Nyugati Pályaudvar, Budapest’s most beautiful railway station

There’s something about railway stations that always stirs my traveller’s soul; it’s the thrill of the imminent journey; the feeling of haste, purpose and urgency; the echoing sounds of footsteps, voices and rumbling engines; the smells of coffee, fries and pastries; the crowds and their thousands of stories. But often, too, there’s a special magic in the station itself that is more than the sum of all this; it’s the rows of constantly flickering arrivals and departure boards, the lines of quais and the tracks leading away to who knows where; it’s the lofty halls, the broad concourses and the grand facades; the exquisite architectural details and the decorative flourishes in unexpected corners; it’s the perfect marriage of form and function.

Budapest's most beautiful railway station
Budapest’s most beautiful railway station

Budapest’s Nyugati Pályaudvar is one of the world’s great railway stations and one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. The elegant glass and iron construction was completed in 1877. It was designed by August de Serres and the Eiffel Company of Paris which was responsible for that famous French tower.

The station’s iron-framed hall is typical of its time and is considered to be one of the best examples of Eiffel’s magnificent complex ironwork. The finished building measured 6,153 meters square and 25 meters high which made it, at the time, the fifth largest train station in the world. For many years, it was also Europe’s most modern railway station.

Renovations to the station during the past few decades have included the addition of a traffic overpass, an underground area for passengers, and several stores including a large department store.

Alongside the Nyugati Pályaudvar is one of the world’s most beautiful and ornate McDonald’s restaurants. It also the second busiest McDonald’s in the world.


Margaret Island

Margaret Island lies in the Danube, between Budapest’s Arpad Bridge, which links it to Obuda and Pest at one end, and Margaret Bridge which provides its access to Buda and Pest at the other. Hidden among its 225 acres of rambling gardens, are playgrounds, sports venues, spas, pools, monuments, fountains, hotels and historic ruins.

The Fountain on Margaret Island
The Fountain on Margaret Island

Before the 13 the century the island was a wilderness, given over to nature, and known as Rabbit Island. In the middle ages it became home to a number of monasteries and convents. The first of these was the Dominican Convent built in 1241 by Bela IV. The grateful King then sequestered his unfortunate daughter Margaret here in thanksgiving to God for deliverance from the Mongol scourge. In recognition of the hapless girl’s great sacrifice, he named the island after her. The ruins of the convent, along with Margaret’s grave can still be seen today.  Nearby is the Chapel of the mediaeval Premonstratensian Monastery with oldest bell in Hungary, cast in the 15th century and which, until it was accidentally discovered last century, lay buried under a tree. Near the rose gardens in the South of the island are the ruins of a Franciscan church.

By the mid 18th century, the Hapsburg royals had taken over Margaret Island and turned it into a magnificent private garden. Many of its beautiful walks and towering trees date back to this time

In the days of the Dual Monarchy, the island became a popular leisure playground and the island’s elegant 57 metre, octagonal Art Nouveau water tower is part of that legacy.

This was also the time when Budapest’s therapeutic springs began to enjoy great popularity, attracting visitors all over Europe. Subsequently, Margaret Island became a health resort and visitors flocked to its spas. They still do.  At the northern tip of Margaret Island the majestic old Grand Hotel and its younger sister, the Hotel Thermal, both famed for their luxurious spas, are neighbours to a spectacular rock garden and waterfall.

Today, the open-air theatre, just near the water tower, brings audiences to the island for ballets, opera and rock concerts. In the summer crowds pack the garden courtyard of the pavilion café, with its high trellis fences, or gather on the lawn to watch Margaret Island’s fantastic animated musical fountain, leaping and crashing to the strains of Strauss (of course!) or flock to the hugely popular (and huge) 17 acre Palatinus Baths.

Budapest’s Centenary monument, built in 1972 to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the creation of Budapest, stands at the southern entrance to the island, just off the Margaret Bridge.

Peaceful, pretty and romantic, Margaret Island is a wonderful retreat from the noise and movement of the city streets. So lose yourself for a day, lie under a tree, in a spa, or even on the banks of the Danube, climb to the top of the water tower and look down into the tree tops, wander in the ruins of Margaret’s old convent, stroll through the flowers and lose yourself for a day

The Bridges of Budapest, Part 4

The Szabadság híd or Liberty Bridge, sometimes called the Freedom Bridge, is Budapest’s third southernmost bridge. On the Buda bank, it ends at the foot of Gellért Hill, with the Gellért Spa and Hotel Gellért nearby. On the Pest bank it ends in Fővám Tér near the Greta Market Hall and the Budapest University of Economics.

The Liberty Bridge, Budapest
The Liberty Bridge, Budapest

The Liberty Bridge was designed by Janos Keketeházy and completed in 1896. It is 333.6 metres long and 20.1 metres wide. While its structure is different, its shape follows that of the chain bridge. The top of the four masts are decorated with large bronze statues of the Turul, a falcon-like bird which is prominent in ancient Hungarian mythology. The bridge was originally named after the doomed Emperor Franz Joseph, who officially opened it and nailed in the last silver rivet on the Pest abutment.

