Budapest, Hungary, may be the capital of the landlocked country, but it’s far from dry. In fact, Budapest’s most seductive element is water. It springs from underground wells, filling Ottoman, neoclassical and art-nouveau pools.
It flows through the city in the broad and meandering Danube River, dividing Buda and Pest in yin-yang fashion. It even provides welcome relief after a bowl of hot paprika-spiced goulash.
Few visitors can resist the Budapest baths, but the city’s allure goes beyond its spa status. As a large urban center, Budapest manages to strike a nice balance between nature and development. Hills, islands and parks coexist with hotels, theaters, cafes, monuments and other buildings in an eclectic array of architectural styles.
Orientation is slightly more complicated than dividing the city into Buda and Pest—but it’s a good way to start. The Danube (Duna in Hungarian) flows through the middle of the city: Buda and Obuda are on the west side, Pest is on the east. Seven bridges, in addition to two railway bridges, span the divide.
Buda has hills. Castle Hill is home to some of the city’s most visible landmarks, including Budavari Palota (Buda Castle). Szell Kalman ter, a square north of Castle Hill, is an important transportation hub. To the south of Castle Hill is Gellert Hill, which is topped by the Citadel and the Liberation Monument. North of Castle Hill is Rozsadomb (Hill of Roses), an upper-class neighborhood. Still farther north is Obuda, the oldest part of the city. The city’s Turkish baths are located in Buda near the river.
By comparison, Pest is flat. The grand Parliament building dominates the Pest embankment and skyline. South of Parliament is the area that is generally referred to as the city center. Deak ter is a square at the heart of the city—three metro lines cross there. The boulevard Andrassy ut runs from Deak ter to Hosok tere (Heroes Square), which is at the edge of Varosliget, the main city park.
Most of the attractions in Pest are contained within an area between the river and a ring road (actually, more like an arc), which changes its name every 10 blocks or so. In a north-to-south progression, it’s called Szent Istvan korut, Terez korut, Erzsebet korut, Jozsef korut and Ferenc korut.
Fortunately, there’s another aid to orientation: All of Budapest is divided into 23 numbered districts. Districts 1-3, 11, 12 and 22 are on the Buda and Obuda side (Castle Hill is the first district). District 21 is on Csepel Island, and the remainder of the districts are on the Pest side. The city center is the fifth district, and districts 6-9 encircle it to the east and southeast. The number of the district is written after the street address.
Addresses will be easier to understand if you know a few Hungarian words—ut means avenue, utca means street, ter (or tere) means square, hid means bridge, koz means alley and korut means ring road.
The history of Budapest has been marked by waves of conquerors and immigrants. Celtic remains have been found near Gellert Hill, but one of the first substantial settlements was Roman. The Romans conquered the area in 11 BC and established a city called Aquincum in present-day Obuda. The Huns began threatening the area around AD 250 and, led by Attila, finally gained control over present-day Hungary in 437.
The empire collapsed with Attila’s death less than 20 years later. Successive ethnic groups migrated to the area over the next several hundred years, with the Magyars (ethnic Hungarians) gaining dominance.
The Mongols destroyed both Buda and Pest in 1241, but Buda rebounded and became an intellectual and artistic center during the Renaissance. In 1541, the Ottoman Turks sacked the city and went on to rule until they were replaced in 1686 by the Austrian Hapsburgs. The Hungarians revolted against Austria in 1848-49, and a compromise was reached in 1867, creating the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.
In 1873, Buda, Pest and Obuda were united into one city, Budapest, which became the capital of Hungary. The city underwent expansion and mass development through the end of the 19th century. During that period, the large boulevards were laid out and many of Budapest’s landmark buildings were erected.
But then World War II wreaked devastation: Nazi troops occupied Budapest in the latter part of the war, and heavy fighting between the Germans and the Soviet army resulted in much destruction.
Fortunately, the city center and the bridges over the Danube were rebuilt. The Soviets gained control after the war, and a 1956 uprising was squelched with great force. In 1989, Hungary’s borders were finally reopened—a contributing factor in the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall.
Despite a steady turnover of political leadership since then, Budapest has played an integral role in keeping Hungary’s economic growth strong. Hungary joined the European Union in May 2004.
Budapest has undergone a tremendous amount of change, and it seems there is more to come. A boom in construction and renovation projects resulted in the renewal of several famous coffeehouses and hotels dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Budapest maintains modern goals in an area rich with history, making it a fascinating place to visit.
Budapest’s geography will help you organize your sightseeing so you can use your time efficiently. Start in Buda at Castle Hill. It’s a Hungarian acropolis, covered in attractions. Budavari Palota, on the hill’s southern end, houses the National Gallery, the city’s history museum and a contemporary-arts museum. On the northern end of Castle Hill are two easily recognizable sights: the beautiful spire and colorful roof of Matyas Templom and the cone-shaped towers and terrace of Halaszbastya (Fishermen’s Bastion).
