Blue It’s Not, Beautiful It Is – and How
North f where it divides Buda from Pest, the wide Danube (Duna to the Hungarians) twists through a narrow valley that many consider the loveliest stretch of its entire 1,890-mile course from Black Forest to the Black Sea.
This is the celebrated Danube Bend (Duna Kanyar), famous for its historic towns and scenic beauty, and a classic day trip for city-weary foreigners and Hungarians alike, by boat, car, or train.
The most popular of the riverside towns (and suffering from peak-season crowds and commercialization) is Szentendre, settled in medieval times by Serbs escaping the Turkish invasion to the south, a charming artist colony since the 1920s. It still counts a dozen Orthodox churches within its boundaries, as well as a surprising number of galleries and museums, most notably an expansive museum dedicated to the work of Hungarian ceramicist Margit Kovács. Visitors more interested in handicraft shopping, dallying in cafés, and strolling along back streets lined with yellow, orange, and green houses will also be rewarded.
A bit farther north is Esztergom, seat of the Magyar kingdom in the 12th and 13th century. As the center of the Hungarian Catholic Church, it is the nation’s most sacred city, dominated by Hungary’s largest cathedral, built in the mid-19th century.
Where History and Scenery Vie for Attention
Buda, on the left bank of the Danube River, is the hilly, older part of Budapest. From its highest point – the lovingly reconstructed Buda Castle (or Royal Palace) – the views of the Danube and Pest’s monumental buildings are gorgeous.
Getting there can be no less dramatic: from Pest, stroll across the Danube on Budapest’s graceful, landmark Chain Bridge, and grab the steep-climbing funicular that connects you with Castle Hill and its cobbled streets and restored buildings from the Hapsburg era. The immense Buda Castle commands the most strategic location in town.
Here the Hungarian kings set up an imposing showpiece residence they would call home for seven centuries. Now it boasts four museums, including the Hungarian National Gallery, and some of the 9 miles of medieval underground tunnels used during WWI (parts of which today house the tacky Buda Wax Works). Views from the seven-turreted Fisherman’s Bastion are inspiring, especially in the evening. Something of the area’s bohemian character lingers in the cozy coffee houses and book stores, but the regentrified UNESCO-protected neighborhood of twisting alleyways and handicrafts shops thrives on tourism and hasn’t seen an aspiring artist in years.
The neighborhood’s premier lodging site is the Hilton, the only hotel in this quietly elegant part of town. Its historically sensitive, award-winning design incorporates the ruins of a 13th-century church; the Baroque facade of a 17th-century Jesuit college serves as the contemporary hotel’s main entrance. The hotel’s small casino is the nicest in town (among more than a dozen), but you might find the summertime classical concerts in the former church’s Dominican courtyard more interesting.