Saint Stephen’s Day – Celebrating the Foundation of the Hungarian State

August 20, 2012 § 5 Comments

Before we began packing for the move to Budapest, I spent some time reading Budapest travel tips on Trip Advisor. One of the top “things to do” was to take a “Fungarian” class. The concept of the class was to meet a language teacher at a café and spend an hour learning a few key Hungarian phrases and words and learning a little bit about Hungarian culture.  Skjalg agreed that this sounded like fun and we booked a 2-hour class for my birthday. In our confirmation, Miklós (our Fungarian teacher) wrote:

Actually, if you could arrive in Budapest a day earlier you could enjoy grandiose fireworks on August 20 in the evening since it’s a national holiday.

Last night while eating dinner at a café, Skjalg looked up the details of the fireworks show. He stumbled across a site that listed several more exciting events happening that day. We decided that, in addition to attending the fireworks show, we would wake up early to watch the air and water show and then possibly visit the Street of Hungarian Flavors.

Historical Background

The person whom the day is named for was Hungary’s first king, Stephen (István in Hungarian) who was born in 969 and died in 1038. He laid the foundation of the state by converting the nomad and pagan Magyar people (Hungarians) to Roman Catholicism.

Up until the end of the 10th century, the seven different tribes that made up Hungary often attacked and robbed Western European countries. In 955 they suffered a major defeat and the leaders decided that it was time that they give up their raids and focus instead on settling down. Stephen was the first to realize that the only way this could be accomplished was by linking the people through a common faith – Roman Catholicism. In 1000 A.D. he became Hungary’s first king when he was given a crown by Pope Sylvester II. The Holy Crown is Hungary’s most precious treasure and can be viewed in the Budapest Parliament.

During his reign, King Stephen built churches all over the country and invited Catholic priests to lay the foundation for Catholicism. He replaced pagan rules with new, strict legislations and organized the country through administrative measures. Through his efforts, Hungary became a strong state and played a major role in aiding Western Europe during the Medieval Ages.

King Stephen was canonized on August 20th, 1038. As part of the canonization process, his remains were exhumed and his right hand was discovered to be as fresh as the day he was buried. The hand was detached and can be viewed to this day in St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest.

The main celebration event of St. Stephen’s day is the procession of the Holy Right Hand around the Basilica. In addition to this event, there is a blessing of the new bread, raising of the Hungarian Flag, air and water show over the Danube river, various concerts and street carnival, Street of Hungarian flavors (where you can taste traditional Hungarian food and drinks), contest for Hungary’s Birthday Cake 2012, and finally a fireworks show to close out the day.

Our Day

This part is quite picture-heavy, so it may take some time loading. I tried to narrow it down to those that I thought best illustrated the day.

First time using the Subway in Budapest

The show was to start at 10:00, but we wanted to make sure that we got good spots, so we were out the door at about 9:15. It was to be my first time riding the subway, and I was a bit nervous. We had to stand in line for about 10 minutes to get a ticket and then passed through the guard supervised ticket checkpoint onto the escalator. I assumed that the guards were only there because it was a national holiday, but Skjalg told me that they are there all the time. It felt weird to have my ticket checked several times throughout the trip. In Norway, you are really only checked if there is a ticket control. I knew a guy that went three years without ever buying a ticket before he was fined during a control. There’s really no point to skirting the ticket fee in Budapest – a regular month pass costs 260,- ($44) and a student pass 130,- ($22) versus a regular for 620,- ($103) and student for 380,- ($66) in Norway.

A couple things hit me about the subway stations in Budapest:

  1. They are huge! Many have small shops and food venders.
  2. The platforms remind me a lot of the tube in London.
  3. They smell like fresh baked goods. All. The. Time. Skjalg said that there are small bakeries in every station.
  4. The escalators are very long and much faster than normal. I experienced an odd sense of vertigo my first couple times on them.
  5. It gets VERY windy when a subway runs through – ladies, hold on to those dresses!

It’s a long way down!


