If you were to tell people that you were planning a trip to Budapest any sooner than about ten years ago, you would almost certainly receive some quizzical looks in return. My own parents even greeted my declaration that I was venturing to there with a decidedly quizzical “what is even in Budapest?” Reflecting on it now, I know that there is a seemingly endless amount of adventure in that city, but I hope that people continue to ask that question for as long as possible.
The ornate, vibrant, and culturally rich capital of Hungary seems to often fall lower on the list of European must-sees due most likely in part to its geography and history. Located on the Danube river just south of the Slovakian border, it has, for much of its history, remained relatively obscured from the proximity of the big Western European capitals like Paris or London. Like many of its border countries, it was also either under Nazi or Soviet occupation for most of the 20th century, which obscured it from many would-be tourists as a result. Beautiful Budapest seemed to take on a reputation as a location that remained in the pages of World History books and maps of Eastern Europe, rather than a fixture on the signs on the windows of American travel agents.
Like many big cities around it that experienced the carnage of World War II followed by oppression of the Soviet Occupation, its 20th century history is as prevalent in the landscape as the centuries prior. On the outskirts, large, melancholy, perfectly symmetrical Soviet-style apartment buildings rise up from the flat landscape. In stark contrast, as you arrive in the city center, the blocks of beautiful neo-baroque buildings and churches engulf skinny, winding, cobblestone streets. Its urban landscape is a seamless confluence of centuries of native culture and decades of foreign occupation.
My three days there similarly as diverse. I visited Buda Castle, the ornate, expansive, ancient palace of Hungarian kings that overlooks the entire city. I swam in the Széchenyi thermal baths, a Belle Époque relic that turned the city’s natural thermal hot springs into a weekend spa. I also visited the museum of terror, an incredibly thought out and impeccably designed museum dedicated to informing visitors of the horrors of a near century of foreign occupation, dedicated to the remembrance of the victims of the successive regimes.
Throughout all of my stops, I was truly amazed at how this city, after all it has been through, has retained so much of its organic culture–especially now while facing an age of hyper-globalization. I thought that I may have been one of the lucky few who got to see this incredible city before buses of tourists with selfie sticks crowd the city’s sights, but perhaps Budapest will always retain its identity as the “Paris of the East:” always drawing comparisons to other places bigger than it rather than having its own independent identity. However, if this city showed me anything in my three days there, it was that it has always had its own, rich history and identity, and that people should start calling Paris the “Budapest of the West.”