Undoubtedly the brightest jewel on the Danube, present-day Budapest was created in 1873 from the separate towns of Buda, Pest and Obuda. Its population of two million resides in 23 districts—the central ones will be covered here.
The definitive view of Budapest is that of the
District II, the Rozsadomb, or “Rose Hill,” is where Budapest's elite live. Dotted thickly with old villas and embassy residences, it got its name from the Turk Gul Baba, whose
Pop across the river again to Obuda (“Old Buda”), which makes up District III. It was the site of the Roman encampment
The city center (Belvaros) is
District VI is the city's mainstream cultural wedge and features
District VII is Budapest's historic
The eighth could also be known as the “District of Ill Repute.” Rakoczi ter has long since entered the lexicon as more than just a place name, but other areas have outshone it in its brand of commerce. There have been many attempts to establish Red Light Districts for legal prostitution here in Jozsefvaros, and just as many attempts to discourage them. However, visitors won't run into any brazen tawdriness unless they venture outside the
District IX, Ferencvaros, is similar in character to the working-class if not downright impoverished eighth, except that it is now an up-and-coming area. Trendy bars and cafes are springing up on Raday utca and in the section bounded by the Nagykorut. Gentrification will continue due to the potential for development alongside the Danube. It is definitely still worth a visit for tourists as the marvelous
District XI is where the bourgeois of Buda lived before they took to the hills, but the area remains quite affluent. It curves around
District XII is the gateway to the
Picking a place to stay in Budapest is a pleasure, there is something for everyone. The hardest part is deciding what you want as with so many tempting options. Even in the middle of summer and the height of tourist season, you should still be able to get a room somewhere. The notable exception is Formula 1 (Grand Prix) weekend in August when hundreds of thousands of fans descend on the city, and hotels, panzios and hostels are booked up for the event up to a year in advance. Still another option is to stay in a private room; these are usually rented out by ordinary people trying to supplement their income. It's a great way to meet the locals (even though you may not have any language in common!) and the service is regulated. Breakfast is almost always included in the quoted hotel prices, and many places - including panzios, offer wonderful food in their own restaurants.
You need to decide what you want before you start making calls. Would you prefer being right downtown? Do you want incredible views? Maybe you want a spa hotel, or a quiet, peaceful sojourn in the fresh air of the Buda Hills?
District II & District III
One of the best things about being in Budapest is the proximity of the Buda Hills. These are wonderfully green and in many places provide spectacular panoramas over the city and the Danube. If you want to enjoy the hectic pace of the city by day, but feel like you are in the countryside at night, then you will want to stay in the hills. The air is clean, the birds sing to wake you up in the morning and there are dozens of possibilities for hiking, biking etc., all over the area. For all this and more at extremely affordable prices, the Grand Hostel Budapest is an ideal place in which to stay. The Europa is an apartment-style hotel for those planning long-term stays in the city. Other elegant options include the Victoria Hotel, the Kristaly Panzio and the Panda Hotel, all of which offer excellent customer service and comfortable rooms.
District III also offers many wonderful accommodation options. A hotel that offers thermal waters is the Ramada Plaza Budapest. The Monte Christo Hotel has a private beach and swimming pool, ideally located near Roman Beach. The Dunapart Hotel is set within the cabins of a real ship, and offers stunning views of the Danube. Close to the Szentendrei Island is Duna-Party Panzio, which is convenient to many public transportation options.
If you want to be right downtown, then you have a choice of everything from backpackers' hostels to luxurious world-class hotels. Among the latter, the Marriott Hotel, InterContinental and Sofitel Atrium have fantastic views over the River Danube, while the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus offers some of the most luxurious accommodations in the city. To get the best of both worlds, try the beautiful Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, where you'll be treated like royalty while you look out over the river. Other good choices in the center include the Yellow Submarine Youth Hostel or the Diaksport.
Many people come to Budapest to take advantage of the healing thermal waters that spill out of the ground in various locations. Several hotels have incorporated this into their actual buildings; the most famous example being the Gellert Hotel. The Gellert Baths are justifiably famous and can be used by anyone (they are usually considered a must-see on a trip to Budapest).
If you're in the budget category, you can still have a great view of the city; some of the panzios in the Buda Hills are very reasonably priced. There is also the one-star Hotel Citadella, which sits atop Gellert Hill. The views from up here are so stunning that the tour buses drive by from morning until night. So what will it be? Five stars and a balcony on the Danube, or a quiet panzio in the Buda Hills? Or maybe a happening downtown hostel with an all night bar and disco...the choice is yours.
