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Known as the 'Queen of the Danube', magnificent Budapest exudes a cultural sophistication that entices and enchants. It graces both sides of the river with grand historic buildings, regal bridges, and graceful tree-lined boulevards. The city's elegant beauty and romantic atmosphere has given it Parisian status among the Eastern European countries.
Budapest offers the visitor the familiarity of European grandeur with a distinct Hungarian flavour. This is evident in the neo-Gothic Parliament buildings, sidewalk cafes, and Magyar cuisine; classical concerts and Hungarian folk music; and the cobbled streets of medieval neighbourhoods and shady parks. Highlights for visitors include a river cruise on the Danube and a thermal bath in one of the Turkish-era bathhouses.
Budapest was originally two cities built on either side of the Danube, namely Buda and Pest. The two districts are still distinct in their contrasting makeup. The older and more charming Buda comprised of atmospheric cobbled streets, little picturesque coloured houses, and a medieval, neo-Classical mixture of architecture set among the gentle hills of the west bank. It is famous for its historic Castle Hill, featuring the Royal Palace; museums and galleries; St Matthias Church; and the ramparts of Fisherman's Bastion.
Pest lies on a flat plain and is the commercial core of the city. It bustles with fashionable shopping areas and has characteristically wide, leafy boulevards. Andrássy Boulevard is the Champs-Elysées of Budapest, lined with a typical mosaic of architectural styles and buildings with the enormous Heroes' Square at the end.
A history of numerous wars and invasions, with repeated destruction and rebuilding, has created the Budapest of today, with an amalgamation of styles, created over time during periods of loving restoration by a proud and resilient nation of people; it is a city of charm and character and never drops out of favour with travellers.
Buda Castle is the royal complex of past Hungarian monarchs. Sitting atop Castle Hill in the picturesque Castle District of Buda, the royal palace was first inhabited by King Béla in the 13th century. Its strategic location straddling the Danube offered whoever controlled the city a defensive position and potential control of the main waterway. The castle has a mixture of architectural styles, ranging from Gothic to Baroque. Today, it's the country's most important cultural centre, housing numerous museums with the majority of the buildings being historical monuments. The Budapest History Museum contains an exhibition explaining the history of the city, as well as archaeological remains of the palace. Also within the palace complex are the Hungarian National Gallery, the National Library and the Ludwig Museum.
Built in 1905 on the medieval castle walls, the ramparts of the Fisherman's Bastion were so named after those whose duty it was to defend this side of the hill during the Middle Ages. The Romanesque Revival-style ramparts are purely ornamental, with gleaming white cloisters and stairways connecting seven turrets symbolic of the Magyar tribes that conquered the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century. Set back from the ramparts is an equestrian statue of King Stephen, a memorial to the founder of the Hungarian nation. The view from Fisherman's Bastion is outstanding at day or night, looking over the Danube, the Chain Bridge and the Parliament Buildings with Pest stretching out into the distance.
Situated in the centre of the Castle Quarter, the 700-year-old Church of Our Lady is popularly known as Matthias Church. Its architecture is a mixture of styles from various occupations and periods. When the Turks occupied the Castle in 1541 it was converted into a mosque, and the interior walls were painted over with scenes from the Koran. Reconstructed in the 19th century in Gothic Revival style, remains of original medieval frescoes have been discovered underneath the whitewash. The interior is richly decorated with gilded altars, statues and rose windows, while the Church Museum gives access to the crypt and a small collection of religious artefacts and jewels. The church remains operational, hosting organ concerts and choir recitals beneath its multicoloured tiled roof and Gothic spire.
Gellért Hill offers unrivalled panoramic views of the city, taking in Buda, Pest and the meandering Danube. A monument of a martyred bishop stands at the base of the hill while on its summit stands the Liberation Monument, dedicated to the memory of troops who died freeing Hungary in 1945. Behind the monument is the Citadella, built after the Revolutions of 1848 to provide military control against further uprisings. The hill is also home to several historic spas, valued for their medicinal qualities. The city's most famous spa is the Gellért Baths, attached to the grand establishment of the Art Nouveau Gellért Hotel, where visitors relax in the thermal waters of a Roman bath with its lion-headed spouts, surrounded by columns and mosaics.
The Chain Bridge was the first stone construction built over the Danube and is the most famous in Budapest. Today, nine bridges link Buda to Pest but the Chain Bridge takes pride of place as the city's primary landmark, a magnificent sight when floodlit at night. It owes its existence to Count István Széchenyi who decided to build a permanent crossing after having to wait a week to cross the river to bury his father. The Chain Bridge was built in 1849 by William and Adam Clark, who also constructed London Bridge. The iconic stone lions which guard the bridge were added to the bridge in 1852, miraculously surviving World War II even though the bridge itself was blown up in January 1945 and only resurrected in November 1949.
