Budapest, the scenic capital of Hungary is often referred to as the ‘Queen of the Danube’. This city straddles both sides of the legendary river and was originally built as two separate cities, Buda and Pest, which lay on either side of the river.
Today Buda and Pest form two distinct districts of Budapest, which in fact came to be established in 1873 by the way of the union of three cities- Buda, Pest and Óbuda . The Pest section of the city lies on the flat eastern shore of the river while Buda and Óbuda are located on its hillier western bank.
The Buda section of Budapest is the older and more atmospheric section of the city. Located here are some of Budapest’s most well known landmarks like the Castle District that features the Royal Palace, St Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion along with several museums and galleries. The Óbuda section of Budapest lies beyond Buda and contains older settlements of the city. Pest on the other hand, is located on a flat plain and is the commercial epicenter of the city which hosts its many famous shopping areas like Andrássy Boulevard and landmarks like Heroes’ Square.
From 1947 to 1989, this beautiful city like the rest of Hungary was hidden behind the Iron curtain. However the fall of communism in 1990 resulted in Budapest opening up to the world. So much so that today, Budapest is a modern city which is a choice vacation destination. It is estimated that nearly 2.3 million tourists book vacations to Budapest annually to take in its many imposing medieval sites and enjoy its musical and cultural events while relaxing and recharging their batteries at its famed geo-thermal baths.
The growth in the low cost airline industry over the last decade has greatly contributed to Budapest’s popularity as a vacation destination. This popularity also prompted a development of a wide array of hotels all over Budapest, however there are some neighborhoods of the city which are favored over others when deciding on accommodation options in Budapest.
The Castle District on the Buda side of the city is one of its most beautiful enclaves. This district dates back to the 13th century and features quaint cobbled stoned streets, medieval buildings and landmarks like the grand Royal Palace, St. Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion. Also located within the Castle District are some grand hotels that belong to well-known global hotel chains.
This is another small district located on the Buda side of the city. Watertown lies between the Castle District and the Danube and is located on a steep slope of Castle Hill. Located here are a few small hotels that are popular with visitors to the city.
The Inner city district of Pest is the historic center of the city and is home to some of Budapest’s best shopping locales and grand luxury hotels.
The Theresa Town neighborhood of Pest is home to the famed World Heritage Site of Andrássy út, the boulevard that runs from Heroes’ Square through Oktogon and into the Inner City. This area is largely considered to be the ‘best address in Budapest’.
The grand Royal Palace is one of Budapest’s most prominent attractions. This palace is located at the top of Castle Hill, in the Castle District of Buda and dates back to the 13th century. At that time the palace was occupied by a King Béla who fortified it after a Mongol invasion. Over the next few centuries, the palace was occupied by various leaders who left their stamp on the palace. As a result, the palace exhibits a variety of styles that range from Gothic to Baroque. Today, the Grand Palace is a cultural epicenter in Budapest and hosts several museums like The Budapest History Museum, the National Library, the Hungarian National Gallery and the Ludwig Museum.
The Fisherman’s Bastion was built in 1905 near the Mathias Church in the castle district. This structure is built with white stone and was designed by Friges Schulek and exhibits a combination of neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque styles. The Fisherman’s Bastion is a structure that is made up of turrets, ramparts, projections and winding stairways.
It also has seven towers, which represent the seven Magyar tribes that arrived in Hungary in 896. The Fisherman’s Bastion affords a gorgeous view of the Danube, the Chain Bridge and the Parliament buildings in Pest. The structure is illuminated at night and presents a mesmerizing sight.
The Mathias Church is yet another prominent landmark of the Castle District. This 700 year old church of Our Lady was named after Hungary’s famous King Matthias of the 15th century for he rebuilt the Hungarian state after years of feudal anarchy. The church was used for coronations and royal weddings. It today hosts concerts and musical recitals along with mass.
The Mathias Church, which has a multicolored tiled roof and a Gothic spire, displays a mixture of styles as each ruler who ever ruled Hungary left his distinctive stamp on the church. The interior of the church is elaborately adorned with alters, statues, murals and stained glass windows and it also hosts a Church museum which affords access to the crypt and a small collections of jewels and treasures.
These three prominent attractions of the Castle District should be considered a must-do on any vacation to Budapest.
Gellért Hill is located on the Buda side of the city and offers fabulous views of both Buda and Pest and the Danube River. The Hill is named after a bishop who was expected to turn the Magyars to Christianity. However the unfortunate bishop was murdered by Magyars and a statue of the bishop now is located at the base of the hill. The summit of the hill hosts the Liberation monument and was erected to commemorate the Russians who liberated Hungary from the Nazi regime in 1945.
Budapest is known for its many spas and thermal baths which have great therapeutic and even some say medicinal value. These baths are built around natural springs and have been popular since Roman times. A soak in a thermal bath is an experience which is not to be missed on a trip to Budapest. The most famous of these thermal baths are located in the beautiful art nouveau Gellért Hotel on Gellért Hill. The hotel was built in the early twentieth century on a natural spring and has a wonderful spa with steam rooms and indoor and outdoor pools. The Roman style pools at the hotel are adorned with lion head spouts, which are surrounded by mosaic patterns, columns and stained glass windows. The pools have a constant temperature of 78.8°F (26 °C) to 86°F (30° C). The water that fuels these baths is believed to be rich in a variety of minerals and is considered to be excellent for ailments like arthritis, stenosis, blood circulation problems etc. The spa is open to hotel guests and day visitors. A trip to the Gellért baths should definitely feature in your sight-seeing itinerary on your vacation in Budapest.