The Buda Hills are where you will find many of Budapest's panzios. These are usually family-run guest houses. The standards can, and do, range from being almost hostel-like to very luxurious indeed. Staying at a panzio is a great way to meet the locals. One of the best, with stunning views of the twinkling city below, is the Molnar Panzio. The Danubius Health Spa Resort Margitsziget and the Grand Hotel on Margaret Island.
Budapest is often called the “Pearl of the Danube," and it truly is a stunningly beautiful place. Geography, history and human creativity have all combined to create a city that simultaneously charms, amazes and fascinates. Budapest is full of diversity, and so is its history. The Romans settled here in the 1st Century CE, and despite the fact that they remained only a few hundred years, their influence can still be felt: they found the sun-drenched gentle slopes perfect for grape vines, and began what is now a huge viticulture industry. They also introduced modern architectural techniques (columns, stone, plaster, arches and so on), the remains of which can be viewed to this day. The Romans, famous for their love of baths, also made use of the abundant thermal springs that lie under the city; they created the very first public baths, a now world-famous feature of Budapest. During Roman times, Budapest was known as Aquincum.
Some 500 years later, in 896, a wave of brave and fiery people came sweeping into the Carpathian basin. These were the Magyars, the founders of the Hungarian nation. They established various settlements, but Buda and Pest were no more than tiny villages. King Bela built a fortress in Buda in the 13th Century, and then King Charles Robert moved the court from Visegrad to Buda where his son, Louis the Great, began construction of the now famous Royal Palace.
The city began to flourish when suddenly the Mongols invaded and defeated the Magyars. Buda and Pest were reduced to ashes. However, just as quickly, the attackers mysteriously vanished, allowing both the city and the country to regroup and rebuild.
Things seemed to be going well and the settlement was on the road to recovery, when the Turks, under the leadership of Suleyman the First, inflicted a crushing and total defeat on the Hungarian army at the battle of Mohacs on August 29, 1526. By 1541 the Turks had full control of Buda and its huge castle. The Turks, another people with a love of thermal baths, constructed some of the finest bathing facilities in the world here. Several of them are still in use and have brought healing relief to thousands. Also credited to the Turks is the introduction of paprika (although this is a bone of contention to many), and in the famous book Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, the author Geza Gardonyi suggests that the Turks were also responsible for another Budapest specialty: coffee. Rozsadomb, however, represents one thing that was indeed imported to Budapest from its invaders - roses.
It was the Poles who came to Budapest's rescue: in 1686 they liberated both Buda and the castle itself, sending the Turks into a full-scale retreat. Nevertheless, this did not bring about a free Hungary; instead, the nation became a province of the Hapsburg Empire. Still, Budapest continued to grow, despite the many political and military upheavals. While it was denied its place as capital of a free nation, it was not denied prosperity. Surprisingly, the city was still not known as Budapest. In fact there was not even a bridge across the River Danube. In 1849, the Chain Bridge opened, causing quite a stir. Not long after, in 1873, the city was finally united to encompass the formerly separate and independent Buda, Pest, Margaret Island and Obuda Island.
All of a sudden, the city began to prosper like never before. As the year 1896 approached (the 1000 year anniversary of the arrival of the Magyars), a building program was launched on a massive scale. It was during this boom that many of the fine buildings still famous today were constructed. The metro (the first on the continent) was completed and Andrassy Ut (Andrassy Street) was created above it. Fine architecture became one of the city's trademarks.
The First World War saw Budapest emerge as the capital of a country only one third of its pre-war size. The Second World War brought about large-scale destruction: by the end of fighting and the Soviet “liberation,” not a single bridge was left standing across the Danube, the Royal Palace lay in ruins and the Castle District was devastated.
The next big event in Budapest's history was the 1956 uprising. On October 23, a peaceful protest became violent after shots were fired. Thousands of people took to the streets, a new leader, Imre Nagy, was appointed, Stalin's statue was pulled down and the people were ecstatic. However, the Soviets would not tolerate this for long, they sent in troops and tanks, crushing the revolution and killing some 2000-3000 people. Many thousands more were arrested and the famous Hungarian brain-drain began with some 250,000 (mostly well-educated) people leaving the country to settle in the West. Many buildings around town still have pockmarked facades: these are the scars of 1956 and they are a telling reminder of those grim times.
