BUDAPEST: Once is not enough

Looking across the Danube to Buda Castle at night.

Or at least, once was not enough for me when it comes to Budapest.

When my parents were planning the trip they wanted to take during my fall break and Budapest came into the mix, I wasn't sure how I felt about it at first. I had already been to Budapest once when I was studying abroad in 2011, and while I had a great time there, I wasn't sure I really wanted to go a second time. Of all the cities I thought I would come back to, Budapest was not one that immediately sprang to mind. But, it was something my mother really wanted to do, and at least Prague and Vienna would be new to me. So I went along with it. And after making my second trip there at the end of October, I'm so glad I did.

First things first -- we did not budget time for this trip appropriately. We gave ourselves 2 1/2 days in Budapest which, based on my previous trip there, I thought would be enough to hit the main points, but I was quite wrong. For one, I forget that sightseeing as a twentysomething is very different from sightseeing as... someone slightly older than 20. Basically, I was able to see a lot in Budapest my first time there with really only two days of proper sightseeing, and thus I thought we could do the same this time. But my parents don't sightsee in quite the same way or at the same pace as I do, and I didn't really factor that in to my considerations. We also made what I think was a critical error -- booked a four-hour guided tour for our first day there. This did not go exactly how we expected, but more on that later.

We took the train from Vienna to Budapest, and arrived in the afternoon on a Tuesday. The previous time I was in Budapest, I flew, so coming via train was new for me. I was a little worried about the logistics of getting from the train station to the apartment we were renting, because in general I found getting around in Budapest to be very confusing the last time I was there. The language is just utterly unintelligible to me -- if you're taking public transportation and the stops are being called out, it's almost impossible to keep up, because the language is such that how it is spoken and how words are spelled do not seem to match up at all. Luckily, the person we were renting our apartment from was able to meet us, and he was able to guide us through the public transportation necessary to get to our apartment.

Our apartment was located on Rákóczi Way, which is one of the main streets through Pest (sidenote: There are two facts about Budapest that everyone who goes there learns and then tells their friends to make themselves seem smart and worldly: 1) Budapest is technically two different cities, Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube; they merged in the 1800s; and 2) Pest is actually pronounced "Pesht" so if you really want to sound worldly, call it Budapesht). This location was both a good and a bad thing. Good in that it was a very central location and we could easily get into the inner city; bad in that it was a very major street, which meant that it just didn't look very nice -- not very charmingly European, just loudly and overwhelmingly urban. This wasn't a huge problem, but it was a big change from the parts of town we stayed in in Prague and Vienna -- it made Budapest initially seem not quite so nice in comparison, which I thought was a shame, since the city really is quite lovely.

Once we got settled we did a little bit of exploring on our way to find food. As we started getting into the inner city, it was fun seeing a lot of the places and views I remembered from last time. It was also a little strange, just because I never really expected that I'd be back so soon. We walked along the Danube in the evening, looking across the river to Buda and the Castle Hill. I started thinking not about how strange it was to be back here again, but instead how lucky I was to make a second trip to a city this cool.

The next day, we got up reasonably early to start our guided tour. Given that our time in Budapest was somewhat limited, my parents decided that this would be a good way to see a lot of (and learn a lot about) Budapest in a relatively short period of time. However, this tour did not end up being a very good fit for us. To be fair, we did see a lot of Budapest in a 4-hour time span, aided by the fact that we had a minivan to drive us all around the city. The problem is that we received WAY more information than we wanted or were able to process during the tour, and there was no escape -- we were stuck for the entire 4 hours. We were also moved along much too quickly. I get that the idea of the tour was that we could get a feel for a lot of different parts of the city, and then we could return to those parts on our own time, but we're tourists. We take pictures. We wander around. The tour was just way too structured for how we liked to travel, and it ended up feeling somewhat like a wasted four hours, which is really a shame.

Fall colors at City Park.

The tour took us first to City Park, where the famous Széchenyi Baths are located. We poked our heads inside to see the lobby, but did not end up having time to come back and actually see the baths. This means I've been in Budapest twice now and still have not done one of it's most famous tourist attractions. I'm not very good at this.

