Beautiful, Bountiful Budapest
Updated: Oct 4, 2020
Many of you are likely familiar with the breathtaking sight of Budapest's Danube riverfront. It is featured very commonly on printed travel brochures as well as in televised advertisements for the numerous Danube River cruises. The majestic Danube River flows through Budapest, Hungary, splitting the city into green and hilly Buda, on the west shore, and densely urban Pest, on the east. While the sight may appear familiar to you, I find it worthwhile to discuss the four main attractions that are collectively responsible for those awe-inspiring views. Those four sites are the Hungarian Parliament (Pest side), the Buda Castle (Buda side), the Fisherman's Bastion (Buda side), and the Chain Bridge (traversing the two sides.)
Like it's twin sister Vienna, three hours upstream, Budapest prospered in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was an elegant, culturally rich and economically wealthy city. But gorgeous Budapest sadly suffered its share of turmoil and destruction. It sustained heavy damages following WWI, WWII, and ultimately the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, against the Soviet Red Army. Extensive restoration and rebuilding have resulted in today's spectacular riverfront. While there are MANY beautiful sites worthy of mention in Budapest, I will focus this blog on the quartet of riverfront sites.
The Hungarian Parliament Building
The majestic façade of the Hungarian Parliament Building is on bold display, sprawling along the eastern Pest side of the Danube River. This massive building is of neo-Gothic style architecture and planned by architect Imre Steindl, inspired by the English Parliament, who won the privilege of designing it in 1880. This occurred during the time of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, following 'the compromise' in 1867. The dual monarchy compromise was a result of the unsuccessful attempt by the Hungarians to obtain complete independence from the Habsburg Empire. The building was inaugurated in 1896 on the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the country and ultimately completed in 1902. While its façade overlooks the Danube River the official main entrance is from a square on the east side of the building. The building is open to visitors for guided tours. The interior of the building is beautifully decorated with statues, decorative frescoes, stained glass windows, and ornamental gold plated staircases and rooms. The Holy Crown of Hungary, also known as the Crown of St. Stephen, is displayed in the building's central hall since 2000. This was the coronation crown used by the Kingdom of Hungary for most of its existence since the 12th century. In the history of Hungary, more than 50 kings were crowned with it, up to the last, Charles IV, in 1916. The enamels on the crown are of Byzantine craftsmanship, presumed to have been made in Constantinople in the latter half of the 11th century. Interestingly, in May 1945 during WWII, the Crown was spirited out of Hungary to protect it from the Nazis and the Soviets. It was packed into a black satchel along with other precious jewels and handed to a US Army Colonel in Austria to be taken to the USA. It was housed in the United States Gold Reserves in Fort Knox, Kentucky (about 45 minutes from where I live), and handed back to the Hungarians by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.
The best view of the Parliament building is from across the river at the Fisherman's Bastion on the Buda side. Once you cross to the Buda side you can take the Castle Hill Funicular from the bottom of the Buda hills to the top, where you can easily access both the Buda Castle and the Fisherman's Bastion. There is also a walking path and stairs that lead up to the Fisherman's Bastion terraces.
The Buda Castle
The Buda Castle on the western Buda side of the city is perched on a hill overlooking the Danube River. The Buda Castle was a royal historic palace for the Hungarian kings originally built between 1245-1265 as a fortification to provide protection against the invading Mongols. In the 15th century, the Royal Palace became one of the most beautiful architectural complexes in Europe during Hungary's "golden age" under King Matthias. Subsequent to his marriage to Beatrice of Naples in 1476, Italian artists and craftsmen arrived at Buda. Budapest soon became the first center of the Renaissance north of the Alps. The Palace was then rebuilt in an early Rennaisance-style and greatly expanded in size. Unfortunately, after the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, the medieval Kingdom of Hungary collapsed and the Ottoman Turks soon overtook and occupied Buda. Sadly they pillaged and sacked the city, and plundered and damaged the Palace. Suleiman the Magnificent carried away all of the bronze statues and other valuables back to Constantinople. The Turks used the Palace as barracks, powder warehouses, and as a border stronghold on the outskirts of their Ottoman Empire. The massive Baroque palace you see today was built between 1749 and 1769. Although near completely ruined in WWII, as shown in the photos below, it was rebuilt in a simplified Baroque style. Today, the Palace houses the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. The Buda Castle, with several of its staterooms, as well as the National Gallery and History Museum can all be visited. You can easily ascend to the top of the hill with the Castle Hill Funicular that runs from the base of the Chain Bridge.
