August 8, 2016. I’m guessing that if most of you were asked to rank your top-ten ideal European destinations, Budapest probably wouldn’t be in the lineup. Maybe it’s the lingering impressions of Iron Curtain countries as dismal. Or maybe it’s Hollywood portrayals of Hungarians as blood-sucking vampires, devious gypsies and petty criminals, or brainless beauties. (I’m thinking here of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula; Peter Lorre in Casablanca and most every other movie he was in; and Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor from T.V. classics like Green Acres and Gilligan’s Island.) But whatever the reason, Budapest has had a bit of an undeserved bad rep, at least in the U.S.
We ourselves hadn’t originally considered it one of our must-see spots during our overseas sojourn … except for one little thing: curiosity about Matthew’s family roots. His Romanian grandmother came from a small town theoretically located about 90 miles outside the city. So when Matthew’s cousin, who shares the same grandma, came to visit us in Norway, it seemed like the perfect time to plan a side trip and check out some family genealogy together.
We launched our brief, four-day Hungarian excursion from our home base at the Gerlóczy Café & Rooms — perfectly central to all the sights, and with wonderful staff and fabulous food, just as our travel guru Rick Steves had promised. Our mornings began with breakfasting and people-watching while seated street-side in front of the restaurant’s open French doors. But the AC in our rooms proved to be a real godsend, as the first couple of days soared well over 90 degrees — uber hot for two folks who’ve acclimated to cool Norwegian summers.
Our first order of business involved getting a feel for the city’s layout by cramming in as many Rick Steves’s walking tours as possible — and by sampling as many Hungarian delicacies as could be stuffed in our stomachs. (We decided to translate the country’s name as “Hungry,” since we spent a lot of time snacking our way through its streets.) Luckily, fantastic food and great architecture seem to go hand-in-hand in Budapest; a stroll through each of the city’s many districts offers a feast for the eyes as well as the belly.
We repeatedly found ourselves getting cricks in our necks and tripping over curbs while craning up for a look at all the whiplash curves of buildings from the Art Nouveau era. The style became popular just in time for the country’s blowout birthday bash in 1896, when much of the city was rebuilt to celebrate the 1,000-year anniversary of the Magyars’ arrival in Hungary. (Nomads from Central Asia, the Magyar are considered to be the ancestors of modern Hungarians.)
The city is so immense that with our short stay, we decided to concentrate our explorations on the older bits of Budapest and save most of the Communist-era sites for another trip. Below I’ve sketched brief overviews of our favorite moments and monuments, beginning with sights and ending with experiences. But, it’s still a long post, so I’ve broken it up with some big ol’ photo galleries to give you a feel for the beauties of Budapest. (Be sure to click on the images for bigger views and more fun facts.)
Elegant Andrássy Boulevard
Promenading along this Champs Elysées-like street makes you feel as if you should be carrying a parasol. Considered Budapest’s grandest boulevard, Andrássy is lined with ornate Art Nouveau buildings, many of which house cafés featuring desserts as elaborate as their façades. For the best of all possible worlds, visit the regal Paris Department Store (Párizsi Nagyáruház), now a bookstore and café with jaw-dropping architecture and mouthwatering desserts. While it might appear like a “pinkie’s up” kinda place, the welcoming staff gives the café a down-to-earth flavor.
And now, a bit of gossip. The boulevard itself bears the name of the Hungarian count who helped Emperor Franz Joseph I turn the Austrian Empire into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Incidentally, Andrássy also helped himself to the Emperor’s wife, “Sisi,” and their affair probably produced the third princess in the royal family. I mention these folks only because their names crop up at virtually every site we visited. So I figured I’d get the introductions out of the way.
But back to the boulevard. After indulging in a piece of Opera cake at the Paris Department Store, we naturally followed up with a visit to the Hungarian State Opera House (Magyar Állami Operaház), a Neo-Renaissance building positively dripping with gilded décor. The tour included a peek into the lavish bar occupied by the upper classes during intermission, as well as the ornate Emperor’s box, which can now be used by only two men — the President of the Republic of Hungary and the Prime Minister. Also on the tour: Empress Sisi’s favorite mirror. Famously vain for her 16-inch waist, she thought the looking glass at the top of the Grand Staircase made her appear even slimmer.
