The importance of BUDAPEST to Hungary is difficult to overestimate. More than two million people live in the capital – one fifth of the population – and everything converges here: roads and rail lines; air travel (Ferihegy is the country's only civilian airport); industry, commerce and culture; opportunities, wealth and power. Like Paris, the city has a history of revolutions – in 1849, 1918 and 1956 – buildings, parks and avenues on a monumental scale, and a reputation for hedonism, style and parochial pride. In short, Budapest is a city worthy of comparison with other great European capitals.
Surveying Budapest from the embankments or the bastions of the Vár (Castle Hill), it's easy to see why the city was dubbed the "Pearl of the Danube". Its grand buildings and sweeping bridges look magnificent, especially when floodlit or illuminated by the barrage of fireworks that explode above the Danube every August 20, St Stephen's Day. The eclectic inner-city and radial boulevards combine brash commercialism with a fin-de-siècle sophistication, while a distinctively Magyar character is highlighted by the sounds and appearance of the Hungarian language at every turn.
Since the Communist system expired, Budapest has experienced a new surge of dynamism. Luxury hotels and malls, restaurants, bars and clubs have all proliferated – as have crime and social inequalities. While the number of beggars and homeless people on the streets has risen inexorably, politicians and the media prefer moral posturing on other issues, such as toning down the sex industry that has earned Budapest the nickname of the "Bangkok of Europe", or cracking down on refugees and illegal immigrants among the new ethnic communities formed in the last decade. Though many Hungarians fear the erosion of their culture by foreign influences, others see a new golden age for Budapest, as the foremost world-city of Mitteleuropa.
The River Danube – which is never blue – determines basic orientation, with Buda on the hilly west bank and Pest covering the plain across the river. More precisely, Budapest is divided into 23 districts (kerület), designated on maps and street signs by Roman numerals; many quarters also have a historic name. In Buda, the focus of attention is the I district, comprising the Vár and the Víziváros (Watertown); the XI, XII, II and III districts are worth visiting for Gellért-hegy, the Buda Hills, Óbuda and Rómaifürdő. Pest is centred on the downtown Belváros (V district), while beyond the Kiskörút (Small Boulevard) lie the VI, VII, VIII and IX districts, respectively known as the Terézváros, Erzsébetváros, Józsefváros and Ferencváros.
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 Castle District located within the first district. It is an absolute must see, and can easily be accessed by a lovely funicular cable car that offers great views on the way up to the castles. It's hard to imagine that the palace and entire hill with its medieval and baroque residences were utterly flattened during World War II. More baroque splendor extends along Fo utca (Main Street) and flanks Batthyany ter , site of the most spectacular Buda-side view of Pest and the Parliament Building .
The adjacent Gellert Hill and the Citadella form part of the profile of the first district. The hills drop abruptly into the river and define the city's geography, an utterly flat Pest sits on the opposite bank and the majestic Danube flows between them.
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 tomb is reached via a cobblestone lane.
Pop across the river again to Obuda (“Old Buda”), which makes up District III. It was the site of the Roman encampment Aquincum , the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire in continental Europe. Consequently, many amphitheaters and artifacts have been unearthed here. However, many of Budapest's oldest and most beautiful dwellings were razed during the Communist period in order to make way for the huge apartment blocks just off Arpad Bridge. Practically all that remains is a small collection of (restored) buildings around Fo ter.
The city center (Belvaros) is Pest's District V, embracing the area within the Kiskorut (little boulevard). With the awe-inspiring brick and tiled hulk of the Vasarcsarnok (main market hall) at one end, its spine is the affluent retail hub that is the Vaci utca . The city's administrative flank, the Lipotvaros section, extends between Bajcsy-Zsilinsky and the Danube. It includes the Parliament Building and the many ministries that make up the country's administration. Less institutionalized corruption has ensured that the array of shops and restaurants in this district is ever-changing: here today, gone tomorrow.
District VI is the city's mainstream cultural wedge and features Andrassy ut , Budapest's most beautiful boulevard, that has two ends: the traffic center Deák Square where all three metro lines meet and Heroes' Square , one of the city's most important monuments that stands before the City Park . A short walk will take you to one of Budapest's main luxury attractions and what is one of Europe's largest spas, the Szechenyi Thermal Baths . The Andrassy utca is also considered Budapest's very own “Broadway” when it crosses Nagymezo utca and the Opera House , both of which are comfortably ensconced here among the hundreds of eclectic buildings. Franz Liszt ter has become the city's social hot spot, particularly during the summer when the hip hold court at the half a dozen outdoor bars and cafes that spill out onto the pavement.
