Looking like a sundial against the bright morning sky, the Budapest Eye greeted us from a park across the street from our hotel. Herb and I had spent the night at Kempinski Hotel Corvinus on the “Pest” side of the city, where Crystal had secured rooms for about half of its Budapest travelers. I was thrilled with the hotel’s central location, about ten minutes from the Danube and walkable to the destinations we hoped to explore on our own.
The two morning tours we had originally booked as part of the river cruise were running as planned, and we joined our group for the brief bus ride along the Danube to the Great Market Hall. Along the way, we passed the Liberty Statue, soaring above the Danube from its spot atop Gellért Hill, and the intriguing-looking Cave Church.
Great Market Hall
Budapest’s Great Market Hall is the city’s largest and oldest indoor market. Built in 1897, the two-story building sits on the corner of a city block, immediately making its presence known with graceful archways, soaring vaulted windows and colorful roof tiles reminiscent of those at Matthias Church. Inside, it feels as if you’re walking into an old train station, a massive open space with market stalls sitting where the platforms would be.
The main floor is a working market devoted to food items. Fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, chocolates and what is surely the national spice of Hungary – paprika – line stall after shop after display case. Our guide laughed as we passed shelves with foot-high paprika canisters. “That will last a typical family about a month!” she told us.
The market’s second floor is filled with hand-made goods and souvenir stands, some clearly more authentic than others. We took a break in one of the upstairs dining rooms, where our group was treated to a “typical Hungarian breakfast.” Plates of cold meats, pickles, hearty breads and specialty spreads were laid out on wooden tables covered with red and white checked tablecloths. It was a world away from my usual oatmeal-and-English-muffin breakfast, and it made me smile to think how easily we get caught up in our routines and ideas about what something such as breakfast should look like.
Hungarian Parliament Building
We headed back to the bus and rode north along the Danube to Budapest’s most famous landmark, the Hungarian Parliament Building. Constructed from a winning design in an 1880s competition, the building was inaugurated on the 1000th anniversary of Hungary in 1896 and completed in 1902. With almost 700 rooms, it lays claim to being the third largest Parliament building in the world. Our guide explained that the competition’s second- and third-place designs were constructed facing the Parliament and now house the Ministry of Agriculture and the Museum of Ethnography.
It’s almost impossible to capture the scope of the Parliament Building close-up. I took a few photos as we walked toward the entrance, but the best views are from the “Buda” side of the Danube or from the Danube itself.
Once inside, we went through security and were assigned a guide. The lobby was incredibly crowded, and it was easy to understand why this is a place to book tickets in advance. The tour is a 45-minute power walk through the hallways of Hungary’s Parliament. Part civics lesson, part history lesson and part overwhelming feast for the senses, I found my mind bouncing back and forth between what I was seeing and what I was hearing.
“The Parliament is like a little village. There is a restaurant, a post office and even a hair salon for the ladies. Everything you need is right here.”
~Hungarian Parliament Tour Guide
We passed grand staircases, red carpets, detailed wood carvings, beautiful stained glass and gilded almost-everything. Photography is allowed in most parts of the building except where the Hungarian Crown Jewels are housed.
A Walk Through Pest
After the tour, Herb and I walked back along the Danube toward our hotel. Most of our group was leaving for Vienna and another night on the Crystal Mozart, but we had opted to spend an additional day on our own in Budapest.
We stopped at the Shoes on the Danube memorial honoring the hundreds of Budapest Jews who lost their lives during World War II. Created by film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer, the poignant tribute features 60 pairs of iron-cast shoes anchored to the ground. A variety of sizes and styles represents men, women and children and the shoes they left behind.
After a few blocks, we left the Danube and wound our way east to a restaurant called Sophie Brasserie I had been hoping to try. Housed in a lovely light-filled space near the Hungarian State Opera House, the café’s menu includes a modern twist on some traditional Hungarian dishes. Our friendly waiter offered a few suggestions and accommodated our request for “something with paprika!”
Our next stop was St. Stephen’s Basilica, the largest church in Budapest. Designed in the late 1800s in the Neo-Classical and Neo-Renaissance styles, the church is named after St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary. The building is the same height as the Hungarian Parliament Building, and today no structure in Budapest may be taller than these two buildings.
Back outside, we headed to a nearby square in search of our next destination: Gelato Rosa, ice cream artisan shop, where talented scoopers transform ordinary ice cream cones into flowery treats. We tracked down the tiny storefront and checked out the extensive containers of flavors while waiting our turn. We each chose three flavors and watched the colorful food art take shape.
Danube Cruise at Sunset
It was late afternoon when we returned to our hotel. I was energized from such a full day of experiencing Budapest, but there was still something I couldn’t get out of my mind. “I’d like to take a cruise on the Danube,” I said to Herb, making one of those I know this sounds crazy faces as the words came spilling out. After almost ten days of cruising the Danube, it did seem like a ridiculous thought…until Herb said, “I’d like that, too!”
We stopped at the concierge desk and learned that the later evening cruises were sold out, but that there were a few available spots on a sunset cruise. We booked the tickets and found ourselves heading back to the Danube in search of the dock where a company called Legenda offers daytime and evening sightseeing tours. A line was already forming when we arrived, and as soon as the ticket taker pulled back the rope, we headed to the uncovered top deck, taking seats in the back row.
The one-hour tour took us in both directions along the Danube. An audioguide with headphones was offered at every seat, but neither of us was interested. We had our cameras, we had our memories from the past two days and we just wanted to take in the scenery.
We passed buildings and monuments we had visited or seen on land, all bathed in a twilight glow. Everything had that familiar feeling that you get after spending time in a new place. Oh, of course I know that Parliament is on the Pest side and Fisherman’s Bastion is in Buda! The sky changed quickly, turning from pink to orange to almost darkness. And then as if announcing that sunset had officially arrived, the city’s lights simultaneously appeared, illuminating buildings and bridges up and down the Danube.
I love the perspective of a city from the water. It doesn’t matter if it’s from an ocean voyage, a river journey or a sightseeing boat. Like fold-out pages from a photography book, the wide-angle, eye-level panorama is an extraordinary experience from any point of view.