Check out the painted ceiling of the Hungarian State Opera House. Hungary’s most famous painters — Bertalan Székely, Mór Than, and Károly Lotz — contributed to its décor.
A detail of the beautiful, Greek-styled mosaic floor demonstrates that no expense was spared in the creation of the building, which is made mostly of native Hungarian materials.
Every opera needs a grand staircase for the ladies to show off their fabulous dresses. The marble columns came from Croatia, which was technically one of Hungary’s holdings at the time. When the builders eventually ran out of marble, they used pyrogranite columns made by Zolnay, the famous Hungarian ceramics company. The ceramic material resembles real marble to a remarkable degree.
Technically, architect Miklós Ybl kept his promise to Emperor Franz Josef that Budapest’s Opera House would be smaller than Vienna’s (it seats only 1,261 as opposed to 1,560). However, the Hungarian building’s interior outshines Austria’s in lavish ornamentation — a fact that didn’t escape the irritated Emperor’s notice. The giant chandelier weighs two tons and gets lowered once a year to have its 220 lightbulbs changed. It originally boasted 500 gas jets and hung 18 feet lower to prevent the flames from scorching the painted ceiling.
The Opera House acoustics are said to be the third best in the world. But Emperor Franz Josef didn’t test them out that often, as he preferred his Opera House in Vienna. His box (pictured here) only gets used a couple of times a year by Hungary’s President and Prime Minister.
Intricately carved woodwork and plaster mouldings ornament the building throughout. But lounges and bars for the wealthy patrons flaunt particularly sumptuous details, as does this entrance to the Emperor’s box. The Hungarian State Opera was completed in 1884, but suffered damage in WWII and wasn’t fully restored until the building’s centennial in 1984.
Empress Sisi’s favorite mirror sits at the top of the Royal Staircase. Sisi was one of the earliest “gym rats,” creating her own workout room where she exercised fanatically to keep her waist tiny. (She stood around 5’8″ tall and weighed about 110 pounds.) She also indulged in lots of fad diets and odd beauty regimens, including regularly shampooing her ankle-length hair in eggs and cognac to keep it shiny.
From the Emperor’s box, you can see the innovative metal stage curtain. With a 90-minute fire rating, it was designed to prevent flames from spreading towards the audience. Its efficacy has been successfully tested three times, when onstage special effects have run amok, and when fire has broken out backstage.
Gotta get a selfie in all this splendor. From left to right, Matthew’s cousin Dave and his wife Beth — awesome travel companions!!
Historic Leopold Town
So now is probably a good time to mention an orienteering basic about Budapest: it’s actually two cities. Buda sits on one side of the Danube, while Pest claims the opposite bank. They each have their own flavor, Buda being sleepier, hillier, and home to the huge Royal Palace, while Pest is livelier, flatter, and popping at the seams with historic sites, statues, and stately buildings.
Many of these can be found in Leopold Town, the center of city life and arguably Pest’s most august district. You could easily spend a whole day in just this one little neighborhood and still encounter practically every political period, formative event, and decorative style in the country’s colorful past. For a panoramic view out over it all, be sure to stop in the stunning St. István’s Basilica and climb up its tower. And don’t miss the church’s gruesome relic — St. István’s righteous right hand, severed, mummified, and potentially still performing miracles.
A row of 50 bronze shoes commemorates Hungarian Jews who were massacred during the WWII Holocaust. To save on bullets, Nazi collaborators tied several Jews together, but shot only the first few in the lineup — so that as they fell dead into the river, they dragged the others in behind them. Around 600,000 of Hungary’s Jews lost their lives during the war.
Liberty Square (Szabadság tér) commemorates April 4, 1945, when the Soviets liberated Hungary from Nazi control … and opened the door to the Communist Party. Strangely, a statue of Ronald Regan stands nearby — an attempt by Hungary’s current Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, to win back American approval after having recently muzzled the press and done away with several democratic reforms.