Budapest’s Chain Bridge was the first stone bridge to be built over the Danube. This bridge, which was commissioned by a Hungarian Count (István Széchenyi), was opened in 1849. Today, the Chain Bridge is considered to be a symbol of Budapest and is illuminated at night.
The Great Synagogue is located in Erzsébet Town or the old Jewish quarter of Budapest and is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest synagogue in the world that is able to accommodate 3000 people. This synagogue was opened to the public in 1859 and is built in a typical Byzantine-Moorish style and features domed towers, archways, ornate windows and exquisite brick work. Located near the synagogue are the landmarks of the Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial.
Budapest’s Memento Park is a reminder of the hated communist regime that prevailed here during the years after the Second World War, as Hungary was one of the countries who belong to the Warsaw Pact Alliance. During the communist years, the citizens of Budapest like those in other cities of Hungary were ordered to respect the statues of prominent communist leaders, Stalin, Lenin, Marx etc which dotted every square and street corner. Once the regime was over in the late nineties, these statues were collected together and preserved in a park in Buda known as the Memento Park as a stark reminder of those hard times. The park also has a screening room that shows video footage of the methods used by the feared secret police to spy on people. The bizarre Memento Park also has a gift shop called the Red Store where you can shop for kitschy communist era memorabilia like T-shirts, mugs, etc.
The location of Budapest greatly influences the weather that it experiences. This city has the Alps to the west and the open Great Plain to east and experiences a climate that is characterized by warm summers and bitterly cold winters. The winter months in Budapest usually extend from November to March and are characterized by temperatures that range from 34F (1C) to 46F (8C) though the city doesn’t receive huge amounts of snowfall.
The warm months in Budapest extend from March to September and the city receives most of its visitors during these months. The summer months in Budapest have many glorious sunny days, during which the sun shines for about ten hours a day.
Budapest is served by its Budapest Ferihegy International airport, which is located 10 miles (16km) to the south east of city. The Budapest airport receives a whole host of low cost and full service carriers, making getting to Budapest infinitely easy. This airport is connected to the city center via an airport minibus service and is also served by airport taxis, which operate on the high speed road that connects the airport to the city.
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Budapest is served by an extensive, efficient and inexpensive public transport system that is made up of the metro, buses, trams, trolley buses, and trains. Most modes of public transport in Budapest are accessible from 5am to about 11.30 pm after which there is a limited service on buses and trams.
Budapest’s taxi drivers are known to be quite unscrupulous and visitors are advised not to engage private, unmarked vehicles that are usually available outside the airport and the main railway station.
The main shopping areas in Budapest are located near its city center. Váci Street is perhaps the most famous shopping street in Budapest, set up as pedestrianized enclave it hosts various fashionable stores, restaurants and cafes. Fashion Street located close by offers outposts of big name designers like Max Mara, Tommy Hilfiger, Lacoste, Hugo Boss and more. However, the most exclusive shopping street in Budapest is Andrássy Avenue home to numerous upscale brands like Burberry, Gucci, Roberto Cavali, Louis Vuitton, Ermenegildo Zegna and more. Other streets that offer a similar shopping experience include Bajcsy-Zsilinszky utca and Rákóczi út. Also worth perusing is Király utca, Budapest’s Design Street, filled with innovative design galleries and funky boutiques which offer much opportunity for some, chic souvenir shopping.
Budapest’s five main markets like the Central Market Mall, Klauzál Square Market Hall, Rákóczi Square Market Hall, Hold Street Market Hall and Hunyadi Square Market Hall, provide visitors with the chance to sample traditional Hungarian foods and the opportunity to shop for souvenirs like paprika, folk art (handmade embroidery, tablecloths), Tokaji (Hungarian wine), porcelain (world famous Hungarian brands like Herend and Zsolnay) chessboards, dolls, traditional Hungarian apparel and more. Other hotbeds for souvenir shopping include the area around Castle Hill, Falk Miksa Street (antiques row) and the Esceri Flea Market.
Visitors from outside the EU are entitled to get back VAT (20%) when making purchases in excess of HUF 50,000 (EUR 200) in one receipt. Do keep a look out for stores that have the Tax Refund sticker affixed and then get your form stamped by customs when you leave the country.
The dining scene in Budapest nowadays features much more than just goulash and dumplings. In fact the city is littered with many diverse restaurants, which offer traditional as well as modern Hungarian cuisines along with international foods from all over the world. Highly-ranked restaurants in Budapest include eateries like Costes (international cuisine), Onyx (modern Hungarian), Spinoza (Mediterranean), Corso (modern Hungarian), Nobu (Japanese), Rezkakas Restaurant (Hungarian), Halaszbasta Restaurant (Hungarian), Mokka and Remiz (International fare), Spoon café and lounge and Peppers (both offer Mediterranean fare).
Budapest pretty much has it all in the way of nightlife. Ruin bars, live music venues, hot dance clubs and alternative, underground venues, revelers looking for entertainment after dark have no shortage of options in the Hungarian capital. Popular nightlife haunts in Budapest currently include hotspots like Coxx Men’s Bar, Fogas Ház, Comics shottail bar, Dürlin, A38, Hellobaby, Trafiq and the Budapest Jazz Club.