What to see
The expansive Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere) was constructed with the most tasteful understandings of art and aesthetics. Though it’s one of the first places tourists come to see while visiting the city today, it has played an important role in Hungarian history and has been the site of many political events. The building of the square’s central column and the two galleries standing either side of it began in 1896 to commemorate the Hungarian State’s 1000th anniversary. The reliefs and sculptures of the central monument were created by the Hungarian sculptor Zala György, with the statue standing atop the column depicting the Angel Gabriel. The reliefs and other statues in the square reflect important events and characters from the county’s history. The two galleries standing on either side of the square provide a fascinating insight into Hungary’s artistic history. The Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum) built between 1900 and 1906, and the Palace of Art (Műcsarnok) built in 1895 will really help you understand the artistic development which has taken place in Budapest over the centuries.
Hungarian National Gallery
The Hungarian National Gallery (Magyar Nemzeti Galery) has existed since 1802, and started with the donation of Count Ferenc Széchényi’s collection to the government, on the condition that they would establish a museum to display it. In 1807 the Hungarian Parliament decided they too wanted to contribute to the collection, and so it grew in size. In 1846, the collection was moved to a Neoclassical building designed by the Hungarian architect Mihály Pollack. Its façade is beautifully decorated with sculptures, reliefs and mosaics, and it soon became one of the city’s most treasured buildings. With a number of thematic exhibition galleries and a garden full of wonderful statues, the museum is a real treat for visitors, though one of its most interesting pieces is the harpsichord once belonging to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This gift to Mozart from his father has become one of the museum’s most prized possessions.
Margaret Island (Margit-sziget) takes its name from the daughter of the Hungarian monarch Bela IV, and also boasts a fascinating history. Bela IV promised that if the city was saved from Tatar invasion, he would sacrifice his unborn children to God. However, despite his wish being fulfilled, the monarch couldn’t bring himself to kill his daughter, so he brought her to the island. She was destined to spend her years on the island before she died at the tender age of 28, and a tomb to the young girl still stands there today. Margaret Island provides visitors to Budapest with the opportunity for romantic walks among medieval ruins, while its park even puts on open-air opera and theater performances. The island also features a water park, hotel and zoo. At the top of each hour a decorative fountain puts on a playful water display set to music, which creates a wonderful scene amongst the park’s sculptures. The island is a great place to come and do some exercise, or just to relax and have a laid-back picnic. There’s no traffic on the island, but there is a mini-train system and car-shaped bicycles known as “bringo” to help you get around.
Memento Park’s (Szaborpark) slogan “The biggest statues of the cold war” gives you some idea of what the fascinating sections inside this open-air museum hold. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, statues of the leader of the Soviet Union, Stalin, were defaced and torn down, and what remains of them is now on display here, as well as various other item from the era. One of these is the Trabant 601, or “the people’s car”, whose compact little chassis was once manufactured in East Germany – it’s now one of the most photographed pieces in the museum. You can even listen to recordings of telephone conversations held by leaders like Lenin, Stalin and Mao, and there’s plenty of memorabilia from the era to be found in the museum’s gift shop.
Hungarian Parliament Building
To assert the power and independence of Hungary, the incredible Hungarian Parliament Building (Országház) was built on the banks of the Danube. The architecture of this building is likely to leave you speechless – not surprising since 40 million bricks, half an million precious stones and 40 kilos of gold went into its construction. Built between 1884 and 1902, the building’s architect Imre Steindl just about managed to see its completion before he died.
In 1839, the experienced British suspension bridge engineer William Tierney Clark designed Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd), which would then open to the public in 1849. It was to be the era’s longest suspension bridge and in fact Budapest’s first permanent bridge. Today, the bridge is also referred to as Lion Bridge, because of the sculptures of lions adorning it. These lions have an intriguing story behind them – their creator, János Marschalkó, promised to throw himself off the bridge should even the smallest imperfection appear in his work. It was only when a child noticed that the lions had been carved without tongues that Marschalkó’s error was discovered. True to his word, he threw himself into the Danube. Regrettably, the bridge was all but destroyed during World War II, but was rebuilt, keeping faithful to the bridge’s original design, between 1947 and 1949. This symbol of the city looks beautiful at any time of the day, but a truly distinct beauty reveals itself when Chain Bridge is illuminated at night.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
This church is the country’s third largest and is dedicated to the first King of Hungary, Stephen I. Along with the Hungarian Parliament Building, it’s one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest, standing at 96 meters tall. The church’s main dome is truly spectacular, and you’ll be amazed by the styling of the interior as soon as you step inside. St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István-bazilika) was built between 1851 and 1906, and was started by Hungarian architect Jozsef Hild, though after his death in 1867, another Hungarian architect, Miklos Ybl carried on Hild’s work. The church’s architecture, as well as the sculptures, reliefs and mosaics found inside compliment the incredible views of the city it offer visitors. As one of the two tallest points in the city, it’s the best place to capture amazing panoramic photographs of Budapest. You can use the elevator to get to the walkway around the outside of the dome, or if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can climb the 364 steps to get there.
House of Terror
House of Terror (Terror Haza) reveals the awful oppression suffered by the Hungarian people during and after the Second World War, first at the hands of Hitler, then Stalin. Opened in 2002, it’s become one of the city’s most interesting museums. The execution and torture chambers, and cells too narrow to even squat give you some idea of the horrors experienced during those eras. Photographs and interviews with witnesses to the events bring the sobering reality of what Hungarians went through to the present day.
What to eat
Chunks of meat, paprika, onion, garlic and potatoes all come together to make this hearty Hungarian dish. It was a creation of medieval herdsmen, in fact the name comes from the word for “herd of cattle”. In that era, herdsmen would take a goulash prepared earlier with them as they grazed their herds. They would cook meat, onions and spices together until the fat in the meat had broken down, then would let it dry and keep it bags made of sheep’s stomach. Later, adding water would bring it back to its soupy consistency. Today however, cuts like shank, shin or shoulder are browned over high heat with onion and oil, then covered with stock and seasoned with paprika. The slow cooking breaks down the fat in the meat making it tender and succulent. Root vegetables are often added to give the dish a thicker consistency.
Paprika, a spice made from dried peppers plays a lead role in many Hungarian dishes. After the peppers are dried, they’re crushed into powder or used to make a pepper paste. As you explore the city’s streets, you’ll find packets of paprika and strings of peppers being sold in the markets and traditional shops. If you want something to remember your visit by, or simply want to take the taste of Hungarian cuisine back home with you, a packet of paprika is the perfect choice.
Tokány could well be Hungary’s oldest dish and is made from strips of beef, peppers, mushroom, smoked pastrami and sour cream. The casserole is served in restaurants all over the city, and of course has paprika as one of its key ingredients. It’s a little less watery than goulash, but be sure to try this Hungarian classic too on your visit to Budapest.