Amidst antique treasures and tales of a tumultuous past, Budapest opens its doors to a new golden era.
Pearl of the Danube. Paris of the East. Heart of Europe. Hungary’s elegant capital has gathered its share of majestic epithets; yet their grandeur somehow falls short of capturing this fascinatingly complex city. Budapest is beautiful, yes, and it ticks all the boxes of a great European destination. It’s even in the Hollywood spotlight lately, what with the Oscar-nominated film The Grand Budapest Hotel. Perhaps it was my Eastern European heritage, the locals’ warm, dry wit, or the soul-soothing ruby-red goulash, but it was here under the greying skies that I felt inexplicably like I had come home.
Budapest’s beauty shimmers deeply, subtly. Poignant history is carved into it: WWII shrapnel marks on walls, an ancient-looking woman selling flowers on a street corner, bronze shoes lined up along the river — a throat-constricting Holocaust memorial to the Jews who lost their lives at its banks. A city split into two halves, Buda and Pest, by the Danube river, a lot of its charm lies in contrasts: East and West, old and new, treasure and tragedy.
A major European hub at the turn of the century, Budapest is no stranger to risings and fallings. Its days of glory came to a tragic end with the war, culminating in Soviet troops occupying the city in 1950 in one of the era’s darkest sieges. Decades of communist rule descended, as did a bleakness where national color once was.
When the Iron Curtain lifted in 1989, so did people’s spirits. What followed were tentative steps to rebuild a nation: the buds of a modern economy and traditional culture peeked through hesitantly, then grew relentlessly. Traces of oppression have given way to boutique-lined streets and a city reclaiming its gilded age with youthful exuberance; a city rediscovering itself and waiting to be discovered.
I started at the city’s beginnings, at Buda Castle, where a quarter of medieval Europe was once ruled from its rooms. The tale begins with King Louis the Great in 1356. His chivalrous nature and success in war secured Hungarians an empire that extended from Italy to Lithuania and east to the Black Sea. According to Louis the Great’s contemporary, John of Küküllő, the king “ruled neither with passion, nor with arbitrariness, but rather as the guardian of righteousness.” Antonio Bonfini, another record-keeper of the time, described Louis as a “just king wandering among his subjects in disguise to protect them [from] the royal officials’ arbitrary acts.” And in 1845, the poet Sándor Petőfi referred to King Louis’s reign as a period when “the falling stars of the north, the east and the south were all extinguished in Hungarian seas” (the Adriatic, the Baltic and the Black Seas.) There hadn’t been a ruler like him, and another one didn’t come again — he was the only king Hungarians titled “Great.” King Louis died in September, 1382, leaving his crown to his daughter, Mary.
For the next 600 years, Buda Castle’s fate would parallel that of the resilient local people themselves — razed to the ground in battle again and again, only to be built back up. Last reconstructed in the wake of WWII, Buda Castle is now besieged only by throngs of daily tourists, and is home to museums, the Hungarian National Gallery and The National Library, a bookworm’s heaven of ancient texts that also holds copies of every book published in Hungary.
The next day, I walked along the cobbled pathways to tree-lined Danube Promenade, a place that conjures days of parasols and kid gloves, and crossed the iconic Chain Bridge linking the city’s two halves. The streets are a jewel box of late 1800’s architecture: baroque, neoclassical, Art Nouveau all have their stunning presence. Impossible to miss, the mesmerizing Neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament Building rises to dominate the city from its riverside throne.
All that walking can make a girl hungry, so it’s a good thing Hungarians don’t fool around when it comes to food. It starts with the smells: carts peddling kurtos kalacs, cone-shaped pastries baked on a spit, tantalizing passersby with wafts of sugar and vanilla.
An essential stop is the Central Market Hall — a foodie’s paradise where everything from hanging meat to barrels of pickled vegetables is waiting to be discovered. A local pointed me towards the third floor, where I found a lángos, a delightfully oily fried flatbread topped with garlic and sour cream. And of course, there are the pastries — flaky strudels, buttery Dobos cake, fluffy kremes — best savored at an ornate coffeehouse draped in gold and history, such as the iconic New York Cafe, opened in 1894 by a Hungarian baron.
And don’t overlook the country’s wines. They hold their own: sip a honeyed Tokaj or a robust red from Villány or Eger wine country, either of which is worth a day trip.
To fully understand Budapest, I had to take a bath. “Taking the waters” here in “The City of Baths” has been a beloved pastime for locals and visitors since the 1st century AD, when the region’s natural thermal springs first attracted aqua-loving Romans.
These mineral-rich pools are touted to cure everything from asthma to hangovers. The Roman-era marble-bedecked pools were abandoned during the Mongol invasions in the 13th century, and brought back to life with the 16th century Turkish occupation that left its legacy in intricate mosaics and pierced cupolas.
Meticulously restored Turkish details bedecking the walls of different baths worked their hypnosis on me, from Art Nouveau Gellert Baths to the tranquil octagonal pools of Veli Bej. Most bathhouses you visit here will likely have two things in common: a powerful, very un-spa-like sulphuric odor, and gatherings of chatty middle-aged men, for whom it’s a social venue of sorts.
In all its sophistication, a faint weathered patina still rests over Budapest’s pretty streets, betraying its struggles. Dynamic, wistful… it is not yet a glamorous Paris or cosmopolitan London. But the city’s faded scars soften and humanize it, like a great-aunt’s laugh lines, smiling and ushering me away from thoughts of ever leaving.