A statue of Imre Nagy (1896 – 1958) seems to look wistfully towards the Hungarian Parliament. Nagy became Prime Minister during the nation’s Communist period but was demoted when he sought to limit the Party’s power. During the 1956 uprising, he attempted to build a bridge between totalitarian Moscow and Western freedom, but was jailed, executed, and buried face down in an unmarked grave. During the 1989 fall of communism in Eastern Bloc countries, his body was exhumed and he was given the burial of a hero.
Liberty Square is encircled by four enormous luxury apartment buildings. All are Historicist in style, meaning their architecture harkens back to a past era for its design inspiration. This particular apartment building can be considered Neo-Classical — it even flaunts a sort of Greco-Roman frieze in the roof pediment.
This grande dame sports a Baroque-ish exterior bedecked with lots of furbelows and frills. Even though the apartment buildings have totally different historic styles, they were all built at the same time, around the end of the 19th century, during Budapest’s Golden Age.
Climb up to St. István’s tower (300+ steps), and you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic view out over the city — and a welcome breeze during Budapest’s hot summer. According to city law, no structure can be built higher than the towers of St. István and the dome of Parliament. They both measure 96 meters (315 ft) tall and count as two of the three largest buildings in Hungary. And as you’ll discover, 96 is the magic number all over Budapest, due to the 1896 millennial celebration.
Like many of Budapest’s buildings, St. István’s Basilica is a typical Historicism mishmash of styles that makes it look much older than its actual years. St. István’s (Stephen’s) was built only around 100 years ago as part of the 1896 millennial celebration of the city.
Although the interior of St. István’s has that oppressive and darkly gilded look of an Eastern Orthodox Church, it’s actually Roman Catholic.
The Basilica houses the 1,000-year-old “holy right hand” of St. István — Hungary’s first Christian king. Called “the monkey paw” by irreverent Hungarians, the gnarly relic wasn’t on display the day we were there (this is my photo of a photo.) The story is that during the process of making King István into a saint, his body was exhumed and his entire right arm was found to be “like new.” So the monks lopped it off and made it into a relic. The severed stump changed owners many times and was eventually split into pieces (upper arm, lower arm, hand) and divided up between Austria, Poland, and Hungary. Other bits and pieces of St. István are also floating around in many churches throughout Eastern Europe.
Probably Pest’s biggest claim to fame is the unbelievably huge Hungarian Parliament building. The thing is enormous, with two majestic wings that identically mirror one another as an advertisement for the power of the “Dual Monarchy” — the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, visitors can tour one half, while Hungary’s National Assembly occupies the other.
The interior is blindingly opulent and includes a quick peek at the supposedly 1,016-year-old Hungarian crown. But beware of the guards, whose intermittent swordplay might leave you with some new piercings if you venture too close to the case. Should you enjoy their military maneuvers, you’ll really love the snappy little dance number they put on outside the palace, when it’s time for the changing of the guards.
The Parliament Building’s Grand Stairway has 96 steps. Are you catching the 96 theme that seems to drive everything in Budapest? Again, it’s all related to the millennial celebrations of the Kingdom of Hungary, which was established in 896 A.D.
Check out this gold-plated stairwell. Okay, so we break from tradition a bit here — only 88 pounds (40 kgs) of gold (not 96) were used to gild the ornate ceilings of Parliament.
Can you imagine standing around in this opulent anteroom while waiting to enter the “Upper House” of Parliament? I’d be suitably cowed by all the grandeur.
The anteroom to the Upper House contains a few dozen sculptures of Hungarian rulers, Transylvanian leaders, and famous military men. As if you weren’t already intimidated….
Gilded Gothic tracery festoons the Upper House of Parliament, which is used today merely for tours. Parliament meets in the identical Lower House that is strictly off limits due to security protocols.
Even though you’re not allow to take photos of the crown jewels, I snuck a quick pic of Dome Hall, where the jewels are stored. (Check out the case to the right of the big column, next to the guide in the white shirt.) Every few minutes without warning, the two military officers on either side of the case would whip out their sabers and brandish them with a little flourish before re-sheathing them. The maneuver proved to be a successful deterrent to onlookers who might have otherwise strayed too close to the crown.