Situated within the charming old Jewish Quarter of Pest, the Great Synagogue is one of the largest in the world. Its style is Byzantine-Moorish, with patterned brickwork in the red, blue and yellow colours of the city's coat of arms. Gilded domed towers, splendid archways and beautiful windows make this one of Budapest's finest landmarks. The splendid interior glitters with lights and gilded arches while balconies line the walls, while the ceiling is covered in Stars of David and the floor is tiled in decorative stars. On Jewish festivals, it's packed with Jews from all over Hungary who come to celebrate within its splendour. Next door is the Jewish Museum, containing a Holocaust Memorial Room and relics from the Hungarian Jewish Community. In the courtyard is the Holocaust Memorial in the shape of a weeping willow tree, each metal leaf engraved with the names of those who have passed away.
On the bank of the Danube stands the beautiful Hungarian Parliament, an imposing sight and a prominent feature of the city skyline. With its red dome, white stone lace ornamentation and sharp spires, it's the city's most decorative structure. Stone lions flank the entrance guarding a rich interior of marble and gold, statues and columns. Magnificent artefacts are seen on guided tours, such as the 1,000-year-old crown of the first Hungarian King. The grand edifice, stretching for 250 metres (820ft) along the embankment, is one of the biggest national assemblies in the world.
A popular yet bizarre attraction, Memento Park contains the giant figures of the communist era that once filled the streets of Budapest. Among them are the forms of Lenin, Marx and Engels, as well as memorials to Soviet soldiers and communist martyrs. There are also exhibitions detailing the history of the Soviet occupation in Budapest, contributing to a unique collection of artefacts and a fine location to educate oneself on the nature of communism.
There's nothing kids love more than a circus performance and Budapest offers a fantastic display in the Hungarian tradition. The Great Circus (Nagy Cirkusz) features an array of clowns, jugglers and acrobats, with the Hungarian Circus and Variety Non-Profit (MACIVA) playing an important role in Hungarian cultural life and is one of the oldest cultural establishments in the country. Built in 1954, the circus has a school for performing artists and holds circus camps for children who want to learn. Special events like parades and festivals occur at certain times of the year but show times and prices vary according to the season, so please check the website for details.
The Budapest Puppet Theatre is a great outing for the whole family, ideal for travel in Budapest with kids. While shows are all presented in Hungarian, children remain enthralled by familiar stories like Cinderella and Snow White. During enactments, the crowd can be heard calling out warnings when villains are approaching or encouraging heroes in their endeavours. It's amazing how little the language barrier matters when it comes to this kind of storytelling. The puppets are proper works of art and come in all shapes, sizes and colours, with some easily recognisable characters and some creative originals. Most adults will enjoy the performances too but can easily head for the cafe during the show.
A 53-mile (86km) drive from Budapest, Kecskemét makes for a wonderful excursion. While this garden city is quite large, the place has a uniquely small-town charm. Walking around the scenic city centre is pleasant, with the abundance of open squares and avenues peppered with colourful Art Nouveau buildings. There are a number of attractions in Kecskemét that visitors enjoy, including the distillery tours at the Pálinka Museum, the Hungarian Museum of Photography and the Museum of Hungarian Folk Art and Handicrafts, as well as the beautiful architecture and art collections at the city hall. Kecskemét has existed in some form since at least the 14th century, so it's no surprise that it holds so many old and hidden gems.
Hungary is a wonderful family destination, and Budapest is a particularly good city to explore with children. Not only does the country offer a plethora of sightseeing attractions which would appeal to people of all ages, but there are also a number of places that kids will especially enjoy. Budapest is a safe city and the locals are generally very hospitable, making it feel family-friendly and welcoming.
The Great Circus, complete with clowns and acrobats, is internationally renowned, and the Budapest Puppet Theatre should top the list of things to do in Hungary with kids, even though the shows tend to be in Hungarian. The Budapest zoo is one of the oldest in Europe, adjoining the botanical gardens and delighting the whole family.
There are many lovely parks in which to enjoy games or picnics and let the little ones blow off some steam. If the weather isn't great and you need some indoor entertainment, head to the Palace of Miracles for scientific games and interactive exhibitions that will excite as well as educate, or visit the Tropicarium, a spectacular aquarium in Campona shopping mall.
