Friday, October 24, 2008


After several years of delay, my wife and I finally had a chance to spend a long anticipated weekend in Budapest, Hungary. I'll give my impressions in three parts: aesthetic, economic and historical. Second - for those anticipating a visit - a few suggestions for tourists.

On several occasions, the first question I've gotten about Budapest is "what's it like?" To be frank, I've struggled to compare it to other central European cities I've visited: unlike, say, Prague, the oldest portions of Budapest are quite small: the city was the scene of many battles from the Turkish occupation through the second world war; in the latter, the Soviet army and the Nazi army clashed directly in the
city itself. With some notable exceptions, the city is redolent with 19th century facades. In fact, many of the buildings are quite impressive. My wife commented that to see Budapest, one has to be constantly looking upward.

Although it is hard to say exactly how any country is going to weather the current economic storm, Hungary has clearly experienced strong growth rates in recent years. Budapest itself reflects both a low post-Soviet starting point and the economic boom of recent years. Elegant restaurants are close to classic looking buildings suffering
from disrepair. Pricing is erratic at best. One can find a 1 USD cup of coffee, or spend 12 USD for coffee and pastry, all within a block. For a great view of the food of Hungary, traditional restaurants and the Central Market in Pest are great experiences: be prepared for tons of paprika.

A traditional breakfast at the Central Market!

The standard tourist circuit is worth doing. Budapest's museums are interesting though modest: meaning, it is possible to explore many in a day's time. There are several houses of worship that are worth visiting; in particular I recommend the Matyas Church in Old Buda and the Great Synagogue in Pest.


The Great Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. The building is a 19th century construction and features continental Christian influence in features such as a (substantial) pipe organ: the same instrument is present in the even more beautiful Spanish Synagogue in Prague.

Time permitting, there is a modest Serbian Orthodox church on Szerb Utra ("Serb Street"), with an older iconostasis and the sweet smell of incense hanging in the air. The famous St. Stephen's cathedral is beautiful but also very modern.

And of course Budapest is famous for the public baths. We visited the baths in the central park, which is an experience not to miss. There are consultants available that will help construct a therapeutic regime while you are there, though we opted to wing it: both relaxing and revitalizing. Be forewarned: the plunge pool may not have ice crystals in the water, but it is … cold.

There are two less well-known options for visitors that I wanted to point out. First, the Terror Museum in Pest is a must-see. The Hungarians suffered under both a Nazi putsch and Soviet occupation. The Terror Museum is set in the secret police headquarters (shared by both regimes) and provides a bracing portrait of totalitarian terror as seen from the Hungarian experience. The first exhibit in the museum
was perhaps the most moving: videos of cheering and weeping crowds supporting both regimes cutting abruptly to the destruction and death concomitant with their rises. This was not an uplifting part of our visit, but a sobering and necessary look at two forms of evil.

The second thing to note about Budapest is the excellent restaurant scene. We had some of the best meals we have had in a long time in Pest. The restaurant Tigris near St. Stephen's Cathedral has fantastic food, wine and the most enthusiastic staff I've ever encountered. The "contemporary Hungarian" tasting menu at Babel was great: the chef
has a deft take on gastronomical science. Try both if you can.

The title of this post is taken from the iconic Vass shoe, the somewhat awkward looking, central European classic. The factory store is on Harris Kos in Pest and worth a visit for anyone interested in old world craftsmanship. There's a romanticism about much of Budapest tied up with the ubiquitous craftsmanship to be found.

All photos by Ruth Pavlik: they may not be used without permission.