But are no more.” Callas Café says, “This is who we used to be, and this is who we are again. Come on in. Have a seat. Welcome.”