District VII is Budapest's historic Old Jewish Quarter , containing several synagogues, Kosher bakeries, restaurants, hotels, and a happening night life. One recurring architectural theme is the presence of long, interconnected courtyards that link two parallel streets, out of practical and strategic necessity. The most incredible example of this is the haunting, vacant Gozsdu udvar . The sixth undoubtedly has the best "neighborhood" feel of all the districts within the Nagykorut .
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 Nagykorut .
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 Museum of Applied Arts can be found here. Though technically in the 8th district, the beautiful Hungarian National Museum with its unique architecture is just a few steps from Raday utca, and is also worth the trip.
District XI is where the bourgeois of Buda lived before they took to the hills, but the area remains quite affluent. It curves around Gellert Hill and extends to the border of Budapest itself. Most of the activity in this district centers around Moricz Zsigmond Korter and the Technical University, which fronts a huge stretch of the River Danube between Szabadsag and Lagymanyosi bridges. To experience some solace in this bustling neighborhood make sure to take a trip to the Feneketlen to .
District XII is the gateway to the Buda Hills and serenity, a mere few minutes from Moszkva ter . Buda's tallest hill, Janos Hegy , presides over this area, and there are many spectacular views to check out here from the chair-lift, Children's Railway and the Cogwheel Railway . The latter two also service Szechenyi Hill.
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.
Budapest is an easy city to navigate; as long as you remember where the River Danube is, you will not get lost. Having taken that into consideration, it is best to begin viewing the city from the banks of the river.
This tour is an orientation to the city and its sights; you will start and end in the same spot, making a circular tour of the downtown area. A good place to start is the Duna Korzo on the Pest side. This long, pedestrian-only stretch passes in front of the Marriott Hotel , and continues along to the InterContinental , where it ends at the foot of the Chain Bridge . From anywhere on the Duna Korzo you will be able to enjoy spectacular views of the city: you will be able to see Buda , with its impressive Royal Palace , Gellert Hill and much more. It never fails to take the breath away on first viewing. For a pick me up after your tour, try Karolyi Etterem .
Stroll along the Duna Korzo , maybe stopping at a cafe or two. If you want, take one of the green staircases down and hop on any passing No. 2 tram for a faster moving view. Continue by walking across the city's most famous bridge, the Chain Bridge . It was the capital's first, and it affords wonderful views: north to the Parliament , Margaret Island and the distant hills, south to Gellert Hill and the buildings of Pest . The river runs almost directly north-south through the city center, with Pest on the East side and Buda on the West. Stay for a few moments, taking in the scenery and acquainting yourself. At the Buda end of the Chain Bridge you will see the tunnel under Castle Hill , Clark Adam Square , the 0 Kilometer Stone and the station where you can catch the Funicular up to the top of Castle Hill . The ride to the top is short, but during it you will get a sweeping and panoramic view of Pest (from where you have just walked). For a nearby bite to eat, try Aranyi Szarvas .
At the top of the funicular you will see the massive Royal Palace to your left (south), while the Old Town attractions begin off to the right (north). You might want to visit one of the museums in the castle, such as the National Library, the Ludwig Museum - Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hungarian National Gallery , and the Budapest History Museum . Not far from here, as you walk north into the Old Town , you will get some of the finest views of the city in the historic Jewish quarters. Further along lies the plague column , a memorial to the countless plague victims who were too numerous to be buried in standard graves. Here you will also find the most photographed church in the city, Matthias Church , backed on the riverside by the fairy tale-like Fisherman's Bastion . Take time to admire the views from the top, once again they are stunning. The Hilton Hotel is worth a look: inside are the remains of an ancient church. You can now catch the Castle Bus from in front of the Hilton down to the last stop, Moszkva ter (Moscow Square). Very near, stop in to Ezustfenyo Etterem for traditional Eastern European fare.