Petőfi híd or Petőfi Bridge, named after Sándor Petófi the poet who inspired the revolution of 1848 is the second southernmost public bridge in Budapest. Designed by Pál Álgyai Hubert it was built between 1933-1937, it links Boráros tér on the Pest bank of the Danube with Goldmann György Tér, next to the Budapest University of Technology and Economics on the Buda bank.

Lágymányosi híd or Lágymányosi Bridge, sometimes Lágymányos Bridge, is named after the south Buda district of Lágymányos. Opened in 1995, it is Budapest’s southernmost and the newest public bridge.

The Bridges of Budapest, Part 3

Erzsébet híd, or Elisabeth Bridge, which was completed in 1903, is the second newest of Budapest’s Bridges.

The Elizabeth Bridge
The Elizabeth Bridge

The bridge was named after the popular Dual Monarchy Queen Elisabeth, who was assassinated in 1898. Her bronze statue sits in the middle of a small garden in Buda’s Dobrentei Square, just below the Gellért Hill near the Rudas Baths.

Situated at the narrowest part of the Danube, the Elisabeth Bridge is only 290 metres long. On the Pest side it ends in March 15 Square, site of the 13 century Inner City Parish Church, (Budapest’s oldest place of worship) and the Mátyás Prince (Budapest’s most famous restaurant) At the Buda end, it finishes in a death-defyingly sharp bend at the  foot of Gellért Hill.

The Erzsébet was the only bridge in Budapest which could not be rebuilt in its original form after World War II. The current slender white cable structure  with its hexagonal  spars and thousands of steel wires was designed by Pál Sávoly. At the time of completion, it was a first in Central Europe. It considered one of Budapest’s loveliest bridges.

The Bridges of Budapest, Part 2

Szechenyi Chain Bridge
Szechenyi Chain Bridge

Széchenyi Lánchíd, or Széchenyi Chain Bridge, which links Pest’s Roosevelt Square with Buda’s Adam Clark Ter, was another of Istvan Széchenyi’s great initiatives. Opened in 1849, it was Budapest’s first permanent trans-Danube bridge.

The bridge was designed by the English engineer William Tierney Clark, who modelled it on one he had built earlier across the Thames, at Marlow, in England. Construction was supervised by Scottish engineer Adam Clark (no relation to the Clark who gave his name to Budapest’s famous Square).

The pairs of lions at each of the abutments were added in 1852 and in 1898 the bridge was officially named the Széhenyi Lanchid. Its steel structure was totally updated in 1914 and entire bridge was rebuilt in after World War II.

At the time of  construction, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge was hailed as a wonder of the world. With a span of 202 metres,  it was longer than any bridge hitherto known to man. Its cast iron decorations and its balanced, dignified composition placed it among the most beautiful industrial monuments in Europe.  Most importantly, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge had an enormous significance in Hungary. Besides its advantage in transportation, the “Lánchíd” seemed to stand for advancement, national awakening, and the linkage between East and West. It reflected the confidence and optimism of the era of the Dual Monarchy. Furthermore it forecast the later unification of Buda and Pest as Budapest.

According to popular rumour, the sculptor of the bridge’s lions was so relentlessly mocked for creating animals without tongues that he threw himself into the Danube. The lions, as it turns out, actually do have tongues but they are unable to be seen from the bridge.

In 2001, Hungarian stunt pilot Peter Besenyei was the first to fly upside down under the bridge. His feat of daring (or madness?) set a trend for manoeuvres in today’s Red Bull air races. Széchenyi Bridge also starred in the 2002 film I Spy.

The Bridges of Budapest, Part 1

The Danube from Margaret Bridge
The Danube from Margaret Bridge

Almost as striking as the Danube, and certainly among Budapest’s greatest engineering exempla are its bridges. Although, along with many bridges in Hungary, they were destroyed by the retreating Nazis at the end of World War II, each and every one of them was rebuilt in the years that followed. Some were reconstructed from the shattered wreckage dragged from the Danube and all but one were restored exactly to their original appearance.

Arpad Hid, or the Arpad Bridge is Budapest’s northernmost public bridge. Spanning 2 kilometres, it is also Hungary’s longest. Beginning at Szentlelek Ter, near the main square of Obuda and ending in Pest on Robert Karoly Korut, it overlooks both Obuda Island and Margaret Island. It was designed by János Kossalka and construction began in 1939. However the project was suspended during World War II and the Arpad Bridge was not completed until 1950.

Margit híd or Margaret Bridge spans the Danube between Jászai Mar Ter at the Northern end of Pest’s Grand Boulevard and Germanus Gyula Park near the Király Baths on the Buda side, passing just in front of Margaret Island. It is Budapest’s second northernmost public bridge and the second oldest after the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Measuring 637.5 m in length and 25 m in width, it was designed by the French engineer Ernest Gouin in 1872 and completed by his construction company, Maison Èmile Gouin in 1876.

Soon after the bridge was opened, it became a popular spot for suicides. The wave deaths inspired renowned Hungarian poet, János Arany to compose a ballad. Illustrated with intricate and romantic pencil drawings by artist Mihaly Zichy and, printed in leaflet form, it became a best-seller in the city.

