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Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, Hungary

Budapest (Hungarian pronunciation approximates to “boo-dah-pesht”) is the capital city of Hungary. With a unique, youthful atmosphere, a world-class classical music scene as well as a pulsating night life increasingly appreciated among European youth and, last but not least, an exceptionally rich offering of natural thermal baths, Budapest is one of Europe’s most delightful and enjoyable cities. Due to its scenic setting and its architecture it is nicknamed “Paris of the East”.

In 1987 Budapest was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List for the cultural and architectural significance of the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue.

Modern Budapest is the result of a historic amalgamation of the separate cities of Buda and Pest (as well as the smaller and more distant Óbuda), and it is still typical to refer a restaurant on the “Buda side” or “living in Pest”. Administratively, the city is also divided into 23 numbered districts.

Budapest is the economic, historic, and cultural capital of Hungary, with approximately 2 million inhabitants and approximately 2.7 million visitors per year. Hungarians are proud of what their beautiful capital has to offer and of its contributions to European culture. They also take pride in their unique language which is very different from all other European languages.

While Buda has been the capital of Hungary – or that of the Osman-occupied territory – for the better part of a millennium, it has become a grand cosmopolitan city during the country’s fast industrialization in the late nineteenth century. The population of 2.1 million in 1989 decreased formally due to suburbanization.

History

The first settlement on the territory of Budapest is accounted to Celtic tribes. During the first century AD, the Roman fortification on the territory of present-day Óbuda (now part of Budapest) gradually developed into the town of Aquincum which became the capital city of the province of Lower Pannonia in AD 106. In the beginning Acquincum was only a Roman military settlement and then it gradually turned into a civil settlement. It was the main centre of the Pannonian Region, becoming the most important commercial point. Nowadays the area that was covered by Acquincum corresponds to the Óbuda district within Budapest. Acquincum is the main and the well conserved Roman archaeological site in Hungary. It was turned into a museum with inside and open-air sections. The Roman Ruins in Aquincum have been dated around the II and III century (a.d.). The archaeologists during the excavation works brought back to light a lot of objects and monuments. In the past the city had paved streets and lavish houses with fountains, courtyards and pavements in mosaic. At the north-west of the ruins is the civil amphitheater in which are still visible the cells in which the lions were kept during the gladiators’ fights. The capacity of this structure was about 16,000 people. The Romans even founded a fortress known as Contra Aquincum on the other side of the river which is assumed to have developed into the later town of Pest. This was part of the Limes, marking the eastern border of the empire, and was gradually given up by Rome during the early fourth century, becoming part of the Hun Empire for a few decades. (Modern historical research does not associate the Huns with Hungarians, albeit even the name of the latter expresses this once popular idea.)

Cost of living

Visitors will notice that (except for touristy attractions and restaurants), many items cost less in Hungary than in Western Europe.

Budapest offers everything that other modern cities can offer in terms of accommodations, entertainment, shopping, and culture. Tourist attractions, restaurants, and accommodations generally charge prices on par or slightly below similar places in Western Europe.

Official Tourism Information

Tourism Office of Budapest, 1115 Budapest, Bartók Béla út 105-113. You can get some very good and free brochures. Amongst it: map of Budapest, a map of Hungary with all the youth hostels and prices, a very complete brochure about the northern part of Hungary (available in many languages).

Tourism Info Centre 1051 Budapest, Sütő utca 2 (Deák Ferenc tér)

Climate

The climate of Budapest is continental with cold winters and warm summers. Budapest has one of the highest difference between the highest and lowest recorded temperatures as the record high is 40°C (104°F) and the record low is -25°C (-14°F). The coldest months are from November to March with January being the coldest one with the average low and high being -4°C (25°F) and 1°C (33°F) respectively. Winters are also cloudy with an average of only 48 monthly sunshine hours on average in December. Temperatures at around -15°C (5°F) aren’t uncommon during this part of the year. Snowfalls happen many times annually with as much as 20-40 cm falling in a single day.

Get around

Orientation and Bridges

The river Danube splits the city approximately in half, with the west side called Buda and the east called Pest. North/south orientation can be referred to relative to the city’s bridges:

Árpád Bridge (Árpád híd), A modern bridge linking to Northern Margaret Island. The longest bridge in Budapest at 973 meters. It was inaugurated in 1950 where already the Romans erected a bridge to connect Acquincum with another settlement on the Pest side.