The Castle Hill quarter also boasts a high concentration of antiques stores, museums and upscale restaurants. You can take the Budavari funicular (Siklo) railway up from Clark Adam ter near the Chain Bridge. Horse-drawn carriages are an enjoyable way to see the neighborhood. You can usually find them just outside Matyas Templom.
Buda is also where you’ll find wonderful bathhouses, a legacy of the Ottoman Turks who occupied the city for nearly 150 years. The Rudas Gyogyfurdo is considered to be the most beautiful Turkish bathing complex, but the Kiraly and Vila Bej baths are also extraordinary. Soaking in a warm pool beneath a sunlight-pierced dome has to be the most relaxing form of sightseeing.
On other days, see Pest. Gracing its embankment is the stately Parliament building, which houses the crown jewels and is open to guided tours. Also in Pest, on opposite sides of the monumental square called Hosok tere, are the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Art. Behind the square lies Varosliget, the city’s main park, which is home to the zoo.
The Danube River and its bridges (most notably Szechenyi Lanchid, also known as the Chain Bridge) are attractions in their own right. Margitsziget, an island-park in the river, is one of the most beautiful open spaces in the city. The beauty of the Buda Hills is also easily accessible, thanks to a series of trains and lifts. The hillside nature preserve on Sas-Hegy is the best place to examine the wide-ranging local flora, but for a good panoramic view of the city, you can’t beat Gellert Hill. And no visit to Budapest is complete without seeing and enjoying the Gellert Baths in Buda and the Szechenyi Baths in Pest.
Budapest has an abundance of wonderful cafes that are also popular nightspots. One of the liveliest areas is the Theater District around Liszt Ferenc ter and Andrassy ut. Szentkiralyi utca and Krudy Gyula utca (near the Hungarian National Museum) and Raday utca are other popular streets.
In the summer months, there are wonderfully atmospheric outdoor courtyard bars located in the 7th district. You’ll also find quite a few bars and clubs near Vaci utca (be aware, though, that some cafes and bars there charge a hefty service fee).
Large dance clubs are farther out from the city center, with a younger crowd often frequenting Barba Negra Track. The Capella Cafe is a popular gay-friendly bar and cabaret that also attracts a straight clientele.
Nightlife generally begins at cafes in the early evening—if you want a table, you should arrive by 9 pm (earlier in summer if you want to sit outside). By 10:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, the bars are usually packed. Dance clubs don’t fill up until after midnight, and they stay open till dawn.
Hungarian cuisine encompasses a great variety, and is one of Europe’s lesser-known cuisines (making its discovery all the more exciting). Hungarian food relies heavily on pork, but game meats such as venison and wild boar are also popular. Sour cream, paprika, cabbage, crackling and goose liver are also essential elements of many dishes.
In Budapest, you’ll still find traditionally rich and heavy Hungarian dishes such as gulyas (a soup) and porkolt (a stew served over noodles or rice). You’ll also find such standard dishes as roast goose or duck with cabbage, paprikascsirke (paprika chicken) and stuffed cabbage.
Hungary has many rivers, if no sea coast, and ponty (carp) is popular, as is traditional halaszle (fish soup). But there are also plenty of ethnic restaurants—Italian is especially popular.
Coffeehouses are an important part of Hungarian life, as are pastries such as Eszterhazy torta or Dobos torta. Coffee is espresso, served straight or with hot milk (tejes kave), or diluted with a little hot water (hosszu kave). In bakeries, you’ll find the savory biscuits called pogacsa that are a part of everyday Hungarian life, as well as bread and rolls baked fresh every day.
You should also sample Hungarian wine. Try the red and white wines from the Villany, Balaton and Szekszard regions, as well as rich reds from the Eger region. The local sparkling wine (pezsgo) is also very good. Of course, the most famous Hungarian wine is the golden Tokaj (particularly the Tokaji Aszu)—the 6-Puttonyos is the sweetest, and 1993 and 1999 are excellent years.
When dining out, be wary of restaurants that don’t list prices on their foreign-language menu—some places can and will charge whatever they want. You should also remember to double-check the bill before you pay.
In restaurants, breakfast is generally served 10 am-noon, lunch noon-2 pm and dinner 7-10 or 11 pm, though most restaurants stay open throughout the day.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a single dinner without tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than 2,000 HUF; $$ = 2,000 HUF-3,500 HUF; $$$ = 3,501 HUF-5,000 HUF; $$$$ = more than 5,000 HUF.
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