I am just back from a visit to Budapest, which is marking its 150-year anniversary of the unification of the cities of Buda and Pest in 2023. I anchored myself on the Castle Hill of Buda at the beautiful well preserved Hilton Hotel. The hotel was built by Conrad Hilton when he was luckily married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, because without her influence it would never have been built in the 1970s. It was she, a Hungarian beauty, who was able to persuade the Communist regime that it would be an economic boon for the city that was struggling. Opening January 1, 1977 as the first Hilton hotel behind the Iron Curtain. It was built literally to reflect the fascinating history and ambiance of the surrounding area through its mirrored windows reflecting the Fisherman’s Bastion. The property also incorporates the Gothic ruins of a 13th century Dominican abbey and cloister, in addition to a baroque façade of a 16th century Jesuit College.
As I came in late the night before, I was having my morning coffee as I strolled around the multi-tiered terrace to amazing sunny views over the Danube and the iconic landmark Parliament Building, letting me know I was definitively in Budapest, there is nothing like that outstanding view. Budapest has a deserved reputation as one of Europe’s most picturesque capital cities. But its beauty is not all natural; man has also played a role in shaping this pretty face. Since I had glorious warm weather though I was expecting cold, I set out to ramble and explore the city after many years.
First stop, as always, is the covered Great Market Foodhalls built in 1897, this is the most beautiful and largest of all Budapest market halls. You can get all sorts of goods on the 3 floors dominated by strings of peppers and bags of paprika, fruits, vegetables, fantastic salamis and smoked meats, pickles, fresh fish, and Tokaj wines. And now days lots of souvenirs. Since it was late fall there were prepped whole Goose stuffed with its own Foie Gras!! That my friend, made my mouth water. Hungarian snacks like Langos, their fried bread type of pizzas, was awaiting on the upper floor food stands.
My next stop was the magnificent The Anantara New York Palace, this luxury hotel is an architectural ode to Europe’s Belle Époque. A marble façade is adorned with ornate carvings and a clock tower, while inside, impressive columns, chandeliers and frescoes transport you to another era. A word of advice, go into the hotel for your drinks so you don’t wait in line outside on the street for a table in the famed New York Café…. You are immediately seated on the balcony overlooking the entire scene plus treated like royalty. Built during the heyday of the Habsburg Empire, it overwhelms with its grandeur and opulence, combining Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau styles. But behind the grandeur lies the fascinating history of the New York Palace, which began as the European headquarters of New York Life Insurance in 1894.
Rambling through Budapest streets you must remember one thing: Look Up there is an almost a bottomless mishmash of architectural styles on every block ranging from Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical to Art Nouveau. The intricate décor on so many buildings would be lost if you didn’t gaze up. Many storefronts have been modernized at street level, but the apartments above tell a different story. These architectural gems offer insights into Budapest’s varied and complex past.
The sublime State Opera House built in 1875 and reopened in 2022, has near-perfect acoustics. And the ambitious Great Synagogue came to be thanks to Ludwig Förster’s distinctive Moorish design. Other fine architectural examples of Art Nouveau include the Liszt Music Academy, the Gresham Palace (now Four Seasons Hotel) and the Párisi Udvar, a down-at-heel shopping arcade that has received a top-to-bottom 85,0000-hour painstaking renovation to wow the visitors; it is a masterpiece of art nouveau extravagance. And it’s not just grand buildings; a stroll around central Pest and it seems an Art Nouveau surprise awaits around just about every corner. These were all built before the communist took over.
As I came into Liberty Square in the heart of town, there were old cars, flower stalls and mockup of a Parisen subway entrance. I had surprisingly, stumbled upon a movie set as Angelina Jolie was there filming a biopic of Maria Callas, and using Budapest as a stand in for Paris. It seems that Budapest is expanding as a film industry hub in Europe. I am sure they were careful enough not to get the statue of Ronald Reagan in the shots. A full-size bronze statue of the 40th President stands here honoring his efforts in bringing an end to the cold war and be catalyst for change, highlighted in his speech in Berlin in 1987. Events snowballed and in 1989 Hungary became a democratic country.
The innermost, central part includes several remarkable spots, such as the National Museum, but you will also find walls are dimpled with bullet holes that are poignant: these structures wear their dark past with a "lest we forget" defiance. Large holes can be linked to the Red Army siege of 1945, while smaller ones indicate activity during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which lasted for just 12 days but had a lasting impact on Eastern Europe’s place in the Cold War. One of the most representative items is the Hungarian Flag that flies outside of Parliament today. During this anti-Soviet uprising in 1956, revolutionaries cut out the Hammer and Wheat emblem and used the resulting tricolor with a hole in the middle as the symbol of the revolution.
A short walk from the Jewish Quarter, my heart aches at the poignant beauty of “The Shoes” along the Danube. Between 1944 and 1945, Budapest was under the control of the Arrow Cross Party, a fascist group with Nazi sympathies that took thousands of Jews from their homes and executed them at the side of the Danube, so that their bodies would fall into its waters and be swept away. Most of the executions took place over the winter months, so the waters would have frozen anyone who might had a hope of survival. Since shoes were a valuable commodity which soldiers could sell for profit, the victims were ordered to remove their shoes before being shot. Film director, Can Dogay, erected this memorial on the river’s east bank in 2005. Featuring sixty pairs of cast-iron shoes – men’s, women’s and children’s, all painstakingly recreated to reflect the era in which the victims were massacred – the numbers of this tragic sculpture only represent a fraction of those who so brutally lost their lives. Today, visitors bring flowers and light candles next to the shoes, which is highlighted by the distressing current Israeli conflict this fall.
And if you don’t object to a touch of touristy, you should hop on Number 2 Tram and ride the antique yellow tram on a scenic journey along the Danube, taking in many of Budapest’s highlights. Also, in this same vein take a tour of the amazing Parliament Building from the gold-plated City Staircase XVII, deeply hued stained-glass windows and detailed frescoes, as well as soaring granite columns, the former Chamber of Peers and The Dome Hall, where the Crown Guard of the Hungarian Armed Forces keep watch over the Hungarian Holy Crown and the Coronation Insignia 24 hours a day. There is so much history and pride, it is worth weaving into todays’ political scheme.
At the end of the day, I rode up the 1870’s funicular by the Chain Bridge to my perch on the Buda side. The Hilton Hotel has a marvelous roof top terrace called White Raven to watch amazing sunsets over the Hungarian capital. Reflecting back over the day with so many expressions of the golden age of early-20th century Budapest in stained glass, ceramics and endlessly intricate patterns and sculptural details, yes, remember to look up, there is much to see.