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Three Days in Budapest

Three Days in Budapest

“Gypsy Spell”

By Dennis Callan

Have you heard of the Magyar people, or their nation of Magyarorszag? It’s Hungary, the exotic Central European nation whose beautiful capital of Budapest will surprise you with its beauty, affordable luxury and unique history. Gypsy music fills the air; scenic vistas are everywhere; old and new mix in a cultural blend that makes Budapest an excellent destination to put high on your travel list.

This city on the Danube is different from the other great capitals of Europe in a pleasant old-fashioned way that fills it with authentic charms. Two thousand years of invasion, liberation, re-occupation, devastation and rebirth, played out over and over again in a cycle of history, have somehow produced this unique culture. Lack of money has prevented that squeaky-clean modernization machine to roll through town, the way it has recently glitzed up so many other cities on the continent. As a result, some buildings are run-down, plaster is peeling and roads are bumpy, but the beautiful reward for the intrepid traveler is a genuine city filled with real character. A wide variety of architectural styles are on display, sometimes combined in the unique Hungarian Eclectic that blends elements of Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau in a single building.

Ancient invasion by Huns in the 5th century, then Magyars from the Urals, followed by Mongols 800 years ago, then Muslims, five hundred years back, have all left their stamps on the culture. The somewhat mysterious origins of today’s population is reflected in their language, which is more closely related to distant Finnish, Estonian and Siberian than to its immediate Slavic and Germanic neighbors. Somehow, movements of people took place in the fog of history, replacing Celtic locals with a more Asiatic breed that has long since blended into the European mix to create the modern, exotic Hungarian.

Budapest consists of the formerly separate communities of Buda on the western bank of the Danube and Pest on the east. Built on a hill, Buda contains the former Royal Palace and the old Castle District. Pest stands on a level plain and is the site of the main shopping areas, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Palace of Justice, Parliament, and the National Museum. No other city along Europe’s longest river embraces it as much as Budapest, with nine bridges linking the two sides, and a major promenade along the river offering sweeping views.

As usual in our series, we will explain in detail how to get the most out of your time in a carefully-planned itinerary that suggests exactly what to do each moment of the day, with some free time left over for your own pursuits. It takes at least three days to fully explore the many sights on offer in this great city.

Three day schedule:
Day One: Walking tour of Pest; National Museum.
Day Two: Buda walking tour in the Castle District; Danube cruise.
Day Three: Continued Pest walk; Tram ride; Museum of Fine Arts.

DAY ONE: Inner city walking tour and the major museum.

VOROSMARTY SQUARE

Begin your visit in the heart of the Inner City at Vorosmarty Square, surrounded by cafes, shops and lovely pedestrian lanes extending in every direction.

The large statue in the center of this pleasant tree-lined plaza depicts the poet, Mihaly Vorosmarty, who became a national hero with his patriotic writings in mid-19th century, when Hungary unsuccessfully attempted to gain independence from Austria. It says something positive about the nation’s character that it has a heroic poet sitting in the capital’s center, surrounded by two levels of marble benches that draw people to him for comfort and relaxation. He symbolizes that universal human spirit, yearning to be free. This makes a nice people-watching perch you might come back to later, for you will certainly pass through this central square several times in your visit.

Hungary’s most famous café, Gerbeaud, is on the north side of the square, so if you didn’t get breakfast with your room, this would be a fine place for coffee and a roll, or perhaps return later in the day for an elaborate pastry, such as Dobos Torta, a rich, chocolate layer cake, with chocolate cream filling, covered with crunchy caramel. In business since 1858, Gerbeaud has tables on the terrace, dining rooms inside for a complete meal, and a theater offering musical productions at night.

