Laura Tanna, Contributor
Hotel New York Palace Café, its sumptuous white lobby decorated with elaborate gilt trim and crystal chandeliers, represents Budapest in one of its glory periods in the late 19th century. This beautiful dining establishment is renowned for having once been a haunt of the literati.
Lengend has it that author Ferenc Molnar was so taken with the place at its opening in 1894, he threw the key to the café into the Danube so that New York Kavehaz could never close. Its name derives from being built by a New York insurance company at a time when it was fashionable to invest in Hungary. The somloi galuska, sponge cake encased in chocolate, is a house speciality and absolutely scrumptious!
Heroes Square - its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier surrounded by dramatic sculptures of seven tribal leaders, including the main chieftain who founded the Hungarian royal dynasty - is a vast and important focal point on the Pest (pronounced Pescht) side of the city.
In a semicircular colonnade behind, all of Hungary's most important political leaders and kings are immortalised in chronological order, their statues placed in the Millennium Monument, including King Stephen I, though I rather fancied Kalman, the booklover, a 12th-century king who forbade the burning of witches.
This main entrance to Heroes Square was built in 1896 for the World Exposition held in Budapest. The imposing Museum of Fine Arts rises on one side, the Gallery of Modern Art on another, the Szechenyi Baths with their mineral water cures on another and to the side, fairytale-like Vajdahunyad Castle, fashioned after a Transylvanian Castle but with various sections displaying different architectural styles found in Hungary's past. A bridal party poses for photographs in the surrounding woods, and the nearby zoo ensures that this area is popular with families. Grundel Restaurant, famous for its Hungarian cuisine and gypsy music, lies just around the corner.
Because Anna Gsrgey, our guide, manages to miraculously find parking everywhere we go, we then nip into St Stephen's Basilica. A marble statue of him rests on the main altar - a rare, some say unique, instance when the Vatican agreed a human being might take the place of honour normally reserved for Christ so highly is King Stephen (István) esteemed for having introduced Christianity into Hungary. Indeed, the Vatican bestowed the title of Basilica Minor on the 900th anniversary of St Stephen's passing.
The Great Synogogue, the largest in Europe, is a must-see as well, built from 1854 to 1859 in Byzantine-Moorish style on the exterior. The interior resembles more of a Catholic cathedral and can hold up to 3,000 worshipers, the upstairs galleries for women in Jewish tradition. The rose-imitation granite and stained-glass windows are beautiful. The Jewish Museum is a miracle of intricate silver devotional items on display, saved from the Nazis through two Christian museum workers who hid them.
The Holocaust Memorial Room is a sobering reminder that of Hungary's 600,000 Jewish citizens, only 140,000 survived World War II. Hollywood buffs of a certain age will recognise the name Bernard Schwartz as being that of star Tony Curtis, who with his daughter, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, helped fund the rebuilding of the Great Synogogue in 1990 and created the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture in his father's name. Nearby is Rumbach Synagogue, the conservative synagogue still in ruins and only now being restored, but used as a neighbourhood cultural centre nonetheless.
PARLIAMENT IS A MUST-SEE
A tour of Parliament, the Neo-Gothic building by Imre Steindl, Hungary's largest building - inspired by the British Parliament, but with a dome and finished in 1904 - is another must-visit if only to see the metal cigar holders on which MPs had to leave their cigars upon entering the actual chambers, which inspired the saying: "The speech was worth a Havana", when a member of parliament stayed to hear a speech so long that his cigar burned to ash.
Not only are Hungarians creative, but they're wonderfully warm with a great sense of humour! And when I say creative, never in life have I seen a city with so many statues in every nook and cranny of every city block. And the buildings, the bas relief, the corniches, the architectural flourishes are stupendous. So what a shame that our airport driver was correct. The first word of Hungarian I learned was 'elad-', 'for sale'. If I were a millionaire, I'd go to Budapest, buy some of the beautiful but derelict buildings for sale and restore them, because tourism is only going to increase. Budapest was just listed as the least expensive of 10 major European cities.
We never got to the State Opera House, where tours are given in English at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. daily, because there is just too much to see in Budapest. Someone described it as a city with a museum on every corner, but we did enjoy the pedestrian walkway from the Danube directly to St Stephen's Basilica, where a number of cafés and restaurants looked most inviting.
This is a city well worth visiting and
should you do so, ask your hotel about the many tour companies
available, or if you should wish a personal guide, check out someone we
really liked, Anna Gsrgey,