The charming Hungarian capital is known as the ‘Queen of the Danube’ and the ‘Paris of the East’. The city straddles both sides of the River Danube and comprises of what were originally two distinct cities Buda and Pest. Of the two Buda is the older section located on the left bank of the River Danube. Buda possess an old world charm with its cobbled streets, medieval neo classical architecture set amongst gentle hills. Pest located on the east bank is the commercial heart of the city with its fancy shopping districts and wide boulevards built in an efficient grid like manner on the flatter plain. The city along with other Eastern European cities of Krakow and Prague in recent times has become a tourist favorite with millions visiting the city every year.
The history of the city can be traced back to the age of the Romans who laid the foundations of the city as early as 89 AD. The Romans were followed by the Bolgars of Bulgaria and then the Magyars who established the Kingdom of Hungary. The Mongols then tried to consolidate themselves here but the power struggles with the Magyars saw them relinquish control to the Magyars once again. The Magyars were succeeded by the Ottomans who reigned here until 1686 when they were vanquished by the Austrian Hapsburgs. The rule of the Hapsburgs saw Budapest being established as the capital of Hungary. Hungary suffered greatly in the two World Wars and at the end of the Second World War the communists seized control of Hungary. In 1956 there was a bloody revolution against the Red Army in which 2500 Hungarians died and 20,000 civilians were injured. The communists then slowly introduced market reforms as early as in1968 which paved the way for the end of the communist rule in 1989. In 1990 the Budapest stock exchange opened and Hungary finally left the Warsaw Pact.
Climate and Weather
Budapest enjoys nearly 2000 hours of sunshine and the seasons of spring and autumn are the ideal times to visit this beautiful city. From April to September one can expect to enjoy nearly ten hours of sunshine. Summers in Budapest are warm with the mercury climbing to nearly 21°C (70°F) and higher in August which is generally the hottest month of the year. Rains come to the city in the month of November and winter sets in towards mid-December. January is the coldest month with temperatures averaging around -2°C (28°F).
Hungarian (Magyar) which is distantly related to Finnish and Estonian is the official language spoken in Budapest. The German language is also widely spoken and English is spoken and understood in areas where there is a concentration of tourists.
The official currency of Hungary is the Hungarian Forint. The country has joined the European community hence prices are quoted in Euros as well as the Hungarian Forint which continues to be used. Credit cards are widely accepted as is the use of ATMS.
Getting to Budapest
Budapest is served by Ferihegy International Airport which comprises two terminals. Terminal 1 is used by the several low cost carriers such as Easy Jet, Wizz Air etc which provide connections between Budapest and several other European cities. Ferihegy International is also the hub for the national carrier Malév. Malév which uses Terminal 2 provides a link between Budapest and North America through a code share with Delta. Air links exist between Budapest and countries in the Middle East, Asia and North America. The best way into the city center is by the Airport Minibus service. The service operated by the Budapest Airport Authority operates at a frequency of 15 minutes all throughout the day. It takes one directly to one’s destination in the city after making stops to drop off other passengers. There is even a return service available for which one has to call the minibus number 1/296 8555 at least twenty four hours in advance. The service is available from both the airport terminals at a price of 2300 HUF per person and the trip into the city usually takes half an hour.
In late 2006 a taxi company called Zóna Taxi has won the contract for the airport pickups which were previously operated by the overpriced Airport Taxi. The fare to the city is about 4500 HUF.
One can also use the regular bus service from Terminal 1 into the city by using the bus which operates on route 93. The last stop on this bus is Kobánya-Kispest and then one has to switch to the Metro to the city of Pest. The tickets for this journey which takes about an hour are available at the bus stop or the newspaper kiosk at the airport. Another bus route which provides a link from the airport to the city from Terminal 2 this is the bus route 200.
Budapest is well connected by train to other European cities. Most international trains arrive and depart from the Keleti Station (Eastern Railway station) It is located in Pest in Baross tér. The Red line of the metro serves this station as due numerous bus, tram and trolley bus services. Daily direct train links exist to European countries such as Austria, Germany, Greece; Turkey etc Train links from Budapest provide an access point to the Balkans and Russia. A few international trains arrive at the Nyugati station (Western Railway station). The Blue line of the Metro serves this station. At the Déli station (Southern Railway station) which is in central Buda no international trains arrive and depart but it serves the regional train services. The entire train system is operated by Hungarian State Railways (MÁV). Regional services are provided by a variety of trains the most expensive of which are the trains which operate on the Intercity service but these trains are the fastest and the cleanest. Budapest’s train stations are in need of a major overhaul if they are to meet the standards of Western train stations. MÁV operates a minibus service which provides a connection to the airport from any of these three train stations. This service has a two person minimum requirement.