Margaret Bridge (Margit híd), easily identified thanks to its distinctive shape: it makes an approximately 35 degree turn half way across, at the southern tip of Margaret Island. Trams 4 and 6 cross the Danube here. This bridge was built in 1901 and then destroyed during the war by an explosion. It was rebuilt in 1948. It is located at the north of the city center.

Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd), Completed in 1849, the oldest, arguably most beautiful and certainly the most photographed of Budapest’s bridges, floodlit at night. It was the first permanent bridge across the Danube. At the time of its construction it was the second-largest suspension bridge throughout the world. Four stone lions taken their place at the edge of the bridge in 1852. They fortunately survived from the air raids of the World War II.

Elisabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd), Completed in 1903. Its original chain structure was destroyed in World War II, and was eventually substituted by a modern cable bridge opened in 1964. This bridge in liberty style was dedicated to the murdered Queen in 1898. It is the third newest bridge of the city.

Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd), Elegant but simple, opened in 1896; it connects the Gellért Baths (Gellért fürdő) in Buda with the Great Market Hall (Nagyvásárcsarnok) in Pest. Recently renovated. This bridge was rebuilt in Art nouveau style in the occasion of the Hungarian millenary festivities of 1989.

Petőfi Bridge (Petőfi híd), For a long time the southernmost bridge, it links the inner ring road (Nagykörút) of Pest with Buda. It was built during the 30s, destroyed by an explosion in the World War II and then rebuilt in 1952.

Rákóczi Bridge (Rákóczi híd), The newest bridge in Budapest, with modern architecture and a spectacular lighting system where mirrors reflect the beam of the upward facing floodlights. Built very next to a railway bridge on its southern side. Originally called Lágymányosi Bridge, it was built between 1992 and 1995, initially destined to smoothen the augmented traffic flow during the 1996 expo that finally never took place in Budapest. It is the second newest bridge of Budapest as of 2013.

On foot

Most of Budapest’s highlights are within easy walking distance of each other and the city centre. All major areas have sidewalks and crosswalks for pedestrians. Drivers generally obey traffic signals, and similar to other major European cities, pedestrians should firmly indicate their intention to cross at a crosswalk. Many sidewalks and paths tend to be mixed-use for both pedestrians and cyclist.

Public transport

Budapest’s extensive public transit system is generally convenient and easy to use. Tourists can navigate most central areas by metro, but a few major destinations, particularly on the Buda side, are served by busses or trams.

What to see. Best top attractions in Budapest

What to do in Budapest

Currency

Hungary’s national currency is the Hungarian Forint, or HUF. Coins are available in 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, and 200 denominations, and banknotes in 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, and 20,000 denominations. Depending on market values, €1 exchanges for approximately 300 forint. At the airport, however, the rate is only 245 forint.

What to buy

Tourist shopping and souvenirs

Váci utca is the main area for tourists, and features the normal array of overpriced cafes, souvenir shops, and popular fashion brands. Beyond normal tourist souvenirs, popular Hungarian-specific items are linens, lace, blouses, and other imitation folk items. Paprika peppers and spices, honey, and Hungarian liquor are popular food items. The Great Market Hall (Nagy Vásárcsarnok) at Fővám tér is an atmospheric historic market hall selling mainly tourist souvenirs.

General Fashion

Popular global chain stores like H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Intimissi, etc, can be found along Vaci Utca, in major tourist squares, and in the major shopping malls like WestEnd. Prices are comparable to Western Europe even though many other items in Hungary are cheaper.

High End Fashion

Andrassy Utca is Budapest’s main street for high end brand name fashion shops like Gucci, Prada, and Coach.

Used Clothing

Second-hand clothing shopping is typical for many Hungarians in the working and middle classes, since wages are substantially lower than in Western Europe but brand name shopping mall clothing is the same price. Second hand shops can be found throughout the city, often advertising themselves as selling “Angol” (English) wares or displaying a British flag. These shops purchase bulk used clothing in Western Europe and sell it in Hungary, since used clothes from other places are thought to be more lightly used or more fashionable styles than local ones.

Local artists and designers

Budapest has many small shops selling locally designed and locally made clothing, jewelry, and household items. It takes time to find your favourite gems, but try wandering near Astoria. Prices are generally consistent with Western Europe.