Inside of a subway car, barreling through darkness

All in all, my first experience with the subway was pretty good. The stations smell like fresh pastries, the platforms are clean, spacious and well ventilated, people are quick but courteous, and the escalators are fun once you get used to them. The actual subway cars look like relics from WWII and it really does feel like you are speeding through darkness in a tin can, but I found it kind of exciting. We’ll see if that changes…

Air and Water Show

After leaving the subway station, we were picked up by the masses heading towards the Danube and eventually dropped off at the end of Margaret Bridge. We were lucky enough to find an open spot along the railing.

The bridge and sidewalks along the river were packed with people

Ready for the show!

Beginning of the show from our perfect spot. What a beautiful view!

The first part of the show consisted of flybys of different planes, some in a special formation and some with Hungarian flags trailing behind. 

One plane was equipped with smoke machines that made patterns in the sky.

The plane did a bunch of cool tricks included spiraling down to the ground and then flying straight up, shutting off the engine, and floating in free fall.

There were two rounds of people jumping out of planes with different colored parachutes.

For the finale, three planes released smoke in the colors of the Hungarian flag.

Such a beautiful city 

One of the things that Skjalg mentioned that he finds most interesting in Budapest is that people cool off in the fountains around the city. With such extreme temperatures, I understand that people make their way to the running water to cool off. Two people were even dipping their dogs into the water. I can’t imagine what this heat would be like with a fur coat.

We passed by the parliament on our way to grab lunch.

We stopped at a café on a street that had a beautiful view of the Basilica.

Skjalg got quite the patriotic sandwich…

There was tight security around the Basilica. We think it was in preparation for the procession of The Holy Right Hand. I felt so bad for the guards wearing full suits. It was 38°C (100.3°F) and it felt much hotter. 

After lunch, we passed a large pool where people were sitting and cooling off their feet. We thought it a little odd at first, but then considered the heat and decided to join in. It felt so good to dip our scorched feet in the cool water.

View from “the foot pool”.

The Street of Hungarian Flavors

We passed a bunch of teenagers dressed in traditional Hungarian clothing on our way to the food fair.

Beautiful view of the parliament building from the Buda side of the city.

Time to sneak in a kiss 😉

Welcome to the Street of Hungarian Flavors!

The first booth was serving Hungarian sausage and gnocchi.

There were two men cutting fresh gnocchi on a table in the back of the booth. 

In the front, there was a couple frying the fresh cut gnocchi pieces in a huge metal pan.

The second part of the booth displayed an assortment of colorful desserts.

There were so many different kinds and all were so beautiful decorated.

We purchased one portion of the Hungarian sausage and gnocchi dish to share and a couple of dessert testers. It was amazing sitting in the sun with the food fair on one side and Danube River and Parliament building on the other.

The desserts were much different than I expected. They looked like they might have been little cakes, but instead they were filled with a mixture of dates, coconut flakes, other dried fruits and nuts. I was pleasantly surprised.

We passed by many other food booths, including Hungarian-style pizza, but we were too full to try anything else.

People were going crazy for the different fresh baked bread booths. We saw one loaf type in particular in the arms of some 20 different fair-goers. It looked a lot like the type of bread that is eaten with goulash – Hungary’s National Dish.

There were several booths serving a sort of hollow cone pastry. Dough was wrapped around a metal rod and then left to back over an open flame. It was then rolled in a mixture of what I believe was coconut, nuts and sugar. One station had a sign that said: Kürtöskalács – natural, cocoa, walnut, coconut, and cinnamon.

Halfway through the food fair, we passed a stage hosting young Hungarians dressing in traditional clothing and singing and dancing traditional songs and dances.

The beautiful bridge we crossed to return to the Pest side of the city.


This was just the beginning of the crowd. We live about 15-minutes walk from the bridge and this was the scene we saw as soon as we got to the main street.

Nearing the bridge – we didn’t think we were going to be able to get on it! 

Yea, a couple people showed up…


On the way home, we passed this little girl smiling at the crowd from the inside of a pizza shop.

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