Music is everywhere in Budapest: players on the street corner, gypsy orchestras in fine restaurants, formal productions in several concert halls and opera in a grand theater. One convenient place to find out the music performance schedules is the ticket office in the large, modern building that dominates square, where you could also arrange day-trips, rent a car, or find a room. Another helpful place for information, tickets, maps and free brochures is the city’s official information office, two blocks away at Deak Square, open daily from 8:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. You should purchase the Budapest Card there, or at your hotel, a three-day pass good for free admission to the museums and public transportation, plus many restaurant and touring discounts, for just $22. It will save you money and eliminate the inconvenience of buying individual tickets during your busy three days.

EMBANKMENT VIEWS AND ACTIVITIES

The most beautiful vista in town is the view from the banks of the Danube River along the Belgrad Rampart, just two short blocks from Vorosmarty Square, so head west to the embankment. Across the river you will see the postcard-perfect vision of the Royal Palace sitting atop the hill in Buda, the older half of town you will discover tomorrow. To your right is the other icon of the city, the Chain Bridge, which opened in 1849 as the first permanent crossing of the Danube, providing the link that joined Buda and Pest into one city. In pleasant weather one gets a downright Mediterranean feeling here at the water’s edge, with sunshine streaming through the trees and sidewalk cafes all around, accompanied by a vibrant street-life of performers, vendors, artists, locals and tourists mingling together in a big show.

Several of the city’s top five-star hotels are located here along the river, making this neighborhood an ideal place to stay. My favorite is the Marriott, where all rooms are spacious and have a river view, with services that include a huge breakfast buffet. Other excellent riverside choices are the Atrium Hyatt, which has the Las Vegas Casino, and the Inter-Continental. Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace will be the latest super-star to join the cluster when it opens at the end of this year in one of the city’s premier palaces, which had fallen on hard times but has been completely re-built by this luxury chain. Completing the super-deluxe category, one must include the Kempinsky, four blocks inland, which many consider the top, and most expensive, hotel in town. Their lobby, especially upstairs, is a great place to sit and rest while listening to live classical music. Of course there are many smaller, less-expensive hotels scattered throughout town, but the dollar goes a long way in Hungary, so why not live it up?

The river embankment is perfect for a stroll in the evening as well, when the Palace and Chain Bridge are brightly illuminated, and several nice restaurants serve traditional cuisine at terrace tables with live gypsy music, including Dunacorso on the corner and Vigado on the side of the Vigado Concert Hall. Music-lovers should check the schedule at Vigado, as there are some outstanding classical music revues most nights, usually featuring opera excerpts. There are usually young vendors on the embankment, and elsewhere on the pedestrian lanes, selling tickets for the traditional folk-dance show presented by the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, which is really worth seeing. Check the schedule to see which night the performance is offered at the convenient Duna Palace, just six blocks away, and purchase seats from the first vendor you see. While it is not a flashy Vegas-style production, there is a string quartet accompanying twenty singing dancers in colorful folk-costumes, putting on a wonderful show.

Souvenir kiosks on the embankment also have good values in postcards, t-shirts and dresses, or you can purchase directly from strolling ladies who offer their hand-made tablecloths, clothing, dolls and doilies. You will likely come back here several times, perhaps for a tram ride or river cruise, but for now, have a good look up and down the embankment, then return to Vorosmarty Square to continue your walk.

VACI UTCA

Undoubtedly, the main pedestrian street in the heart of town is the Vaci utca, which leads out from Vorosmarty Square’s south end. This lively promenade is lined with shops and cafes and filled with people all day. It extends about one mile to the Central Market Hall, a huge, indoor food emporium. Walk along Vaci utca in the morning to enjoy the quiet serenity of this busy strip before all the shops open, and continue to the food market. This food hall is one of the few places in town that awakens early, so it’s a fine place to explore at the beginning of the day. It closes by 5:00 p.m. most days, so you could visit in the afternoon if your schedule required.

