Budapest, Hungary, is the capital of a 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.
Sights—Budavari Palota (Buda Castle); Matyas Templom and Halaszbastya on Castle Hill; Parliament; Rudas and Kiraly Gyogyfurdo (Turkish baths); Hosok tere (Heroes Square); Szent Istvan Bazilika.
Museums—Magyar Nemzeti Muzeum for Hungarian history; Hungarian art at the Magyar Nemzeti Galeria; Iparmuveszeti Muzeum for decorative arts in a decorative building; Ludwig Museum Budapest for contemporary art.
Memorable Meals—strudels; traditional Hungarian coffee and pastries and you can’t miss the traditional Hungarian goulash!
Walks—Along the Danube embankment; around Castle Hill; up and down Andrassy ut and Vaci utca; along the korut (ring road); up Gellert Hill; around the lovely neighborhood surrounding the Hungarian National Museum; on Margit Island; in the Buda Hills; in Varosliget.
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.
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.
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 AustriaHungary.
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 offers many shopping options, from malls and boutiques to local arts-and-crafts shops. Vaci utca in the city center features higherend Hungarian and international designers, while antiques shops are clustered around Vaci utca, Falk Miksa utca and the Castle Hill quarter. Other streets worth strolling are Kossuth Lajos utca, Rakoczi ut and the ring made by Karoly korut, Muzeum korut, Szent Istvan korut, Erzsebet korut and Terez korut. Andrassy ut is home to the most exclusive (and expensive) labels, and the city-created "Fashion Street" near Deak ter also holds many luxury shops.
Or you could head to one of the shopping malls: Westend City Center, Mammut or Duna Plaza have lots of stores. Also worth visiting is the iron-strutted Central Market Hall for knickknacks or food, but most of all for the wonderful architecture.
Hungarian porcelain makes a nice (but fragile) souvenir. Herend is the most famous type of Hungarian porcelain, but don't overlook Zsolnay, Hollohaza and Alfoldi. Also look for Ajka crystal, which has caught on abroad, and Halas lace, another national specialty.
Some packaged and precooked food items also make excellent souvenirs. Of course, there's paprika from Kalocsa and Szeged, more varieties of salami than you can imagine, and tins of pate and caviar at bargain prices. Famous Hungarian wines include the dessert wine Tokaji Aszu, as well as red and white wines from the Szekszard, Balaton, Eger, Sopron and Villany regions. Unicum, a bitter herb liqueur in a characteristic dark green, spherical bottle, is called the national drink, although that honor should really go to palinka, the Hungarian fruit brandy. It can be made from plums, apricots or other fruits, and it is strong stuff.
Be aware that to take works of art or antiques out of Hungary, you will need to fill out special paperwork. Be sure to ask your dealer for these forms when making a purchase.
DO'S AND DON'TS
Do try traditional Hungarian food such as beef stew (marhaporkolt tarhonyaval), which is usually served in a spicy paprika sauce with noodles (tarhonya).
Don't let lack of language skills deter you from experiencing local specialties such as the open-air markets and the bath houses.
Do walk up Andrassy ut from Deak ter to the city park, and walk along the ring road from Blaha Lujza ter to Margit Hid. It's a great way to see some of the city's best architecture and get a glimpse of real city life.
Do shop at flea markets for bargains on traditional folk crafts including fabrics, wooden articles and ceramics. The quality of the items sold there can be very good.
Don't skip the great view—it's a hike up to the top of Gellert Hill, but the panoramic views from the Citadel are wonderful.
Do learn a few phrases of Hungarian before visiting Budapest. Even though many people speak English and other languages in the city, it is always appreciated when foreigners know a few key phases. "Good day" is jo napot and "thank you" is koszonom.
Do use Budapest's metro system. Continental Europe's oldest subway still sparkles, is tidy and gets you from Point A to Point B efficiently and cheaply.
Don't order salad separately and then eat it first—traditional Hungarian dishes are accompanied by salata or csalamade and are eaten in tandem with the main meal.
Languages: Hungarian; German, English and Russian are also spoken, especially in tourist areas.
Predominant Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox.
Time Zone: 1 hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+1 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is observed from the end of March to the end of October
The forint (HUF) is the official currency of Hungary.
Budapest's climate is temperate. However, there can be big temperature differences among the four seasons. Generally speaking, December-February are the coldest months (average temperature in January is 27 F/-3 C), and July and August are the hottest (average temperature in July is 85 F/30 C). Spring and fall are the ideal times to visit, with daily highs in the 60s F/15-20 C.
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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