At day it’s best to go up to the Castle (Budai Vár) by Sikló, a funicular railway, thus, saving energy for exploring the antique little streets of the Castle Hill, the Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya) and the Matthias Church (Mátyás-templom). The Gothic residential buildings will amaze you as you take short breaks in between the Museum and Institute of Military History (Hadtörténeti Intézet és Múzeum), the National Archives of Hungary (Magyar Országos Levéltár) and the Mary Magdalene Church (Mária Magdolna-templom). At night the Castle provides the atmosphere, the cityscape delights the eye, and the two together deliver romance.
Surrounded by ramparts, Castle Hill overlooks the Danube. At night, it takes on a new appearance with lighting effects... The royal palace with its dome, Mathias church with its glazed roofs, Fishermen's Bastion, to be seen from Pest, then shine with the light from a thousand spotlights. If you take the funicular railway up the hill, do not miss the sculpture symbolising the famous 0 kilometre, the coat-of-arms of Hungary and the beautiful view over the Danube and Pest (telescope).
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More cosmopolitan than Prague, more romantic than Warsaw and more beautiful than both, Budapest straddles a gentle curve in the Danube, with the Buda Hills to the west and what is essentially the start of the Great Plain to the east. With parks brimming with attractions, museums filled with treasures, pleasure boats sailing up and down the scenic Danube Bend, Turkish-era thermal baths belching steam and a nightlife throbbing until dawn most nights, the Hungarian capital is one of the Continent’s most delight ful and fun cities.
And the human legacy is just as remarkable as Mother Nature’s. Architecturally, Budapest is a gem, with a wealth of baroque, neoclassical, Eclectic and Art Nouveau (or Secessionist) buildings. Overall it has a fin-de-siecle feel to it, for it was then, during the industrial boom and the capital’s ‘golden age’ in the late 19th century, that most of what you see today was built.
In some places, particularly along the Nagykörút (Outer Ring) and up broad Andrássy út to the sprawling Városliget (City Park), Budapest’s sobriquet ‘the Paris of Central Europe’ is well deserved.
Nearly every building has some interesting detail, from Art Nouveau glazed tiles and neoclassical bas-reliefs to bullet holes and shrapnel scorings left from WWII and the 1956 Uprising.
At times, Budapest’s scars are not very well hidden. Over the years, industrial and automobile pollution has exacerbated the decay, but in recent years the rebuilding and renovations have been nothing short of astonishing. Indeed, some people think the city is tidying itself up a bit too quickly.
Yet Budapest remains – and will always stay – Hungarian: exotic, sometimes inscrutable, often passionate, with its feet firmly planted in Europe but with a glance every now and then eastward to the spawning grounds of its people. Budapest is fabulous, romantic and exciting at any time, but especially so just after dusk in spring and summer when Castle Hill is bathed in a warm yellow light.
Stroll along the Duna korzó, the riverside embankment on the Pest side, or across any of the bridges past young couples embracing passionately. It’s then that you’ll feel the romance of a place that, despite all attempts – from both within and without – to destroy it, has never died.
The wines of Spain, South Africa, and Hungary have one thing in common: governmental changes thwarted their production and development for periods of time. Before Communist times, Hungarian wines were developing into a mature market, but one that never reached much beyond its borders. During the politically difficult times, winemakers'efforts were stomped and trampled and only the cheapest and most insignificant wines could be produced and mostly sold only to other Soviet bloc countries. The few wines that did make the export list were the insignificant offerings that did nothing to put Hungary on the winemaking radar for sommeliers. When the climate changed in the early 1990s, the winemakers found themselves starting from the beginning, not only creating new varieties of grapes, but developing their wines, and struggling for international recognition to abolish the reputation of the past.
One of the major achievements of the industry was the creation of an annual festival to bring attention to the wines of the country. If you are a wine buff or if you just like to drink it, you will surely want to plan your trip around the second week of September when Budapest celebrates the first wheat harvest and the largest wine festival of the year held atop Castle Hill. The celebration begins with the Harvest Parade, and people from different regions of the country (dressed in traditional clothing) dance, play folk music, and sell their crafts. Each year, a celebrated wine-producing country is invited to share the spotlight with Hungarian winegrowers and their many varieties of wines. Check the website (www.aborfesztival.hu) for exact dates; it changes year to year.
The winemakers created the foundation Hungarian Viti- and Vini-cultural Public Benefit Company, a trade group to market their wines by bringing wineries to international competitions as well as hosting them. In June 2007, they hosted the 30th Congress and 5th General Assembly of the Organization of Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV), where 500 member organizations converged on the city. This and other international events bring further exposure of Hungarian wines to international audiences.
For a Hungarian wine education, be sure to consider one of the many wine tours offered by Wine Time.
