The figure of the Archangel Gabriel crowns the central column of Budapest's Heroes' Square (Hosök tér). Built in 1896, this symbol of power marks a high point in the history of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. I stood in its awesome shadow studying a copy of Let's Go Eastern Europe.
I had just begun a self-guided walking tour (map) and had so far come a block from the Hotel Liget where I'd arrived the previous evening by taxi. Secure in a vehicle, I had thrilled at the sight of the Danube shimmering a midnight blue and cosmopolitan Budapest agleam in lights. In the light of day, alone in a swirl of foreign speak and traffic din, I felt confused and fearful of getting lost. Quite unheroically, I abandoned Heroes' Square and the idea of solo sightseeing, returned to my hotel and booked a city bus tour.
That was a wise move; not only did I gain a feel for the city layout, I also learned something of its long history going back to the Celtic tribes that settled on Gellért Hill, followed by the Romans in the 1st century, the Magyars in the 9th and 10th centuries, and the Turks in the 16th century.
Classical Ottoman architecture can still be seen today in the Rudas, Rác and Király Baths. In fact, baths abound in Budapest renowned for their healing waters and therapeutic treatments. One could spend a week sampling the city's wide variety of medicinal spas.
The bus tour over, I focused on my guidebook with revived confidence. Budapest consists of two halves – Buda to the west and Pest to the east of the Danube River – linked together by nine elegant bridges. I realized that almost everything worth seeing on the Pest side lies within walking distance of the Danube. Across the river, compact, hilly Buda's meandering medieval streets are also best explored on foot.
I began with a walk through Pest's Városliget, or City Park, directly across from my hotel on Dózsa György Street. Once marshland, Empress Marie Theresa had the area drained in the 18th century and ever since cultural memorials and monuments, playgrounds and amusements have been springing up among its gardens. Here I might have aimed for the Aviation or Transport Musems, the zoological or botanical gardens, or taken a healthful dip in the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths.
With the sun brightening and the Secession Pavilion reflecting serenely in the park pond, I preferred to be outdoors on a leisurely stroll and taking in the spring air. I dallied slowly by the water's edge alongside paddling ducklings until a striking sight stole my attention.
A Transylvanian-like castle came to view through the trees ahead. My guidebook advised that this was Vajdahunyad Castle. Built in 1896 for the Millennium Celebrations, architect Ignác Alpár designed the building to illustrate the evolution of architecture in Hungary, giving emphasis to the medieval period, Hungary's most resplendent time in history.
A short walk from the castle brought me to Kós Károly Sétány Street. I crossed, then meandered down a path to Allatkerti Street to the Széchenyi Baths where I saw a long line of Budapesters winding through the lobby. And who wouldn't wait for a "foot and leg massage to the knees" for only $1.50; a "fifteen-minute medical massage" for $4.00; or a ticket for an all day steam bath at only $1.25? Temptation toyed with me – should I rent a swimsuit myself for $1.00? No, I decided to stick with my plan to explore the city on foot.
From the Széchenyi Baths, I traveled down Allatkerti Street towards my hotel and spotted Gundel Étterem, known as "The Best Restaurant of Central Eastern Europe" and famous for its flambéed pancakes. Maybe another day, I thought, and opted for a quick bite at my hotel instead – a lunch less gourmet but entertaining. "Bill, please?" I asked the waiter. He smiled and brought me a beer. Three beers later, I asked the desk clerk for help communicating.
I may have resisted Gundels, but I couldn't say no to Gerbeaud Cukrászda. After lunch I went to Andrássy Street (two blocks from my hotel) and walked about 30 minutes to Vörösmarty tér, a busy, attractive square near the Danube. I entered the 19th century patisserie intent only on admiring its beautiful "Secession" style interior, but one look at the selection of cakes, and I was hooked. Persuading myself that I'd walk off the calories, I chose the one with the most chocolate.
Having partaken of that special Budapest pleasure, I continued my stroll to Deák tér, turned right on Károly Blvd to the corner of Dohány Street. Here sits Central Pest's Great Synagogue (Zsinagóga), the largest in Europe. Built in a Byzantine-Moorish style, its red and white brick facade contains intricate friezes. In the back garden, looking up at the towering Holocaust Memorial in the shape of a weeping willow, I felt a profound sense of sadness for the 600,000 Hungarian Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II.
It was only 5pm when I left the Synagogue, but jetlagged and walked out, I took courage from fatigue and tried the subway. I got on the M2 at Astoria, switched to the M1 at Deák tér, disembarked at Hosök tér, two blocks from my hotel – a cinch. Content with my first day of solo sightseeing, I had a snack, got into bed, and slept like a log.
