Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is one of the best kept secrets in Europe. This beautiful city is divided into two towns by the Danube River. The east side is called Buda and the west side is called Pest. Buda is the hilly side and Pest is the flat side.
While travelers often think of Paris and London as the must-see cities of Europe, they may overlook the historic Ottoman architecture of Buda, the wide boulevards of Pest, and above all the sweeping views of the wide Danube river.
The narrow streets, historic buildings, and spectacular views make Castle Hill a favorite place to wander on the Pest side of the city.
Visitors can see Buda Castle which was the home of Hungarian kings. Buda Castle is now the home of the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery.
Although one can view many works of Hungarian art inside the Gallery, visitors can see important sculptures on the grounds of the castle too.
In the west courtyard, the Matthias Fountain sculpture tells the ancient Hungarian story of how a young girl fell in love with the strong and brave King Matthias when he was out hunting. Across from Matthias fountain, a statue represents Hungary's long history of horse training. The sculpture shows a huge horse standing up on its back legs as a man tries to control the animal.
Another important building in the Castle district is Sandor Palace, the residence, or home, of the president of the Republic. Visitors like to walk by the Palace during the changing of the guard. The soldiers do a difficult set of marching steps to change from one group of guards to the next.
Castle Hill also includes the main square of the old town district of Buda. On one side of the square sits Matthias Church, named after the popular King Matthias. The church dates from the thirteenth century and was the place where new kings were crowned.
Probably the favorite viewing area in Castle Hill is Fisherman's Bastion. A bastion is a strong place that can resist attack. The name may come from a group of fishermen who fought against invaders during the Middle Ages.
The fairy tale architecture includes seven turrets (small pointed towers), statues, fancy balconies, and wide stone steps going from terrace to terrace. Down below one can see sweeping views of the river Danube.
The city's most beautiful bridge, the Chain Bridge, crosses the Danube River and connects the Buda side of the capital city with the Pest side. The cast iron structure of the bridge gives the bridge its popular name. Its official name is the Szechenyi Lanchid.
Opened in 1849, the Chain Bridge was the first permanent bridge across the Danube. At the time it was considered an engineering wonder. Today the Chain Bridge is most famous for its fabulous views of the city and Danube River.
Just like the Brooklyn Bridge has become a cultural icon in the United States, the Chain Bridge is an important part of Hungarian culture. During air plane races in Budapest, daring pilots fly upside down under the bridge. It can also be seen in movies like I Spy and Walking with the Enemy.
Pedestrians, or walkers, are welcome to cross over the bridge and enjoy the views.
Heroes' Square was built in 1896 for the 1000th anniversary of Hungary. It is the largest and most impressive square in Budapest. It is surrounded by the Museum of Fine Arts on the left, and the Hall of Art on the right. Heroes' Square is also a station of the Millennium Underground (the first subway line in Europe).
The Millennium Monument in the middle of the square was built to honor the 1000-year-old history of the Hungarians. It rises to a height of 36 meters (118 feet).
This high column is topped with a statue of the archangel Gabriel, holding a crown in his right hand. According to legend, the archangel appeared to St. Stephen (the first king of Hungary) in a dream and offered him the crown of Hungary.
The base of the column is surrounded by seven statues of strong looking warriors. The statues present the leaders of the Hungarian tribes who settled their people in the area now known as Hungary.
Behind the column there are statues of famous men from Hungarian history and additional statues that symbolize War, Peace, Work and Welfare, and Knowledge and Glory.
St. Stephen's Basilica is the largest church in Budapest. It is dedicated to Hungary's first king, St. Stephen. It was built over half a century and completed in 1905. It can hold up to 8,500 people!
St. Stephen's Basilica holds impressive classical concerts throughout the year.
The towers of the St. Stephen's Basilica reach high to the sky, which make the it one of the highest points on the Pest side of Budapest.
Budapest, the "city of spas," has one of the largest natural hot springs or spa areas in Europe. Going back to Roman times, people soaked in these warm springs for relaxation and healing purposes. The Romans even built their regional capital, Aquinim, in this area west of the Danube River so they could use the hot springs. Some ruins of these Roman baths can still be seen today.
Szechenyi Bath is the most popular spa area. The three outdoor pools and over ten indoor pools date from the 1920s. The Greek and Roman architecture, or building style, along with the steamy pools give a feeling of luxury and calm. Locals and tourists go to swim, soak away their aches and pains, and even play chess on the floating tables.
The tradition of the café goes back hundreds of years in Budapest. The popularity of coffee started with the Turks who came to Hungary in the sixteenth century. By the 1800s there were over 400 coffee houses in Budapest.
Now the tradition continues. The great cafes of the city serve a very strong espresso coffee in china cups (no paper cups here) to crowds of people every day.
Two of the most famous cafes are Gerbeaud and Café Kavehaz. Gerbeaud started in 1858 and is now the largest and most traditional coffee house in the city. Of the many desserts served at Gerbeaud, the sour cherry covered in dark chocolate gets the most praise. Another famous café, Central Kavehaz, has been a gathering place for writers, artists, and musicians since the late 1800s. The inside of Central Kavehaz was restored in 2000 to look like the elegant Viennese café it was during the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
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