According to legend, Pope Sylvester II sent this crown to St. István on Christmas day, 1000 A.D. It’s a little battered and sports a bent cross on top, courtesy of having been modified, fought over, stolen, lost, found, and even stored for a time at Fort Knox in Kentucky (my home state). It stayed there “for safety” from the end of WWII through 1978, when Jimmy Carter gave it back to Hungary.
I’m diggin’ the Schwarzenegger shades all the guards got to wear. Behind this gentleman is the Ethnographic Museum, a “runner-up” in the design competition for the Parliament building. The Parliament competition winner was Imre Steindl, who’d studied in England and had been inspired by Britain’s Parliament. But there were no real losers. The other two competitors saw their designs realized in the form of the Ethnographic Museum and the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture. Both buildings sit directly across the street from Parliament.
Regal Castle Hill Looking across the Danube River from Parliament, you can’t miss Castle Hill –it’s dominated by the sprawling, blue-domed Royal Palace that looms over Buda’s side of the city. The old palace that once stood here was the largest in Europe, but the Habsburgs accidentally blew it to smithereens in 1686, when they laid siege to the hill in a successful attempt to free Buda from the Ottoman Turks. A big-but-badly-conceived, post-WWII reconstruction sits on the same spot today.
From the palace, a short stroll takes you through the winding streets of the old town, where several homes boast Gothic arches, and many walls are studded with decorative fragments from the Middle Ages. Altogether, the place has a distinctly Medieval feel that’s quite different from the predominantly Art Nouveau elegance found elsewhere in Budapest.
Some of the most spectacular architectural standouts from the Middle Ages — such as Matthias Church and the Disney-esque Fisherman’s Bastion — owe their “authentic” appearance to renovations carried out as part of the 1896 millennium celebration. (Yep, it’s hard to get away from the effects of that pivotal date.) But at least the views across to Pest’s side of the river are genuinely breathtaking and worth the hike.
A sculpture of the legendary Turul bird overlooks Pest from the grounds of the Royal Palace in Buda. As the story goes, the Turul led the Magyars from Central Asia during the ninth century. The bird supposedly carried a sword in his talons, which he dropped in the Carpathian Basin as a sign that this is where the Magyars should settle.
The last pagan Magyar ruler, King Géza, lost a battle against Christian Europe and realized that if he didn’t convert, his people would be driven from Hungary. So he raised his son Vajk as a Catholic, and gave him the baptismal name of István (Stephen). This statue of István sits near Matthias Church. As the first Christian King of Hungary, István eventually won his sainthood by beheading anyone who wouldn’t convert.
The Magyar kings died out in 1301, and thereafter, foreigners ruled Hungary … except for a brief period in the mid-15th century, when King Mátyás (Matthias I) was elected to the throne. Known as Matthias the Just, he often wandered his territory disguised as a commoner to see how the poor folks faired, then lowered taxes accordingly. A scholar, military strategist, and supporter of the arts, Matthias was a real Renaissance man — he was the first European king to import Italy’s newfangled humanistic ideas. Matthias Church is officially named “Our Lady of Buda,” since King Matthias himself was never canonized as a saint.
In 1241, the Mongols destroyed the original Romanesque Matthias Church, built in 1015 A.D. The rebuilt florid Gothic building, which can mostly be seen only from inside, was completed in the late 13th century. Of course, the day we visited, the interior of the church was off limits due to a number of scheduled weddings. Every doorway seemed to have a bride and groom waiting outside it — I think we counted close to 15 couples in all.
Outside Matthias church sits an ornate Plague Column, sculpted by Philipp Ungleich to celebrate the end of Budapest’s 1709 bout with the Black Plague. Like most plague columns, which are common throughout Europe, this one is three sided to represent the Holy Trinity. Sculptures of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit top the column as the city’s thanks to the trio for sparing the epidemic’s survivors.
