From paprika to coffee houses, Caste Hill to Parliament , no one can deny Budapest is easy to get obsessed with. I say this because I know I did. Hungary’s architectural waltz through history began with the Romans in Budapest and Sopron, it climbed castles in the Northern Uplands and into many splendid baroque churches across the land. I was in absolute awe when I saw the magnificent historical buildings carefully preserved to pristine condition around the city.

Arriving at the humble Ferenc Liszt International Airport in Budapest I couldn’t help but notice the efficiency of passport control . I was stamped into the country before my luggage had even left the plane. This gave me time to wonder around a bit in the small waiting area where I spotted a stand with Budapest city maps for the eager tourists entering the country. I took one and immediately had a peak at major tourist locations in the city.

Eventually with luggage in hand I exited the airport to find my guide Alutius sitting there patiently waiting for me. In days to come I quickly learned that Hungarians are not only on time they are generally 10 minutes earlier than schedule. So for an African born traveller where everything happens “ now now “ its best to turn your watch 15 minutes faster, that way you will be running at the Hungarian pace of life.

The moment I stepped out of the airport, the crisp, cold air hit me squarely in the face. I buttoned up quickly in my winter coat to adjust to sudden temperate change. Having left behind a scorching 38 degrees in South Africa this icy start to a day can take ones breath away.

Driving down the highway and into the city, still dark and lit up with Christmas lights , the city started to reveal itself to me. Encompassing everything from bridges to grand buildings, open spaces like Margaret island that I went for a walk around at a later stage, and is relatively devoid of travellers in the winter season. The city on both banks of the Danube river presents a charming and peaceful set of scenes before my eyes. I couldn’t wait to get rid of my luggage , freshen up and start exploring this city.

From experience the best way to see a city is to walk and walk and walk. I can honestly say I did just that. Each day I averaged about 17km, my feet may have hurt but each step had a spring in it as i wondered what was around the next corner. The other tip for myself is that when I enter a new city hop onto a city sightseeing bus of sorts. Firstly i get my bearings and I see how I fit into the city and secondly its the quickest way to discover the major tourist attractions and how they connect. In winter there is the added benefit of being inside the warm bus. So true to my word, i headed out, walking past the Shoes of Danube which is a memorial to honour the Jews killed during WW11 and onwards to Liberty Bridge that connects Buda and Pest. It is the shortest bridge in Budapest’s centre, and at first glance looks like a chain bridge. Along the way I stopped to look at the love locks attached in some places that made me wonder how they got there. On the Buda side of the bridge I bought a ticket from an english speaking sales person and hoped on the City Sightseeing bus.At this point I was relieved that everyone I had spoken to so far spoke english fluently and I could relax knowing that communication was not going to be a problem in this city.

The bus took me to all the major attractions, Hero’s Square, the Jewish Quarter, the Citadel where the panoramic views of the city are breathtaking. Past the iconic Chain Bridge with its lion sculptures at either end. There is much debate as the whether the lions have tongues or not , apparently they do but are not visible from below. Onwards the bus goes past St Stephen’s Basilica, past the Great Synagogue , the Opera House , Central Market where I had to get off to taste some local food and view the two floors of shopping from food to crafts. At the Funicular there is the choice of going up or taking the castle bus to the top of the hill. Of course I saw so much more on the bus but with limited time I decided to hop off at what I deemed most important. Besides I knew I had other days to catch up on the missed attractions. Riding around the city on the bus listening to tourists speak about their experiences I had a rush a warmth towards the people and the country. I had an immediately felt the friendliness and hospitality and new that this would be a country I was going to love.

That night I headed out to discover the Christmas markets dotted around the city.They were not difficult to find.The tempting aromas, the festive glow, the joyful sounds of people huddled together chatting with a steaming cup of mulled wine and the delicious yuletide treats drew me. Budapest’s joyful Christmas markets with their timber-frame stalls dressed in whimsical fairy lights are a dream come true for me. The smell of cinnamon pastries called chimney cakes wafts through the market stalls as i wondered up and down the isles admiring the handiwork of local craftsmen. I soon discovered there are no less than 10 Christmas markets in the city. The oldest and most spectacular one being at Vorosmarty Square in the heart of the city. I loved the clamour inside the markets, the people were happy and festive . Even when it was snowing i couldn’t resist my night out at a market. Most nights i would start off at Vorosmarty Square and then walk over to the market at St Stephen’s Square right in front of the Basilica. Eventually by the third night out at a Christmas Market I could no longer refuse the chimney cake,and was it worth it. With crunch on the outside and the delicious light and fluffy dough on the inside rolled in cane sugar then filled with chocolate mousse this is one tradition of a Christmas market in Hungary that makes it unforgettable. The beautiful fairy tale Vajdahunyad Castle oozed with magic. Built next to an artificial lake in the biggest green park in the city it is the perfect backdrop to a market. The Christmas fairs are nostalgic, personally I liked the fact that the lighting is not the brightly coloured commercial lights but rather the toned down twinkling white lights. Over sized father Christmas’s don’t wonder around in gaudy red costumes handy out sweets. There is an element of class to these Christmas fairs and I just couldn’t get enough of them.

