Sister Cities: Budapest, Prague and Vienna

Budapest’s Széchenyi Geothermal Baths are one of the largest in all of Europe.
Budapest’s Széchenyi Geothermal Baths is among the largest in Europe. Photo by Nick Jenkins

They say that the three Imperial capitals of Budapest, Prague and Vienna are like three sisters joined in birth, but separated by history. Veronika and I live in Prague, we’ve been to Vienna, and we wanted to see Budapest to test the theory. We took a five-day trip to the Hungarian capital to find out just what it’s like.

From Prague it was easy to jump on the Pannonia express train, which runs overnight to Budapest. The trip was comfortable, the sleep easy, and the ride much more pleasant than a trip to the airport and fussing around with planes. We arrived in the early morning on a beautiful spring day and walked through the city. Breakfast was a fresh-baked croissant from a curb-side bakery.

Budapest was historically two cities: Buda in the west and Pest in the east, and they came together in 1873. We settled into our accommodation, the Boulevard City Pension, on the eighth floor of a newer apartment block, just south of the heart of east-side Pest. From our room we could see the fortress Citadella atop Gellért Hill and catch a glimpse of the Duna, the Danube, rolling by.

In brilliant sunshine, we walked through the commercial center of Pest, around Deak Ter (the unremarkable main square) and across the Széchenyi Lánchíd (Chain Bridge), with its stone lions and wrought-iron lamps.

At the summit of Castle Hill, which dominates the Buda side of the Duna, we sat in the Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion) and drank in the view over the twin cities.

The air was biting, but the sun was bright and, across the river, the white spires of the Parliament building gleamed. Strolling off the back of the hill brought us to the transport hub at Moskva Ter (Moscow Square), where we grabbed a tram bound for Margaret Island.

The island is a pleasant park, with statues and ruins cloaked by shady trees. We strolled through the 13th century ruins of a Franciscan church and a Dominican convent, and along the river where a coxswain in a scull bawled instructions at his rowers.

From the northern end of the island we caught the No. 1 tram, looping east through the suburbs to the south of Pest, the river and our pension. That night we dined at Pascal Restaurant & Cafe, which served excellent, but mouth-puckeringly salty food.

I had a traditional Hungarian dish of pork in a mustard sauce with bacon, and Veronika had chicken with Parmesan mashed potatoes, but both dishes were so salty that we still wince at the memory. Eastern Europe has yet to embrace the low-sodium diet of the West, and you may often find the food more salty than you are used to.

We started the next day with a visit to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Budapest has long been known for its baths, and people still come to “take the waters” here. The Széchenyi is a good choice because it is in the open air and, if you can brave the chilly spring air, you can settle back in the 100° F (38° C) water and enjoy the sensation of steam rising from your head.

We also dropped into St. Stephen’s Basilica, a 20th century cathedral with magnificent stained glass and the Szent Jobb (Holy Right Hand) relic, the mummified hand of the eponymous St. Stephen. The Orszaghaz (House of Parliament), a neo-Gothic building with a handsome interior of tiered arches dripping with gold leaf, are also worth a visit.

On our last morning we paid a visit to the Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum (Hungarian National Museum), which offers a look at the span of Hungarian history. The World War II and Soviet-era displays were better than the older stuff, which was a little thin. A collection of carved stones, from Roman through Medieval times, was among the highlights for me.

In the afternoon we browsed the Nagy Vásárcsarnok (Central Market), searching for csabai — an air-cured Hungarian salami — for a sausage connoisseur friend. The 19th century market, which was restored in 1994, is a vast wrought-iron building stuffed with food stalls (on the ground floor) and clothes and souvenirs (on the mezzanine).

Csabai was easy to find. Selecting a vendor was a more daunting task. Every second store was a butcher’s shop, festooned with salami, bacon, sides of ham, plucked chickens and smoked meats. We selected a stall, sampled some salami and bought two, one for our friend and one just for us.

Budapest's Parliament building is a great sight for architecture enthusiasts.
Budapest’s Parliament building is situated alongside the Danube. Photo by Nick Jenkins

That night we caught the sleeper back to Prague, arriving home on a misty morning.

So how does Budapest compare with her maidenly sisters?

All three feature grandiose architecture from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Triumphal arches, bridges, castles, churches and grand  palaces adorn their high places, and you’ll encounter numerous statues of dukes, kings and saints while strolling the streets.

Prague is, in my humble opinion, the prettiest of the lot. The old town is compact, well-preserved and still charming. The parks of Petrin and Letna provide a relaxing counterpoint to the bustle of the Old Town, and from either you get grand views of the whole city. The Vltava, while  modest in comparison to the Danube, is lively and on more of a human scale. However, Prague doesn’t have the grand boulevards of Vienna  and Budapest, and the narrow streets can seem claustrophobic.

In contrast, Budapest’s sense of spaciousness derives from the broad banks of the Danube, but the city has squandered this advantage by lining  both banks with motorways. Its historic buildings are more spread out than Prague, diluted among the rest of the city. It does have the best  open space and the best choice of parks, however. It also has the finest set of viewpoints, with the towering Gellért Hill and the smaller Castle  Hill.

Vienna seems more businesslike, more Western, and in an indefinable way, more Austrian. The streets seem more formal, the culture more restrained, the people more refined. The city center is bulky and dominated by heavy modern buildings that obscure Vienna’s historic landmarks. Vienna also lacks the positive influence of a river; the Danube here is too separated from the center to contribute much to city life.

New residential and commercial developments are shooting up across Prague and Budapest as their economies heat up. Heavily developed Vienna could be a vision of what Prague and Budapest will become in 20 years; one can only hope local authorities will preserve their historic buildings.

The people of each town are an interesting study. The Czechs, in my experience, are a dour lot. In public, smiles rarely, if ever, grace their faces, and cheerful conversation with tourists is non-existent. The Viennese are welcoming and well spoken, but sometimes I get the faintest whiff of condescension. The Hungarians, however, are positive, open and friendly. They look forward to meeting people and happily pass the time chatting with me.

If you have time, you should try to see all three of the Imperial cities. If you have time to visit only one of the three, you will at least get a taste of what the other sisters have to offer.

Vienna is the big sister — a refined, modern European grand dame. Prague, the middle sister, is a beautiful and stately matron with subtle charms. And Budapest is the vivacious youngster, an up-and-coming belle of the European Union.

Enjoy them all.

If You Go

Tourism Office of Budapest

www.budapestinfo

Vienna Tourism Office

www.info.wien.at

The Czech Republic

www.czechtourism.com

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