Walking along the embankment of the Danube by the Houses of Parliament, visitors are often bemused by a line of bodiless shoes scattered along the pavement. In fact, this is a monument whose simplicity is only matched by its profundity. The shoes commemorate the Jews who were executed in that spot by the fascist Arrow Cross Party during the Second World War, having first been ordered to remove their shoes. The discarded footwear was then left where it lay as a grim warning to other Jews in the city.
Stretching beneath the city of Budapest is a vast network of caves, sculpted over millions of years by thermal waters, rich in minerals. Szemlohegy Cave is easily reached from the city centre, but stepping into feels as if you’re moving into an alien landscape, as the peculiar erosion has formed extraordinary and unsettling shapes and forms, which glitter like jewels due to the mineral sediment that enshrines them. The cave is maintained at a steady temperature and humidity, said to be helpful in the treatment of respiratory problems.
Old Jewish Quarter
This area of the city has been home to some momentous moments in the city’s history, not all of them illustrious, such as when it was converted into a ghetto during World War II. These days, the largely empty, quiet streets are testament to the lack of tourists exploring the area. However, just taking a stroll around the crumbling buildings and archaic shops is an experience in itself. There is a sense of authenticity and timelessness which is quite affecting, especially when you consider the history of the area, which can be learnt in great detail at the museum of the quarter’s Great Synagogue.
Rózsadomb, meaning ‘Rose Hill’, is the neighbourhood of the city home to the city’s wealthiest inhabitants, with house prices here the highest in the country. However, during the Turkish occupation, it was the Turks who laid claim to this area, and it was they who gave it its name, planting roses which remain to this day. As such, the area is a charming place to take a romantic walk, stopping off to pay your respects at the tomb of Gül Baba, the famous Bektash Dervish and poet.
The Palotanegyed, meaning ‘Palace District’, makes up the Eighth District of the Hungarian capital, located in Pest, the eastern half of the city. The buildings are not just monument to the city’s grandeur of the nineteenth-century, but also the troubles that this city has endured in the intervening period. Buildings still hold the scars of attacks and assaults from the Second World War, the uprising of 1956 and the subsequent Soviet occupation. Nevertheless, the buildings retain a sense of imposing glamour that is well worth witnessing.
Gellért Hill is a beautiful area that belies its rather gruesome origins. Legend has it that it was named after Saint Gellért, who, having attempted to convert the city’s inhabitants, was forced into a barrel crammed with nails, and rolled down the hill to his death. As the largest hill in Pest, that must have been quite a demise. Nowadays, the hill is home to famous attractions such as the Citadel, Liberty Statue, and the Cave Church. On top of that, the journey to the top is rewarded with one of the best panoramic views of the city you can find.
Budapest is a city that recognises the value of a spa, and the Szechenyi Spa was the first spa to be established on the Pest side of the city, and it remains the largest. Back in 1881, it was called the Artesian Spa, and lacked the luscious surroundings that now envelop them. Palatial buildings surround innumerate pools, all fed by two thermal springs running underground. With opening hours of six in the morning to ten at night, this is the perfect place to come for an invigorating morning dip or a relaxing evening wallow.
This magnificent building is of great reverential value to the nation and its citizens, commemorating as it does St Stephen, patron saint and first King of Hungary. Indeed, his right hand, said to be incorruptible in life, lies mummified in the reliquary in death. It was built to be the exact same height as the Parliament Building, to symbolize that the spiritual and the political are of equal importance to the country. Visitors can choose to take the lift to the top level, or those who fancy a bit of exercise can climb the 364 steps, the payoff being a 360° view of Budapest.
Named after the devout daughter of King Bela, who lived her life as a nun on the island, this is a lovely spot to come to relax and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. It is located in the Danube separating Buda from Pest, and today serves as a place of reflection and recreation for the people of Budapest.
Amongst the trees and pathways, you’ll find the remains of a 13th century Franciscan church and a Domenican church and convent, destroyed during the Ottoman Wars when the monks and nuns were forced to flee for their lives. There are also the UNESCO-protected sites of the Water Tower, built in the Art Nouveau style in 1911, and the Music Fountain, which correlates its gushings in time to music.
This is without doubt the easiest and most interesting way to reach the top of Castle Hill. It was originally constructed as a way of sightlessly, if not necessarily noiselessly, transporting servants to work at the castle at the summit. Built in 1870, it was only the second of its kind in Europe. The original carriages were destroyed by the Second World War, but were rebuilt in 1983 in their original style, adding to the charm of the experience.