Budapest's climate is accented with warm summers and bitterly cold winters, with plenty of rain all year round. Winters are short, with the cold weather arriving in mid-December; it is usually cloudy and damp with the odd bright sunny days and frequent, but light, snow. Temperatures in winter range between 25°F (-4°C) and 36°F (2°C).
In summer (late May to September), Budapest is sunny and warm with relatively high humidity and temperatures ranging between 57°F (14°C) and 77°F (25°C). It is generally fairly dry although there can be sudden showers.
In spring (March to early May) there is plenty of sunshine; the weather can be a bit changeable and sometimes windy in early spring but by late April and May the weather is wonderful. Early autumn is also a good time to visit; late autumn (late October to November) starts getting cold and unpleasant as winter draws in.
From street food to gourmet restaurants, dining options in Budapest are endless. While there are offerings from almost all nationalities, it would be a sin not to sample the traditional cuisine. Because Budapest is so beautiful, diners have the added bonus of wonderful scenery from their seats in its eateries and cafes.
Hungarian staples include goulash, soups, (stuffed pancakes), trout, dumplings, and strudels, as well as the iconic and decadent Dobos cake, a five-layer sponge cake layered with butter cream and topped with caramel slices.
Hungarian cuisine is known for using lots of spices, such as paprika and hot chillies, and is arguably some of the spiciest cuisine in Europe. This does mean that you should be careful about ordering traditional food for children as there are mild options as well.
The inner city and Central Pest are the main areas for dining out in Budapest, while Central Buda also boasts some great eateries. It is customary to make reservations at restaurants and waiters usually expect a 10 to 15 percent tip for good service.
One of Budapest's finest Indian eateries by far, the trendy Indigo is popular with locals and visitors alike and never fails to please with its mouth-watering curries and fragrant dishes. Stylish, yet modern décor and clean lines create a fresh atmosphere and the great food and service make for a memorable dining experience. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Credit cards accepted.
Those looking for a trendy eatery with both indoor and outdoor dining options need look no further than Café Vian. The food is good, the prices are reasonable and many young and hip locals frequent this popular Budapest restaurant. Try the grilled chicken breast 'Vian' style with ratatouille and candied lemon and potato pancake, or the red wine flavoured beef stew with dumplings. Open daily. Reservations accepted.
Also known as Aunt Nancsi's Restaurant, this family-run place is situated in the peaceful Buda Hills. It serves hearty Hungarian food at its best and is worth the short taxi ride out of the city centre. Try the Hungarian black truffle cream soup or the joy stew.
Luxurious but comfortable, Baraka is a great fine dining option in Budapest, serving up contemporary European food with a global twist. The wine list is impressive and the cocktail options are as international as the menu. The restaurant is also conveniently situated in a lovely old part of the city popular with tourists. Reservations are recommended.
Comme Chez Soi is known as the best place to go for Italian food in Budapest. The menu is full of simple and delicious pizzas, pastas, seafood, and meat dishes, and there is a varied selection of antipasti options as well. Its generous helpings and reasonable prices have made it increasingly hard to get a table, so reservations are required. Open Monday to Saturday, 11am to midnight.
What began as a city-centred cultural event in 1981 has now spread its wings and grown to become a nationwide celebration of Hungarian culture and talent, drawing thousands of appreciative classical, opera and jazz fans from all over the world. The Academy of Music and Budapest Convention Centre host most of the classical concerts on the programme, opening with the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir rendering Wagner and Berlioz. The city resounds with chamber music recitals and church concerts, while opera buffs feast at the State Opera House. Other locations on the roster include Sopron, Szombathely, Pecs and Szentendre, with the Spring Festival being the most prestigious arts festival in Hungary and attracting about 40,000 visitors to Budapest a year.
One of the most popular meetings on the Formula 1 circuit is the Hungarian Grand Prix. World class race drivers pit their wits and skills against each other on the Hungaroring track about 12 miles (20km) from central Budapest. The 1986 event was the first Grand Prix to take place behind the Iron Curtain, its narrow and twisting track contributing tense races where cars must make dangerous and difficult passes to move up the field. It's a wonderfully exciting, hugely popular and unmissable sporting extravaganza.
The green island of Obuda just north of Budapest is the venue each summer for the Sziget Festival, one of the largest open-air rock and pop gatherings in Europe. Thousands flock for a week-long music extravaganza with more than 1,000 performances across 60 venues, featuring famous artists such as The Killers, Paolo Nutini and Snoop Dogg and covering all genres from pop to rock and electronic to world music. The island has basic camping facilities and numerous pubs and restaurants, forming a bustling 'festival city' of about 400,000 people. Literary events, theatre, circus acts and art exhibitions add spice while there are even some interesting lectures and talks to attend if you need a break from the live music.
