“Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East. It is a dreamed-up city; a city almost completely faked; a city invented out of other cities, out of Paris by way of Vienna — the imitation, as Claudio Magris has it, of an imitation.”
-M. John Harrison
My Visit to Budapest
I bought a ticket to Budapest because it was $28 roundtrip from my new base in Sofia. Not because I’m some super cool chick who knows all the best spots, and not because I have a grand master plan about how my travels are going to go. I keep my eye on the big goal, and I take steps. But the middle is chaos.
I bought this ticket to Budapest thinking I knew where I was going. Not in a Google Maps kind of way, but more in a Tale of Two Cities kind of way. I thought somewhere in the back of my mind there was an image of Budapest that was founded on something more than a river cruise commercial.
When I got there though, I realized I had been thinking of other cities. If you’ve been to Vienna and Bratislava and you’ve read a lot about the Czech Republic, and you were a former Russian and Eastern European Studies major before giving up on the Russian language, and you also have seen a million Rick Steves episodes and listened to a lot of New Books in Eastern European Studies interviews, you think that would give you something to work with.
But it doesn’t. I arrived in Budapest with a Hungary shaped hole in my head.
I’ve surreptitiously avoided doing UNESCO posts on the ones I find intimidating. It’s easy to write up a building; it’s much harder to write up a whole city.
The name Budapest is actually two separate cities-Buda and Pest. And that’s the kind of thing that makes the city seem so dreamlike.
Walking around the city, everything feels magical and special. I started to think, okay UNESCO, you picked the whole freaking city, but I kind of get it. This place is amazing.
But what exactly does UNESCO mean by this long description: Budapest, including the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue? Is it the whole city but especially those three sections? Or just those three sections? Their website doesn’t do much to clarify it.
From UNESCO’s description:
This stretch of the Danube has been the location of human settlement since the Palaeolithic. It was the site of the Roman city of Aquincum, situated to the north of the inscribed property which comprises parts of two originally quite separate cities: Buda on the spur on the right bank and Pest on the plain on the left bank. Pest was the first medieval urban centre, devastated in 1241-2. A few years later the castle of Buda was built on a rocky spur on the right bank by King Bela IV. Thereafter, the city reflected the history of the Hungarian monarchy.
…Budapest has retained the separate structural characteristics of the former cities of Pest, Buda and Óbuda. One example thereof is the Buda Castle Quarter with its medieval and characteristically Baroque style, which are distinct from the extended and uniquely homogeneous architecture of Pest (with its historicising and art nouveau styles) which is characterised by outstanding public buildings and fitted into the ringed-radial city structure. All this is organized into a unity arising from the varied morphological characteristics of the landscape and the Danube, the two banks of which are linked by a number of bridges.
Let’s go through these areas individually:
The Banks of the Danube
According to Budapest.com, this officially includes the following:
Both the Pest and Buda embankments of the Danube stretching from the Liberty Bridge all the way up to the Margaret Bridge, the area encompassed by the Chain Bridge and some of the buildings belonging to the Technical University, the Gellért Bath, the Gellért Hill with the Statue of Liberty and the Citadel, the Castle of Buda, the Baroque churches and Turkish baths of the so-called Water Town – these are all parts of the World Heritage today.
On the Pest embankment of the Danube, the listed items are the Parliament building, Roosevelt Square, the Academy of Sciences and the Gresham Palace (which today gives home to the Four Seasons Hotel).
This area is easily viewed by a stroll along the banks or a cruise on the water, and it’s these views that make all the postcards.
The Buda Castle Quarter
This includes the former Royal Palace, the Mathias Church, Trinity Square, Fisherman’s Bastion, and the surrounding streets.
Budapest was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, but Andrassy Avenue was added in 2002. This street includes Heroes’ Square on one end, and stretches to downtown Pest. This avenue contains the State Opera House, the Old Art Hall, the House of Terror Museum where the state police operated during Nazi and Soviet times, and blocks of wealthy and beautiful apartments.
I flew from Sofia. Wizz Air is a Hungarian budget airline that has the smallest carry-on allowance in Europe. But they are super cheap ($28 roundtrip was amazing!). If you can avoid bag fees or any other add on fees, adding Budapest to a European adventure can be pretty budget-friendly.
Things to Do While You’re There
This isn’t a “Things to Do in Budapest” article (look for that soon). However, if you want to see Budapest and not miss one of the UNESCO areas, these six itinerary items cover the three sections and still give you a good overview of the city:
- The free walking tour will give you a good walk around the banks of the Danube and up Castle Hill to the Buda quarter. (It will not go to Andrassy Avenue)
- If you have a few days to explore, my friend Kate put together this awesome 3-day Budapest Itinerary
- Visit the Hungarian National Gallery hosted inside the Buda Castle to see the castle and also get an introduction to Hungarian art.
- The Gellert Spa was my favorite Bath experience, and this building is part of the banks.
- A river cruise on the Danube is a must! My ticket (sans dinner) was less than $30 and the views were spectacular! There are many companies that do these cruises.
- For Andrassy Avenue, I started by visiting the House of Terror where the state police headquarters were. It’s now a museum dedicated to preserving the history of what Hungary went through during the terror regimes of the Nazis and the Communists. I’m going to write more about this museum later, but do not go to Budapest without visiting it!
- After leaving the museum, I walked down Andrassy to Heroes’ Square to experience the architecture of the street.
- Budapest has some cool seasonal activities, like the Christmas Market in December and the Sziget Festival in August.
- If you’re walking around the banks of the river or up the hill, calculate that it will be colder than in the middle of Pest. Plan accordingly.
- Public transportation is great, easy, and cheap. Make sure you buy a ticket so you don’t get a fine like I did (really long story but not a lesson you need to learn the hard way).
- Prepare to be outside a lot, so think sunscreen, sunglasses, hat.
- If you go to a bath or spa, bring your own towel and flip-flops to avoid extra rental fees.
- Food in Budapest is AMAZING. But it includes a lot of soup. This means either prepare to eat very elegantly or bring a Tide stick.
- Many older locals don’t know as much English as in Western Europe. They mostly learned Russian in school. And it’s unlikely you’ll know Hungarian. So find a younger Hungarian to help out if you’re having trouble.