Budapest, considered to be one of the most beautiful and culturally enriched capitals of Europe, has had a lively, if somewhat chequered and tragic history. For many centuries a part of the Ottoman, and then Austro–Hungarian Empires, Hungary lost two thirds of its territory in 1920, leaving Budapest as both its capital and only major city. Briefly occupied by the Nazis during WW II and then annexed by Soviet Russia and controlled from Moscow, it gained its independence in 1991, an event accompanied by much joyful celebration and relief. Joining the EU in 2004, Budapest has embraced an increasingly European outlook. Although an ever more attractive destination for tourists, Budapest still retains a distinctly authentic and original flavour, with Hungarians dominating the cultural, economic and social life of the city.
Budapest was, for much of its history, a tale of two cities, Buda and Pest, divided from each other by the River Danube, with Buda occupying the higher ground. Although, today they are linked by economy and accessibility, they are still, in fact, considered by many to be two very different areas, each with its own unique and individual character.
Hungarian history has undoubtedly left its mark on its capital city, contributing to a wide-range of distinct architectural styles and differing cultural influences. These range from Romanesque to Art Noveau, and from Imperialist to Soviet. It is a pleasure to merely meander through the streets of either Buda or Pest, take a twilight stroll along the river–bank or, alternatively, soak up the atmosphere in any one of a number of traditional Hungarian thermal baths that sprinkle the city.
Today, Buda possesses some of the cities biggest tourist attractions, being for many centuries, the capital city and seat of royalty. Castle hill (Varhegy) houses the Royal Palace and Matthias Church, as well as number of other smaller attractions. The area is pedestrianised so it is possible to wander the cobbled streets in peace, gazing at the colourful facades that are a mix of elaborate and simple but elegant design.
Pest gives Budapest its more contemporary European ambience. In Pest can be found the Parliament building, an astonishing structure, modelled on the British Parliament and dominating the Pest River Bank. In addition, Pest is home to St. Stephens Basilica and The State Opera House, both elaborately ornamented and imposing buildings. The Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest in Europe, is also worth visiting.
Between the two lies Margaret Island. 2.5 km in length, it is a popular and refreshing recreational retreat in the summer with beautiful parks, a Japanese garden and the largest outdoor swimming area in Budapest. Hungarians amass here to soak up sun or seek shade whilst gazing at the operatic water fountain shows.
For those interested in activities there are many on offer, including wine tasting, bicycle rides and walking tours. Alternatively, you could visit a diverse range of art galleries and museums. Particularly recommended is the House of Terror, a well designed, moving museum that documents the decades of Soviet repression. The word 'Terror' are carved backwards starkly into its façade and filters the sunlight.
The main shopping area is located in Pest in the Belvaros region on and around Vaci Utca, where there are a number of stylish designer shops and boutiques. The Grand Market Hall situated on Fovam ter is also a delightful place to shop, or even just visit. The architecture is remarkable and it is chock-a-block with all types of fruits, vegetables, flowers, cheeses and Hungarian delicacies that include gift-wrapped paprika, Hungarian wines and plum brandy. It is crammed with local Hungarians doing their daily shopping. There are also a number of supermarkets located within Pest and a number of 'non-stop' 24 hour shops found throughout the districts.
Not traditionally known for its cuisine, Budapest, however, is paying increasing attention to the quality and diversity of food it can offer. Although perhaps hard to find, there are some great restaurants offering a variety of tasty and authentic Hungarian dishes, as well as more continental or fusion foods. The revival of the Hungarian wine industry means that menus may be accompanied by a wine list that includes high quality local wines from the Balaton area. Good food is relatively expensive but still remains much cheaper than that found in other places in Europe. If prepared to spend a little money, try Café Kor or 1894 Borvendeglo.
Nightlife is varied and caters to all tastes. From continental style bars where the atmosphere is comfortable and the music relaxed, to beer gardens, jazz clubs and a number of clubs that are open to the early hours of the morning. Drinks will be cheap but clubs will charge a cover of between 1000-4000Ft. You could, alternatively, spend an evening surrounded by style and splendour at The State Opera House. There is a free weekly publication, Open, that provides good information on nightspots.
Tourism Office of Budapest1056 Budapest, Marcius 15. ter 7, Hungary. Tel: (+36) 1 266-0479, Fax (+36) 1 266-7477Tourist Information: (+36) 1 322-4098, (=36) 1 488-0475www.budapestinfo.hu