Andrássy út is probably the most famous street in Budapest, the equivalent of Madison Avenue in New York City or Nanjing Road in Shanghai. Named as part of Budapest’s UNESCO World Heritage site, the wide boulevard is lined with high-end designer shops and leafy trees which provide a welcome bit of shade on a hot summer day.
Dating to the late 19th century, Andrássy út was the city’s first experiment in urban development since the Middle Ages. I’d say it was a pretty successful! Prada, Gucci and Louis-Vuitton vie for retail space among the grand neo-Renaissance villas, making Andrássy út one of the most expensive commercial streets in Europe.
The yellow M1 metro line runs below Andrássy út and is a tourist attraction in its own right – it’s the oldest subway on continental Europe!
My favorite attraction on Andrássy út is the Hungarian State Opera House. The gorgeous three-story building, opened to the public in 1884, is a work of art inside and out. An army of famous composers – Mozart, Beethoven and Verdi among them – stand proudly on the roof as though ready to protect their musical accomplishments.
As for the interior, it’s a sumptuous feast for the eyes. Collective gasps can be heard from tourists upon entering each successive room. At the time of its construction, the Hapsburg emperor gave his approval to the Hungarian architects on the condition that the Budapest opera house not be larger than the one in Vienna, then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But he didn’t say anything about it not being more beautiful.
Rumor has it Emperor Franz Joseph was so aggravated by the beauty of the Hungarian Opera House that he only attended one performance there. His wife Elisabeth, on the other hand, was a great fan of the arts and frequented operas in Budapest. She wasn’t allowed to use the Royal Box without her husband, however, and so had to choose a new box closer to the stage while the perfectly good Royal Box sat empty. Today anyone willing to pay for the seats can sit there.
Although we didn’t visit during opera season, which runs from September to June, we did get to watch a mini-performance at the end of our tour. More entertaining than I expected, a man dressed like the Phantom of the Opera performed several songs and danced with a member of the audience. I was relieved he didn’t pick me! Tours run daily at 3 and 4 pm in multiple languages, and cost HUF 2,900 (US$13).
In stark contest to the beauty of the Opera House, the House of Terror is a museum dedicated to Hungary’s dark years as an Axis power and later a Soviet puppet state – a time Hungarians refer to as “the accursed 40 years.” The building, once the headquarters for the rightly feared secret police, has borne witness to unspeakable acts of violence.
Multi-media exhibits on the museum’s top two floors illustrate what life was like in Hungary after World War II and the persecution many faced during the Soviet occupation. Taking up most of the basement are reconstructed prison cells, where “enemies” of the communist state – aristocrats, land-owning peasants, religious leaders – were detained, tortured and often killed.
The visit ends with a walk past the “hall of shame” – walls hung with photos of those complicit in supporting the Soviet and Nazi regimes and committing injustices against their countrymen. As we looked at the images, we noticed many of the men and women are still alive. I wondered how they feel about their place in history and if they are sorry for what they did. Tickets to the museum cost HUF 2,000 (US$8.90).
One can recover from the sobering museum at Alexandra Bookstore, which just so happens to have the most fantastic cafe of any bookstore I’ve ever seen. We were tipped off by a couple staying at our guesthouse who likened it to having tea at Buckingham Palace. Located on the second floor of what was once the Paris Department Store, the cafe features a superbly painted ceiling hung with chandeliers and walls trimmed with gold. The live pianist enhances the ambiance and I half expected patrons to start waltzing around the room. It’s an experience best savored with cake and cappuccino.
The northeastern end of Andrássy út is dominated by Heroes’ Square, a monument to Hungary’s founding fathers. The central pillar is defended by massive statues of the seven tribal chiefs who claimed the region in the 9th century, while the Angel Gabriel floats above them all with the Hungarian cross and crown in his hands. Two colonnades flank the pillar, each holding seven statues of important rulers and statesmen, from Saint Stephen, the first king of Hungary, to Lajos Kossuth, leader of a 19th century revolution against the Hapsburgs. Emperor Franz Joseph and his family once had commemorative statues of their own, but they were damaged during WWII and never replaced.
Just behind Heroes’ Square is the entrance to City Park, supposedly the oldest public park in the world. The first thing you see as you walk over the bridge into the park is Vajdahunyad Castle, the showpiece of the Millennium celebrations. Vendors sell soft pretzels and homemade lemonade from tented stands that call to mind a medieval fair, while the various architectural styles of the looming castle compete for attention. Locals take spins around the lake in rowboats and stretch out in the grass, taking advantage of the summer sunshine. If I lived in Budapest, this would be one of my favorite haunts!
Which part of Andrássy út would you most like to explore?