Paloma Budapest, Kossuth Lajos utca 14-16 (near Astoria). A mixed-use space of designers, pop-up shops, and concept art. Unique pieces at affordable prices, often staffed by the artists themselves. The space itself is the beautiful (and slightly sad) courtyard of a semi-restored historic residential building from the late 1800s.

Music

FONÓ Music House XI. district, Sztregova u. 3. Tel.: 206-5300, 203-1752. Fax: 463-0479 (Take tram no. 18, 41 or 47 southward from Móricz Zsigmond körtér and get off at Kalotaszeg utca stop. Walk backwards 2 minutes and take the first street on the right.) Fonó provides a high quality selection of Hungarian folk, etno and world music.

What to eat

Local specialities often revolve around meat (pork, beef, veal, or poultry), often involve liberal use of paprika, however not necessary of the hot kind. Note that – due to a historical translation error – “goulash soup” is indeed a soup, not the “goulash” that visitors may be familiar with from home which is known as “pörkölt”.

Major specialities include:

  • gulyás(leves) usually translated as ‘goulash soup’ – a filling meat soup (usually beef) with potatoes and paprika, among other ingredients. Served as main dish or as a (heavy) starter. The name refers to the Hungarian version of a cowboy taking care of a ‘gulya’ (cattleherd).
  • pörkölt a stew with of sautéed onions and – paprika. Similar to what is served as ‘goulash’ abroad.
  • halászlé – fishermen’s soup served differently depending on region
  • töltött káposzta – stuffed cabbage, the cooked cabbage leafs are filled with meat and in a paprika sauce, served with sour cream (similar to crème fraîche or crème acidulée)
  • Balaton pike-perch (fogas)
  • gyümölcsleves – fruit soup – cold, creamy and sweet, consumed as a starter.

From the desserts, you may not want to miss:

  • Somlói galuska, a poem on biscuit dough, cream and chocolate sauce, invented by Károly Gollerits at Gundel
  • Gundel palacsinta – Gundel pancake (crepe) – with a filling prepared with rum, raisin, walnuts, and lemon zest, served with a chocolate sauce, and the careful reader may guess its birthplace.
  • Kürtőskalács, (chimney cake) a delicious sweet dough pastry which is cooked on a chimney shaped spit and coated in butter and sugar to form a crispy crust. After the cakes are cooked they can be rolled in a variety of toppings such as cinnamon sugar or chocolate.
  • There is also a great variety of wonderful pastries/cakes (Torta), some of which you will recognize if you are familiar with Viennese pastries. You may want to try Dobos torta (Dobos cake, named after József Dobos), and Rigó Jancsi a light chocolate-cream cake.

Of special note: Hungarian law does not require restaurants to forward either the (included) service charge or the added tip to the wait staff. Dubious restaurants, especially those favored by tourists, will simply pocket the extra Forint into their private coffers. While it is customary to tip 10% of the bill, it is important to ask your waiter if the service charge is included in the bill and if the staff receives either the service charge or any additional tip. Obviously, it is better to frequent restaurants which treat their staff well, but you may not know in which kind of establishment you are dining until you receive the bill and inquire.

Grocery shopping

Needless to say, if you want to take home some Hungarian paprika, Pick szalámi, or Tokaji wine, grocery shops are naturally cheaper than specialized souvenir kiosks. In the central areas, you will find smaller Spar, Aldi, Lidl, Tesco Express and Hungarian chains like GRoby and CBA. Further from the centre, you can find foreign-owned hypermarkets like Auchan and Tesco with the large range of goods.

What to drink

Budapest offers plenty of places to drink, from cool and ultra-hip to dirty and down-market. If you are in the mood for a particularly Hungarian experience, visit a so-called borozó (wine pub). These pubs are usually in cellars and offer inexpensive Hungarian wine on tap at very low prices if you manage to find one outside the tourist areas.

Hungary most renowned wines are the dessert wines originating from the Tokaj region in NE Hungary. Lesser-known but still high quality wines are produced at the Villány, Szekszárd and Eger regions. Among red wines the best are Kékfrankos, Egri Bikavér „Bulls Blood”, and Cabernet Franc, while white wines such as Szürkebarát, Cserszegi fűszeres and Irsai Olivér can be very pleasant and refreshing. You should at least try the Hungarian spirit, pálinka, a clear brandy made from fruit. The most popular are made from honey, plum, apricot, sour cherry or Williams pear.