Hungary uses the Forint, one South African Rand is roughly 20 Hungarian Forints. This confused me at first and I was hesitant to spend. At an ATM I decided to draw cash where I made a big mistake. This in part came down to my poor mathematical skills, having not calculated correctly I drew to much money. But then again , who can ever be in a country filled with beautiful places like Central Market and Christmas markets and have “ to much money “ the reality of being a female traveller is that one skill is our shopping skill. Faced with all the choices I sheepishly admit not only did I use all the cash I went back a second time to draw more. I learnt that one should never underestimate the power of a beautiful city and its offerings.

Each night i would venture up the stairs in a tentative way to my apartment. I would turn the key and step into a world of warmth and comfort, walking over to the window that opened onto a balcony i would admire the dazzling display of lights and grand Christmas tree in front of Parliament built on the banks of the Danube. I would watch the people as they climbed on and off the yellow tram and try to imagine their lives. Being on the outside was not enough for me, so i decided to book a ticket and take the tour inside Parliament. If I thought the exterior was magnificent it was nothing compared to the lavish interior. The intricate designs, Grand red carpet staircase and The Holy Crown of Saint Stephen are only a few of the jaw dropping sites one will see. 40kg of gold where used as well as half a million precious stones in building this impressive structure which is also the third largest parliament building in the world.

Now my secret love is snow, so when in Europe in winter all I do is wish for snow. On my second last day I woke up to a winter wonderland. The city was white, I watched as the snowflakes continued to fall obliquely against the lamplight .The soundlessness of the city was amazing. I hurriedly dressed and headed outside to enjoy the freshly fallen white powder. It lay thickly on the ground creaking underfoot as i walked down to the river. This was an entire city of snow with monuments , buildings and trees covered in a white carpet. As fast as I rushed outside I now wanted to find some warmth. Once the initial excitement had warn off I headed to Szechenyl Thermal baths. It is one of the largest bath complexes in Europe with a mix of indoor and outdoor pools which includes 12 thermal pools. I hastily climbed into my pool of choice and stayed there for an hour. Now as a self confessed people watcher, there is no better place than a unisex thermal bath. Young people prancing up and down in their fashionable swim wear, mature people with no airs and graces about them, just wanting to relax. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute and would have stayed longer if it was for my booking at a restaurant for some delicious duck for supper.

The Great Synagogue was reserved for my last day. I wanted to spend an entire day in the Jewish Quarter exploring the alley ways with their quaint shops, ruin bars that are frequented by a young, electric crowd and escape rooms. I was not disappointed, the Synagogue is the largest in Europe and 2nd largest in the world. It was meticulously restored in the 1990’s largely due to private donations including US$5 million from cosmetic magnate Estee Lauder, who was born in New York to Hungarian Jewish immigrants. There is a Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial and a stained – glass memorial to Nicholas Winton the “ British Schindler “ who rescued 700 Jewish children just before WW11. Once inside there are groups of scattered tourists gravitating towards a guide speaking in language familiar to them, imparting their knowledge about the building and the history of its congregation. This is my first time in a Synagogue and not only am I humbled, I also feel grateful to the people who have taken the time to share their history with the world. Outside I stood and photographed the building and its gardens, it was incredibly peaceful.

As I made my way back slowly I head down Andrassy Avenue, the tree lined avenue with its designer shops dates back to 1872. The Hungarian State Opera house one of the most famous tenants on the avenue was sadly closed for renovations so I could only admire it from outside , the Liszt Ferenc Music Academy and the Ballet institute all adorn this avenue. It is recognised as a World Heritage Site and its easy to see why . Eclectic Neo Renaissance palaces and houses were built by the most distinguished architects of the time. Only the wealthiest lived here after its completion in 1885. After a day of walking i decided to make use of my Budapest card and caught a bus and tram back to my apartment.

Once upstairs I started craving a langos which I new I would find at a Christmas market, so my last night in the city I headed back out to find this Hungarian speciality. This is one of the best street foods in the city , fried dough smothered in cheese and a variety of toppings its carbo loading to the max. But who cares when you are on holiday because its a treat. This Hungarian flatbread can be found everywhere with sweet and savoury toppings. Its supper filling so a good walk home is needed.

I woke up early, with a heavy heart the next day knowing i was leaving this marvellous cultural tapestry. Budapest and I had become the best of friends. It had far exceeded my expectations. From history, to architecture, friendly people,the gastronomy , countless sights , the affordability for a European country and the magic of Christmas in the air I new I will return soon.

Little Black Book for information on tours in Budapest for the Budapest public transport card The Hungarian Embassy in Pretoria The official tourist information site The official Parliament website The Szechenyi thermal baths

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Budapest – what not to miss