On Margaret Island there are baths to relax you, grassy fields to nap in and flower-filled sections to enjoy. When you're refreshed, get back on the next tram No. 4 and take it all the way back to the Pest side, getting off at Oktogon. You should remember this place for your next tour. After a quick look around, start walking down Andrassy ut towards the river (about 15 minutes). If you're tired, catch the oldest Metro on the continent and get off at the last stop—Vorosmarty. You will now find yourself in the main cafe square near the river, and at the start of Vaci utca , the famous shopping street. You may want to leave the shopping for another day, and just relax in Gerbeaud , sipping coffee and enjoying one of their world famous cakes or pastries. Walk another 100 meters west (towards the river) and you will be right back where you started; having completed a circle of the main sights, you are now well oriented and ready for more touring; but leave that until tomorrow!
Now that you have your bearings and understand the layout of Budapest, it's time to visit some of the more famous sights. This second tour begins right where you started and ended your first tour; along the Duna Korzo , or Embankment. From the Duna Korzo , walk back to Vorosmarty ter going away from the river. To the right is Vaci Utca , the city's most famous shopping street. Walk along Vaci Utca , at your leisure - you will see some wonderful architecture as well as have a wide choice of interesting shops to peruse. You may also want to explore some of the streets that lead off to the East and West; like Vaci Utca , they are also pedestrian only. Eventually you will come to what appears to be the end of the street, where the cars whizz by to get onto the white Erzsebet Bridge . Take the pedestrian underpass and you will come up on the other side of the street (while underground, take time out to look at the photos of Budapest over the years which can be seen behind glass on the underground passage walls). On this side of Vaci Utca , (technically the southern side), keep your eyes raised upwards, especially when you come to the intersections, where you will see the bullet and shrapnel holes in the building façades, painful testament to the grim events of 1956. When you get to the end of this section of the street, you will be facing one of the city's many interesting Covered Markets . This one is especially popular with tourists, as much of the upper floor is devoted to Hungarian handicrafts and souvenirs. Take the time to find the langos (fried dough) booth, or have a glass of wine with the many locals who do their shopping at the food stalls on the ground floor.
Exit the market hall from the same doors you entered, and walk towards the river. Ahead, you will see the beautiful green Iron Bridge. This leads to Gellert Hill , and the famous Gellert Hotel . As you walk across it, you will be able to enjoy stunning views of the city. If you're trying to conserve energy, tram No. 47 or 49 will also get you across. At this point, standing in front of the famous hotel, you'll have to make a tough choice: whether to explore the world famous Gellert Baths , or to take a panoramic hike up to the top of Gellert Hill . The walk up to the top of the hill takes around 20 minutes. The park on the way up is beautiful and usually full of walkers, dogs and children, but the main reason for the climb is the spectacular panoramic views. This is definitely a place where you will want to take photos. Take a break at the top of the hill and enjoy the views: you deserve it! From the bottom of Gellert Hill, beside the river, continue by taking tram No. 19 all the way to Batthyany ter (no more walking!). Take a few minutes to look around; Batthyany ter offers the very best views in the city of the beautiful neo-Gothic Parliament building . You may want to take a break at one of the cafes here, like the Pierrot Cafe
Underground Railway Museum
When you're ready, take the metro to Deak Ter. While changing lines, stop in at the Underground Railway Museum and learn a little about the history of the continent's oldest metro line. Continue along on line 1, and take it all the way to Heroes' Square (Hosok tere). This picturesque and ceremonial square has been built on a grand scale. The monuments here are impressive (there used to be a statue of Stalin here in 1956), and behind the square lies City Park , the Zoo , the Amusement Park and the world famous Gundel restaurant. On both sides of the square are huge museums. All in all it would not be difficult to spend several days just exploring the nearby attractions.
When you're finished with the square, take the time to walk down Andrassy Ut , admiring the many fine houses and buildings. Along the way you will come across the Opera House , Liszt Square and many other interesting sights. If you're tired, stop in for a bite to eat at Demmer's Teahaz , or take the metro back to Vorosmarty square: you will be right back where you started, and ready for a stop at a cafe or a rest by the river.
Anyway you see the Danube and its surroundings will leave you with scenic views and pleasant memories of Budapest.
Tour From Above:
Helicopter Sightseeing Tours ( http://www.budapest.com/budapest_from_the_air/helicopter_sightseeing_tour_(hp1).en.html/ )
Danube Cruise ( +36 1 212 3131/ http://www.budapestcitytour.com/)
Eurama Sightseeing City Tours (+36 1 327 6690/ http://www.eurama.hu)
CityRama ( +36 1 302 4382/ http://cityrama.hu/)