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While other parts of Hungary maintain a slow pace, Budapest has seized upon cosmopolitan chic with a vengeance without giving up its old-time charms. Unlike in Prague, the sights of Budapest spread throughout the energetic city, giving it a life independent of the growing crowds of tourists; Turkish thermal baths and Roman ruins mix seamlessly with modern buildings and a legendary night scene. The area that constitutes Budapest was once two entities: the pasture-ruled city of Pest and the viticulture hills of Buda. Although the city was ravaged by WWII, Hungarians rebuilt it, then weathered a Soviet invasion and 40 years of Communism. The resilient spirit of Budapest resonates as the city reassumes its place as a major European capital. Perhaps what makes the city most remarkable is that rather than concealing the scars and scabs left by its bloody history, Budapest bears them to the world like the proud warrior that it is.
Buda and Pest are separated by the Danube River (Duna), and the city preserves the distinctive character of each side. On the west bank, Buda has winding streets, a hilltop citadel, and great vistas of the more interesting side of the city. Down the north slope of Várhegy (Castle Hill) is Moszkva tér, Buda’s tram and local bus hub. To the south, Gellért Hegy (Gellért Hill) has some of the city’s nicest green spaces as well as its own hilltop fortifications.
On the eastern bank, Pest is home to the majority of the city’s nightlife and culture. For your convenience, the city has six bridges to help misguided tourists get back to Pest as fast as possible. Széchenyi Lánchíd (Chain Bridge) is the oldest means of crossing the Danube. Erzsébet híd (Elizabeth Bridge) is beautiful, but a history of corruption during its construction means that it now runs almost directly into the side of Gellért Hill, much to the dismay of drivers. Szabadság híd (Liberty Bridge) is remarkable only because it was built, along with everything else in the city, for the 1986 millennial.
The city’s commercial center is Pest’s northern half of the fifth district, Lipótváros, right on the eastern shores of the Danube. Here you can find the beautiful Gothic Parliament, as well as Szent István Bazilika (St. Stephen’s Basilica). Metro lines converge in Pest at Deák tér, next to the main international bus terminal at Erzsébet tér. Two blocks west toward the river liesVörösmarty tér and the pedestrian shopping zone Váci utca. From the center of the city, follow Andrássy út into the heart of hip and active Terézváros, which features some of the city’s best cafes and restaurants. From there, follow the Nagykörút (Grand Boulevard) south to Erzsébetváros, once the city’s Jewish Ghetto and now the heart of its nightlife, especially around snaking Dob utca. Farther south, you will come to the highly residential neighborhoods of Józsefváros and Ferencváros. Stick to the areas inside the Grand Boulevard and you’ll find lots of dining and drinking options, especially along Ráday utca.
Budapest addresses begin with a Roman numeral representing one of the city’s 23 districts. Central Buda is I; central Pest is V. GPS is essential for Budapest’s confusing streets.
Many of Budapest’s most picturesque features can be found close to the Danube. The views from Castle Hill, especially near Fisherman’s Bastion, will make pleasing backgrounds for your selfies. The grounds of the Royal Palace provide a nice (free) stroll if you don’t mind the masses of other tourists who will be there during the summer months. While shots of Parliament and the Royal Palace may make the best Instagram shots, some of the city’s greatest treasures will require you to dive deeper into the higher numbered districts.
In 1896, Hungary’s millennial birthday bash prompted the construction of Budapest’s most prominent sights. Among the works commissioned by the Hapsburgs were Hősök tér (Heroes’ Square), Szabadság híd (Liberty Bridge), Vajdahunyad Vár (Vajdahunyad Castle), and continental Europe’s first metro system. Slightly grayer because of age, war, and occupation, these monuments attest to the optimism of a capital on the verge of its Golden Age. All of these beautiful sights can be found along Andrássy út, which provides more nationalist eye candy per block than any other part of the city. Budapest’s museums range from the daring and cutting-edge to the terribly dull. One thing they do all have in common: they’re closed on Mondays.
Pressed for time? Check out our shortlist of must-see attractions in Budapest. Click the links to reserve tickets or book a local guide.
Hungarian food is more flavorful than many of its Eastern European culinary counterparts, with many spicy meat dishes. Paprika, Hungary’s chief agricultural export, colors most dishes red.
In Hungarian restaurants (vendéglő or étterem), halászlé, a spicy fish stew, is a traditional starter. Or, try gyümölesleves, a cold fruit soup with whipped cream.
