She Said, She Said: Budapest
by Geri Bain and Jenny Keroack
Travel writer Geri Bain and her daughter Jenny Keroack spent five days exploring Budapest. As with their other adventures, they recorded their impressions and favorite finds. Jenny’s are in italics; Geri’s are in regular type.
Riding into Budapest from the airport, we had the impression we’d landed in Paris, thanks to the broad boulevards and lovely Art Nouveau/Secessionist architecture. Walking around this beautiful city was a joy, and we found its history—as told through its museums and monuments— truly fascinating.
Budapest is a great city for walking. Taking in the monuments at night is an amazing experience and one that saves you from having to navigate crowds of tourists. Two of our favorite nighttime walks are:
- Walking up Andrassy Avenue from its most western point near St. Stephen’s Church all the way to the Heroes’ Square is a beautiful and charming walk past 19th-century neo-Renaissance architecture and people enjoying sidewalk cafes. After enjoying the statues at Heroes’ Square, we explored the park around Vajdahunyad Castle, which is beautifully lit and includes architecture ranging from Romanesque churches from the 11th – 13th centuries to the 19th-century castle itself. These buildings are swamped during the day, but at night you can take them in with just a few other tourists. Make sure to read the signs, while we were there we read a really fascinating temporary exhibit on the history of Hungary and Poland’s relationship during communism.
- Buda hill is beautiful at any time but at night, Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias’ church, and Buda Castle are really stunning. You can explore the hill before heading down the southern side and following the Danube which will take you to the Gellert Hill Cave and Rudas and Gellert baths. Once you see the green bridge with an American flag on top (called Szabadsag), head back along the other side of the Danube toward old town.
We’d taken a walking tour which provided a functional if dry, overview of the city and its art museums conveyed a strong sense of Hungary’s complex history. Among the grandest were the Museum of Fine Arts and the Hungarian National Gallery. However, it was the Hungarian National Museum that helped to pull the nation’s long, storied past together for us. A timeline of exhibit halls showcases objects from each period along excellent narrative (in English as well as Hungarian) about each era’s key events and influencers. In addition, maps for each period provided an interesting perspective on how Hungary’s borders have changed over the centuries. We were impressed to learn of Hungary’s connections with the Romans, Hapsburgs, Ottomans and many other powers that have come through the region; most surprising was that Hungary at its height was three times its present size.
Museums dedicated to atrocities can be difficult to visit but, perhaps due to the narrowness and intensity of their focus, they often prove to be among the most immersive and memorable parts of a trip. That was certainly the case for me when it came to the House of Terror, which details Hungary’s fascist and communist regimes with detailed explainers (in English and Hungarian) and vivid testimonials of real perpetrators, victims, and civilians. The museum tends to emphasize the stories of victims, with less focus on Hungarians who profited from authoritarian regimes. However, from the other history I’ve read and heard about, to me it seemed like an accurate representation of how most of the population perceived its government and secret police. At these kinds of museums, each visitor tends to hold on to their own particular memorable moments. One of mine (perhaps because it felt like it could have happened to me) was the story of a woman who gave birth while in secret police detention.
Budapest has a lot to delight music lovers. We were lucky to happen upon an evening organ concert at Matthias Church, which has an amazing frescoed interior. St. Stephen’s Basilica and several other churches also offer weekly concerts on different evenings, as does Franz Liszt’s studio. However, I recommend visiting the Liszt Museum during the day, when you can take the audio tour. There are only three rooms, but we spent more than an hour with the audio guide, which included recordings of Liszt’s compositions played on his pianos, organs and other keyboard instruments. I loved seeing his custom-made composing desk that had a built-in keyboard, and as the daughter of a piano teacher, I was intrigued to learn about how he taught his master classes.
If you’re looking for ruin bars, street art, and old synagogues, the Jewish Quarter of Budapest might be the perfect, and perhaps only, place that can meet all of your very specific needs. Ruin bars are what they sound like: bars in buildings that are structurally sound but look like they are falling apart. You can take these in at night or eat at the ‘ruin pubs’ during the day. Day is also the best time to take in the Jewish Quarter’s two other main attractions: its street art and temples. The fabulous art includes everything from vintage signs to multi-story graffiti. But some of the best art is in the synagogues. We went in Kazinczy Street Synagogue and it was stunning. It was like the Jewish answer to Matthias Church, just as vividly colorful if a tad less ornate. The much larger and more famous Dohany Street Synagogue, which is featured on many of Budapest’s postcards thanks to its twin golden halos, is also well worth a visit.
We happened upon a number of special events. One evening, we headed in the direction of blaring lights and caught an amazing light and sound show projected onto the façade of St. Stephen’s Basilica. It dramatically told the story of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union and the creation of the Republic in 1989. Without words, we understood as the church crumbled and rose again and again. At one point, a tank seemed to break through its walls and come at the crowd, and then the church rebuilt itself to portray a wall of heroes. For the finale, it was draped in the Hungarian flag. A second wonderful surprise was the Műcsarnok (art hall). It operates on the model of the German Kunsthalle as an institution that is run by artists and mounts ever-changing exhibits. On show during our visit, “Hidden Stories” was a thought-provoking look at the late 19th-century Central European back-to-nature “Life Reform” movement. If we ever return, we’ll definitely check out whatever is being shown here. Touch base with the tourist office website or your hotel concierge to see what special events are happening during your stay.
During our visit, we used 72-hour Budapest Cards, which provide free walking tours, admission to many popular museums and thermal baths, public transportation and additional discounts. Not having to consider admission fees made it easy to dip into museums, even if just for a quick look or to see a particular exhibit. For more information, visit https://www.budapestinfo.hu, https://hu-hu.facebook.com/visitbudapest/, and https://www.instagram.com/budapest_official/
Geri Bain, a widely published travel writer and editor, is the co-author of The Complete Guide to Vow Renewals, released December 2018. She has written about more than 60 countries and contributed to publications including inc.com, about.com, and Robb Report. While travel editor at Modern Bride magazine, she wrote an acclaimed guide to Honeymoons and Weddings Away.
Jenny Keroack is currently working in Romania on a Fulbright Research grant.