Unique Hungarian soft drinks to try are Traubi Szoda, a white grape soda and Márka, a sour cherry soda.

Mobile phones and internet

Mobile phones from other countries will generally work in Hungary, but roaming fees can be high if you’re not visiting from an EU country. Check with your phone provider for more information.

Wi-Fi is widely available. Many restaurants and shops offer free Wi-Fi to their patrons, and Wi-Fi is sometimes available in public squares or parks.

Hostels and hotels generally have free Wi-Fi, or they may charge a fee.

Temporary mobile phone or data services can be purchased from major Hungarian carriers like Vodafone or T-Mobile. You will need to first buy a sim card (something like 1000-3000 HUF) and then choose a pre-paid top-up style plan. For example, a typical plan might require you to pay a 2000 HUF top-up, and with this top-up you will receive 500 MB or 1 GB of data for the next 30 days. Calling and texting might cost a per-use rate (e.g. 50 HUF/minute or 30 HUF/message) and this will be deducted from your original top-up balance.

Stay Healthy

Hungary has typical summer temperatures upwards of 30-35 degrees Celsius, so plan your clothing and hydration accordingly.

Tap water throughout Budapest is safe to drink, so carry a bottle you can refill. Public fountains are often available throughout the city. Some look like regular drinking fountains. Others are decorative fountains (e.g. statue of a lion with water coming from its mouth) but are also safe to drink from. It can be hard to tell which fountains are for drinking, but it’s likely okay if there’s either a steady stream of flowing water (versus water bubbling up from a spout), a button that makes the water flow, and/or if you can walk right up to the stream of water (versus if there’s a guard rail or fence). If in doubt, ask someone.

Stay safe

Budapest is generally very safe for tourists. The main concerns for visitors are pickpocketing/minor theft and scams/rip-offs. Violent crime is low and unlikely to affect tourists. Most areas of interest to tourists are safe for wandering about day or night. Take normal precautions when walking alone or in isolated places. Some areas outside the centre might be more risky for walking alone or at night. Ask a local or your hostel/hotel staff if planning an unusual route and you’re concerned.

Get out

Szentendre (19km north of Buda) – A popular cobbled-street tourist town next to the Danube. Since the early 20th century it has been an artist colony and nowadays has many galleries and museums. Just outside of town is Skanzen, a Hungarian open-air museum with many old-style rural buildings that display and reenact traditional Hungarian life. HÉV (“local/suburban trains” operated by BKV/BKK) runs from Batthyány tér to Szentendre. (Special fare applies beyond city limits)

Balaton – Lake Balaton covers 592 km² about an hour and a half southwest of Budapest. This “inland sea” is a popular summer destination for many locals to relax on the beach, swim and party. Generally speaking, the south shore is full of beaches and shallow water and more party-oriented while the northern shores are rocky and have more sailing and more tranquil at night. Notable cities around the lake are: Siófok, Balatonfüred, Tihany, and Keszthely. Towns around the lake are served by bus and trains and a ferry operates between many of the towns on the lake.

Eger – Small town with well-preserved 17-19th century buildings – including an Ottoman minaret. The town is also famous for its Valley of Beautiful Women just outside of town that has a number of wine cellars that is popular for visitors to sample and relax.

Gödöllő (30km east of Pest) – Home to Grassalkovich Kastély (Grassalkovich Palace), formerly a recreational Royal Palace. The palace was the occasional residence of Sisi, the Habsburg Empress, Elizabeth. The newly-restored royal park preserved many of its old trees from the early 19th century. (Reach from Budapest by suburban rail from Keleti pályaudvar or HÉV (“local/suburban trains” operated by BKV/BKK) from Örs vezér tere to Gödöllő. (Do not take the ones with different terminal station)

Visegrád – Famous for its former medieval royal palace. The site was partially restored and rebuilt. It has a very impressive view overlooking the surrounding hills and river valley. Suburban bus services by Volánbusz

Esztergom – Border town to Slovakia. Site of the largest basilica in Central Europe.

Vác – (32km north of Pest) Baroque style main square, Cathedral, Triumphal Arch, mummies of the Dominican church (Memento Mori). Reach from Budapest by MÁV suburban rail – Nyugati pályaudvar.

Official tourism websites of Budapest

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