Wine Primer: Hungary has 22 wine regions and cultivates more than 93 varieties of wine grapes, producing the full spectrum of reds, whites, roses, and sparkling wines. Serious wine enthusiasts will know that varietals indigenous to Hungary are referred to as Hungaricum and are only grown here. Some such varieties are Budai Zöld, Furmint, Juhfark, Hárslevelű, Kadarka, Kéknyelű, and Királyleányka.
Best Regions for Whites: White wine is still the major product of Hungarian wineries with each region producing its own distinctive variety. Somló produces some of the country's best whites, which are usually acidic. Tokaj produces world-famous dessert wines under the name "Tokaj". Tokaj's vineyard area is strictly delimited, less than 5,463 hectares (13,500 acres) in 26 villages with well-defined regulations going back to the 16th century. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. The Balaton regions, particularly Badacsony, make excellent whites, as does Gyöngyös in the Mátraalja region.
Best Regions for Reds: Hungary has been producing increasingly greater amounts of reds due to international demands. Villány has achieved recognition as the Bordeaux of Hungary. Szekszárd, Sopron, and Eger also produce fine reds. But great reds also come from regions better known for their whites, like Balatonlelle.
Castle District (Várnegyed). This district is the city’s most beautiful and historic dating back to the 13th century, with some settlements here even earlier. This is district I, which is a small district that encompasses the plateau where the grand Royal Palace and grounds fill the southern end above the surrounding neighborhoods and the Danube below. The Castle District is defined by its medieval walls. The northern end is home to small winding streets, with old homes, St. Matthias Church, the Fishermans Bastion, and the Hilton Hotel.
Watertown (Víziváros). A long, narrow neighborhood wedged between the Castle District and the Danube, makes up district II. Víziváros is historically a quarter where fishermen and artisans reside. Built on the steep slope of Castle Hill, it has narrow alleys and stairs instead of roads in many places. Its main street, Fő utca, runs the north-south length of the Víziváros, parallel to and a block away from the river. It is a high-rent district for residents and tourists.
Rose Hill (Rózsadomb). This is the part of Buda Hills and still part of district II, closest to the city center and one of the city’s most fashionable and luxurious residential neighborhoods.
Buda Hills. The Buda Hills are numerous remote neighborhoods that feel as if they’re nowhere near, let alone within, a capital city. By and large, the hills are considered a classy place to live. Neighborhoods are generally known by the name of the hill on which they stand. Unless you like to walk neighborhoods, there is nothing more for the traveler in this part of the city.
Óbuda makes up district III and is mostly residential now, though its long Danube coastline was a favorite spot for workers’ resorts under the old regime. Most facilities have been privatized, so a large number of hotels are found here. Transportation for the traveler into Pest would be cumbersome, so we do not recommend staying out here. The extensive Roman ruins of Aquincum and the beautifully preserved old-town main square are Obuda’s chief claims to fame.
Inner City (Belváros). The historic center of Pest, the Belváros, literally meaning “city center” is the area inside the Inner Ring, bound by the Danube to the west. Making up part of district V, it has many of Pest’s historic buildings in this area. In addition, a number of the city’s showcase luxury hotels and most of its best-known shopping streets are here.
Leopold Town (Lipótváros). The continuation of district V is just north of the Belváros, making Lipótváros a part of central Pest. Development began here at the end of the 18 th century, and the neighborhood soon emerged as a center of Pest business and government. Parliament, plus a number of government ministries, courthouses, banks, and the former stock exchange, are all found here. Before the war, this was considered a neighborhood of the “high bourgeoisie.”
Theresa Town (Terézváros). The character of Terézváros, district VI, is defined by Andrássy út, the great boulevard running the length of the neighborhood from Heroes’ Square through Oktogon and down into the Inner City. This grand street has been regaining its reputation of elegance: Andrássy út is once again the “best address” in town, especially since the upper part is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Teréz körút section of the Outer Ring cuts through Terézváros; Oktogon is its major square. The area around Nagymező utca is the city’s small theater district.
Elizabeth Town (Erzsébetváros). This is district VII. Directly to the southeast of Terézváros, Erzsébetváros is the historic Jewish neighborhood of Pest. During the German occupation from 1944 to 1945, this district was where the ghettos were established for the Jewish people. This district is still the center of Budapest’s Jewish life. Although it had been exceedingly run-down due to the war, in the last couple of years, it has become gentrified and considered one of the up-and-coming districts to invest in.
Joseph Town (Józsefváros). One of the largest central Pest neighborhoods is district VIII. Józsefváros is to the southeast of Erzsébetváros. It has had a reputation of being a less-than-desirable district of Pest, but there are some places in this district worth your time and energy. It should not be dismissed across the board. It is working hard at gentrifying.
Pest, on the left bank of the Danube, also has many historic districts, resorts and famous sights. There are nine bridges spanning the Danube, the oldest being the Széchenyi Chain Bridge built in 1849.
Pest is as flat as a palacsinta (pancake), spread over a number of districts, taking in two-thirds of the city. Pest is the heartbeat with the commercial and administrative center of the capital and of all of Hungary.