Early the next morning, with the day's strategy fixed in mind and guidebook in hand, I marched confidently along Dózsa György Street bordering City Park, turned right down tree-lined Andrássy Street to József Attila Street to the Danube and the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi híd).
Across the bridge, on the Buda side, it was just a few steps to catch the funicular (Budavári Sikló) up Castle Hill (Várhegy) where I meandered statue-lined streets and cobbled, medieval squares with tongue- twisting names like Kapisztrán tér, Szentháromság tér, and Bécsi Kapu tér.
I'm not sure why, but I chose to explore Buda's cave system first, so I went down Uri Street to number 9 and entered Budavári Labirintus, the labyrinth of Buda Castle (Budavár). The map was confusing. I heard water splish-sploshing to the sound of eerie background music. And as soon as I decided I was lost my imagination began conjuring up horrible lurking things. Just as I was asking myself why I came into this creepy place alone, a medieval warriorlike personage appeared from a passageway.
Turns out this was one rough looking character I didn't mind meeting in a dark alley. I confessed I was lost.
"Jenci Oros. Welcome to Budapest!" he boomed in English, clanking toward me.
Lucky for me, I was lost in the 21st century, and a local business had catered the labyrinth for a medieval luncheon. Jenci, a caterer setting up the event, led me to the exit and extended an invitation to meet for dinner. Why not, I thought: one makes friends in the darndest places.
Back outside, I walked a few blocks to take a look at the conical towers of romantic Fisherman's Bastion (Halászbástya), a fantastical terrace that looks like it belongs atop a wedding cake. Completed between 1890 and 1905, it offers spectacular views of the Danube and Pest.
Hand-holding couples passed by in horse-drawn fiakers as I crossed the street to Mátyás Church (Mátyás templom), named after the Hungarian King Mátyás Corvinus (1458-90) who held both his weddings here. The sumptuous stonework adorning the church fascinated me, but time ran short, so I hurried on along Tárnok Street to have a quick look around the Royal Palace (Királyi palota).
Inside the palace, the National Gallery (Nemzeti Galéria) has a fine collection of paintings and sculpture, and the National Széchenyi Library (Országos Széchényi Könyvtár) contains over five million items.
Outside, the flamboyant Mátyás fountain depicts the legend of King Mátyás, disguised as a hunter, meeting a peasant girl, Ilonka, who falls in love but is destined for a broken heart. Nowadays, legend has it that throwing some coins into the fountain ensures a safe return to Budapest.
I tossed in my coins, then carried on to Alabárdos Étterem on Országház Street where Jenci and I were to meet for dinner. The restaurant's medieval atmosphere is ideal for the Hungarian dishes served. We enjoyed a leisurely meal talking about our lives while feasting on flame-grilled kebabs (shashliks) and listening to live gypsy music.
Jenci gave me directions to Gellért Hill as we strolled to Moszkva tér, where I said goodbye then boarded the M2 Metro, switching lines at Deák tér to the M1 and back to my hotel with two happy and fulfilling days in Budapest under my belt.
The next morning, having retraced my steps to the Danube and Szécheny Bridge, I had whiled away the entire morning by the time I located the Gellért Hotel near the Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd). This 1912-18 style hotel offers healing waters, baths with plunge pools, a sauna and steam bath, plus an outdoor wave pool.
On the way I passed Elizabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd) and had an unexpected delight in spotting the Ottoman era cupola crowning the famous Rudas Baths.
Ready to take a load off my feet, I hopped bus 27 to the top of Gellért Hill and sighed with relief for the footrest and delight for the panoramic view of Budapest. The Citadel built on the hilltop offers the best view of the city. Legend has it that the hill is named after a Bishop who was martyred here in the 11th century by being sealed in a barrel and hurled from the hill into the Danube.
I had in mind to quit strolling for awhile and spend part of this day indoors admiring art and artifacts, so I walked downhill, crossed the Danube on Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd) and continued six blocks down Vámház Blvd to the Hungarian National Museum (Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum).
I never seem to learn that "must see" museums ought to be given priority early in the day – long before my feet start complaining. I'm afraid I gave only a cursory glance to the pre and recorded history of the Carpathian basin and its various inhabitants from Huns to Habsburgs to Hungarians. Vowing to come back sometime, I admitted I was beat and thankful that the Metro, which I caught at Kálvin tér, was just outside the museum.
Walking did slow me down, and it is true I saw barely a fraction of Budapest's attractions. After a day spent walking I hadn't energy left for nightlife, but I didn't mind; I preferred the exercise, and an early to bed early to rise routine agrees with me. I liked feeling that walking from place to place put me in closer touch with local life, and once I got over my initial panic, losing my way now and then was more fun and less fearful. I especially liked the feeling of accomplishment I got from managing a strange city on my own.