The Hungarian national dish is bográcsgulyás, a soup of beef, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, dumplings, and plenty of paprika. Borjúpaprikás is veal with paprika and potato-dumpling pasta. For vegetarians there is tasty rántott sajt (fried cheese) and gombapörkölt (mushroom stew).
The northeastern towns of Eger and Tokaj produce famous red and white wines, respectively. Sör (Hungarian beer) ranges from acceptable to first-rate. Lighter beers include Dreher Pils, Szalon Sör, and licensed versions of Steffl, Gold Fassl, and Amstel. Among the best-tasting pálinka (brandy-like liquor) are barackpálinka (an apricot schnapps) and körtepálinka (pear brandy). Unicum, advertised as the national drink, is an herbal liqueur containing over 40 herbs; legend has it that it was once used by the Hapsburgs to cure digestive ailments.
Budapest’s architectural tradition has been colored by its conquerors. Classicism, introduced by the Romans in the AD first century, can be seen in the arches, vaults, and domes of structures such as Contra Aquincum, an old Roman fortress, and the amphitheater in Pest. During the 12th century, the Gothic craze took hold. For a glimpse at this style, check out the delicate ornamentation of the flying buttresses, pointed arches, and ribbed vaults the Buda Castle or the Church of Saint Elizabeth of the House of Arpad.
The Ottoman invasion brought with it Turkish bath houses; examples include the Király and Rudas. The builders of these thermal bath complexes mastered both the control of light and shadow in the arabesque interiors and the effortless-looking domes perched on top. This paved the way for Budapest’s the Moorish Revivalist tradition, an ornamental style drawn from Ottoman Turkey and Moorish Andalusia that took root in the mid-19th century.
Bauhaus architecture, imported from Walter Gropius’s school in Weimar Germany, held particular sway over Budapest in the modern era. The style shunned ornamental architecture of the past and embraced functionality as the guiding aesthetic principle. Residential buildings, theaters, and churches (such as the Heart of Jesus Church in the eighth and second districts) stand as monuments to the movement.
Luminaries of modern Hungarian design include the creator of the world’s most famous puzzle, Ernő Rubik, who was born in Budapest in 1944. A graduate of Budapest’s Technical University and a professor at the Budapest College of Applied Arts, Rubik has spent his whole life in Hungary developing software and puzzles at his Rubik Studios. Imre Makovecz, born in Budapest in 1935 and also a graduate of Rubik’s alma mater, has been a leading figure in Organic architecture, a movement that represents Hungary’s modern artistic trend toward embracing its Magyar roots. Makovecz is best known as an architectural theorist who championed a style similar to that of Frank Lloyd Wright, which emphasized working with nature rather than against it. He has also been a sharp critic of Communism and the utilitarian, uniform style of the Bauhaus. His politics, as well as his architecture, represented a turn towards Nationalist Romanticism, the elevation of nature and cultural roots seen across modern Hungarian art.
Near the end of World War Two, the 50-day Siege of Budapest claimed nearly 40,000 civilians. Nearly 80 percent of the city’s buildings were damaged or destroyed in the onslaught, including the Parliament Building, the Castle, and all seven bridges across the Danube. The city was rebuilt under Communist rule, and Hungarians were allowed to restore traditional landmarks, preserving some of the city’s original character.
Hungary’s literary tradition begins after the Magyars made a switch to the Latin script following their conversion to Christianity in the 11th century. Poetry flourished in this early period. The Renaissance tradition saw the publication of Hungary’s first book, the Chronica Hungarorum. This give way to warrior and love poetry and eventually spiraled into an age Enlightenment literature that was in keeping with the European trend.
In the 19th century, poetry flourished alongside revolution. János Arany, best known for his darkly satirical epic poetry, made a name for himself as the “Shakespeare of ballads.” Before his death in Budapest in 1882, he translated three of Shakespeare’s works into Hungarian. The so-called poet of the 1848 revolution, who would later become Hungary’s national poet and the writer of its national anthem, was Sándor Petőfi. His statue stands in Buda, a testament to a revolutionary fervor that inspired similar movements world-wide in the 20th century. Be sure to check out the Museum of Literature Petőfi, where you’ll find exhibits on Petőfi’s work and his intellectual and artistic circles.