CENTRAL MARKET HALL

The Central Market is one of those special places you really will enjoy, even if you don’t buy anything, because it is full of history, color and life. The hall is huge, covering an area of two football fields, and very old, first opened in 1896, built in the early-modern style of steel and glass, with a very high ceiling enclosing the vast space. On the outside it looks like a classic train station, but inside it is filled with food stalls of all kinds. You will notice lots of chili peppers hanging everywhere -- an essential ingredient in Hungarian cuisine, which is generally used in a mild form of paprika that doesn’t burn your mouth, but adds rich flavors. The real delight here is watching the locals shopping for their fresh produce, and you might pick up some fruits for healthy snacking later. There are a couple of food counters upstairs, and Fakanal Restaurant, where you could have an inexpensive meal, and you’ll find a few souvenir shops scattered amidst the food stalls. It was thoroughly refurbished ten years ago so it is in very good condition.

When you have finished with the food market, come out through the elaborate front doors, which resemble the portal of a major church, and turn right to walk along the busy ring road for 3 blocks to the National Museum, for a big dose of Hungarian history. The museum is so close to the food hall that this is a perfect time to go, especially since it is still early in your visit and will give you a better understanding of how Hungary developed.

HUNGARIAN NATIONAL MUSEUM

The museum is housed in an impressive neoclassical structure that looks like an ancient temple with eight massive Corinthian pillars holding up a triangular pediment, depicting gods that reflect the early Roman settlement in this area. Opened in 1847, it is the fourth-oldest history museum in Europe and was completely renovated ten years ago with a new permanent exhibition that fills twenty galleries depicting the past thousand years. The quality of display is excellent, comparable to what you can find at the Smithsonian or any major museum, with a wide range of items that illustrate daily life and important events of this vast time span. There are some flashy items to impress you, including many royal jewels and crowns from the various monarchs and nobles who ruled the land. It is always fascinating to see how the decorative arts of furniture, costumes and ceramics change over time, leading right into the modern era.

Start with room 1, because the galleries are arranged in a chronological order that will take you from the kings of the 11th century right up through the collapse of communism. One small section covers the 150 years of control under the Ottoman Empire during the Muslim invasions that attempted to conquer all of Europe, ending with the expulsion of the Turks in 1686. As soon as the Ottomans were kicked out, the next dominators took over, the Austrian Hapsburgs. During the 18th century, Hapsburg rule from Vienna by Maria Theresa and her son, Joseph II, encouraged the construction of some beautiful Baroque buildings, most of which were destroyed in later wars. By the end of the 19th century, under continued Austrian rule, Budapest became the fastest-growing city in Europe and built the first subway system on the continent. The arts flourished and the city was favorably compared to Europe’s other major cultural centers.

The most-dramatic half of this exhibit focuses on the 20th century, starting with the collapse of the Hapsburgs and their Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I. Between the wars, Hungary drifted from communism to the chaos of Nazi invasion, followed by the post-war rise and collapse of Russian domination. The displays are quite graphic in dealing with the Nazis and Stalin, with many vintage photos and period objects, including army motorcycles, political banners, classroom sets, air-raid shelters, and typical apartment interiors. You can feel the excitement as this sorry tale of brutal domination finally leads to disintegration of the Soviet empire and independence for a free Hungary in 1989, after 500 years of being controlled by outsiders.

Just when you think you are done, you realize there are two more floors of exhibits covering the early medieval and the Roman periods, with a Lapidarium down in the basement exhibiting 200 carved stones dating back 2,000 years. You might be just as impressed by the building itself as by its collections, for this is a grand old temple of history, beautifully restored. The entry lobby and monumental stairs are worth the price of admission alone. There is also a gift shop and small café, but by now you are ready for lunch, and some excellent restaurants wait for you in the Inner City, which is just across the street.

AFTERNOON WALK

This small neighborhood of the Inner City only goes for about one half-mile in each direction, making it easy to see by just strolling along the nice streets we suggest for you here. The buildings date mostly from the late 19th and 20th centuries, so this neighborhood is not a classic Old Town with narrow cobbled streets and ancient buildings, which you will find tomorrow up on the Buda hill next to the castle. Instead, this is a typical downtown with some fascinating buildings scattered here and there.

