Budapest was really not on my radar, but when my boyfriend, Dave, announced that his band (Foo Fighters) would be playing a non-festival date at the arena there in June 2017, it sounded like a good excuse to book a city break.
I bought the concert tickets, did the research, and asked around for recommendations. Every single person who had visited the city previously absolutely beamed when they spoke about it - “Budapest is amazing! You’ll have a great time!” They weren’t wrong. We covered so much territory while touring the town that I had to break this post into several sections, to make it easy to digest.
Book a club room at the Sofitel for a dedicated concierge, a quick breakfast, cold bottle of water, glass of wine, or evening nibbles in their club lounge. Our club room came with a great view of Buda Castle (above).
We checked into the Sofitel Chain Bridge in the early evening, quickly found a casual dinner spot, and then made our way to the Zero Kilometre Stone on the Buda side of the river for the Budapest Night Time Dark History and Vampire Walking Tour at the Castle as presented by Fanni of Mysterium Tours. I booked this as a lark (who really believes in vampires?), just to give us some entertainment upon arrival, but it turned out to be the best tour of the trip. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and touring the Buda side of the city, including Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion, was far more pleasant in the evening, after the heat of the day and the tourist hoards had gone.
Matthias Church and Holy Trinity Statue - read more about them.
While we wandered around the older, quieter side of the city taking in the stunning views, Fanni gave us a great capsulized version of Hungarian history. This country has been invaded repeatedly since the 9th century, seeing its borders change almost constantly while its population had to conform to the whims of whomever was currently in charge. By her account, the Turks were the most benevolent conquerors. During the 150 years that present-day Hungary was part of the Ottoman Empire (starting around 1540), people lived relatively peacefully and followed whatever religion they chose, so long as they paid their tax. The sultans weren't interested in converting their subjects, they just needed funds to continue their world domination. The most notable Turkish contribution to the area was the elaborate bath houses the new rulers constructed, some of which are still in use today, and the spices that are still used in Hungarian cuisine. The subsequent invasion by the Christian Holy League wasn’t so pleasant and Fanni detailed some of their favorite torture methods mostly used on the Jewish population. I won’t spoil it for you, but according to our guide, there wasn’t anything particularly “Christian” about those folks. Her stories about Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for Dracula) and the Blood Countess were just as harrowing.
View from Fisherman's Bastion.
We picked up our history lesson the next afternoon with a Budapest Sightseeing Tour with Parliament House Visit. I have to admit that this tour did not start off well as our tour guide failed to find us as we stood waiting for him for half an hour in front of our hotel. My call to the booking company, conveniently located in Austria, instructed us to wait for a yellow taxi – which made no sense as this was meant to be a small group bus tour. The local tour company’s details (apparently called Eurama) should have been provided with our confirmation to avoid this scenario. When our guide materialized, he was unapologetic and his English was not great, which just made the situation worse as we were not the only English-speaking tourists he was attempting to collect. Fortunately, he only took us to the Parliament House, where we were handed off to an official facility guide for the parliament visit and then to another, more competent, tour guide who showed us around the city for the rest of the day.
Great hall of the Hungarian Parliament House.
Hungarian Parliament press room, where the journalists gather.
The Hungarians take a lot of pride in their Parliament House and I can see why – it is an absolutely stunning piece of architecture. They love it so much, that it is lavishly lit every night and no building in Budapest may ever be built taller than this one. It is absolutely worth visiting but I would recommend that you get the earliest tour possible, instead of having an afternoon tour as we did. The place was heaving with tourists and it would be nicer to admire the building and the guide’s knowledge with a little more space.
Hungarian Parliament main room.
Next came a broad bus tour of many points around the city and stories of the on-again/off-again fighting and reconciliation with the Habsburgs of Austria, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the invasion of the Nazis during WWII, and the terror of the Arrow Cross Party.
We drove through what was turned into a walled Jewish ghetto by the Nazi factions but is today the bustling center of modern nightlife. “Liberation” came from the Russians after they pushed the Nazis out of the city and then all of Hungary – less than one-third of the country’s Jewish population survived the war and the whole country still feels the loss of those families and bears the scars from the USSR’s brand of stringent communism that came after. The Russians were snidely referred to as “the liberators who forgot to leave” by all of our tour guides and anti-Russian sentiment is freely expressed in the media. They weren’t fully exorcised from Hungary until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain in 1989-90. Some of their grim tower blocks can still be seen when driving into the city center from the airport.
Heroes' Square is vast and continues to play its part as a political gathering spot in modern Budapest.
Despite the prominent reminders of harsh times, Budapest continues to tell its whole history in monuments around the city. Those of the most well-known saviors of the country are on display in Heroes’ Square. All of the communist-era statues were removed from around the city and placed in Memento Park, which, with great irony, is not free to enter. All of the monuments and exhibits on life under communism have been thoroughly subjected to the slick marketing of an international tourist attraction while reminding the country why it must never happen again. What a great model for other countries who are looking to keep history alive without celebrating the oppression that some of their own monuments depict. Sadly, we did not have time to visit Memento Park – which gives us a reason to go back!
Shopping in the tourist district.
Post-communist capitalism and the traffic jams it brings are alive and well here. Many multi-national fast food chains, hotel groups, car manufacturers, etc., have staked a claim in or near Budapest. The city center caters to English-speaking tourists. Oddly, the only people we came across who did not speak any English were metro workers from the older generation, which made ticket purchases a little difficult when a machine was not available. The majority of tourists were British, American, and Chinese – a little microcosm of current affairs. Our hosts didn’t seem to care too much about what was happening in our home countries, as long as we were spending money - again proving that Hungarians can conform to external influences in order to survive.
View from the Citadel above Budapest. Buda is on the left, Pest is on the right. The Pest side took a brutal beating in WWII and much of it has been modernized, rebuilt, and expanded since the fall of communism.