To see the best of the "Other Europe," go to Budapest, Hungary, the city on the Danube, the city of rose-tinted sunsets and ancient hills crowned with fabled fortresses. It is both the capital of Hungary, home to 2 million of the country's 10 million people, and the seat of Hungarian history. It is a city of storied bridges that crisscross its famous river to stitch up Buda and Pest into one. It is a city bubbling over with museums, theaters, galleries, parks, monuments and centuries-old mineral baths. It is a city that has emerged from the "Goulash Communism" of the Cold War more vibrant than ever. It is, quite, a city where "the paprika burns twice."
And what, in Budapest, bought one to see? Well, here are the city's top 10 attractions.
1. The Citadel
At the top of any visitor's list should be the Citadel, quite possibly Budapest's foremost attraction (after, of course, the Danube!). The Citadel is an imposing, mid 19th-century fortress, located on Gellert Hegy (Gellert Hill) which raises from the Buda shores some 430 feet above the Danube, with superb views all around. During World War II it housed both Hungarian and German troops, and later on, during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, it was here that young Hungarian freedom fighters made their last stand against the Soviets. You can still see the bullet holes and bomb scars left from the Soviet assault. Beside which, a basement German bunker has been artfully preserved, sporting wax figures of the German air command. Admission to the Citadel is free.
2. Castle District
The Castle District looms large on Castle Hill, 165 to 200 feet above the Danube. It is both at the heart of the city and at the core of Hungarian history. It was born in the wake of the Mongol assault on Pest in 1241 AD, and fully fortified by the early 1500s. In 1945, it was here that the Germans made their last desperate stand against the advancing Red Army, bringing upon Castle Hill utter destruction. In the years since, the district has been greatly restored to its medieval glory and is now recognized as a World Heritage Site. In it are museums, galleries, churches, historic squares, and even a royal palace and a Baroque castle. The Castle District is best explored on foot, and can be approached from any of the surrounding streets, notably Fo utca, Batthyany utca and Attila utca.
3. Hungarian Parliament
The Hungarian Parliament, located on the quay at Tomo, in Pest's Lipot district, is one of the city's most magnificent buildings. Almost 300 yards long and about 140 yards at its widest, it rises from the shores of the Danube in spires, topped with a grand, 82-foot cathedral-like dome. Surrounding it are no fewer than 88 statues, depicting Hungary's monarchs and great national leaders. The interior is even more astonishing, marbled and gilded, and adorned with monumental murals, paintings and statues, as well as ornate windows, walls and floors. At the entrance, a sweeping flight of stairs takes up the essentially wider width of the hallway, lined with 18-foot-high, rose-colored marble columns. Much of the embellishment in the interior is of pure gold, 22 to 26 karat.
4. Szechenyi Lanchid (Szechenyi Chain Bridge)
Szechenyi Lanchid is Budapest's most photographed and most historic bridge. Beginning as a long, narrow pontoon bridge in 1852, it has evolved into the picturesque suspension bridge you see today. Significantly, it symbolizes the division, struggle and ultimate union of Buda on the west shore of the Danube and Pest on the east side. The bridge spans the Danube more or less in the center of the city, between Clarke Adam ter and Roosevelt ter, with large, iconic stone lions perched at each end. The chain bridge is named for Istvan Szechenyi, a principal backer of its construction.
The Aquincum, located in Obuda, the oldest part of the city, would be worth a visit if for nothing more than to see where Budapest began. But the Aquincum is more than just the birthplace of the city. As the ancient capital of Pannonia (the name given to the region by the conquering Romans in 15 BC), it has ruins that will both fascinate and intrigue. A string of discoveries here have unearthed a Roman aqueduct, marble sewer drains, a centuries-old gymnasium with a central heating system, a couple of shrines, and a temple dedicated to Mithras, the Persian god of light. There is also a museum near at hand, at Szentendrei ut 139, which is centered around the historic bounty of the Aquincum. The museum is open to the public daily.
Budapest's OperaHaz, or Opera House, is one of the grandest and most opulent in all of Europe. Located on the city's principal avenue, Andrassy ut, the Neo-Renaissance-cum-Baroque OperaHaz features a sweeping, marble grand staircase, statues of famous Hungarians by the country's leading artist Alajos Strobl, ornate 19th-century chandeliers, damask-covered walls, Red velvet banquettes, vibrant frescoes of Karoly Lotz and Mor Than, and five stories of balconies with gilded boxes draped with gold and blue silk, all quite reminiscent of the Hapsburg era of artistic opulence. The Opera House was built between 1873 and 1884. Tours of the establishment are offered daily for 2800 forint and are well worth it.
7. St. Matyas Church
St. Matyas Church sets hugely on Szentharomsag ter on Castle Hill, with its Gothic spiers rising triumphantly from the medieval square. This has been the site of coronations, royal weddings and worship for centuries. Even though it is predominately Gothic, its mix of styles both on the exterior and interior reflect its chequered history: originally established in 1015 by the first king of Hungary, King Istvan, it was destroyed by the Tartars in 1240, rebuilt by King Bela IV In Romanesque style, rebuilt again by Lajos the Great in Gothic style, refurbished by King Mattias Corvinus in the Renaissance style, reestablished as a mosque by the Turks in 1541, and re-consecrated as a cathedral, following the Hapsburg victory, in 1686, With flourishes of counter -formation Baroque. The church is open to visitors daily, and there's an admission fee of 500 forint per head.
8. Tomb of Gul Baba
Situated at the foot of Rose Hill, Roszadom in Hungarian, the Tomb of Gul Baba is a Muslim shrine honoring a bellicose dervish of the same name, who loomed large during the Turkish request of Buda in 1541. Gul Baba means "Father of Roses" In Turkish, and the Turkish martyr was so named for he was credited with the colorful harvest of roses on Rose Hill – although not without controversy – and the tomb is accordingly surrounded with rose bushes. The octagonal tomb is located on Mecset utca, which goes off Margit ut, in the ancient Budapest district of Vizivaros. This is also one of the few remaining vestiges of Budapest's Turkish era.
9. Kiraly Baths
Of all of Budapest's scores of thermal baths and spas, there is none more restructured nor more romantic than the Kiraly Baths. Built in the latter part of the 16th century, during the Turkish occupation of Hungary, the baths are housed in an historic, green-domed structure at the corner of Fo utca and Ganz utca. The baths are open to the public daily, but on separate days for men and women.
10. Lukacs Baths
The Lukacs Baths are among Budapest's oldest, dating back to medieval times when they were used almost exclusively for medicinal therapy. During the mid 16th and 17th centuries, the occupying Turks introduced the concept of pleasure to the bathing ritual, and in 1884 a Grand Hotel was built around the baths to cater to an international clientele. Located on Frankel Leo ut in the city, the baths feature a facility for dispensing the sulphurous healing waters, plus a 40-degree thermal bath as well as a pungent steam room. The baths are open daily.