If you are ready to eat, there is the noted Museum Kavehaz next to the museum, or wait for the other tempting options coming up. Walk north along the busy boulevard in front of the museum a few blocks to the Astoria Hotel, at the major cross street of Kossuth Lajos. The Astoria is a classic old hotel that has seen better times, but would make an interesting, affordable place to stay, right in the midst of downtown, or just to enjoy lunch in their famous café.

Continue west a couple blocks along Kossuth Lajos, the busiest street of the city, to the Franciscan Church, built in the mid-18th century Hungarian Baroque style, with Italian influences. The elaborate, curved architectural details are quite interesting to examine, and the quiet interior is welcome relief. The noisy street widens here to form Ferenciek Terre, the action center of the Inner City, with a major metro station below and a convenient pedestrian underpass. If your energy is waning you might take that underpass back towards the center, but otherwise, push on for another hour’s walk through this south side of the Inner City.

As you exit the church, turn left on Karolyi, passing the University Library, with its small, brightly-colored dome, and you will come to one of the nicest restaurants in town, Karpatia, offering gourmet Hungarian specialties at reasonable prices. Drop in and have a look at the wonderful interior, with rich, wood paneling, medieval arches, and hand-painted golden details. Although open for lunch, you really should make reservations to come back for dinner in the main room when the gypsy orchestra performs, for the complete, magical experience.

At the end of the block you will see another Baroque gem, the University Church, finished in 1748 with a style strongly influenced by the Italian genius, Borromini, borrowing his use of convex and concave surfaces on the façade. If you seek greenery, have a look at the cute little park behind the Museum of Literature, across from the church.

It makes sense to finish the day with a return to Vaci utca, just two blocks over, and spend the rest of your late afternoon browsing in the shops and galleries along this lively street, filled with interesting people. The main pedestrian zone extends out from Vaci utca on several cross streets that have more shops and interesting buildings to glance at as you stroll along. Especially noteworthy are the Parisi Udvar arcade; the huge Municipal Council Offices, 200 yards long in the Baroque style; and the adjacent Pest County Hall, in grand neo-Classical style. While passing through this neighborhood you might consider two more excellent restaurants, Rezkakas and Szazeves Etterem, to help plan your remaining dinners. Both have outstanding Hungarian cuisine and feature live gypsy music. (see listings)

DAY TWO: CASTLE DISTRICT

You can get up to the Castle District on top of the hill in the Buda side of town either by catching a public bus number 16 from Deak Square near Vorosmarty Square, or by taking a pleasant walk across the Chain Bridge and riding the funicular up the hill. Another option is taxi, but always negotiate the price first, as local drivers have a bad reputation for overcharging tourists. Curiously, there is no castle in the Castle District, but instead, you will find a huge palace and charming Old Town to explore on foot.

Upon reaching the top of the hill it is probably best to begin your explorations with a walk through the Castle District while the streets are not crowded, and save the palace museums for later in the day. These streets are the oldest in Budapest and date back to the Middle Ages when this community was established as a hilltop refuge for protection from the invading Mongols. Numerous wars and fires have resulted in the familiar pattern of destruction and rebirth, most recently after World War II, when horrific street battles raged for a year between the occupying Nazi and liberating Russians. The 1944-45 siege of Budapest was one of the most violent struggles in the world’s worst war, and inflicted extensive damage throughout the city. It is said that only 2 out of 200 buildings here were still habitable after the war. Although strapped for cash, the communist government did invest huge sums in reconstructing this district in the original style, so what you see today looks once again like an 18th-century town. The entire hill and river embankments have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Castle District is only one mile long and four blocks wide, with half taken up by the Royal Palace, and the other half consisting of narrow, cobbled streets lined with old homes and a few shops. A good strategy is to simply walk through the town without worrying about too many historical details regarding each structure you see, or trying to figure out who lived where and when. Mostly you are here to absorb the historic ambience of this charming neighborhood, and pick up a few historic tidbits along the way. However, several important structures are worthy of a close look, especially the star attraction, the Matthias Church in the town center. To find it, turn right when you get off the funicular and head for the 262-foot steeple.

