On October 23, 1989, Provisional President of the Republic of Hungary, Mátyás Szűrös stood on a balcony overlooking Kossuth Square (site of Bloody Thursday in 1956) and declared the Hungarian state to be an independent, democratic nation. (By chance, I was there that day.)
In the days, weeks, months, and now decades since that momentous announcement Budapest has gone from a physically crumbling, economically struggling satellite capital, to a restored, revived world city. Quick to shake off the layers of Soviet dust, Budapest was the first former East Bloc nation to reopen its Stock Exchange, and to begin the arduous task of restoring everything from their dated infrastructure to it's world-famous parliament building. Not surprisingly, with the removal of the occupation's reminders, like the many Lenin and Marx statues, the overall mood of the city rose, and with it, the resident's quality of life.
That pervasive feeling of elation has remained. Budapest is a city of optimism and has emerged from beneath the weight of its Communist past a better, brighter and more majestic place. Restored, revitalized and ready to show itself off to the world, what matters most to the residents and visitors of Budapest is the here and now. How you chose to enjoy it, is up to you, but here a few suggestions:
There is probably no greater bridge builder between peoples than sharing a meal is a person's home. Many private residents in Budapest believe this so fiercely that they open their doors to those travelers wanting to experience authentic, home-cooked Hungarian cuisine, and who wish to meet and converse with the city's residents in a more meaningful way. In-house dining options are plentiful in Budapest. Generally, your hotel concierge can provide you with the names of nearby homes that offer meals and conversation at a reasonable rate.
A Drink Among the Ruins
The Communist era had many shortcomings, among them was the complete stoppage of work on restoring structures damaged during WWII. When the Communist era came to a sudden close, Budapest found itself with a fair number of gutted buildings that needed a purpose. It didn't take long before many of these ruined structures were converted into the most eclectic watering holes on the planet. Most of the, what have come to be called "Ruin bars," are in District VII and usually feature amazing, live music of all genres, lots of original artwork, and loads of cool locals. That "Cold-War-is-over" élan returns nightly in these unique night spots.
Margaret Island (Margitsziget) is a little over a mile and a half long and five football fields wide, in the middle of the Danube river between the Margaret and Árpád Bridges. Aside from the views looking toward Buda and Pest, the next most attractive feature about the island is that is nearly empty. For the most part, it's a long green park with shaded pedestrian lanes and idyllic picnic spots. What structures there are were built for fun, like the Hajós Alfréd National Sports Swimming Pool, a water park, a petting zoo for the kiddies, and a smattering of medieval era ruins to remind you of the fact that you're in a city that was first settled in 1 CE.
The Sounds of Music
From Bartók and Liszt, or more recently, Yonderboi and The Moog, there's no shortage of great music in Budapest. The obvious places to go listen to the classics are the State Opera House or the Franz Liszt Academy in the tony District VI. Also known as "Little Broadway," District VI is the place to go for show tunes, avant-garde music, and old-school jazz standards that date back to the legendary Kapitány Anni. Looking for a more intimate musical adventure, venture into a Gypsy (Roma) bar where the scene is lively, the drinks are a fraction of the cost of what they are in District VI, and the music is truly incredible.
Author Gyula Krúdy, is considered one of Hungary's greatest writers. He wrote of his city in 1918, that Pest is spring, while Buda is autumn. His observation remains as true today as it did then. Budapest is two cities, divided by the wide Danube, with personalities and charms as far apart as seasons, both equally enthralling, both dreamlike, both ready for you to come explore.
Budapest is the end point of our Journey from Berlin to Budapest! Check out our upcoming autumnal departure and take a closer look at this enchanting Hungarian city.