This mode of travel is not that popular any more due to the advent of the low cost carriers.Direct bus links exist between Budapest and other European countries such as Belgium, Bulgaria etc. There are daily bus services to Slovakia and Austria. The international bus services are operated by Eurolines. The city’s most modern bus terminal is the newly opened Népliget Bus Station from which international bus services and buses to Western Hungary operate. Twenty eight bus companies who operate under a single association called Volán Association and run the domestic bus service of Hungary providing links between Budapest and other Hungarian cities. The domestic bus stations in Budapest are Árpád hid bus station, Stadion Bus Station and Etele tér Bus station.
A hydrofoil service operated by the ferry company Mahart operates on the Danube linking Budapest to Vienna and Bratislava daily in the months of April to November. It also operates day sight seeing cruises on the Danube for visitors.
Traveling within the City
The city of Budapest is divided for administrative purposes into 23 districts which are numbered in Roman numerals. The three main districts are Buda and Pest and the historic district of Castle Hill which is actually district 1 of Buda and includes most of the tourist sites including the Castle. The city is well served by a systematic, well run, orderly and extensive public transport system. The only spoke in the wheel of this well oiled machine is that most transport stops operating at 11.30 pm after which a limited tram(4 routes) and bus service( 17 routes) bears the load of nighttime travelers until 5am. The metro consists of only three lines but is clean and safe and it covers most of the sites on the tourist trail. Buses complement the Metro service by providing connections to areas not served by the Metro especially around Buda.
Trams are a useful mode of transport to traverse areas around the Great Boulevard or the embankment. Trolley buses which are electric buses provide another option for transport in Pest. HÉV is the over ground train service which links the city center to the suburbs. There are four HÉV lines with the Szentendre line having the most importance for tourists. The Castle district can be accessed on foot as well as by Cog wheel railway or funicular. The funicular connects Buda’s Clark Ádám tér to Dísz tér just outside Buda Castle. The public transport can be accessed using tickets which can be pre purchased and then validated. This is a trifle complicated for tourists who should stick with day or multi day passes which are economical and user friendly. The Budapest Card is a card which combines three days travel with discounts to attractions but it does not prove very economical and hence it is not recommended for tourists. The Taxi drivers of Budapest are known for being unscrupulous; tourist should not do business with these touts who usually hang around Railway stations in umarked cars. Some of the reputable taxi companies are Citytaxi, Fo Taxi and Tele 5 Taxi.
Hungarian State Opera House
The most important and beautiful building in Budapest is the Opera house which was designed by Miklós Ybl in 1884. Located on Budapest’s Champs Elysées Andrássy Avenue in Pest one should take one of the guided tours of the opera house as these usually include a musical performance in their itinerary.
Castle Royal Palace,Budavári Palota, Dísz tér 17
This Palace is located at the top of Castle hill in the historic castle district of Buda. The castle was inhabited by Hungarian Royals for over 700 years. The strategic location of Budapest made it susceptible to invasions over the years for there were constant struggles for the control of the main waterway the River Danube. The Castle was attacked and rebuilt repeatedly hence the Castle in its current form it displays a mish mash of styles ranging from Gothic to Baroque. The Castle has in its environs The Budapest History Museum which catalogues the history of Budapest over the past 2000 years. The exhibits of the museum are spread over three floors. The Castle complex also includes the Hungarian National Gallery which has a collection of Hungarian art dating back to the 10th century. Its numerous exhibits feature works of Gothic art and medieval and Renaissances stone work. The museum showcases also works of contemporary Hungarian art from the 19th and 20th centuries. Artists such as László Mednyánsky and Jósef Rippi Ronai have their works displayed here. The complex also includes the National Library and used to contain the Ludwig Museum which has now moved. The Royal Palace can be explored by undertaking an excursion through the Ferdinand Gate to the Mace tower and the Turkish Cemetery.
Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art,Komor Marcell utca 1
The city’s collection of contemporary art is now housed in the huge Palace of Arts opposite the National Theatre. The collection includes oeuvres of American, Russian, German and French artists from the last fifty years. This collection was originally in the Royal Palace on Castle Hill.