MATTHIAS CHURCH and FISHERMAN’S BASTION

Matthias Church looks like a Gothic structure from the Middle Ages, but most of what you see today was actually built in the late 19th century, with a few of the earlier elements incorporated, especially the main doorway and interior pillars. For 800 years this has been the location of the city’s main church, which has been built and destroyed several times, and even turned into a mosque during the Turkish occupation. The result today is an amazing combination of many styles with a dazzling interior that you should not miss. The walls, ceiling and columns are completely covered in wildly-colorful geometric patterns, based loosely on the Gothic style with more recent elements thrown in, resulting in a nearly psychedelic combination. It is fun to stroll around and observe the various frescoed murals, colorful banners, carved pews, ribbed vaulting, stone pulpits, side chapels, noble tombs, baptismal fonts, coats of arms, little statues, various altarpieces and holy objects. Large, bright stained-glass windows throw a lot of light into the space so you can clearly see all the details.

Behind the church is the famous Fisherman’s Bastion lookout point that provides a dramatic view across the river to the Pest side of town. This Bastion is another building that looks five times older, with its hodge-podge of Byzantine, Gothic and Romanesque kitsch, thrown together in such an entertaining way that it was copied by Disney. There is a small charge to walk on the upper level, but you can get just as good a view by standing for free at the window on the left side, or walking a few feet further along the left wall. Note especially the huge Parliament Building across the river, with its large dome and many neogothic spikes.

In the small open square stands a heroic equestrian statue of St. Stephen, Hungary’s first king, who is also honored at St. Stephen’s Basilica, the city’s largest church, which is on tomorrow’s schedule.

OLD TOWN

The rest of the district can be easily walked in an hour or two, although many visitors skip it entirely, especially those on a bus tour who must stay with the group and follow their guide. It would be a shame to miss, for this is the only bit of atmospheric Old Town in the entire city.

One slightly incongruous, modern structure here is the Hilton Hotel, which actually does a good job of blending in on the street side, behind an 18th century Jesuit façade. The side facing Pest is a stark glass box that would clash with its surroundings if it were not hidden so well. For a brief rest stop, help yourself to their lobby and have a look at how they incorporated Dominican monastery ruins into their delightful outdoor courtyard, which is occasionally used for concerts. You’ll find excellent restaurants inside the Hilton, or Fortuna, in the same Hess Andras Square, offering gourmet meals for just $10.

Across from the Hilton is the House of Hungarian Wines, a vast wine-tasting cellar that offers a terrific deal on sampling dozens of excellent local wines. You pay a modest fee and then drink as much as you like from the bottles in the barrel-vaulted basement. A several-hundred-yard-long cellar labyrinth holds 450 different types of quality wine from 22 historical wine regions in Hungary. Visitors get a tasting cup at the entrance and are allowed to wander around and taste up to 70-80 different wines. Open: daily 12.00-20.00

As you walk north along the road in front of the Hilton, feel free to explore the alleys that lead to internal courtyards, surrounded by the charming old residences. The largest courtyard is at the Music History Museum, a Baroque mansion where Beethoven stayed in his visit here. Monday concerts are held at the museum, in the courtyard during the summer. The Castle District has several other little museums devoted to military history, pharmaceuticals, telephones, food and a wax museum in the underground tunnels, recreating Hungarian legends. Small art galleries and antique shops are also found along these narrow lanes. For a nice refreshment try the oldest café in town, Ruszwurm, a tiny place with authentic Biedermeier décor, in business since 1827, located just in front of the Matthias Church.

