The next capital city we would meet on our tour of Central Europe was Budapest, Hungary. One of the first things we learned about the city was its proper Hungarian pronunciation, “Boo-da-PESHT.”
Regarded as the “Queen of the Danube,” for the formidable waterway that divides it, Budapest has two distinctly unique sides to explore. On the west bank of the Danube is Buda, with green hills, castles, and residential districts. On the east is Pest, with busy city streets, museums, and the parliament. We started off our tour of the city in Pest at Heroes’ Square, one of Hungary’s most iconic landmarks.
The square is a monument to the country’s founders and its statues feature the seven chieftains of the Magyars (another word for Hungarians) and other important national heroes.
Over in Buda we visited Matthias Church. Though most roman catholic churches were named after saints, this one was named after a king; Matthias Corvinus, who is regarded as the fairest king of Hungary. Most of Hungary’s kings were coronated here under the bright orange rooftop with ornate geometric tiles. The church is also a wildly popular venue for weddings.
The balconies at Matthias Church are a great place to view Pest across the Danube River.
Back on the Pest side is the Great Market Hall, Budapest’s oldest and largest indoor market. Produce, meats, and other food items are sold on the first floor, while clothing, souvenirs, and prepared foods are sold on the second floor. I’m not big on collecting souvenirs (especially due to limited space on our RV) but I couldn’t resist taking home some fresh paprika, a staple in Hungarian cuisine, and some Tokaji, a Hungarian sweet wine.
Budapest’s most famous church is probably St. Stephen’s Basilica, named after Hungary’s first king, who was also canonized as a saint.
King Saint Stephen’s literal right hand is on display in the basilica. Yes, you read that right. When his body was exhumed for his canonization nearly 50 years after his death, it is said his right arm was as fresh and supple as the day he was buried. Naturally, it was chopped off to be preserved as a national treasure. Since then it’s been known as the Holy Right Hand and is believed to have miraculous powers. Every August the sacred relic is taken out for a walk and paraded through the town as part of a commemorative procession. Seeing the hand dressed in a gold cuff and resting in an embellished glass chamber, I couldn’t help but think of Thing, the disembodied hand from the Addams Family.
Next we saw the Hungarian Parliament and toured the grand interior. The neo-gothic style building is the largest in all of Hungary.
My favorite view of the parliament building was by night…
Our tour included a private dinner cruise on the Danube River just for our group. We were served a traditional Hungarian meal including goulash, stuffed cabbage rolls or toltott kaposzta, and an assortment of meats, cheeses, salads, and fruit.
Vienna, Austria was our next destination. We didn’t have much of a guided tour through the city and instead were dropped off near the city centre and given free time to explore. We started off at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, built in 1137. The building was originally white but soot and pollution have accumulated on the walls turning them black.
I think it looks cool that way, but there are ongoing restoration projects to bring the cathedral back to its original color.
One thing we noticed quickly- Vienna is a bit more expensive than Poland and Hungary and very, very popular among tourists. One major benefit to visiting in Vienna’s off-season is the smaller crowds, which were still quite large but only a fraction of what Vienna sees during its busy summer season. Of course none of that stopped us from our sightseeing and it definitely didn’t stop me from buying a scoop of gelato, which was only about $3.00. Worth it. My mother gave up sweets for lent and she did so well sticking to her commitment despite the plethora of yummy sweet treats we encountered during our trip.
Later we had a tour of the Baroque style Schönbrunn Palace. Built in 1548, it is one of the most important historical and cultural sites in all of Austria.
The palace served as the summer residence for the House of Habsburg, also known as the House of Austria. The Habsburgs were once one of the most powerful and distinguished families in the country and perhaps in all of Europe. The last of their monarchs and their only female to rule was Maria Theresa, who mothered 16 children, including Marie Antoinette.
In addition to the main palace boasting 1,441 rooms, the grounds also include a massive garden with sculptures and fountains. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the palace is Austria’s most popular attraction. Photography is not allowed inside the building but I can assure you it has all the grandeur and decadence one would expect out of an imperial residence. Summer is the best time to visit the gardens and to see them in full bloom, but even in early spring they were quite lovely.
Vienna is known as the “City of Music,” and given that some of the most famous composers in all the world were Austrian or came to Austria’s capital city to work and study, no one can argue with the title. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Strauss I (and his sons who carried on his musical legacy), Franz Peter Schubert, and Franz Joseph Haydn (also known as the “Father of Symphony”), just to name a few, were all Austrian musical powerhouses. Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms were German but both established their careers in Vienna and ultimately would die there.
So what does one do when in the country where the hills are said to be alive with the sound of music? Attend a concert, of course. We were treated to an excellent performance by the chamber ensemble of the Vienna Residence Orchestra held in the beautiful baroque Auersperg Palace, featuring the works of Mozart and Strauss. It was a perfect way to spend the evening after exploring the city.
And what would a trip to Austria be without having schnitzel, the national dish? I expected a side of noodles with the thin veal cutlet fried to perfection, à la The Sound of Music’s My Favorite Things. However, Viennese schnitzel is actually most commonly served with spuds- french fries, pan fried potatoes, or even potato salad. Of course, I had to try a few variations, for research purposes, and they were all delicious.
One night our tour group enjoyed quite the feast at an Austrian wine tavern where we were served a hearty meal and copious amounts of alcohol.
And that’s a wrap on Hungary, Austria, and Part III of our Central European tour. Stay tuned for the last leg of our trip where we visit Bratislava, Slovakia and Prague, Czech Republic. Thanks for reading!