BudapestCentre of Europe, grand old dame of the Habsburg Empire, and more recently, one of central/eastern Europe’s major weekend getaway destinations: Budapest is a city which demands your attention. A heady mixture of Vienna’s elegance and coffee-house culture and Berlin’s rough-edged, arch-hipness, Budapest packs a massive punch and leaves you reeling with options for exploring, starting from its world-famous baths right down to the kerts, semi-legal drinking dens set up in ruined courtyards, and much loved by local imbibers.
The Hungarian capital is really two cities – Buda and Pest – separated by the wide tract of the Danube, and only officially became one entity towards the end of the 19th century. Hilly Buda – calm and serene, full of elegant architecture such as the Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion, looks down onto flat Pest, where business, commerce, culture and a thriving nightlife scene co-exist, along with a slightly seedy sex trade, giving the city a remarkable multi-faceted nature; it really does seem to have something to offer everyone from history and culture buffs and fans of architecture to beer-guzzling hedonists and all-night ravers.
The first thing to do on arrival in Budapest should be a stroll along the Pest-side of the river, with its views up to Buda, the bridges and Parliament Building. The latter, a massive Gothic-style construction from the turn of the century, dominates the skyline and impresses from virtually every angle. A tour (free to EU citizens or 12 Euro for non-EU citizens) is short but informative, and allows you into the inner sanctum of Hungarian law-making. The building contains 691 rooms, but you see just a few – the Lower House (where the National assembly meets) being the most impressive.
Other notable buildings on the Pest side of the river include St. Stephen’s Basilica, a massive neo-renaissance edifice, and the Great Synagogue, the largest of its kind in Europe and second-largest in the world. For a bit of background on the country’s complex history, a visit to the Hungarian National Museum is in order. The museum (founded 1802) contains over one million objects of art and is housed in a handsome neo-classical building constructed in 1846. Although it could be a bit more interactive and lacks information in English, the sheer number of exhibits impresses.
Cross the Danube via the Chain Bridge (Szechenyi) and head up to Citadella via Gellert Bathhouse – another impressive 19th century construction – for the best views of Budapest. Check out the little Gellert Hill Cave church on the way, which contains an underground church. Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion, a little further north, should both be seen – the latter particularly at night, when the orange lighting give the place a shimmering hue and offer excellent photographic opportunities. During summer you can stroll back down the hill and escape the heat and noise on Margit Island, situated in the middle of the Danube, where you can relax in one of the many shady parks and have a beer at Holdudvar.