A series of underground caves runs underneath the castle hill, with two different tour operations to pick from if you want to explore an underground labyrinth of tunnels and chambers. Castle Cave, at 16 Orszaghaz utac, or around the corner at Buda Castle Labyrinth, 9 Uri utca, have guided tours through the subterranean system, which takes nearly an hour to explore.

ROYAL PALACE

When you have had enough of this charming little district, walk a few blocks south into the impressive grounds of the Royal Palace. This mammoth structure seems to cover half the hill, looking arrogantly down onto the flat, Pest side of town, rising above the entire city. As the royal residence, it was meant to be a dominating presence and provide a large home for the ruling nobility. Some kind of palace has been on this site for 700 years, but due to frequent warfare it has been leveled and rebuilt many times. During World War II the palace was burned to a hollow shell, with all the furnishings stolen or destroyed. It has since been fully rebuilt, with the work only completed in the late 1980s. Archaeological excavations are continuing in the surrounding gardens in search of earlier palace remains on the site.

There are two major museums inside the palace for you to consider, covering art and history. The National Gallery occupies four floors in the main wing, filled exclusively with paintings and sculpture by Hungarian artists, which presents a small dilemma for the visitor: there are no famous artists here, but there is a vast collection of paintings and statues that represent all the main movements of Western art history, ranging from Gothic through the 20th century. Looking at paintings by people you have never heard of is an act of discovery and love. It’s your choice.

History fans will enjoy a visit to the Castle Museum in the south end of the palace. It offers a fascinating trip through time back to the Middle Ages when the foundations of this structure were originally dug into the bedrock. By incorporating some original building fragments with faithful reconstructions, the museum designers have produced the feeling of being in a medieval castle. You move through a series of basement rooms with Gothic-style pointed arches and cross-vaulted ceilings, passing a tiny dungeon, a 14th Century chapel, into galleries filled with period furniture and display cases containing artifacts from those ancient times. Fragments from the Renaissance and later periods transport you, finishing with an exhibit of Budapest in Modern Times, covering the last 200 years. While it does seem like half the display cases are filled with old pottery of minor interest, there is enough fascinating stuff here to keep you very entertained.

The exterior of the Royal Palace is wonderful to admire, built in the grand style of the Hapsburgs, some of whom are buried in the lower crypt. It is reminiscent of the majestic Hofburg Palace in Vienna, from which the Hapsburgs actually ruled Budapest. Elaborate architectural motifs keep your eyes busy looking up columns, across lintels, down pilasters, through triumphal gateways, over to various monumental statues in several courtyards. Notice the heroic equestrian piece out front glorifying Prince Eugene of Savoy, who led the successful battles against the Ottoman Turks that saved Europe from Muslim conquest. The entire ensemble is held together by the magnificent Renaissance-style dome that towers over the center of the huge building. When you have finished, the funicular is one block over for your ride back down the hill, then it’s an easy walk back across the Chain Bridge to the town center. But better yet, head directly for a spa.

THERMAL BATHS

If you are feeling a bit weary and sore after such exertions, you might be ready for one of the great experiences Budapest has to offer -- a soak in the thermal baths and maybe a massage at one of their famous spas. There are many public baths to choose from, but the most famous of all, the Gellert Spa Baths, is less than a mile south of the Castle District along the river, easily reached by tram or walking. The medicinal spring here was already famous in the 13th century, and the presence of so many natural hot baths in the region could be a major reason why the Romans founded this city in the first place. The Gellert is elaborately decorated with Art Nouveau furnishings, with stained glass windows, mosaics and sculptures to decorate the pools and fitness rooms. When you have finished you can return to the center via tram or taxi.

BOAT RIDE

Depending on your timing, you probably have a few hours free before dinner for a boat ride on the Danube, leaving from the pier in front of the Marriott Hotel along the embankment. If you’ve run out of time or energy, there should be room in tomorrow’s schedule to include the boat. The standard cruise takes just one hour and includes narration over individual headsets, providing some history and description of the buildings you pass. Only one really outstanding building jumps out at you, the awesome Parliament, which you have already spotted from the Buda hills, but this close-up view from the river makes the entire boat ride a worthwhile trip. The boat goes around Margaret Island, and you have an option to get off there for an hour and walk around the green park, catching the next boat back to the dock.