Fisherman’s Bastion Szentháromság tér
This bastion consists of ramparts built in 1905 on the medieval castle walls. These ramparts were named after the fishermen of the city who were expected to guard this section of the hill. The bastion was never used for a defensive purpose though. It was purely ornamental with its cloisters and stairways. This bastion which overlooks the River Danube offers gorgeous views and it is a wonderful site at night as it is lit with floodlights.
Mathais Church, Trinity Square (Szentháromság tér)
Another popular landmark of Budapest is the Matthais Church. This popular church whose patron saint is Our Lady is popularly called Matthais Church after King Matthias who was a great patron of arts and learning and ruled in Hungary from 1458 to 1490. He managed to unite the country after years of anarchy. When the Turks conquered Hungary in 1541 the church was transformed into a mosque and scenes from the Koran were inscribed on its walls.
Gellért Hill District XI, Szent Gellért tér
Gellért Hill is named after a Bishop who was killed while trying to convert the Magyars to Christianity. A statue of the Bishop is located at the base of the hill which is topped by the Liberation Monument depicting a female figure holding up the palm of victory. This monument was built to commemorate the Soviet troops who laid down their lives trying to liberate Hungary during the Second World War. Behind the monument is the Citadella which is a fortress which was built after the 1848 revolution. The Hill contains the Gellért Baths. These historic baths are a thermal spa attached to the Art Nouveau Gellért Hotel. The pools here have a constant temperature of 44°C ( 111°F). These Roman style pools are adorned with lion headed spouts surrounded by mosaic patterns and columns so much so that bathing in these waters are likened to bathing in a Cathedral.
The Great Synagogue and Jewish Museum. Dohány utca 2
The Great Synagogue is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world. It is located in Erzsébet Town which is the Jewish settlement of Budapest. The synagogue can accommodate 3000 worshippers at a time and it is thronged with worshippers on Jewish festivals. This synagogue which was completed in 1859 is built in a style which can be described as Byzantine- Moorish. Glided arches and balconies as well as lights adorn the interior which is resplendent with the Stars of David on the ceiling. The floor has tiles with stars on them. The Jewish Museum adjacent to the synagogue has exhibits of Jewish arte facts as well as a Holocaust Memorial room built to commemorate the thousands of Hungarian Jews annihilated during the Nazi occupation of Hungary in the Second World War.
The Chain Bridge Clark Ádám Square
This bridge built by William and Adam Clark who built the equally historic London Bridge is the first bridge to be built over the great River Danube. It was opened in 1849. Today there are nine bridges which span the River Danube and link Buda to Pest but the Chain Bridge which is illuminated at night is most famous of all these bridges.
The Parliament Building
The imposing edifice along the embankment is topped by a red dome and adorned by white stone ornamentation and spires. It is opulently decorated with an interior which is made up of marble and gold. Statues, columns and numerous arte facts add to its magnificence. It stretches for 820 ft along the embankment and this makes it one of the biggest national assemblies in the world.
Many of Budapest’s hotels are exponents of Art Nouveau and are a trifle over the top in their grandeur. One of the most opulent hotels which occupies an edifice built in 1906 is the Four Seasons at Gresham Place .Located directly opposite Chain Bridge the Four seasons affords splendid views of the Danube. It also has in its environs the Italian restaurant Pava which is reputed to be the best in Budapest. The hotel can be accessed online at www.fourseasons.com/budapest. The Hilton Budapest is located in the Buda’s historical castle district. The hotel is modern but incorporates within it the ruins of a 13th century Dominican Church and a 17th Century Jesuit college. In recent times it has lost ground to the newer hotels in Budapest but the Hilton can be accessed for rates and availability at www.hilton.com. New boutique hotels such as Art’otel on the Buda waterfront provide visitors a more modern option . Hotel Zara , the Atrium Hotel and Lanchid 19 are other hotels belonging to this genre.
Budapest boasts of some splendid restaurants which have an old world charm and serve exquisite cuisine made up of Hungarian delights such as goose liver and goulash. The most expensive and world renowned is Gundel which opened in 1894 in City Park. Bagolyvár housed in an Art Nouveau building is another exponent of Hungarian fare at more down to earth prices than Gundel. Baraka on Andrassy u is yet another popular restaurant for Hungarian fare. Kadar is a no frills café which serves more hearty local fare.
Shop at the Gustave Eiffel designed Great Market Hall for Foie Gras and Hungarian Saffron. The City Flea Market held on Sundays at the City Park is a bargain hunters treasure trove for a variety of products such as candles, honey and herbs. Eseri Piac, one of the best known Flea markets of Central Europe is yet another Flea market where one purchase knick knacks as well as antique jewelry and relics from the Soviet era.