1989 was a true headline year for Budapest and Hungary. Troops began dismantling the fence separating the nation from Austria, while Gorbachev watched silently from Moscow. In Budapest, a statue of Lenin was removed, and in June a crowd of a quarter million people attended a ceremony at Heroes' Square for the reburial of Imre Nagy. By 1991, there were no more Soviet troops in Hungary and only seven years later the country became a member of NATO.
Today, Budapest is quickly reclaiming its rightful place as one of Europe's most beautiful and scenic cities. The Pearl of the Danube is once again on full display.
There was a time not long ago when all Budapest had to offer its hoards of hungry tourists and locals were hundreds of traditional restaurants offering slabs of fatty breaded and fried pork, surly service and not a vegetable in sight. How times have changed! Since 1990 and the new political system, restaurants, clubs, bars and cafes have begun appearing in the hundreds. Now, you can find more dishes than you can shake a chip at, involving every ingredient from whatever country takes your fancy, from the high luxury of Gundel to the simple student handout, from Mongolian barbecued meat to Middle Eastern falafel chickpea balls and salad.
District I has a nice selection of pubs and restaurants. Fish eaters should set sail for the Horgasztanya on the Buda bank of the River Danube. Another great choice is the Dunaparti Matróz Kocsma, a pub where you can have a bite to eat or a drink while enjoying a beautiful water view. Belgian Brasserie offers a great selection of drinks. For a unique place to dine, head to Pater Marcus which is a cellar restaurant with lovely stained glass windows.
District II & District III
You can eat anything and everything here from fast food (McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken) to long leisurely lunches for business or pleasure on the leafy terraces of Remiz. Kacsa offers some of the best duck, and for great goose liver, try the Magnaskert Etterem. Maharaja, which serves up some divine concoctions and is very vegetarian-friendly. The underwater-themed restaurant Vasmacska in Obuda's ancient square, whose name translates as “anchor,” serves delicious cuts of meat and also has vegetarian dishes.
The French are justifiably proud of their cuisine, and it is possible to dine comme les rois in Kepiro, La Fontaine and Lou Lou without breaking the bank. The combination of delicious fresh Hungarian vegetables—succulent tomatoes, peppers, organic mushrooms—and fresh sea fish flown in thrice weekly makes for healthy haute-cuisine.
Chinese cuisine is best exemplified by Tian Tan while Japanese sushi, sashimi and noodle bars offer exotic delicacies. Central Kavezo, a source of literary inspiration at the turn of the last century and now rapidly recreating the ambiance of well-read society, is a great place to spend the day. Hungarians love their cakes and Gerbeaud and Auguszt make some of the most mouth-watering pastries, desserts and torte. One thing to try is the Langos—a Hungarian delicacy. This deep-fried frisbee-sized doughnut is served with sour cream, grated cheese and a splash of garlic water dribbled from a jam jar using a twig and feather device. Such delights are more difficult to find these days, replaced by the all-pervasive burger, but you can still try one in vegetable or flea markets and these are an essential start to bargain hunting on a bitter winter's morning—preferably accompanied by a shot of powerful pear palinka (brandy).
Sip a cocktail with a famous blues singer at Janis' Pub. Pompei Pizzeria on Liszt Ferenc square is a convenient and tasty way to fill up before hitting the trendy bars in Pest's most fashionable hang-out. While on the subject, vegetarians are now much better off than even just a decade ago, when the sole, melancholy option consisted of fried cheese/cauliflower/mushroom with a “salad” or pickled cucumber. Now, many restaurants offer imaginative vegetable dishes (try the gorgeous tapas at Ket Szerecsen). If you want to experience a traditional atmosphere you can find it in many coffee houses; Muvesz is one of the most well-known. Its cakes are a major draw for tourists.
Theme bars are also very popular - you could dine in a submarine at Club Verne. Hungarians adore Italian food and Fausto's serves some of the best. Despite its reputation, Hungarian food is not particularly spicy, so for something with a little bite, you could try Indian restaurants such as Shalimar Indiai Etterem. Of course, visitors to Hungary will not want to leave without trying a Hungarian dish with some excellent local wine - goulash, chicken paprika, fozelek (vegetable goop) and reds from Villanyi and Eger in traditional, atmospheric surroundings. Kulacs is a good place to sample the food while listening to talented Gypsy musicians. This is where Rezso Seress composed "Gloomy Sunday," which could be said to be a theme tune for the bitter sweet Magyar soul. Feszek is an old artists' lounge that serves many varieties of game stew.