Now it is time to pick one of our choice restaurants, hopefully followed by an evening concert to round out your day.

DAY THREE: Inner City and Art Museum

ST. STEPHEN’S BASILICA

A few blocks east of Vorosmarty Square you will find the nation’s largest church, St. Stephen’s Basilica, finished in 1905 in the neo-Renaissance style with a huge dome towering 300 feet over a vast interior that can hold 8,000 people. Restoration work has been ongoing for many years, but you can look past the scaffoldings to see many fine mosaics, frescoes, statues and grand, religious architecture embellished with golden trim throughout. The prize relic of the Hungarian Catholic Church is the clenched right hand of St. Stephen, which can be inspected in its jeweled casket in a special chapel. The only good view of the large façade is from the far end of the square in front, which also has an excellent souvenir shop on the south side.

PARLIAMENT

It is over a mile through unimpressive streets to the Parliament, so instead, walk three blocks over to Deak Ter and ride the metro one stop -- or take the more scenic tram number 2 along the embankment.

This truly spectacular building was the world’s largest parliament structure when completed in 1902, based somewhat on London’s neo-Gothic Palace of Westminster, but pushed to a Bohemian extreme, with hundreds of statues and gothic spires adorning the exterior. Nearly 300 yards long, containing 700 rooms, with an elaborately decorated neo-Gothic interior, it is still the largest parliament building in Europe. You can admire it from the outside, but it is worth entering for a closer look. Several guided tours in English are offered each day in a schedule that varies with the season, so check with your hotel or tourist information for exact hours.

While in the neighborhood, you might visit the adjacent Ethnographical Museum, which has a permanent exhibition of Hungarian peasant life featuring many costumes, artifacts and photos. The building used to be the main courthouse, decorated in truly splendid fashion. You might pop inside just to have a look at the spectacular lobby with its grand staircase and painted ceilings.

TRAM RIDE ALONG THE GREAT BOULEVARD

Walk four blocks further north to the big busy street, Nagykorut, which means Great Ring Boulevard, and hop on a tram for a delightful, local experience. Remember the Hapsburg connections with the Austrians? Well, inspired by Vienna, Budapest also built a ring road that circles the main downtown area, and this is it. Of course, it is not lined with monumental architecture as found in Vienna, but it is worth the three-mile ride, because this takes you through the non-tourist heart of the city, plus there are two worthwhile stops along the way.

Riding along on smooth steel rails, the old-fashioned tram is very comfortable and has lots of windows, so you can see the sights very clearly. You’ll be looking at rows of commercial buildings with typical local shops and occasional architectural pizzazz in this little excursion into the real world. In a few blocks, notice the large steel and glass train station on the left side, a landmark designed by the firm of Gustav Eiffel, called the West Station.

To spice things up, towards the end of the line get off at the Museum of Applied Arts to have a look at the outside of this unusual building, designed in 1896 in the fancy style of India. Inside is a large museum of decorative arts, featuring ceramics, furniture, textiles and metalwork. Hop back on the tram in the opposite direction, returning along the Great Boulevard until you reach the New York Café, just past the busy intersection with Rakoczi utca.

You have never seen such an elaborate coffee shop interior as you will find at the New York Café, the only such authentic space left from the 19th century, when there were 500 cafes at the center of cultural life here. The New York was always the most popular and most extravagantly decorated. It so pretty there is an admission fee just to see it, but don’t hesitate to go in and admire: astonishing spiral columns, magical lighting, golden trim, statues and murals on the ceiling, potted palms, iron balconies, lush velvets, multilevel rooms and food service too. Well, the food is expensive, but you can just have a drink and your admission charge is credited to your tab.