The Fisherman’s Bastion — another confection constructed for the 1896 millennial celebrations — reminds me of Disney’s castle. The pointy turrets are meant to resemble Magyar tents; there are seven in total, reflecting the number of Magyar tribes that settled in Hungary. It’s called Fisherman’s Bastion because in Medieval times, the fishermen were tasked with defending this spot along the ramparts, since their fish market sat just below, along the Danube.
The Poignant Jewish Quarter
Practically every major city in Europe has a Jewish quarter and a heartrending tale to go along with it. You’d think with so many reminders of where anti-immigration sentiments and religious intolerance can lead, we’d be in a different political place today. Guess not, considering the rising popularity of nationalistic, right-wing platforms everywhere. Seems like everyone is looking for outsider “fall guys” — foreigners that can be held responsible for the world’s financial problems and the growth pains that come with globalization.
That’s essentially how the story started for Budapest’s Jews. After losing two-thirds of their territory during WWI and suffering economic hardships, Hungarians looked for someone to blame, and Jews became a convenient scapegoat. The country instituted the first Anti-semitic laws in Europe and allied with Hitler early on. But after Germany’s invasion of Hungary, it was the Nazi-installed Arrow Cross regime that soon began mass executions and deportations to death camps.
At that time, around 25 percent of Budapest’s population was Jewish (the city’s nickname was “Judapest.”) Today, that number has dropped to less than five percent. The number of Jews actually practicing Judaism is even smaller still. Why? Understandably, many Europeans of every religious persuasion lost their faith after enduring unspeakable devastations daily throughout WWII. (I often wonder how “devout” America would have remained had we experienced such constant atrocities on our home soil.) Taking a tour through Budapest’s Jewish Quarter will make the costs of indulging in hatred, prejudice, and the blame game painfully clear.
Remnants of the Rumbach Street Synagogue’s Moorish style can still be seen in the building’s Islamic geometries and color schemes. Probably my favorite moment of our guided tour was when one of the docents, who was Israeli, broke out into a traditional Hebrew prayer song. As the warbling cry echoed around the chamber, it sounded like a funeral dirge mourning the loss of all that had once been possible in Budapest’s Jewish Golden Age — the late 19th century, before the World Wars changed everything.
The Great Synagogue on Dohány Street shows how hard many Hungarian Jews worked to integrate into the local culture. The congregation here hired a famous Gentile architect to design the building, which has a layout and façade not so different from a Christian church. While the two “bell” towers are meant to echo descriptions of the Temple of Solomon, they and the rose window are the reason the building was dubbed “the most beautiful Catholic synagogue in the world.” It’s still the second largest synagogue worldwide, after Temple Emanu-El of New York.
The interior of the synagogue also bears a striking resemblance to that of a Christian church, complete with cruciform floor plan, pulpit, pews, grand chandeliers, kneelers, and a pipe organ. (The famous composer and pianist Franz Liszt played it for the building’s inauguration.) As you might expect from these details, the synagogue was and still is home to a more liberal branch of Judaism. But despite these efforts to assimilate into the community, the congregation here suffered deportment and death. The Nazis stuck radio antennae on the two towers and the Gestapo established a base in the balcony.
The Moorish interior of the Great Synagogue and other synagogues throughout Budapest attests to the Sephardic origins of many Hungarian Jews, who immigrated from Iberia after being expelled from Spain during the Great Inquisition of 1492. The Ark pictured here now holds 25 surviving Torah scrolls, which were saved from the Nazis by Catholic priests, who hid the holy books in several places, including a Christian cemetery.
Night Life And speaking of the Jewish Quarter, its rundown streets hold some of the best entertainment in the city. Lots of hipster bars — called “ruin pubs” because they squat in derelict buildings awaiting demolition or renovation — offer creative drink menus and a funky atmosphere. One of our favorite haunts became Gozsdu Courtyard, where you can check out local artisan handiworks, catch an impromptu fashion show, or get a great meal (we liked DiVino for its local dishes and selection of Tokaji wines.)
Of course, we’re never one to look askance at typical “tourist traps” like evening boat rides and folk-dance performances. I often find these still have merit in that they offer an opportunity to dip your toe into cultural history … while taking a momentary load off your weary feet. One night, we hopped aboard a sunset Danube River Cruise and sat sipping wine on deck, where we got to admire breathtaking views of the riverfront and listen to the musical stylings of a lively Gypsy Jazz Band.
