Our East European adventure began in Hungary, in its capital. I knew very little about Budapest before my visit, and I have to say my expectations were exceeded! This dazzling city is split in two by the massive Danube river: Buda on one side and Pescht (as the locals say it) on the other. It’s a fascinating mix of old-world gothic architecture, socialist and communist-era designs, and new world contemporary structures. It is a sight to be seen!
In addition to the sweeping views, the city’s not-too-distant and not-too-pretty past is very visible. Before I get into that, let’s talk about the food.
Where to Dine
I spent about 3 days here and barely scratched the surface of what this city has to offer. The food was fantastic – especially in the street markets. Definitely check out Feny Street Market. It’s a feast for all the senses. You’ll find wood-smoked salmon, tantalizingly sweet cone-shaped spiral cakes and, of course, the comfort foods like Goulash and Chicken Paprikash.
There is upscale dining, as well as some wonderful wines to explore. Our favorite restaurant was Baraka, a French-Asian fusion spot with a stunning open kitchen. I highly recommend the tasting menu – the Tiger Prawn and Coconut Milk Soup with Spirulina was remarkable. Other restaurant stand-outs were Costes (where the tasting menu is a must-try) and Kollåzs Brasserie and Bar.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Aria Hotel, a chic music-themed hotel, and loved it. It’s right in the heart of town and has an amazing rooftop bar and restaurant. At the top, you’ll get a dramatic view of the beautiful St. Stephen’s Basilica and much of the city’s skyline. Each hotel room is uniquely decorated and inspired by a different musician. Our room was dedicated to Miles Davis and included books and art in his honor.
What to Do
There are many historical sites in Budapest (the Holocaust Museum and the Parliament building in particular are worth a visit), so you’ll want to spend some time exploring. A tour guide is well-worth your time and money. There’s no better way to get the feel of a place than by talking to the locals. Be sure to get a glimpse of this city from the Danube at night—stunning!
The Buda side of the city sits across the Danube. The highlight here is the Buda Castle, a world heritage site that includes the sprawling palace that was the home for Hungarian Kings dating back to the 13th Century. We slipped into a little café called 21 Hungarian Kitchen and enjoyed a delicious lunch of Chicken Paprikash and a 4 euro glass of wine. Love those wine prices in Budapest!
Tanji’s Final Thoughts
I loved Budapest, but left the city feeling very thankful to live in America. Keep in mind that this was a communist city up until 1989. When talking to the locals, the “control” exerted by that form of government still lingers. Also, the wounds of World War II are still very fresh for many of the folks I spoke to.
There is a controversial monument in Budapest’s Freedom Square, one of the city’s most prominent parks. The government erected the giant display in the dark of night just this past summer. The dramatic bronze sculpture acknowledges the 70th anniversary of Hungary’s German Nazi occupation and portrays Hungary as the Archangel Gabriel being attacked by the German Imperial Eagle. However, if you recall, the history books record the Hungarians as cheering the German troops when they entered their country.
Our guide told us that many citizens feel the government’s monument distorts the responsibility Hungary bares for the more than 450,000 jews that were sent to die during the Nazi occupation. Protestors of the monument have begun putting personal items of those lost – shoes, suitcases, books – in front of the imposing structure. It’s gut-wrenching to see and to read the individual stories.
Despite Budapest’s complicated past, this is a fascinating city with stunning architecture and phenomenal comfort food. I will definitely visit again.