Destination: Hungary: Budapest
Europe’s largest synagogue, dating from the mid-1800s, can’t be missed. The Byzantine-Moorish–inspired white-and-red-brick structure, located on a main thoroughfare in central Pest, was heavily damaged during World War II and restored in large part through private donations (the Hungarian-born Tony Curtis , Estée Lauder and Yitzhak Rabin all contributed to the restoration and memorial). Unique to this synagogue is the small graveyard beside it (in Judaism, graveyards are usually separate from the place of worship); this is actually a mass grave from the Nazi era, and is kept as a sober reminder. Behind it you’ll find the city’s Holocaust Memorial, a metal sculpture of a weeping willow by Imre Varga. Closed Saturday.
TIP: Don’t miss walking around the neighborhood, a former Jewish ghetto, whose streets will make you think you’ve stumbled into another era (though the occasional hip café, such as Bobek, and boutique are slowly making appearances here). Says Indagare Insider Gioia Zwack: “My favorite walk is to roam around the old Jewish ghetto behind the Great Synagogue. The area is now threatened by development, but it is still very evocative and moving.”
Matthias Church (Mátyás Templon)
The jewel of Castle Hill, a white beauty whose colored-tile rooftop is visible from miles away, has a long and fascinating history. Founded in the 13th century after the Mongol invasion, it was redesigned as a Gothic church in 1387. During more than a century of Turkish occupation, starting in 1541, Matthias Church was converted into a mosque and much of its original decor and ornamentation destroyed. After the Turks were defeated in 1686, restoration began, but most of today’s splendid interior was restored thanks to the coronation, in 1867, of Austria’s emperor Franz Joseph and empress Elisabeth, when they were crowned king and queen of Hungary. Franz Liszt composed and conducted his Coronation Mass for the lavish celebration (though he was famously snubbed and not invited to the subsequent festivities because he was not an aristocrat). The church still hosts fabulous free concerts—try to catch a performance by the acclaimed choir. Check the Website for details. After seeing the church, stroll through Buda’s pretty cobblestoned streets and have lunch at Café Pierrot or coffee at Ruszwurm Café. Open daily.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
This imposing neoclassical church, named after St. Stephen (István), the first Hungarian Christian king, is just around the corner from the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace. Its soaring, 315-foot dome is one of the city’s most famous landmarks, and from April through October, you can climb the 364 steps or take an elevator to the top for expansive city views. It offers a trove of Hungarian art and religious relics, so it helps to go with a guide. For example, without our guide we would have missed the unusual Chapel of the Holy Right Hand, where St. Stephen’s mummified right forearm is kept (you hit a button and the ornate case in which it is kept lights up). Open daily.
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