Central Pest, the term used in this guide, is that part of the city between the Danube and the semicircular Outer Ring Boulevard (Nagykörút), where stretches of it are named after former Austro-Hungarian monarchs: Ferenc körút, József körút, Erzsébet körút, Teréz körút, and Szent István körút, changing names as the district changes.
The Outer Ring begins at the Pest side of the Petőfi Bridge in the south and wraps itself around the center, ending at the Margit Bridge in the north. Several of Pests busiest squares are found along the Outer Ring, and Pest’s major east-west avenues bisect the ring at these squares.
Central Pest is further defined by the Inner Ring (Kiskörút), which lies within the Outer Ring. It starts at Szabadság hid (Freedom Bridge) in the south and is alternately named Vámház körút, Múzeum körút, Károly körút, Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út, and József Attila utca, depending on the district, before ending at the Chain Bridge. Inside this ring is the Belváros, the actual city center and the historic Inner City of Pest. For the traveler, the Pest side is our recommended side for accommodations since this is where the lion’s share of the action is and it is easy to walk to where you want to go.
Váci utca (distinct from Váci út) is a popular pedestrian-only, touristy, shopping street between the Inner Ring and the Danube. It spills into Vörösmarty tér, one of the area’s best-known squares.
The Dunakorzó (Danube Promenade), a popular evening strolling spot, runs along the river in Pest between the Chain Bridge and the Erzsébet Bridge. The historic Jewish district of Pest is in the Erzsébetváros (Elizabeth Town), between the two ring boulevards.
Margaret Island (Margit-sziget) is in the middle of the Danube. Accessible via the Margaret Bridge or the Árpád Bridge, its an enormously popular recreation park with restricted vehicular traffic. It is extremely popular in the summer for sunbathing, sports, jogging, and bike riding. It has a small petting zoo for children and the remnants of an old monastery.
Buda & Óbuda
On the left bank of the Danube is Buda; to its north, beyond the city center, lies Óbuda. Buda is as hilly as Pest is flat and is a good place for hiking. The two most advantageous vista points in the city are in central Buda on Castle Hill and the even higher Gellért Hill. Streets in Buda, particularly in the hills, are not as logically arranged as those in Pest.
Castle Hill is one of the most beautiful parts of Budapest with its magnificent view of Pest. Castle Hill is accessed by steep steps, walking paths, and small roads that are not open to general traffic. There are three less aerobic ways to access Castle Hill for those who want to conserve their energy for other adventures. From Clark Ádám tér (at the head of the Chain Bridge) you can take the funicular; from Várfok utca (near Széll Kálmán tér) you can take the No. 10 bus; or from Deák, take the No. 16 bus, all of which will take you to the top.
Castle Hill consists of the royal palace itself, home to several museums. The previous castle was destroyed in World War II, but was rebuilt afterward and named the Royal Palace specifically to house museums. The Castle District has a long history going to pre-Celtic times, but what remains today are the medieval neighborhoods of small, winding streets, circling around Holy Trinity Square (Szentháromság tér), site of the Gothic Church of Our Lady or commonly referred to as St. Matthias Church. There’s little traffic on Castle Hill, and the only industry is tourism. Souvenirs, food, and drink tend to be more expensive here than in Pest.
Gellért Hill, to the south of Castle Hill, is named after the martyred Italian bishop who aided King István I (Stephen I) in his conversion of the Hungarian nation to Christianity in the 10th and 11th centuries. A giant statue of Gellért sits on the side of the hill, where legend has it that he was martyred by angry pagans for his efforts. On top of the hill is the Citadella, marked by a 14m (45ft) Liberation Statue of a woman holding a palm leaf to represent victory. It was erected in 1947 and visible from most points along the Danube on the Pest side.
Below Castle Hill, along the Danube, is a long, narrow neighborhood and district known as Watertown (Víziváros). The main street of Watertown is Fő utca (Main St.). One of the original market places is off of Batthyány tér in this district. The famous Király thermal bath from Turkish times is right down the street.
Central Buda, the term used in this guide, is a collection of mostly low-lying neighborhoods below Castle Hill. The main square of Central Buda is Széll Kálmán tér, just north of Castle Hill, a hub for trams, buses, and the Red line metro, this area is in serious need of revitalizing. Beyond Central Buda, mainly to the east, are the Buda Hills.
Óbuda is on the left bank of the Danube, north of Buda. Although the greater part of Óbuda is lacking any architectural significance, reminding one of the Communist times, the area boasts both a beautiful old city center and the impressive Roman ruins of Aquincum. Unfortunately, the road coming off the Árpád Bridge slices the old city center in half, destroying its integrity. The historic center of the old city is Fő tér (Main Sq.) » a charming square dotted with small, yet impressive museums. Óbuda Island (Óbudaisziget) is home to an enormous park that swells in size every August when it hosts Hungary’s own annual Woodstock music festival, called the Sziget (Island) Festival. This festival has developed an international following.