On another evening, we enjoyed a performance of the Hungarian Folk Ensemble Orchestra. Not only does the show give you a wide sampling of costumes and exhaustingly energetic dances from various regions of the country, but you’ll also get a Cliff Notes version of famous songs and composers you’ve heard before but never realized were Hungarian. Plus, the musicians are top notch — I don’t think I’ve ever heard such amazing violin improvisations, even in the many Django Reinhardt Gypsy Jazz festivals we’ve attended in Chicago. Bonus: your $50 ticket also nets you a peek inside a beautiful Belle Epoque theater.
The boys in the Hungarian Folk Ensemble Orchestra got a chance to show off, too, with a dance number called “Four Men from Transylvania.” Each guy highlighted a different dance style and costume from the region. By the way, note the musician playing the thing that looks like a piano. It’s called a cimbalom, and its closest kin is actually a hammer dulcimer. (Its strings are struck by hand with padded mallets.) Historically, upper-class kids get cimbalom lessons rather than piano lessons. It’s one of the oldest and most traditional of Hungarian instruments.
Check out the gorgeous ceiling and chandelier of the hall where the Hungarian Folk Ensemble performs.
Erzsébet Tér (Elizabeth Square, named after Empress Sisi) offers great entertainment options both day and night. The Design Terminal — a former bus terminal given a Bauhaus-style makeover — holds design and fashion exhibitions as well as the Fröccsterraz outdoor café and bar, where you can sample Hungary’s famous Tokaji wine and try out goulash and other traditional cuisines.
Erzsébet Tér also houses “The National Ditch” — a hole originally dug for the foundations of a new national theater. After the project stalled, the site was eventually repurposed as a parking garage, nightclub, and wading pond. On hot days, folks can soak their tootsies in the shallow pool while peering down through the water and into the glass-roofed Arkvarium, a funky café and nightclub that sits beneath the pond.
One thing to remember — your first bill at any eatery might freak you out. However your shock might be mitigated by the opportunity to toss around 1,000-Florint bills as payment. Our whopping check at DiVino for 13,350 Hungarian Florints amounted to only about $47 for four people.
Another night shot taken during our sunset cruise along the Danube shows the Royal Palace and Castle Hill, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Chain Bridge ends at the Gellért Baths, both of which are beautifully lit at night.
Popular Public Bathhouses
You might be surprised to find out that Budapest’s number one tourist attraction is a collection of grand public bathhouses. The city sits atop a “hotspot” in Earth’s crust (kinda like Yellowstone), where lava-heated water percolates up to the surface through 123 hot springs that get channeled into two dozen thermal baths. In fact, the name Pest comes from a Slavic word for “furnace,” and I’m here to tell you that partaking in some of the hottest pools definitely feels like sitting in a lobster pot.
We tried two different bathhouses, the first being the Szécheyni Fürdö (meaning “Szécheyni Baths”), which is a great place to go for nervous newbies. There’s no nudity, and the local crowd is mixed — from grandkids to golden-agers, and from the fit-and-trim to the not-so-much — so it’s easy to blend in without feeling like a fish out of water. Plus, the various outdoor pools are huge and can accommodate the dense crowds that seem to accumulate by noon.
The Szécheyni’s most interactive pool (and most tolerable temperature-wise) contains a series of bubbling floor jets that switch on and off randomly, meaning that a sudden hot-water enema might be in your future. Two concentric rings within the center of this pool offer additionally entertaining moments. The innermost is a true hot-tub experience, while the outermost is a vertigo-inducing whirlpool that usually elicits more than one cry for help to escape its current. We spent an entire morning here and left wishing we had a whole day to just pool hop, challenge the locals to a game of chess (boards are built into the poolsides), and try out some of the stinkier therapeutic pools indoors. (These supposedly contain various mineral mixes that can make the water smell a bit more like rotten eggs, ).
