Do you know what Zsa Zsa Gabor, Harry Houdini, Edward Teller, Robert Capa, Ernő Rubik and Theodor Herzl have in common? They were all born in Budapest, capital of Hungary. A city divided by the Danube into two parts and connected by 12 bridges, with 23 districts and around 1.8 million inhabitants.
One of the most impressive buildings on the Pest side is the Hungarian Parliament Building. A guided tour of the building is highly recommended to learn about the history and political system of the country, also to see the Holy Crown of Hungary.
Just a short walk away you can visit St. Stephen’s Basilica named after the first king of Hungary. It has the same height as the Parliament building: 96 metres. This number commemorates the year 896 when the Hungarian Conquest of the Carpathian Basin took place.
For classical music lovers, I would recommend a visit to the Ferenc Liszt Memorial Museum which is a reconstruction of the composer’s last Budapest apartment where he lived between 1881 and 1886. The collection of the museum contains his original instruments, scores and some personal objects. The Liszt Research Centre in the house coordinates all the Liszt-research in Hungary. If you are lucky, it may even be possible to listen to a short concert here!
From here you can take the oldest subway of continental Europe to the Heroes’ Square where the Millennial Monument and The Museum of Fine Arts and The Hall of Art all overlook the square.
A Stroll through the green City Park reveals more impressive buildings such as the Szechenyi Bath, where men traditionally play chess in the water outside, The Elephant Gate of the Budapest Municipal Zoo, the Botanical Gardens and the Vajdahunyad Castle, housing the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture. During winter months, in front of the castle, you will find Europe’s largest artificial ice-skating rink which is a boating lake in the summer.
You should also explore the Jewish Quarter, where you can find the largest synagogue of Europe: The Dohany Street Synagogue. Here, you will also see the “Tree of Life” donated by Tony Curtis and the Jewish Museum, which was built on the site where the birthplace of Theodor Herzl once stood.
There is plenty to see on the other side of the Danube as well. On the Buda side you can take the funicular from the Chain Bridge up to Castle Hill, where you can visit the National Gallery, Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias Church. You can also walk or drive up the Gellert Hill to visit the Liberty Statue and admire the view over the city from there.
A less known but very interesting sight on the Buda side is the “Saint Ivan’s Cave” constructed in the 1920s by a group of Pauline monks who were inspired by similar rock constructions during a pilgrimage in Lourdes, France. It served as a chapel and monastery until 1951. It also served as a field hospital for the army of Nazi Germany during World War II.
Hungarians like me are proud of their culinary tradition and there is something for everyone to try: locally sourced goulash soup (a stew of meat and vegetables usually seasoned with paprika) at a traditional restaurant, street food at the Great Market Hall and Haute cuisine at a Michelin star restaurant.
For dessert I would recommend a slice of Dobos, which is a sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel, Esterhazy, which is chocolate buttercream sandwiched between four layers of sponge cake, or my personal favourite Gerbeaud, a layered apricot and walnut cake.
With an increasing number of indirect and direct flights from the USA to Budapest (American Airlines start their non-stop flights from Chicago next summer), there has never been a better time to suggest visiting Budapest to your groups!