Happy in Hungary – Budapest Day 1

As the plane descends into Budapest, I can hardly contain my excitement. The start of my next adventure! And what makes this special is that I am returning to Hungary after 20 years. I first visited Budapest in 1997, only for a day.  I’m curious to see how much I recall, and eager to experience new things.  I grab a shuttle to the hotel; pretty easy. It doesn’t seem like this hotel is in the best area of town…looks a little dodgy. The staff at Atlas Hotel is very accommodating….Well, after I pout a little about not  being able to check in early.  I head up to the room, it’s spacious and clean.

And no time for napping, because this girl needs to explore before I have to come back for my group meeting this evening.

As I step outside, the air is brisk and it’s a little windy. And it’s started to rain. Oh great! Luckily, the rain is very light and doesn’t ruin my plans. Budapest is the capital city of Hungary; it is divided by the Danube River into 2 parts: Buda and Pest. Today I will explore Pest. This part of the city is relatively flat and easy to navigate. I decide to do it by foot, as my online map says that the attractions are not that far apart. I learn that this is not particularly true, and it would have been easier to get on the Hop on Hop off bus (I will do this tomorrow! Haha).  There are so many things to see and do in Budapest, so I have to cram it all in 2 days.

Budapest feels like a big city with small town European charm. Maybe it’s the lack of high-rises/skyscrapers, the many styles of architecture, and the trams running through the streets. I’m instantly fascinated. My first stop is The Great Synagogue, also known as the Dohany Street Synagogue.

It is the largest in Europe, and second largest in the world!  I feel extra tiny as I go inside, with the two large onion domes towering above the entrance.  It’s beautiful inside – large chandeliers with white round bulbs, geometric designs on the walls, dark and mysterious.

Seats for the men on the ground floor, women sit upstairs. Umm ok. Fun Fact: it’s the only synagogue to have a pipe organ! Also part of the complex is a museum, cemetery and The Raoul  Wallenberg Holocaust memorial. The memorial is an interesting sight – a metal weeping willow tree, with the names of the victims on the leaves.

A  10 min walk brings me to St. Stephen’s Basilica. I’m in awe. But I don’t realize I’m staring at the back of it!

It’s still impressive but once I go to the front entrance I see what all the fuss is about. It is a significant church here….it’s named after the first king of Hungary.

Its style is Neoclassical. Inside there are many statues, altars, pretty stained glass windows, burning candles, and a large domed ceiling. I wander around, taking in its calm and beauty.

I head down the street towards the river, and I pass one of Budapest’s lucky statues…the Fat Policeman. His belly is shiny from all that have rubbed it for good luck.

At this point I’m really hungry, but I’ve fallen into the trap of what happens every time I arrive somewhere new….I’m unable to make a decision as to where I want to eat, and I don’t want to  waste any time. So I grab a packet of cookies and continue….

I come to the Szechenyi Bridge, also known as the chain bridge. Two large stone lions guard each end of the bridge. It’s one of the many bridges that connect Buda and Pest over the Danube River.

I start to walk over the bridge, but then I decide to explore this  tomorrow. A short walk along the riverbank and I  come to Shoes on the Danube Bank. It is a haunting memorial for people who were killed by fascist arrow cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II.

They were told to take off their shoes, and were then shot so their bodies fell into the river.  Now stands sixty pairs of iron shoes, to remember these victims. People bring flowers, candles and other items to lay with the shoes.  Just up from the riverbank stands the Hungarian Parliament building, one of the most photographed and recognized sites in Budapest.

Last time I was here, I only saw it from afar. I try to go inside but it’s closed. Guidebooks and websites say it should be open.  Hmmmmm. I don’t think I’ll have time to come back tomorrow…it’s too bad because the photos I’ve seen are beautiful. The building is massive…the largest in all of Hungary. I wander around to the entrance, passing many statues of men on horses. I catch the changing of the guard ceremony; short and simple. At this point in the day, I’m getting tired so I head back to the hotel to have a quick nap before my meeting.

As I head down to the lobby, I see a small group of senior citizens.  This can’t be my group…….yep, it is.  And it’s a small group…only 6 of us. This is weird to me, because I’m usually the oldest person on these tours. Haha.  Luckily, our leader Vid is in his late 20’s and there is another solo traveler named Anthony from Australia. He’s older than me, but a cool guy. This tour is called Budapest to Venice, with Intrepid. The main part of the tour is focused on the Balkan countries.  For those that aren’t aware, The Balkans are countries that used to be a part of Yugoslavia before the regions separated between 1989 and 1992. I will be visiting Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Croatia.

Then it’s time for dinner at a traditional restaurant called Huszar Etterem. It’s a quaint place…cozy and complete with a guitarist and violinist serenading patrons. The waiter recommends the chicken paprika, and really, how can I be in Hungary and not try this dish? Paprika is very popular for Hungarian cuisine, and this chicken is melt in your mouth delicious.  And with some galushka on the side (dumplings…..also delicious). My meal is not complete without trying a Hungarian beer, Soproni, which is fresh and light.

After dinner, the older folks head back to the hotel and me, Vid and Antony check out Budapest’s most popular ruin bar, Szimpla Kert. Ruin bars are found in the old Jewish quarter, in abandoned buildings because ……what better use of the space? Szimpla Kert is basic on the outside..like you might miss it if you walked by.

But inside, there are many rooms and an open courtyard. The walls are cluttered with all kinds of décor:  paintings, objects, lights, disco balls. And all kinds of colors and music pumping through the rooms. It is a really cool atmosphere, and definitely worth checking out when in Budapest.

We do shots of palinka, a type of Hungarian brandy. It’s tasty, but so strong! We stay for a bit, but nothing too crazy as tomorrow is a jam packed day! So far, I am loving Budapest and I wish I had arrived a day or two earlier because there is so much to see and do.

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