With its wonderful natural setting, straddling the River Danube, its beautiful architecture and excellent Magyar cuisine, Budapest is one of the most satisfying cities in Europe to visit. Its magnificent waterfront and boulevards invite comparisons with Paris, Prague and Vienna as do many features of its cultural life such as its coffee houses, its love of opera and its wine-producing tradition. However, the city is also distinctively Hungarian, its inhabitants displaying fierce pride in their Magyar ancestry. Their language too, whose nearest European relatives are Finnish and Turkish, underlines the difference.
Ironically, provincial Hungarians have long regarded Budapest as a hotbed of alien values and loose morals a charge that misses the point. Foreigners have played a major role in the city since its inception, and the Chinese and Arab communities established since the end of Communism simply bring it up to date as an international city. Even the sex trade that has earned it the reputation of the "Bangkok of Europe" is nothing new, having been a feature of life during Habsburg times. In politics, art and much else, Budapest is not only the capital but a catalyst for the country, without which Hungary would be a far duller place.
Fundamental to the citys layout and history is the River Danube which is seldom blue. It separates Buda on the hilly west bank from Pest on the eastern plain. Várhegy (Castle Hill) on the Buda side was for many centuries the seat of monarchs, and its palace, museums, churches and Baroque streets make it the obvious place to start sightseeing. Thereafter, you can wander through the Víziváros (Watertown) below the hill, before pushing on to Gellért-hegy (Gellért Hill), with its crags and towering Liberation Monument. The historic Turkish baths in the Tabán quarter between the two hills are also well worth experiencing.
Over in Pest, youre likely to spend most of your time enjoying the streetlife, bars and restaurants within the Belváros (Inner City) and the surrounding districts. In contrast to the medieval street plan of Várhegy and the Belváros, these surrounding districts are defined by two semicircular boulevards the Kiskörút (Small Boulevard) and the Nagykörút (Great Boulevard) and radial avenues such as Andrássy út and Rákóczi út. Exploring the area between them can easily occupy you for several days.
In the Lipótváros, the financial and government centre, the interest lies in St Stephens Basilica, the monumental Parliament building rivalling the Várhegy across the Danube, and some wonderful buildings around Szabadság tér (Liberty Square), including one by Ödön Lechner, whose work is often likened to Gaudís in Barcelona. In the Terézváros one can hardly avoid making comparisons with Paris, as Andrássy út and the Opera House were clearly inspired by Haussmanns work for Napoleon III. Andrássy út terminates at Hosök tere (Heroes Square), a magnificent imperial set piece that is Budapests Les Invalides and Nelsons Column rolled into one.
Of the remaining inner-city districts, the Erzsébetváros and Józsefváros hold the most appeal. The former is traditionally Budapests Jewish quarter, with a rich and tragic history thats still palpable in the backstreets, making them a wonderful place to explore. The great synagogue on Dohány utca provides more historical information. The adjacent Józsefváros is also fascinating but quite seedy in parts, though theres nothing to fear in the vicinity of the National Museum, or even at Kerepesi Cemetery, out beyond the Nagykörút. In Ferencváros, the attractions are the Great Market Hall on the Kiskörút, and the Applied Arts Museum further out, in an amazing building by Lechner.
Other parts of the city are also rewarding, but you need to be selective. Óbuda (Old Buda) really only lives up to its name in one locality, though its postwar sprawl harbours several Roman remains, with the ruins of Aquincum further out in Római-Fürdo. More alluringly, there are the Buda Hills that encircle the city to the west, with enjoyable rides on the Cogwheel and Childrens railways, and intriguing caves to be visited. In fine weather people also flock to Margit sziget (Margit Island) to swim and sunbathe at two enormous lidos.
Further out, but still within the city limits, the Statue Park of redundant Communist monuments and the Rail Heritage Park of steam trains rate as major attractions, while the Budakeszi Game Park and two romantic cemeteries might not be everyones idea of fun, but can claim many admirers.
One of the great things about Budapest is that most of its pleasures are affordable for visitors on a tight budget. Delicious meals can be had all over the city, and discovering things for yourself can be half the fun. Though Hungarian cuisine is noted for its richly sauced meat and fish dishes, there are enough alternatives (Indian, Chinese, Italian, Middle Eastern) for vegetarians to enjoy themselves too.
Budapests nightlife is also very affordable and, though small, it caters for a wide range of tastes. There isnt always much of a distinction between clubs and bars, as many bars play live music or have a disco; beer halls, however, usually serve full meals. Generally, the scene is trouble-free and welcoming, with a whole network of events that are surprisingly accessible. This is especially true of the Táncház (Dance House) scene, where Hungarians of all ages perform wild stamping dances to the rhythms of darkest Transylvania, and internationally renowned artists like Márta Sebestyén appear in an informal setting.
In the case of classical music and opera, world-class ensembles and soloists can be enjoyed in the palatial settings of the Vigadó and State Opera House, especially during the major festivals in spring, summer and autumn. You can also go to outdoor concerts on Margit sziget (Margit Island) over summer. For fans of pop, rock and world music, the two big events are the Budapesti Bucsú, first held to celebrate the departure of Soviet troops in 1991, and the Sziget Festival, which claims to be the largest in Europe....Continua