The Hungarian Capital Has Many Sides Worth Exploring
At first sight, Budapest makes a statement. Particularly from the perspective of the mighty Danube, which it straddles via no fewer than 15 bridges and the vantage point for guests aboard Crystal River Cruises – just named the number one river cruise line in Travel + Leisure’s “World’s Best Awards”. The decks of one of these luxury sister ships offer a dramatic arrival into the Pearl of the Danube (also called the Paris of the East), passing the splendid Hungarian Parliament and underneath the mid-19th century Chain Bridge – a destination experience unto itself.
2020 marks the second time in three years that the savvy readers of Travel + Leisure have named Crystal River Cruises the best in the world. The globally inspired dining experience; butler-serviced guest suites; personalized service; immersive destination explorations; and thoughtfully designed ships accommodating just 106 guests with abundant social spaciousness have been hallmarks of the lauded Crystal River Experience since the beginning.
It was first recorded as a settlement in the first century A.D. but not established as its own city until 1873, when Buda, Pest and Óbuda merged into one powerful capital. Since that time, Budapest has leapt into the present as a leader in global commerce with the second largest stock exchange in Central and Eastern Europe; the first electrified underground railway systems; and home to numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city is brimming with stories and sites to explore, so we’re sharing some of the most fascinating elements of the local culture here.
Like any great European capital city with thousand-year history, Budapest is home to several architectural masterpieces that you shouldn’t miss, not that you could if you tried. The astoundingly grand Hungarian Parliament Building is likely one of the first visions you’ll have of the city, after all, as it presides over the river shores. It is the largest building in Hungary and one of only two that stand to the city’s maximum regulation height of 96 meters. Another brick-and-mortar marvel right under your nose is the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, which is arguably the city’s most iconic site. It was built in the mid-19th century, a suspension bridge boasting the most impressive engineering prowess of the time. Massive lions guard each end, adding to its air of importance.
Bonus beyond the river: Built in 1295, Buda Castle today is connected to the town center from its perch on Castle Hill by the Chain Bridge. Here you’ll find the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum and the Presidential Palace, which has been a key seat of political power for over 200 years.
These may be the best wines you’ve never tasted, since, while highly respected by those in the know in the country and even increasingly into Europe, Hungarian wine has stayed almost entirely in Hungary. This makes your visit here a wonderfully rare opportunity to sip sweet white wines, white vintages with a bit of a bite, and big, blended Bulls’ Blood reds. While Hungarian wines are new to many first-time visitors, wine is not new to Hungary. The soil here fosters more than 100 grape varietals, some of which are believed to predate the time of Caesar. And while these vintages may be hard to get, they’re not hard to love, routinely earning top marks from wine critics.
Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest functioning synagogue in Europe, which formed the boundary of the Jewish ghetto during World War II. Guests will see the synagogue’s “Memorial Tree” to Hungarian Jewish martyrs, featuring leaves with inscriptions of the at least 400,000 names of Hungarians lost in the Holocaust. The old Jewish District provides a poignant look at the modern history of the Jews here, as does the opportunity to visit the “Shoes on the Danube Bank.”
In addition to the city’s subterranean railway system, Budapest boasts more than 200 underground, caves, mazes and caverns that have seen their share of history. The six-mile Budavari Labirintus labyrinth has been shelter for prehistoric peoples, a dungeon for medieval prisoners, a World War II hospital and a strategic operational center during the Cold War. Today, many of the surrounding caverns – which were formed by natural geothermal springs (more on that below) – are open for guided tours and sometimes used for spelunking.
With an abundance of underground geothermal water sources, Budapest is home to the most thermal baths in the world. Warming oneself in the natural waters of the baths – each with a unique chemical and mineral composition – has been a thing here since Roman times, when the ancient people discovered the medicinal and relaxation benefits of the water. Today, locals and visitors alike flock to the baths, with Széchenyi Bath being the largest with 18 pools set among the city’s regal architecture.
Budapest is a highlight and port of embarkation and disembarkation for Crystal River Cruises ranging from seven to 16 nights. Enjoy savings up to 50 percent with Crystal’s Advance Purchase Savings, which allows you to reserve the best available suite on over 60 2021 sailings for a non-refundable fare of $3,699 per person, with the flexibility to change travel dates.