MUSEUM of FINE ARTS

You have now seen most of Budapest except for the Grand Finale: a trendy plaza, then a visit to the excellent Museum of Fine Arts, and capped off with dinner at nearby Gundel, Hungary’s most famous restaurant. To do it all, continue from the New York Café six blocks along Erzsebet korut on the same tram line, or walking, to the busy Oktogon intersection. To check out one of the more happening hubs, turn left on Andrassy ut and walk two blocks to Nagymezo utca, which forms Franz List Square, one of the town’s new hot spots rimmed with cafes and a trendy ambience.

Then board the metro and ride a few minutes to the end of the line. This is the continent’s very first subway train, built in 1896 when Budapest was in its glory days, and still running as a quaint old-fashioned system with small cars, just below street level. You will arrive at Heroes Square, gateway to the museum and the City Park. Or, if you have time and energy, you could skip the metro and walk that last leg along the grand Andrassy Street, sometimes compared to a beautiful Parisian boulevard, with its pretty trees and Art Nouveau buildings.

In the middle of the large, spectacular Heroes Square stands a monumental column celebrating the nation’s millennium, topped by the Archangel Gabriel holding the Hungarian crown, which symbolizes the nation’s conversion to Christianity under St. Stephen a thousand years ago. The 100-foot column is embraced by a huge semi-circular colonnade, bedecked with oversized statues representing the most heroic kings and princes of Hungary. The square is flanked on two sides by majestic museums.

The Museum of Fine Arts has an excellent collection of Old Masters, especially Spanish and Italian, a handful of Impressionists, and a large room of Egyptian pieces, along with several galleries of Greek and Roman marble statues. The building is quite impressive, in the grand neo-Classical style of a temple to the arts, with a big row of columns out front holding up the triangular pediment; and inside there are vast spaces for the art displays. It should be ranked among Europe’s top museums, so the art fan would definitely enjoy a visit.

Perhaps the most interesting single piece is a bronze sculpture by Leonardo da Vinci, his only known statue to survive. About one foot long, it is a spectacular equestrian study of a bucking horse up on its hind legs, with a small, muscular, helmeted rider hanging on. There are other beautiful Italian works by Raphael, Correggio, Veronese and Tiepolo, and important Spanish paintings by Velasquez, El Greco, Goya, Zurbaran and Murillo. On the Flemish side you will find Rembrandt, Hals, Rubens, Bruegel, Steen and Van Dyke. However, before you go upstairs to see this Old Masters’ Gallery, turn left from the lobby and begin with the Impressionists while you are still fresh, because this is the most appealing part of the museum, offering beautiful canvases by Pissarro, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin and Manet. Sounds great, doesn’t it? You will not be disappointed.

Gundel Restaurant is just around the corner for an excellent dinner, or if you happen to arrive hungry at mid-day, take advantage of their reasonably-priced three-course lunch special. If you are not yet ready to eat you could take a walk in City Park, across the square. It has a zoo, many rolling lawns, little ponds, a fantasy castle, skating rink, restful benches, a chapel, museums of agriculture and transportation, baths with thermal springs, a circus and a fun fair. This popular recreation spot could keep you busy all evening, but you will probably be hungry soon.

There could be no better way to wrap up your visit to Budapest than with dinner at Gundel, widely recognized as the best in town. This grand, traditional restaurant has been revitalized in recent years by the new ownership of cosmetics heir, Ronald Lauder, and famed restaurateur, George Lang, who also operates Café des Artistes in New York. Reasonably-priced gourmet dining, with gypsy music at night, in sumptuous surroundings, either indoors or out, will complete your perfect three days and nights.


Dennis Callan is the president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and produces the "World Traveler" television series in Hawaii. He frequently leads tours through Europe and writes a Honolulu Star-Bulletin article the first Sunday of each month explaining how to get the most out of three days in the world's great places, with a special focus on walking tours.

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