A beautiful place to view the Buda Castle is from directly across it on the Pest side, along the Corso Boulevard. There you can either stroll, relax on park benches, or enjoy one of the many outdoor dining establishments featuring authentic Hungarian food, and even live entertainment by Hungarian Gypsy musicians.
The Fisherman's Bastion
The Fisherman's Bastions is a complex of beautiful white towers on the Buda side of the city. They were built in the 19th century in commemoration of the country's millennial anniversary (1896) to provide lookout towers and viewing terraces to the amazing panorama of Budapest's Parliament, Buda Castle, Castle Hill, Pest city center, and the Danube River. This present-day structure never served as an actual fortification in Buda, but was built on the base of a stretch of former Buda castle walls. During the medieval years up to the 19th century, there were thick castle walls in the location of the current towers and viewing terraces. The city atop Castle Hill was protected by castle guards, royal arms, and even the residents of the area. The specific area where the Fisherman's Bastion lies was home to many local fishermen and the Fishermen's Guild. One theory holds that during peaceful times, they fished and sold their fish at the fish market in the castle above. During times of war, the fishermen would do their duty to climb up to the castle and protect their part of the castle wall and their underlying neighborhood. Hence the name 'Fisherman's Bastion.' Another theory for the derivation of the name of this bastion is simply that it is located where the former fish market was, adjacent to the St. Matthias Church. Architecturally the Fisherman's Bastion is comprised of seven turrets to represent the seven Hungarian tribal chieftains who originally settled and founded present-day Hungary in 896 AD. It hosts a lovely open-air restaurant on its terrace offering spectacular views. In the courtyard in front of the Fisherman's Bastion is a Statue of St. Stephen, Hungary's first king, who reigned from 1000-1038 and introduced Christianity to Hungary. The bastion also lies adjacent to St. Matthias Church, with the multi-colored roof tiles, and architecturally compliments it. Both were designed by the same architect.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge spans the Danube River in the city center of Hungary's capital to connect Buda with Pest. The Chain Bridge was the first permanent stone bridge to connect Buda and Pest. It was originally built between 1839 - 1849. The iron chain links on which the roadbed hangs are held by two massive river pillars, hence the name 'Chain Bridge'. Large stone lions are situated at both abutments but didn't take their place until 1852. At the end of WWII on January 18, 1945, retreating German troops blew up all of the bridges of Budapest, including the Chain Bridge, as shown in the photos below. While the bridge was destroyed nearly completely, only the pillars and the reclining stone lions survived. The rebuilding of the bridge began in 1947 and re-inaugurated in 1949, one century after its original inauguration. The bridge allows for both vehicular and pedestrian crossing. Walking across the Chain Bridge beneath a star-lit twinkling sky, with the shimmering lights of the riverfront monuments all reflected in the smooth waters of the Danube River, is a most romantic indulgence ... and it's free!
The four monuments I noted are all on the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites since 1987. It is no surprise that this quartet of beauty is consistently featured on almost every travel advertisement that involves Eastern Europe, Hungary, or the Danube River. Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe, perhaps even the MOST beautiful. Being 100% Hungarian, I may be a bit biased, but I don't think so! 😉 I am inspired not only by the unparalleled beauty of the city but also by its resolve. The Hungarian people and Budapest have endured countless turmoil and many defeats. Time and time again, war and conflict heavily damaged or nearly destroyed these sites, but the city always managed to pick itself up again and rebuild. When you view Budapest's riverfront today it is hard to even imagine the extent of all it withstood. If you haven't yet been to Budapest, then I encourage you to put it on your bucket list. I guarantee you will not be disappointed!