Like a precious stone split in two, by the Danube river, the two halves of Budapest, Buda and Pest, join to create a truly magnificent City. An Austro-Hungarian gem, two thousand years in the making.
My first impression of Budapest was ‘God, it’s cold.’ I arrived the first week of January, and the temperature had fallen below -16 degrees. Luckily, my second impression was ‘Wow.’ The city is so beautiful, and packed with amazing architecture. You only have to walk a short distance down the massive boulevards to spot interesting places. Interesting, and thankfully warm. So braving the bitter winds, apparently unusually cold for even Budapest, I set about to discover what the city had to offer in the way of indoor, heated wonders. And it didn’t disappoint. From stunning cafes to awe inspiring monuments and libraries, Budapest will keep your head turning.
So, let yourself be taken in by this Austro-Hungarian gem. Come with me on a winter’s dream, and I will give you just a glimpse of what awaits you on the banks of the Danube.
Hungarian State Opera House.
First up, let us pay a visit to the Hungarian State Opera House. This Neo-Renaissance delight was mostly paid for by Emperor Franz Joseph 1. As part of the terms for funding its construction in 1875, the Emperor demanded it not be bigger than the Vienna Opera house. The story then goes, that he only ever visited the opera house once, and left mysteriously half way through a performance. Local myth has it that he left because, despite being just smaller than Vienna’s own opera house, the interior outshone its counterpart.
As well as taking in an opera, or a ballet, you can also get a guided tour of the Opera house.
The opera house is well worth a visit, and, after a tour, why not settle down in the opera’s cafe. Grab some refreshments, soak up the opulent architecture, and be transported back to the Austro-Hungarian heyday.
Vajdahunyad Castle and the Szchezeni Thermal Baths
From the opera house you can either walk, or, if it is freezing outside, take a metro to the north east end of the Andassay Ut (avenue). There you will find, nestled in the Varosliget (the City Park), both Vajdahunyad Castle and the Szchezeni Thermal Baths.
In the winter, the boating lake in front of Vajdahunyad Castle is transformed into a popular ice ring. When the sun dips, both the ring and castle are lit, creating a magical scene. And if you don’t fancy doing your best impression of a drunk penguin, then why not visit the Varosliget Cafe and Restaurant. With a stunning view of the illuminated castle, and good food, it is worth a visit.
View of the castle from the Varosliget Cafe and Restaurant.
Vajdahunyad Castle was built 1896, as a homage to architectural styles throughout Hungarian History – taking inspiration from the Middle Ages, the Gothic Renaissance and Baroque styles, to name just a few. This is Budapest’s very own Disney fairytale castle.
Why not stroll through the gates’ of the castle, take in the courtyard, and then make your way through the park to the thermal baths.
Opened in 1913, the Szchezeni Thermal Baths are housed in an impressive Neo-Baroque mansion. The thermal waters inside, which vary in temperature from 27 to 38 degrees, are open to the public. The baths are also used extensively for medical purposes.
Not only do the baths hold a selection of thermal outdoor pools, within its magnificent walls, there is also a small lake just outside, beside the building. I found this particularly captivating, as, at first, it seemed like any other park lake. But slowly you notice, especially in the cold air, streams of steam rising gracefully from the water. The lake is also thermal, just warm to the touch. And seemingly a perfect sanctuary for ducks from the winter weather.
When you finally leave Varosliget, you will probably come across Heroes’ Square – an impressive monument to important figures in Hungerian history, and home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
ELTE University Library
After so much walking, why not take a quiet rest, and pay a visit to one of Budapest’s many temples to books. Founded in 1561, The ELTE University Library was originally a Jesuit library. In 1784 it moved to its current location. Even before you step into the main reading room, with its skylight and frescoes, you are welcomed by a stunning interior. The library was Hungary’s first public library, and is still open to public today.
Cafe Gerbeaud and Cafe Astoria.
When it comes to incredible cafes, Budapest is not stingy with the cream. Almost down every street there seems to be a cafe housed in an architectural work of art.
Cafe Gerbeaud, located on Vorosmarty ter, exudes the elegance of late 19th century European coffeehouses and confectioneries, with its saloon’s high ceiling, illuminated by grand chandeliers.
With over a century of history, Cafe Astoria isn’t short of character. The cafe is part of the Danubius Hotel Astori, a hotel with a story spreading right back to the famous Waldorf Astoria in New York.
Parliament of Budapest.
Now to visit one of Budapest’s biggest and most iconic attractions. Standing like a man-made gothic and Renaissance mountain on the bank of the Danube river, the Hungarian Parliament Building (as it is also known), is just, if not even more, as impressive inside as it is outside. Completed in 1904, it is still the biggest building in Hungary, and contains around half a million precious stones and over 40 kilograms of gold, not too mention the Crown Jewels of Hungary.
Though, as you would expect, the queues for the tours are long (best to get there early or late), the interior is definitely worth waiting for.
Alexandra Cafe (Bookcafe).
And finally, but no means least, is the Bookcafe. As bookshop cafes go, this marvel will take some beating in the grandeur category. It can be found inside the former Paris Department Store (Budapest’s first department store, and now the Alexandra Bookstore), an Art Nouveau wonder on its own. As you walk through the bookstore, towards the cafe, you will be struck by the sight of a gleaming ballroom. Yes, that’s right – a ballroom. One second you are in an Art Nouveau Bookstore, the next you are transported into a stunning Renaissance ballroom, that wouldn’t look out of place in any grand palace.
Located in the heart of the city, there is really no excuse not to grab a coffee in one of the world’s grandest bookstore cafes.
And that’s where we end our winter’s dream – with a hot drink, in a palace ballroom, in an Art Nouveau bookstore, on a grand boulevard, in an amazing city – Budapest.