From City Park we worked our way to Heroes Square, which is a large open area featuring more than a dozen statues of individuals who were significant in Hungary's past. Unfortunately, we were not able to walk through the square, because we also happened to be in Budapest on the day of Hungary's national holiday (occurring on Oct. 23). There was some sort of stage setup featuring many members of the military, so the area was closed off to tourists.

We then hopped back into the van and drove across town into Buda to head up to Gellért Hill, which overlooks the city. This was kind of interesting, since I did not visit this hill the last time I was there. The view is really not that much better than the one from Castle Hill though (beyond the fact that you can also see the castle from Gellért Hill). On top of the hill, there is a 19th-century fortress (the Citadel), as well as the Liberty Statue. Originally a monument to the Soviet forces that freed Hungarians from Nazi rule, it's meaning has shifted to more of a general monument for Hungary's struggle for freedom and independence.

From Gellért Hill we moved over to Castle Hill, starting around the Fisherman's Bastion. This is absolutely my favorite part of Budapest (as I think it is for many who visit). It's a set of terraces and towers built out of crisp, white stone that look out over the Danube to the city of Pest. The architecture is striking because it does not look typically European at all, plus the views are fabulous. Our tour breezed through this area relatively quickly, so I knew we would be heading back here on our own time.

Fisherman's Bastion.

The last stop on our tour was Buda Castle, the place of residence for Hungary's rulers for centuries (though the building that is located there today dates back only from the 1700s. As castles go, I don't necessarily find Budapest's to be particularly striking (how snobby does that sound? sorry...), but the area is nice enough to explore and has some additional good views of the city.

Our tour finally ended and we were dropped out near our apartment. At this point, we were completely exhausted and overwhelmed -- too much information spread out over too much time. We regrouped, and started walking through town on our own, at our own pace, while taking as many picture breaks as we wanted. It was glorious.

Right-wing political demonstrators.

As previously mentioned, this day was the Hungarian national holiday, so because of this there were a lot of people out and about, including political demonstrators. We stumbled upon one fairly large political rally that was still being set up, and we stopped for a bit to watch the spectacle of all the different people assembling, the music playing over the loudspeakers and the video montages being show on large screens. Not being able to understand Hungarian (and not knowing anything about their different political parties in general), we weren't really sure what group this was. But I began to feel a bit uneasy about the crowd, based on the people I was seeing and some of the signs they had. I noticed a lot of people wearing Lonsdale clothing, for example, which at least in Germany is a clothing brand favored by neo-Nazis (which the brand in no way condones or encourages; it's just something these groups have appropriated). When we returned to our apartment later in the day, I did some Google research on the party I had seen on people's signs, and sure enough it was Hungary's far-right party (and also happens to be their third-largest party). So I guess it was interesting to see their demonstration, but I felt a little uneasy about it all once I knew for sure that this was not a party I'd otherwise want to be associated with.

We moved from the rally to St. Stephen Basilica, Budapest's central Catholic church. The interior was pretty and ornate (Wikipedia tells me the architectural style is "neo-Classical" -- lots of colorful marble), though it's not particularly remarkable as churches go. Perhaps it's most interesting offering is the withered hand of St. Stephan, a relic dating back about a thousand years. It's kinda creepy, kind of cool. You can even put some coins in a machine to light up the hand for about a minute. Money well spent, if you ask me.

Our next stop was Liberty Square, one of my favorite places in Budapest due to its interesting array of features. One of the focal points of the square is a monument erected by the Soviets when they occupied Hungary. The monument is one of the few still displayed so publicly in Hungary and has remained so per an agreement with the Russian government. The monument is always surrounded by metal barriers to protect it from defacement.

Also located on the square -- the American embassy and a statue of Ronald Reagan. The Hungarian Parliament is also close by and visible from some parts of the square. Yep, there's a lot going on in this square politically, and I love it.

Inside the New York Cafe.

