From torture museums and Turkish baths to the café that can never close, Andrew Eames gets to grips with the heroes and heritage of the Hungarian capital.
1. Castle Hill and Fisherman’s Bastion
Budapest is comprised of Buda, the hilly original on the west bank of the Danube, and Pest, the flat newer city on the eastern side. While most of the shopping, the hotels, and the entertainment are on the Pest side, the historical sights are largely to the west. Castle Hill is, as the name suggests, the site of the original settlement, although the only remaining truly ancient walls have been partly incorporated into the Hilton hotel. Nevertheless, the district does still have a cobbled, “villagey” atmosphere, and is largely inhabited by embassies and cultural institutions. Its most well-known sight is the Fisherman’s Bastion, a giant balustrade with a great view over the Danube and Pest. Particularly evident, facing the Bastion from the riverbank below, are the Houses of Parliament, a 691-room steepled pile which took a thousand labourers 17 years to build.
2. Chain Bridge
The first permanent link between Buda and Pest, and by far the most photogenic of Budapest’s bridges (particularly when it’s lit up after dark), the Chain Bridge was constructed in 1849, at the instigation of Count Szechenyi. The count had been forced to delay his father’s funeral for eight days because the river wasn’t safe enough to cross, so he decided to do something about it. He found an example of the sort of suspension bridge he wanted in the small Buckinghamshire town of Marlow, and contracted its engineer to do the design. The structure has since become a city icon, hosting the annual Chain Bridge Festival every August. Most of Budapest’s tour boats and river cruisers moor on its downriver side.
3. Andrassy Ut
This boulevard is the most flamboyant and architecturally splendid in Pest’s downtown, and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002. It is lined with department stores, inviting cafés, significant museums, theatres and concert halls, most of them dating from the late 19th century when Hungary was in its prime. Underneath it runs one of the oldest underground railways in the world, older even than the Paris metro, and still charmingly original.
A mixture of art nouveau and neo-classical architecture, Andrassy’s highlights are undoubtedly the State Opera House (staging some of the best-value opera performances in Europe) and the extraordinarily decorative Dreschler Palace. Budapest’s theatreland is focused on the crossing of Andrassy and Nagymezo utca, with classical, alternative, brassy and sleazy entertainment all available here. The boulevard continues for some two kilometres, with embassies down the far end, where it finally ends at Heroes’ Square.
4. House of Terror
During the Second World War, one of Andrassy ut’s finest buildings (number 60) became home first to the Nazis, and then later to the secret police, and hosted all manner of torture and execution. Today, it lives on as the House of Terror, its lift-shaft papered with pictures of murdered kulaks (upper and middle-class landowners).
The cells in the basement are still there, filled with the (recorded) groans, whimpers, screams and sobs of the prisoners. One of their biggest dangers was insanity from solitary confinement, and the only indication of the passing of the seasons was the guards getting more suntanned. Transporting visitors down to the basement is the slowest and most moving lift ride in Christendom, proceeding at a funereal pace while a big-screen talking head takes you step by step through a typical execution. For more details on the museum visit terrorhaza.hu.
5. Szechenyi Baths
You can’t stay any length of time in Budapest and not try one of its hot baths. There are several hot springs underneath the city, and the Ottomans, during their long occupation, constructed elaborate bathing complexes all over town. The most “Turkish” is the Rudas Bathhouse, close to Chain Bridge, but the most photogenic are the Szechenyi Baths near Heroes’ Square at the top of Andrassy ut. Here, old-timers play chess on floating boards in a water-filled courtyard surrounded by what looks like a neo-baroque Habsburg palace. The outdoor pools are still used even in winter, when the steam rises from them like fog.
6. Big Market Hall
Beyond Budapest, Hungary is overwhelmingly rural. The country invades the city in the Big Market Hall, at the southern end of the popular pedestrianised shopping street, Vaci ut. This giant, covered hall takes up three floors, and has lovely art- deco ironwork inside. The biggest attractions are the stalls themselves, with whole sections of cheesemakers, greengrocers, salami-smokers and fishmongers. Look hard and you’ll spot a photograph of Margaret Thatcher on a tour of the market back in the 1980s. The uppermost level of the shopping area has a series of little eateries where you can get good-value traditional local cuisine.
7. New York Cafe
Once upon a time, Budapest’s 600 coffee houses were second homes to writers, poets and politicians, and they would stay open all through the night. The communists shut every one of them down, but many have resurfaced, and one of the most glorious is the New York Café in the New York Palace Hotel, at Erzsebet korut 9-11. The décor is ridiculously over the top – extravagantly neo-baroque, with curving marble pillars rising to gilded niches and ceilings covered in frescos and statuettes. As you pull up a red velvet chair to a chrome-edged glass table, you may read that Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar was so impressed when the café opened, back in 1894, that he threw its keys into the River Danube in order that it should never close. Tel +800 267 265 65, boscolohotels.com.
Visit gotohungary.co.uk for more details.