Budapest is the largest city in Hungary and also in Eastern Europe. This cultural and historic city serves as the capital city of Hungary, and also the main commercial and political centre of Hungary. The city itself has estimated area of 525 square kilometers and a population of about 1.7 million people. The city is partitioned by River Danube into two large areas; Buda and Pest Budapest is also divided into 23 districts, of which 16 are in Pest, 6 in Buda and 1 on Csepel Island.
The biggest population of people in Budapest is Hungarians, although Roma, Germans and Chinese are also common. Hungarian is the general language here, spoken by 99% of the population. However, English and German are fairly common. Results of a 2011 reported that 29% of the people identified as Roman Catholics, 23% said they were not religious and 0.5% said they were Jewish. However, Calvinists, Greek Catholics and Lutherans are also well represented in Budapest.
You can get directly to Budapest via plane through Budapest Franz Liszt International Airport, the Hungary’s largest airport, or via train through most of the major cities in Europe. For example it takes as little as 3 hours to arrive in Budapest from Vienna, as long as 16 hours from Bucharest. It is important to note that in some countries there are no direct flights to Budapest. For example as of February of 2012, following American airlines cancelling their Budapest flights, there are no direct flights from America to Budapest.
When traveling to Budapest, you should make plans to visit some of the city’s major attractions, among them the lovely museums and monuments in Castle District, St. Stephens Basilica, and the Great Synagogue in Dohany Street. Budapest has an abundance of tourist attractions in Buda, downtown Pest. This is where Castle Hill is located. To get here, you take a bus from Széll Kálmán. On castle Hill, expect to see the Royal Palace. This palace houses the Hungarian National Gallery, the Hungarian Central Library and marvelous statues and museums. Destroyed and rebuilt a total of 6 times, the royal palace was once home to Hungary’s nobility and royalty. It is believed that the castle was originally built in the 14 Century.
Also on Castle Hill is Matthias Church, a Roman Catholic Church that was built in the 1200’s. The church which has hosted many royal weddings, burials and coronation ceremonies has a 60-meter tower that is visible from almost all parts of Budapest. Also on Castle Hill is Fisherman’s Bastion, believed to have derived its name from its proximity to a medieval fish market. It is called Halászbástya in Hungarian, and consists of seven towers from which you can get an excellent view of the city, in particular a view of Pest and the Danube River.
St. Stephens Basilica is the main church in Budapest, and is located in Pest. It covers an area of 4147 square meters, and has a dome 96 meters tall. Construction of the cathedral began in 1851, and it currently houses a relic of St Stephen, his mummified hand, that has been preserved here since 1971. If you have a knack for adventure, you can climb over the chapel dome and have a spectacular view of the city
There are 21 synagogues in Budapest, but none is as large and as beautiful as the Great Synagogue in Dohany Street. It is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world with a capacity of over 3,000 people. The synagogue houses the Jewish Museum and the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park.
Parliament building is also a must see. Oozing with magnificence, the parliament building was constructed from 1885 to 1904, and now is home to the Hungarian Parliament, the Hungarian Saint Crown (the royal crown of Saint Stephen) and the Parliamentary Library. There are guided tours daily except on days when parliament is in session, with tours in English being held at 10, 12 and 2 o’clock every day. However, it is important to book your ticket in advance.
If you are the type that fancies having a quiet, relaxed time, then ensure that you add the Bottomless Lake to your must-see list when traveling to Budapest. The Bottomless Lake is a park in the eleventh district that boasts of a beautiful lake with exotic plants, marvelous promenades and playgrounds. You can take a walk, have some quiet time, have a picnic and even fish.
Where to Eat
Hungarian cuisine normally includes moderate amounts of paprika. When traveling to Budapest, you ought to try out local delicacies like töltött káposzta, paprikás, and gulyás. Töltött káposzta is cooked cabbage with meat and paprika sauce served with sour cream while paprikás refers to meat, either chicken or veil, cooked in paprika sauce. Gulyás is a dish that comprises of paprika, potatoes, and meat soup. The paprika used in Budapest is not the spicy or extremely hot variety. When eating out in restaurants, you should expect prices ranging from 1000 to 4000 HUF for a main course.
Although local cuisine revolves around meat and meat dishes, there are excellent restaurants for Vegans in Budapest. For example, Edeni Vegan, a cash-only restaurant in Buda, and Govinda which has two branches in Central Pest. Some of the most famous restaurant chains in Budapest include Gundel, Trofea Grill famous for its all-you-can-eat buffet and Wasabi that offers Japanese cuisine. Maligán in Lajos Utca is a wine restaurant with a wide array of Hungarian dishes and excellent service. It is also moderately priced. When in district II, you should eat out at Serpenyős Vendéglő, a beautiful, moderately priced restaurant with an outdoor section and a good collection of exotic Hungarian wines.
Where to Shop
The most expensive part of Budapest to shop is in Pest, particularly in Váci Utca. However it is laden with a large number of shops, offering Hungarian’s best in terms of souvenirs. Expect to find high end stores like Gucci, Roberto Cavalli and Louis Vuitton in Andrássy Avenue and Mexx, Lacoste and Max Mara on Fashion Street in Deák Ferenc Utca. There are numerous shopping malls in Budapest, one of the biggest being the Europeum Shopping Centre. A 6000-square meter shopping mall in Blaha Lujza. In Buda, there is the four-storey Allee Shopping Centre that boasts of numerous designer and shoe stores, and even a Burger King.
Hungarian products that make the best souvenirs include porcelain (Herend and Zsolnay), wines, paprika and folk art. When leaving Hungary, you can reclaim VAT on purchases that you’ve made exceeding 50,000 HUF. However, this amount needs to be on one receipt. You need to fill out a receipt of purchase, a VAT receipt and a VAT reclaim form, and you will get your refund at the Airport (Ferihegy) or have it shipped to you.
How to Get Around
For a tourist, you can get around Budapest using public transportation. Public transportation is managed by BKV, Budapest Transport Limited Company. There are 3 metros that connect the suburbs with central transport hubs and hotels, blue buses, yellow trams and red trolley buses. You can get public transport maps in tram shops, at the BKV office and in metro stations. Although it connects the most part of Budapest, public transport is not reliable and tickets are not cheap. For traveling at night, there are night buses that operate between 11 pm and 4 am.
Budapest has very heavy traffic, especially in the morning and late afternoon, so driving around is not ideal. It is best to keep away from taxis, as most tend to overcharge tourists, particularly those at the railway station and at the airport. You will find that most taxi drivers are also not well conversant with English and hence tend to use switchboards. To get around in Budapest, you can also use a bicycle, a skateboard or a scooter. Bicycles and scooters are not as widely embraced, but you are great for undertaking biking trips outside the city. Renting a bus will cost you as much as 3000 HUF a day, and a scooter 3600 HUF. You need a helmet when driving a scooter, and a license if the scooter has an engine greater than 50cc capacity. You can skateboard in Pest.
With a lot to see, a lot to do and a very youthful atmosphere, Budapest is one of the top travel destinations for every travel enthusiast.