Our other bathhouse selection, the Gellért Fürdö, is a bit more upscale in atmosphere, being as it’s part of the posh Gellért Hotel. However, its outdoor wave pool seems like something from a raucous waterpark. Matthew and his cousin Dave bodysurfed until they felt they’d sustained sufficient bruises, then we all retired to the nearby smallish cauldron until we couldn’t take the heat any longer. Not surprisingly, despite our pain, we all declined a dip in the adjacent antidote — a frigid plunge pool consisting of an oversized barrel filled with ice water.
Then with only a few minutes left before closing time, we checked out the gorgeous Greco-Roman-ish indoor pools: one that’s small, steamy, and bedecked with spouting fountains, the other that’s much larger, chillier, and designed for swimming laps. (Since this last one required purchasing a bathing cap, we skipped it.) Even though we didn’t have the time or cash to indulge in any of the many spa or medical treatments available at both facilities, we all unanimously decided that Budapest’s baths were the highlight of our trip. Don’t let the idea of bathing in a public bathhouse scare you off — they’re a clean, family friendly, inexpensive, and not-to-be-missed experience!
Built in 1913, the Szechenyi Baths look like a Neo-Baroque palace that sits within the middle of City Park. Established in Roman times, and revived particularly by the Ottomans, bath houses are still a fixture in Hungarian society. The presence of so many thermal springs have made Budapest one of the spa capitals of the world.
Szécheyni’s interior is equally stunning. In the lobby, you can make your selection of spa services. Your basic no-frills opportunity to bathe in the pools costs a mere $18 per person and includes a lockable, private changing cabin. In addition to the 18 pools and 10 saunas / steam rooms, you can also indulge in massage therapies, facial treatments, and more (for an added cost).
Although the entry fee for the Gellért’s pools is about the same as that for the Szécheyni’s, the Gellért Baths are much more glam. Consequently, they attract a fair number of stuffy tourists.
The Gellért’s interior spaces are incredibly elegant. We spent at least twenty minutes just gaping at all the grandeur.
The mosaic floors and Solomonic columns everywhere make it really feel like you’ve stepped into a decadent Roman bath.
Check out the Atlantis-styled animals spouting hot water.
Tracing the Family Tree
Since I started out this story by mentioning Matthew’s Hungarian roots, I’ll finish up with a report on our genealogical progress. Throughout our journey, Dave’s mom supplied us with immigration papers, family records, and newspaper clippings to try and help us locate Grandma Rose’s (née Rosa Toma) hometown of Bel-Bihar. But no luck, we couldn’t find the place on any map. Part of the confusion is that we know she was Romanian but spoke Hungarian and was reported to be from Transylvania, although her family home was in a town supposedly located only 90 miles outside Budapest. All seemingly contradictory bits of info.
One day by chance, we passed by Balázs Folk Art Gallery, a small store with gorgeous and faintly familiar ceramics that caught my eye. We stepped inside, and the shopkeeper came forward to tell us about the pieces, which were made by her archaeologist brother, who was inspired by Neolithic pottery. My ears pricked up, as I worked for several years with Bill Parkinson, a Chicago Field Museum archaeologist who studies Neolithic settlements on the Great Hungarian Plain. (For more info, check out the Neolithic Archaeology website I developed for Bill at Expeditions@fieldmuseum.org, an online program that I wrote and managed for the museum, before I moved to Norway.)
Unbelievably, the shopkeeper knew Bill, and we chatted about what a small world it was. Eventually the topic of family connections to Hungary came up, and Matthew and I explained our conundrum of locating the city of Bel-Bihar. The woman piped up, “I’m from Bihar! It’s a county in Transylvania that was divided in half after the war, so part of it is now in Hungary, while the other part is in Romania.” Who would have thought that out of all the shops to pop into in Budapest, we would have found the one with an owner who was both from Matthew’s grandmother’s neck of the woods and who knew an archaeologist I worked with?
While the shopkeeper had never heard of Bel (presumably a small town), at least for our next trip to Budapest, we’ll have a better idea of where to begin our wanderings. And on that note, I’ll sign off by hoping that everyone gets a chance to pay the gorgeous city a visit someday — we can’t wait to go back!