The early 20th century was marked by critical philosophical and political texts born out of the Marxist tradition. György Lukács wrote some of the critical foundations of the Western Marxist political tradition during the interwar period, as well as a wealth of literary criticism. His 1938 “Realism in the Balance” argues that realistic portrayal in fiction is the only way to actually create valuable literature that can comment on social reality. He later served as Hungary’s Minister of Culture after the Revolution of 1956. Lessons of Lukács’s realism appear in the works of Arthur Koestler, whose Darkness at Noon (1940) was a semi-autobiographical (and thoroughly realist) portrayal of the Communist party. A journalist by trade, Koestler was, apart from this, a controversial figure: he dabbled in paranormal science and was both a staunch opponent of Darwinism and a vocal proponent of voluntary euthanasia.
As for contemporary fiction, Budapest’s most well-known writer, Kertész Imre, survived the concentration camps and made a career for himself first as a translator of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and several dramatic works. In 2002, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for works such as Fatelessness (Sorstalanság), a stark work that describes the tribulations of a 14-year-old Hungarian Jew during his imprisonment at Auschwitz.
Hungary has rich traditions in both folk and classical music. The traditional Gregorian chant was imported from the west in the 11th century. This led to the evolution of medieval and Renaissance music along Western lines, with a heavy emphasis on the use of the organ and the lute. In the 19th century, the Western path gave way to a more uniquely Hungarian folk music. First came the rise of verbunkos, a military type of folk music used as a recruitment tool during the 18th century. Then came several flavors of Magyar music, among them the czardas(verbunkos with modified tempo) and the Nóta.
In the realms of classical music, two artists stand out in particular. Franz Liszt, though not born in Budapest, was uniquely attached to the city as a result of its Music Academy, which was later renamed in his honor. The composer and musician inspired what as known as Lisztomania in the mid-1800s: his fans would fight over handkerchiefs and his other personal effects as though they were the rarest of jewels. Primarily a virtuoso pianist, Liszt transcribed and composed plenty of original music, and also invented the symphonic poem, a short orchestral piece meant to evoke the image of a literary subject. Other pieces, such as his Hungarian Rhapsodies, abandoned classical experimentation and instead elevated the Gypsy folk music of Hungary. His Bagatelle sans Tonalité explored the cacophonous aspect of atonal music, a radical departure from earlier classical traditions.
Béla Bartók, the creator of ethnomusicology (the study of cultural elements of music), was a disciple of Liszt and a significant force in the integration of Magyar peasant music into Hungary’s classical tradition. In 1908, he traveled into the countryside, discovered this pentatonic and pastoral music, and began to integrate it into his own work. Over 40 years after his death, his body was returned to Hungary for his funeral; he was buried in Budapest’s Farkasréti Cemetery.
Throughout its history, Hungarian art has been informed by its folk traditions. Magyar art, for instance, is known for its black pottery and fine embroidery. Made of the same black clay used to brew one of the nation’s finest wine, Egri Bikavér (literally Bull’s Blood), black pottery is a utilitarian art whose firing process turns it charcoal black. Black pottery vessels are often used to carry water or cook traditional meals, and are thus an artistic relic of the Magyars’ nomadic past. Over the past few centuries, the process has been diluted as modern pieces have lost the traditional technique and the old process. Magyar embroidery commonly adorns tablecloths, clothing, and even traditional wall hangings. Its style varies regionally and typically incorporates Baroque, Persian, and Renaissance elements of ornamentation that consist of flowers, birds, spirals, and peacock’s feathers.
In the realm of painting, Victor Vasarely, born in 1906, is considered the father of Op-art. His canvases were often infused with illusion that required the viewer to reason through abstract tableaus that appear to move or warp. A museum of Vasarely’s collected work opened in Budapest in 1987. Other famous Hungarian artists include photographer Gyula Halasz (better known as Brassaï) and the film-maker Béla Lugosi, best known for his 1931 Dracula.
With a population of nearly 1.8 million, Budapest is one of the largest urban areas in Central and Eastern Europe. The great majority of Budapest citizens identify themselves as Magyar descendants, but there is a small and diverse minority that testifies to the city’s turbulent history and the constant changing hands between ruling powers. Germans, Slovaks, Greeks, Romanians, Chinese, Ukrainians, Poles, and others are all part of Budapest’s minority melting pot.
The official language of Hungary is Hungarian (Magyar). The preponderance of English (roughly 22% of Hungarians speak it), means that a quick “beszél Angolul”(BEH-sayl ON-go-lool; do you speak English?) may be more useful than your pocket dictionary.
Service is not usually included in restaurant bills and while tipping is not mandatory, it’s generally appropriate. Cab fares are standard: bargaining won’t help, so be sure to set a price before getting in.