In 1944 a section of the Margaret Bridge collapsed killing 600 civilians and 40 German soldiers.

When I last crossed  it, the Margaret Bridge seemed rather worn and somewhat shaky. Plans were in the air for repair or renewal

The Danube

The Danube
The Danube

One of the most striking and memorable features of Budapest’s beauty is the river that flows through it – the Danube. In the sunshine its swirling currents dance with gold. At night its black velvet surface mirrors the city lights. Under dark winter skies it is moody and mysterious. Spanned by lovely old bridges and with a tranquil, wooded island at its centre, it is the stuff of movies, poetry, song and romance. It’s easy to understand how it moved Johann Strauss to compose his famous Blue Danube Waltz.

But that was in a different age, before the Danube became the busy waterway it is now. Surprisingly, before the 19th century, apart from bank to bank ferries, the Danube was not used as a means of transport or as an international trade route. With its strong currents, shifting sandbanks and unpredictable tides, it was considered too dangerous.

It was Istvan Széchenyi who recognised the Danube’s potential as a trade route and its importance to the economic growth of Pest and of Hungary. He set about lobbying Vienna for political and financial support to promote the regulation of the river from Pest to the Black Sea, to create a navigable waterway. By the 1830s when work began project Széchenyi had become a leading figure on the project. He was appointed high commissioner and supervised the works until their completion. At the same time, he travelled to Constantinople and worked tirelessly to promote Hungarian goods and produce, to open up markets and to build up trade relations on the Balkan.

Today, traffic roars along the banks of the Danube and across its bridges. Cruise ships carrying cocktail sipping passengers, tour boats blaring loud commentaries and barges loaded with cargo ride its currents up and down river. In the summer, sun-lovers bask on its beaches. But, still in cafes, bars and restaurants along its banks and in fact, all over Budapest, gypsy violins, bands and orchestras belt out the Blue Danube Waltz.

Budapest shopping

Vaci Utca is to Budapest as Oxford Street is to London or as Boulevard Haussman is to Paris. Fashionistas chasing the latest brands will find them in Vaci Utca’s global chain stores. Glamourous ladies will find the ensemble of their dreams in its chic boutiques and the accessories to match in its elegant department stores. For tourists, or others, seeking something uniquely Hungarian, there are amazing folk art stores.

Vaci Utca
Vaci Utca

My personal favourites on this street is a fascinating little second hand shop which sells everything from old Dual Monarchy heirlooms to insignia from Soviet uniforms. I lost myself for hours among  its collection of faded family photos.

Vaci Utca is also liberally dotted with traditional cafes, burger bars and fast food (for shoppers in need of refreshments?)

At night, when Budapest party people come out to boogie or imbibe in Vaci Utca’s clubs and bars, the whole area hums with life.

Four great Budapest cafes

Budapest is well-endowed with cafés, restaurants and fast food joints which cater for every kind of international palate. If, however, you’re looking for a true taste of Hungary, or for a place which is as interesting for its history and its décor as it is for its cuisine and its service, there are four famous Budapest establishments which you simply must visit.

The Gerbaud Coffee House
The Gerbaud Coffee House

The Hotel Astoria, on the corner of Rokoczi Ut is home to a 19th century café and restaurant with old world charm and a traditional Hungarian menu.

The New York, on Erzebet Korut, is a coffee house in the old Budapest tradition. The interior is  exquisite and as it was once the haunt of the cream of Budapest society, it has a certain class and cachet.

The Gundel restaurant on the northwestern edge of Virosliget, or City Park, near the entrance to the Zoo, was the birthplace of Pancakes à la Gundel, a confection covered in chocolate, nuts and cream which has all the elegance, and the complete disregard for calories and colesterol, of times past.

The most famous and the grandest of all of Budapest’s cafes is the Gerbaud Coffee House. Founded by Hungary’s culinary leading light, confectioner Emil Gerbaud, it has stood at number 7, Varosmarty Ter since 1858. It still offers the traditional coffee and cake enjoyed by Budapest society ladies and gentlemen in the Dual Monarchy days. Home-brewed beer is also on tap at the Gerbaud Coffee House and it is warmly received by those who come to rest here after an exhausting day’s shopping on Vaci Utca.

Pest, Part 7, Virosliget and the Szchenyi Baths

Behind the heroes monument lies Virosliget or the City Park, a rambling expanse of trees, lawn, flower beds and ponds. The Budapest Zoo surrounds it and the riotous Vidam Fun Park sprawls along its edge.

Szchenyi Baths
Szchenyi Baths

Vajdahundad Castle, a copy of the Janos Hunyadi’s castle in Romania, stands on an island in Virosliget’s artificial lake. It now houses the Museum of Agriculture.

At Virosliget’s centre are the famous Szchenyi Baths, a huge neo-baroque complex with full spa facilities – steam baths, saunas and hot pools – as well as a fabulous communal swimming pool. And the Szchenyi Baths, after a long walk, filled with amazing sights and new discoveries is a great place to finish the day.