I’ve spent the past ten days visiting Prague and Budapest, enjoying their stunning architecture, (mostly) friendly locals, cheap beer and interesting cuisine.
These two cities have much in common. Ornate buildings line their main streets and squares. Beautifully designed bridges cross the wide river that runs through their city centre. Grand palaces and cathedrals dominate their skylines. Picture-postcode city squares are a popular meeting place for locals and tourists.
Both also experienced a tumultuous 20th century with Nazi Germany occupation during World War II resulting in significant loss of life, particularly for their Jewish communities, as well as extensive damage to their buildings and bridges. Then they lived under Soviet oppression for more than 40 years until the fall of communism in 1989. Soviet style architecture is very evident in both cities, partrly in the residential areas.
Since then Prague and Budapest have grown to be economic and cultural hubs of Eastern Europe each with a booming tourist industry – more than 20 million people visited each city in 2017.
There are so many things that can influence your view of a place – the time and length of your visit, the weather, where you stay, what you see, and your general state of mind at the time. I’m not sure why but I enjoyed Budapest so much more than Prague. Perhaps it was because our stay was cut short because of our flight cancellation and we did not have enough time to see enough of the city. I was also a little overwhelmed by the enormous number of tourists, and the groups of young men visiting for a ‘bucks’ celebration which effectively meant roaming the streets in weird outfits and drinking in the many bars and clubs set up to cater for them. Budapest also had this issue but it didn’t seem as bad.
For the few days we were in Prague we managed to see much of the central city, by wandering about the beautiful streets and squares. We also rode the funicular to the top of the hill overlooking the city and walked across to the monastery and palace where we enjoyed stunning views of the city. A highlight for me was a visit to the Cecil Beaton exhibition at a gallery on the river bank. Cecil is famous for his photographs of the British royal family and inspired many contemporary portrait photographers including Annie Leibovitz. Prague’s back streets were also a highlight where you would stumble across so many interesting sculptures and quirky pieces of art.
Budapest feels like a divided city. On one side of the river is Buda with its rolling hills, grand palace, museums, the liberty statue perched high above the city, and the incredible views across the Danube and entire city. Residents of Budapest aspire to live in Buda. The Pest side is also beautiful but busy, noisy, commercial, flat and where most residents actually live. The photos below show Buda on the left and Pest on the right with the beautiful Danube between them.
In Budapest we again spent much of our time wandering about the old city streets and squares as well as our local neighbourhood. We took a boat cruise along the Danube one evening enjoying spectacular views of the bridges and beautiful buildings that line its banks. We swam at the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, and had coffee and cake at the very ostentatious New York Cafe which the locals describe as the most beautiful cafe in the world.
We were fortunate to be staying across the street from the city’s main synagogue which is the second largest in the world. We took a tour one evening to learn more about its history and of the local Jewish community. There is a beautiful memorial in the grounds of the Synagogue – a silver weeping willow tree, each leaf engraved with the name of a person who lost their life during the Second World War. It is a poignant reminder of the holocaust and its terrible impact on the lives of Eastern European Jews.
Today I said goodbye to Budapest and flew to Preveza, Greece for the final leg of my trip.