Rising 140 meters on the west side of the Danube, Gellért Hill is crowned with the fortified hulk of Citadella, which provides one of the best viewpoints in Budapest. From the ramparts there are far-reaching panoramas north to Buda Castle, and down the river to Széchenyi Chain Bridge, St Stephen’s Basilica and the Parliament House. Constructed by occupying Austrian forces in the 1840s, the citadel was loathed by the Hungarians, who tore down its fortified gates when the Austrians eventually left the city in 1897. Its 60 canon placements still remain, as do the six-meter ‘U’-shaped walls of the fort.
During World War II an air raid shelter was built in the Citadella, and this now houses a small museum about the war. In 1956, Soviet troops suppressed the Hungarian rebellion against Communism by firing heavy artillery from the fortress and Russian artillery is still scattered around the complex.
The elegant boulevard of Andrássy Avenue was completed in 1885 as part of the expansion of Budapest under Emperor Franz Joseph I to celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of the state of Hungary. It connects the Pest-side city center at Erzsébet Square to the City Park (Városliget) and as a masterpiece of urban planning was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002, along with Heroes’ Square.
Elegant townhouses lined the avenue and it became the preserve of wealthy bankers and the aristocracy. In order to conserve Andrássy’s architectural harmony, the city fathers decided to build a train line underneath the avenue. And so the Millennium Underground Railway opened, the first in continental Europe; it was first used to transport people from the city center to Városliget, which was the focus of the millennium celebrations in 1896.
Városliget is the largest of Budapest’s public parks, a vast expanse of 302 acres (1.2 km²) of public space with its main entrance at the monumental UNESCO-listed Heroes’ Square (Hosok Tér). It was originally an area of rural swamp but was mentioned as the royal hunting grounds as far back as the 13th century.
By 1751 the swamp had been drained and more trees planted in an English-style landscaping that became Hungary’s first public park. One hundred years later, the park became the focus of the Millennium celebrations, with museums, lakes, zoos and follies being built for 1896. Around the same time elegant Andrássy Avenue was constructed, which leads from the city center Erzsébet Square to Heroes’ Square.
Today the park is an idyllic spot for a summer picnic under the shade of gigantic sycamore trees or around the lake. Városliget is a one-stop destination for kids: Budapest Zoo, a permanent circus, the transport museum and Budapest Amusement Park.
Before World War II, Budapest had a thriving Jewish population centered around the largest synagogue in Europe on Dohány Street in District VII. Jewish Budapest was wealthy, with many other synagogues, grand houses and kosher stores, and the Hungarian Jewish Museum opened in 1896 to celebrate this success, moving into the same building as the beautiful Moorish Revival Dohány Street Synagogue in 1932. During the Holocaust, Budapest Jews were forced into a ghetto before being murdered in mass shootings, the gas chambers of the extermination camps or the icy wastes of Ukraine. In 1942 the contents of the museum where smuggled out of the city, and post-war District VII edged towards disrepair but was given a new lease of life following the fall of Communism in 1989. The renowned Jewish Museum is open once more, boasting one of the richest collections of Jewish ephemera in Europe.
A fantastic, family-oriented introduction to the sights and landmarks of Hungary, Austria and Germany, Miniversum is part interactive game and part educational experience. Housed in an historic Budapest palace, this is a gigantic train set with a difference, where more than 600 historically accurate palaces, abbeys, castles and churches and houses form 14 villages with a backdrop of mountains, valleys, tunnels and viaducts all scaled down to 1:100 of their original size. Through this miniature world tiny people go about their daily business, cars travel the road and trains move constantly along railway tracks more than 0.8 miles (1.3 km) in length. The model took more than 30,000 hours to construct and covers 3,230 square feet (300 square meters); it is totally interactive so at a push of a button, visitors can affect the action in real time.
Like many Eastern European cities, Budapest has a thriving flea market scene, where the colorful flotsam and jetsam of life passes by along with the chance to dig out that elusive bargain of the century. Among more than a dozen city markets, sprawling Ecseri is the grand-daddy of them all, a great mass of humanity flogging anything from cheap plastic pots to surprisingly pretty Bohemian glassware or old military uniforms, Communist memorabilia, ancient cameras and cut-price Russian icons. While some stalls are piled high with glittering trinkets and quality antique furniture, others are nothing more upturned cardboard boxes offering battered old books and tatty vintage clothes. Along with the jumble of goods on offer, vendors come from a blend of nationalities that could be Ukrainian, Romanian or Chinese as easily as Hungarian. Ecseri is open all week but really cranks up a gear at the weekend, Sunday being less crowded than Saturday.
Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe at 48 miles (77 km) by seven miles (11 km) at its widest. Lying in the Transdanubia region of landlocked Hungary, it is the summer playground for all Budapest, a great freshwater expanse in the foothills of the Bakony Mountains about an hour’s drive outside the city.
The north and south shores of Lake Balaton are entirely different in character; the southern side is well developed, with a series of modern resorts strung beadlike along the beaches, while the north is wilder and volcanic, with fewer resorts. Chief among these are Keszthely, home of the ornate Baroque Festetics Castle, and the historic spa town of Balatonfüred. The distinctive, twin-spired church at Tihany stands high on its rocky peninsula, surrounded by reed lands, and there are wineries scattered along the northern hills, some dating from the 14th century and many open for sampling the wares.