The next day (Thursday), we started off by having a light breakfast at the New York Cafe, which is an opulent cafe dating back to the turn of the century. It's located in a beautiful building originally constructed by the New York Life Insurance Company, although today the building is mostly used as a hotel. I had not been to the cafe before, and this was absolutely worth doing, although it's certainly not cheap by Budapest standards, or even European standards. We had a fairly light breakfast (coffee/deliciously rich hot chocolate with some pastries and fruit), but we had a great time taking in the overall ambiance and enjoying the attentive service. I think this is a must-do for people visiting Budapest who want a taste of the cultured world capital Budapest was considered to be in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

We then walked to the Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, as it is the largest synagogue in Europe (third largest in the world!). According to our guidebook (thanks, Rick Steves!) entry into the courtyard areas was free, although I don't know how anyone without a guidebook would figure that out. There was a sizable line to get tickets for tours, and it wasn't immediately clear to us if we needed some sort of ticket just to enter or if it was alright for us to head straight for security knowing that we didn't want to go to any of the ticketed areas (for example, the main synagogue hall). We headed up to security and the man asked to see our tickets -- we explained that we don't want to go on a tour, we just wanted to walk around the outside. Seeming like he wasn't actually listening to us, he started to tell us to go back to the lines to get tickets. We began to argue, but then he was distracted by other people and we just kept walking. I didn't particularly care for the confusion of the whole entry process, and I suspect it's all just a way to try to convince tourists they have to pay to enter the synagogue, which is a shame to see at such a lovely and significant building.

"Leaves" from the memorial park's weeping willow memorial.

Once inside the synagogue, everything was much calmer and more enjoyable. While we weren't able to go inside the building without tickets, it was still worthwhile to see the Jewish Cemetery, where thousands of Jews who died in Budapest's ghetto during World War II are buried, as well as the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park. The park features a statue that resembles a weeping willow, with thousands of "leaves" that bear the names of Hungarian Holocaust victims. Around the tree are various memorial plaques for different people and families who were killed. Some were quite striking, using extremely passionate language to describe people's fate (their "noble souls rose to heaven in a ball of fire at the hands of the Nazi murderers"). There is also a symbolic grave for Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who worked to save tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews, as well as other "righteous gentiles" who worked to save Jews. It was a small but very well done park that in my opinion makes the synagogue worth a visit, even if you don't want to pay for entry into the building itself.

After the synagogue, we indulged in some mindless touristy consumption at Budapest's Great Market Hall. It's a huge building with various food vendors on the bottom floor and souvenir vendors on the second level. I did not go here my last time in Budapest, and it was a fun place to explore, but it felt somewhat overwhelmingly touristy. Like, sometimes with these markets you feel like there is a good balance between tourists who come to gawk/snap up souvenirs, and locals coming to purchase fresh foods and vegetables. And certainly, there were plenty of places selling fresh meat and fruits and vegetables. But all of the non-food items felt extremely mass-produced to me -- it wasn't the kind of place you could really go hunting for a truly original find.

We then hopped on a street car and made our way across the river into Buda to do some more exploring of the Castle Hill. Specifically, we wanted to go inside the Matthias Church, which is quite beautiful from the outside -- the contrast of the colorful tiled roof with the bright white facade is just gorgeous. Inside was even better, in my opinion. The interior was unlike any church I had ever been in, with every surface covered in colorful, ornate patterns. It was like the entire building was a piece of art. This is definitely one of my favorite things to see in Budapest.

Inside the Matthias Church.

Outside the church, we spent more time exploring the Castle Hill, including some more meanderings through the Fisherman's Bastion as well as strolling down some of the areas charming streets lined with colorful buildings. We headed back toward Buda Castle to explore those grounds a bit more, then called it a day.

And thus ended our tour through Budapest. For 2 1/2 days, we did see most of what you have to see in Budapest, but the reality is that we were far too rushed to really give Budapest the attention it deserved. Three days is an absolute minimum to fully grasp this city, I would say.

Having been here two times now, all I can say is I'm ready for a third time. I saw enough new things this second time around to realize there is still so much to discover and learn about Budapest, and this is a city that I feel is worth the time. It's beautiful, but not always in the conventional European fashion. It's a city that rewards repeat visitors and those who spend enough time there to truly understand it. I'm still scratching off the surface of Budapest, but I'm more than willing to continue taking the time to discover what's underneath.