When we got back from Europe everyone asked me “what was your favorite city?” And without hesitation I responded “Budapest.”
You might be thinking “but wait, you posted earlier that you fell in love with Paris and it was sooo amaaaazing.” That’s true. Paris is beautiful and I will go back. I might always dream of living there one day.
But Budapest… Budapest won my heart with its history, beauty, culture, and most important of all: The sheer willpower of Hungarians to put communism firmly behind them and build a bright new future.
A long time ago, Buda and Pest were two cities separated by a river. On the Pest side there was a castle and royalty. On the Buda side were the common folk. Hungarians ruled the two cities and the land until the Ottoman empire mowed them down and took over for a few hundred years – the Turkish baths that litter the city are in recognition of those Ottoman rulers.
But eventually the white Europeans took the area of Hungary back; Buda and Pest grew in size and became one.
And then, WWI came followed shortly by WWII. Budapest had a significant Jewish population – even nicknamed Jewdapest – and before Nazi occupation the Hungarian police began putting THEIR OWN Jewish citizens on trains bound for interment camps.
Thousands upon thousands of Hungarian Jews were sent to their death – BY THEIR OWN COUNTRYMEN and BEFORE Nazi occupation. One of the most beautiful and advanced bridges of the time was destroyed by allied forces in the fight to take Budapest back from Hitler. Eventually, Budapest was liberated…
But those who wore Nazi symbols traded their uniforms for a new regime – Stalin and communism. The area had little time to recover from WWII before Stalin’s army came in and took most able-bodied men and children from their homes to work camps.
The royal palace in Budapest was stripped of any adornments left after Hitler. Churches were nearly outlawed as religion was considered an institutional threat to the state. And most people weren’t much better off. The city of Budapest was hit particularly hard as it became the headquarters – on the Buda side – for the red army.
I know all of this because instead of touring yet another art museum (of which there are 100+ in the city), we visited The House of Terror. It’s the building that housed the communist police headquarters and their torture / murder chambers for a couple of decades. Now it’s a museum that tells Hungary’s story from the time of German occupation to the end of WWII to the rise and fall of communism in 1994.
I left The House of Terror in tears – a lot of the communist rule in 1965 era reminds me of what we’re seeing today in the US with propoganda, stacking of the judicial systems with partisan judges who interpret the rule of law to their party’s favor, the nationalism…
Now, I knew a LOT about WWII, in large part because America likes to take credit for having come in to save the day (despite waiting so many years, despite ignoring Churchill’s calls for help), but I knew almost nothing of the details and agony and suffering behind communist rule in Hungary.
I’m happy to say that while it’s only been a mere 20+ years since the fall of the USSR and Hungarian independence, Budapest has recovered. This city… oh. my. god. this. CITY!!!
It is absolutely gorgeous. The monuments, the buildings, the streets, the churches, the honor to their history. It is so beautiful – even (ESPECIALLY?!) in winter.
But not only was Budapest amazing in all the traditional Christmas European ways with ornaments and little old ladies and mulled wine being sold every five steps. It was also wild af.
The Jewish Quarter has one of the craziest, most eclectic bars IN THE WORLD (not exaggerating) called Szimpla Kert that was literally thrown down in the middle of a ruined apartment building. In fact, it’s the original “Ruin Pub” which the region is known for since there are all sorts of abandoned, modern ruins left over from communist rule.
Over on the Danube, closer to our Air B&B, the nightlife is SUPER posh with casino’s and limo’s and models everywhere. I’ve heard that Budapest is one of the richest cities in Europe and has currency offices for every country in the world – and it SHOWS.
But while yes, we went out. And yes, we toured a House of Terror, the best part about Budapest was how simply wonderful it was.
We spent a few hours at a cat cafe, a LOT of hours at Christmas markets, went up a weird contraption to the top of the royal palace and to Fisherman’s Bastion. We ate a bizarre amount of REALLY amazing Italian food, a lot of strudel, and I drank my weight in mulled wine and cider.
We didn’t make it to a Turkish bath but we did make it to several Ruin Pubs. We never truly explored the Pest side but we walked as much of Buda as one could do in 45 degree weather. I dropped a bottle of wine in a grocery store and was yelled at by some very displeased Hungarian ladies, while a couple of other Hungarian ladies made it clear that shit happens – and none of this happened in any language I could understand.
So yeah, if you asked me out of the three cities we visited, which was my favorite the answer is Budapest.