Nightlife options in Budapest abound, from music lounges and jazz venues to trendy bars and nightclubs. New clubs open up throughout the city all the time, particularly in the areas around IX Raday Utca and VII Liszt Ferenc Tér.
There are a number of party venues throughout the city with the busiest areas generally being districts 5, 6, and 9. There isn't always an entry fee at the door in Budapest's bars and nightclubs but some places will charge a few euros if there is an international DJ or live performance scheduled. For the high rollers in Budapest, there are a number of casinos to enjoy in the luxury hotels between the Elizabeth and Chain bridges on Dunakorzó.
Hungary takes pride in its performing arts and those with more cultural inclinations will find Budapest a glorious city for opera, ballet, theatre, and classical concerts. Great venues include the Palace of the Arts, the National Theatre, the Budapest Opera, and the Academy of Music, among others.
Shopping in Budapest is fun and varied. Popular souvenirs include Hungarian folk art, embroidered goods, and Herend porcelain, as well as Tokaji wine and túró cheese. The main Budapest shopping areas are in the city centre and the lanes surrounding Pest's Váci Utca.
There are many trendy designer outlets to be found on Andrássy Avenue in Pest, while the Castle District and Gellért Hill are home to some great speciality, souvenir, and craft shops. Budapest boasts a good selection of shopping malls with brand and fashion retailers: try WestEnd City Centre and Duna Plaza in Pest for big international names.
There are cheaper, high-street shops along Nagykörút (Great Boulevard) and bargains can also be found in the Budapest markets, especially the Central Market, Ecseri flea market, and Hunyadi Square Market.
Bargain-hunters in the city will also enjoy the BAV stores, which are pawn shops run by the state. One of the largest BAV stores can be found on V Bécsi utca 1 and stocks some great gems and souvenirs among the junk.
Unless there is a national holiday, most shops are open all day during the week, and until lunch on Saturday. Large supermarkets tend to have longer opening hours and are also open on Sunday, while some outlets such as Tesco and city centre convenience stores are open 24 hours.
Budapest has an extensive, inexpensive, and efficient public transport system that includes the metro, trams, buses, trolley buses, and trains. Most transport runs until about 11.30pm after which there is a limited night bus and tram service until about 5am. The metro is clean, safe, and frequent, and although there are only four lines, it reaches most areas of interest to tourists.
Trams are good for travelling around the Great Boulevard or along the embankment; trolleybuses (electric buses) operate in Pest; and although more difficult to use, buses are useful for journeys that can't be made by metro, especially around Buda. There are regular incidents of pick pocketing on buses and metro lines though, particularly when they are crowded.
An over ground HÉV train network services the outer suburbs. All forms of public transport require the self-validation of pre-purchased tickets, which can get complicated; it is best to get a travel pass for convenience and to save money. Day or multi-day passes are inexpensive and hassle-free, although the tourist combining three days of travel with discounted attractions isn't all that good value.
Budapest's taxis have a reputation for cheating foreigners and visitors are warned not to do business with private, unmarked vehicles that hang around stations. Legal taxis should have a yellow number plate, clearly display their rates and have a meter that is switched on. It is cheaper to order one by phone from reputable companies such as Citytaxi, Fo Taxi or Tele-5-Taxi.
Budapest's rich and diverse history makes for some exciting sightseeing opportunities. The attractions are varied, including luxuries like spa treatments courtesy of the city's many thermal springs, culinary adventures sampling delicious traditional cuisine, and leisurely river cruises down the beautiful Danube.
Those interested in the history of the city should stroll through Memento Park, one of Budapest's strangest attractions, which features the giant statues that once lined the city's streets during the communist era, or marvel at the Royal Palace which dates back to the 13th Century.
Other popular cultural sites include the Parliament Buildings along the banks of the Danube River, and the iconic Chain Bridge. Admire the stunning views from the vantage point of Fisherman's Bastion or from Gellert Hill, where you can also visit the Citadella and Liberation Monument.
Visitors would do well to purchase the Budapest Card, allowing them unlimited travel on public transport, free or discounted entry into a number of museums and cultural sites, reductions on sightseeing tours, and discounts on restaurants, spas, and car rentals. The cards are valid for either 48 or 72 hours and can be bought from main metro ticket offices, tourist offices, travel agencies, hotels, or airport.
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