Four Days of Exploration in the Vibrant Hungarian Capital of Budapest

By Saul Schwartz

With a population of about 1.7 million, the Hungarian capital may seem imposing at first.  However, the historic areas within Buda and Pest are contained within a manageable geographic area.  These now united “twin cities” are divided by the Danube River.  My wife Fern and I spent more time on the flat Pest side during our four day stay, as we had previously spent one day in Budapest during a cruise, focused more on the hilly Buda side.  Budapest is one of Europe’s most spectacular capitals.

Highlights on the Pest Side

Hungarian Parliament

The Parliament is Hungary’s largest building and one of the most beautiful government buildings in the world.  We signed up in advance for the one hour English language tour.  Highlights included the magnificent main staircase, the Hungarian crown jewels in the domed hall and the old upper house hall used for international conferences.  Although we did not see many of the 691 rooms, the tour did allow us to see ceiling frescoes, gothic sculptures and statutes of Hungarian rulers over the ages.  In addition, we stayed for the pomp of the changing of the guard ceremony outside the main entrance on Kossuth Square.  Another changing of the guard takes place at Buda Castle on the Buda side.

Szechenyi Spa

Budapest has several wonderful spa facilities.  This thermal bath complex is the largest in Europe, with three outdoor pools and 15 indoor thermal pools.   Water is supplied from two thermal springs.  The water temperature ranges from 64 to 104 degrees.  Built in 1913, and conveniently located within City Park, the spa is housed within an attractive golden colored neo-baroque palace building.  The ticket covers a full day stay, along with a locker.  Towel rental was available for an additional fee.

Gerbeaud Café

In Mihaly Vorosmarty Square (at Vorosmarty ter 7-8) there is a renowned upscale café with a richly decorated interior.  We had a superb lunch on the large terrace while watching pedestrians travel through the square.  The square was especially lively as vendor booths with local foods and crafts were being set up for the spring festival.  The café is well known for its tempting selection of coffees and Hungarian desserts, especially featuring the Esterhazy and Gerbeaud cakes.  The café has provided hospitality since 1858 and the staff were very friendly and knowledgeable of the menu.  http://www.gerbeaud.

Andrassay Avenue

Andrassy may be the most beautiful thoroughfare in Budapest.  The tree lined-street connects the downtown to Heroes’ Square.  With lavish residences, embassies and stately apartments, Andrassay has been designated an UNESCO heritage site.

House of Terror

Located at 60 Andrassy Avenue, the House of Terror is a museum that commemorates the victims of the Hungarian Nazis during World War II and Communist organizations thereafter.  This building was the site of interrogations, torture and executions by both murderous regimes.  Opened in 2002, the three floors of the building contain reconstructed prison cells, a Russian tank, a wall of pictures and names of victims, and many exhibits focused on the double occupation.  Although the audio guide was not available, many of the exhibits had English signage, handouts or subtitles on videos.

Shoes on the Danube Bank

Approximately eight hundred innocent Jews were driven from the Budapest ghetto and then shot and plunged into the Danube by the Hungarian Nazi party during 1944 and 1945.  On the Pest bank of the Daube, a very moving memorial was erected in 2005 to honor the people killed.  The memorial consists of sixty pairs of iron shoes, representing the shoes the victims were ordered to take off before they were shot.  The memorial is located just south of the Parliament building.

St. Stephens Basilica

This important religious building is dedicated to the first Hungarian king, Saint Stephen, who exerted great influence in making Hungary a Christian country.  On two occasions, the dome crashed and had to be rebuilt.  The building was consecrated in 1905.  The church interior contains beautiful stained glass windows, mosaics, a great organ and statutes.  In addition, an intact holy relic is on display in a glass case.  It is the mummified forearm of a king.  The exterior features a bell tower and sculptures.

Hilton Hotel Budapest City

In the West End of Pest, our hotel was very conveniently located to several tram stops and one metro line.  In addition, the hotel location was walkable to major sites in Pest.  The hotel included a multi – level fitness center with a variety of cardio equipment and weights.  Connected to Budapest’s largest mall, the hotel was easily accessible to restaurants and shopping.  In the executive room, the cuisine was both international and Hungarian.  The staff was exceptionally hospitable and they provided a birthday surprise for Fern, with local pastries and Hungarian wine.

On the Buda Side

Castle Hill Funicular

The inclined railway links the Chain Bridge to Buda’s Castle Hill.  The cable car saved our legs a hike going up the hill!  The ride takes only a few minutes and provided us great views of the Danube and Pest as we ascended.  First opened in 1870, the funicular was the second oldest it Europe.  The railway was destroyed in World War II and reopened in 1986.

Restaurants on Castle Hill

There were many dining options within Castle Hill.  We enjoyed lunch at Jamie’s Italian Restaurant, one of the sixty restaurants worldwide operated by Chef Jamie Oliver.  This is his first restaurant in central Europe.  Sitting on the outdoor patio, we enjoyed people watching as tourists and locals walked by on Castle Hill.

Hospital in the Rock

Built by the city of Budapest, this hospital within the Buda hills was used extensively during World War II and during the Hungarian revolution in 1956.  Several thousand people found shelter here and were treated by doctors and nurses during terrible circumstances.  The hospital was also used as a top secret nuclear bunker.  Opened as a museum in 2008, our English language tour took us through a series of reconstructed hospital rooms with lifelike figures and medical equipment from the periods when the hospital was in use.

Tips to Enjoy Budapest:

Free Walking Tour of Budapest

Our free 2 ½ hours walking tour provided a great orientation to the major sites within central Pest and the Buda hills.  Our local guide was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable.  She spoke English very clearly.  She even sang the 44 letter Hungarian alphabet to us!  In addition to walking by some of the major sites, we learned a little about the Hungarian culture and some of the more quirky sites that others pass by.  Free Budapest tours operate on a tip as you choose system.  Generally we tip the equivalent of $10 per person for free tours of this nature.

Margaret Island

In the middle of the Danube, this park is a quiet recreational island between Buda and Pest.  This tranquil getaway allows tourists and locals to get away from the hustle and bustle of Budapest.  I enjoyed an early morning run on the jogging track, when the park was peaceful and green.  Several animals are kept within a small zoo.

Public Transportation

Most of the city center and historic areas are suitable for walking.  With only four lines, the metro (subway) system was easy to navigate.  Although primarily in Hungarian, the signage and announcements were easy to follow.  In addition, the trams and trolley buses are good options for travel not linked to the subway lines.


Hungary is not yet on the Euro. One dollar equals approximately 255 forint.  Hungary is committed to go on the Euro in the future, but a date is not yet set.

Fern and I were extremely happy that we returned to Budapest for additional touring.  No longer under the domination of a foreign power, the Hungarian capital is a very enjoyable destination to explore.