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Budapest: From Communist to Contemporary

Chain Bridge and the "Pest" Side of the Danube River from Castle Hill

My phone call home from Budapest went something like this:

Me: Hi mom, how’s everything going? I’m just calling to check-in.

Mom: Good, where are you now?

Me: Budapest.

Mom: Where?

Me: Budapest, it’s in Hungary.

Mom: You’re vacationing there? Isn’t that 3rd world?

While my mom is definitely not well traveled, there is a common misconception among many Americans that Budapest is a rundown, ex-communist city not worth your travel time. That couldn’t be further from the truth, though. Budapest is a bright, vibrant city with all of the amenities you can find in any other major European city. It feels part Austrian, part Eastern European, and part Parisian. With grand boulevards, inviting squares, a hilltop castle, and the best parliament building this side of London, the city is a must-see on any Eastern European tour. The days of communism are long-gone from this vivacious city.

Photos: Left: Fishermen’s Bastion on Castle Hill; Center: Parliament; Right: Picturesque SquareEndFragment

Communism, however, did leave several legacies behind that can still be found in the city today. The first, sticking out like a sore thumb in this otherwise grand city, are the many ugly, blocky buildings so typical of communist era architecture. Many of them, now cheap housing complexes blackened by years of exposure to the city elements, are in desperate need of a heavy cleaning—or better yet, demolition. Luckily, there are plenty of pre-communist era buildings beautifying the city to make up for it.

A much more positive communist era legacy is the great public transportation infrastructure left behind which visitors and locals alike can take advantage of. Subways, trams & buses roll through the city connecting even the farthest flung sights for a dirt cheap price. Budapest’s sights, which are not as centralized as they are in many other European cities, would be difficult and pricey to reach without this easy-to-use and economical option.

A third reminder of communism—and my personal favorite—is Memento Park where some of the massive statues and monuments to communism that used to pepper city squares and buildings have been saved. Located 6 miles outside of the city, it’s a fun place to pose for silly photographs, see a bit of the way Budapest looked prior to communism ending in 1989, and get a little education on the biggest names in communism along the way.

Photos: Having a Blast Posing in Memento Park with the Statues

All of these minor communist reminders of a bygone era, however, pale in comparison to what the Budapest of today has to offer. You can take a dip in the historic Gellert or Szechenyi Baths with their hot mineral spring pools and whirlpools, tour the Great Synagogue with the moving Tree of Life Holocaust Memorial, catch a show at the gorgeous Habsburg-era Opera House rivaling even Vienna’s, shop and eat like a local in the city’s Great Market Hall, and even come across statues honoring Ronald Reagan and George Washington. Or, for a break from the bustle of the city, taking a moonlight cruise down the Danube River looking at the beautifully lit Castle Hill—steeped in hundreds of years of history—or across the river to the impressive Parliament Building—a monument in its own right to democracy and independence. Floating down the river and looking around you at all it has to offer, Budapest couldn’t feel farther from its communist past, such a small part of the city’s immense history.

Photos: (Top Left) Szechenyi Baths; (Top Center) Tree of Life Holocaust Memorial; (Top Right) Great Market Hall; (Bottom Left) Ronald Reagan Statue with Parliament in Background; (Bottom Center) Castle Hill; (Bottom Right) Hungarian Parliament Building

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