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Budapest

matthias church budapest

A maze of cobbled streets and medieval courtyards, the Castle District is Budapest's crowning achievement -- literally. It hangs grandly above the city, and the lovely Matthias Church that is its centerpiece is known locally as "the coronation church." Austria's Franz Joseph was crowned king of Hungary there in 1867 to the strains of Franz Liszt's coronation mass, composed especially for the occasion. Today, as it has for centuries, the rampart next to the 700-year-old church offers incomparable views of the Danube and Pest. The scene of battles and wars since the 13th century, the Castle District is home to the former Royal Palace, one of Hungary's most important national symbols.

There are shops and restaurants in the complex in addition to a number of other attractions, including the Budapest History Museum, which offers excellent historical background for a visit to the city.

Andrassy Ut, the city's grandest boulevard, is a 1.5-mile expanse, granted World Heritage status by UNESCO. There you'll find the stunning Hungarian State Opera House, opened in 1884; chic boutiques and grand villas with gardens; Franz Liszt Square with its open-air cafes; and, at the very end, Heroes' Square. No visit to Budapest would be complete without a walk around the magnificent square, dominated by the Millennium Monument. The monument is topped by the Archangel Gabriel, credited with converting the pagan Magyars to Christianity. At the base of the column are seven figures on horseback, representing the Magyar tribes.

Art lovers shouldn't miss the Hungarian National Gallery, which displays a vast range of local works dating from medieval times to the present.

The architecturally eclectic St. Stephen's Basilica took more than five decades to build. The main attraction here is the mummified hand of St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary and founder of the nation; his hand is housed in the reliquary.

In the late 1930s, the Old Jewish Quarter was a thriving community with about 200,000 Jews. Most perished in the Holocaust. Today, the Dohany Street Synagogue (also known as the Great Synagogue), one of the world's largest, stands tall in the now-shabby neighborhood. Seating 3,000 people and built between 1854 and 1859 by a Viennese architect, the synagogue, with its onion-shaped domes, looks Moorish. The complex also includes a Heroes' Temple, a Jewish Museum and a Holocaust memorial room.

It's not in the Jewish Quarter, but the Shoes on the Danube -- on the riverbank, just south of Parliament -- is especially moving. The simple memorial, erected in 2005, features 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes, representing thousands of Jews who were shot into the icy Danube on that spot by fascist militiamen in World War II.

Said to be one of the most beautiful McDonald's restaurants on the planet, the fast-food outlet at Nyugati Railway Terminal is the largest in Hungary with its two-story Baroque interior crafted in the style of early 20th-century Budapest. Next door is the WestEnd City Center, the best shopping mall in Budapest.

The crowded Turkish baths are to Budapest what coffeehouses are to Vienna. This is where friends come to meet, gossip and relax in healing waters that are fed by the thermal springs that feed the Danube. Among the most popular is Szechenyi Bath and Spa, located in a sumptuous yellow building at City Park, just above Heroes' Square. There are indoor and outdoor pools, and it's not unusual to see bathers playing chess on floating game boards. It's a neat way to mingle with the locals.

Take a 20-minute detour out of the city to the Royal Palace of Godollo. A favorite resort of Emperor Franz Joseph and his Austrian Queen Elisabeth, this Baroque palace has a Grand Hall with marble-covered walls and gilded stucco ceilings; a Riding Hall; and the restored Baroque Theatre, now the venue for performances of chamber music and opera. If you're lucky, you might catch a concert.

For a day trip into medieval Hungary, head to Esztergom, which delivers on two fronts: historical tradition and location. Situated on the scenic Danube Bend on the border between Hungary and Slovakia, this was the birthplace of St. Stephen -- also coronated there in 1000 A.D. Be sure to stop at the massive Basilica, which was completed in the 1860s. There you'll find the Bakocz Chapel, built in the early 1500s by Florentine craftsmen, dismantled in the Turkish occupation and reassembled in 1823. You may also want to continue to Visegrad, whose heritage dates to the New Stone Age.

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