Budapest has long been regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Often compared to Prague, it is in our view even prettier, and less crowded. Its extended UNESCO World Heritage site consists of Buda Castle overlooking the banks of Danube, Andrassy Avenue, Hero’s Square and the superb Millennium Underground Railway (that’s the turn of the 20th century). Only the London Underground is older than Budapest’s.
Greater Budapest has grown into a zone inhabiting nearly 3 million people, with the inner city accounting for about half of that.
Originally founded by Celtic tribes (the earliest Celtic remains were found in Hungary), who were forced west by the expansion of the Roman Empire from about the time of Christ. The Romans turned it into a fortress which became part of Pannonia. In the 9th century the Bulgarians built fortresses on both sides of the Danube, Buda and Pest, which were then conquered by Árpád who founded the Kingdom of Hungary. It wasn’t until after the Tatar invasion in the 13th century that Budapest became the capital having been reinforced by stone walls.
Budapest was eventually occupied by the Ottoman Turks from 1541 who remained in charge of the city for 140 years. The western parts of Hungary remained part of the Holy Roman Empire who finally won back the capital and the Eastern part of Hungary as far as Timisoara in 1686, but had to wait until 1718 for the borders to become internationally recognised.
The 19th century brought domination by the Habsburg Empire who made Budapest their capital.
The Western part of Romania, Transylvania remains disputed territory with a large ethnic Hungarian population, much of it lost after 1918 when Hungary declared itself an independent republic.
The Battle of Budapest in 1944 obliterated large parts of the city, but was finally dominated by the Soviets which led to it becoming a communist state until 1989.
Malev, the Hungarian flag-carrier now flies from London Gatwick, but you can get direct flights from Heathrow with BA at very convenient departure times i.e. out at 08:30 and back at 18:20. Austrian Airlines are well worth trying out as well with some very low fares but travelling via Vienna. From the UK regions try Easyjet or KLM. Ryanair doesn’t fly to Hungary at all.
Arriving at Budapest
Remember Hungary is not part of the Eurozone, they deal in Hungarian Forints.
If you want to taxi into the city you’ll probably come across a Főtaxi rank outside all the three terminals. A single journey into the city will cost between 14 Eur and 24 Eur on the time of day and where you are going in the city.
Try booking a minibus transfer in advance on the Airport Shuttle, they’ll take you door to door for about 7 Euro.
Budapest Ferihegy Airport is easily accessible by trains from the Budapest Nyugati Railway Station. On weekdays train number 110 and at weekends train number 89 get you from the city center to the airport in less than half an hour. Tickets can be bought from vending machines at Terminal 1.
Getting around in Budapest
Given Budapest Metro’s age, and heritage status, it would be a shame not to use it. Take a look at the map below, we couldn’t find a PDF download anywhere.
Things to do in Budapest
Margaret (Margitsziget) Island is a 225 acre island right in the middle of the River Danube which has been turned into a park with a rubber running track around it which measures over 5000 metres in length. It’s like having Hyde Park in the middle of the Thames. The Island’s history goes back to medieval times when it was settled by the Knights of St. John who turned it into a holy island inhabited by monks and nuns who took care of soldiers returning from the crusades. The island is named after one of the nuns who lived on the island, who just happened to be the daughter of Béla IV, the King of Hungary between 1235 and 1270.
The Monasteries and nunneries were destroyed by the Ottoman Turks making the park virtually redundant until the early 20th century when it was turned into a public park. It is accessible via two bridges, one at each end, Margitsziget Bridge to the south and Arpad Bridge to the north.
Of particular of interest to travellers visiting Budapest for relaxation and spa treatment is the Danubius Health Spa Resort which is close to the Arpad Bridge end. The spa is attached to the Grand Hotel Margitsziget which not only offers you the benefits of staying within a park but its position is so very close to the main sights of the city.
A visit to Budapest would be incomplete without a visit to the Castle District with its sweeping panoramas over the city, its funicular railway, museums, art galleries, the Fisherman’s Bastion, restaurants and the castle itself.
The site has been a Royal palace since the time of Béla IV but was built on, first by Stephen Duke of Slovonia (Stephens Tower is all that remained), and then by The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, who made the castles one of the largest in Europe, built in its Gothic style, surrounded by large defensive walls. King Matthias Corvinus made further improvements to the castle during the Renaissance and his successor King Vladislaus II, and the last national Hungarian King, John Zápolya.
In 1526 after the Battle of Mohacs the Hungarian Kingdom collapsed and the Ottoman Turks laid siege on Budapest but spared the castle. Over the 140 years of their power the Turks stole its valuable statues and artworks to take them back to Constantinople for the Sultan, Suleiman. The castle was not used as an official residence so was left to deteriorate.
St. Stephens Tower had been used by the Turks to store gunpowder, which caused an enormous explosion when Christian forces sent a cannonball through it in 1686. The force of the explosion was said to be so great it killed 1500 Turks and caused a tidal wave along the river killing even more.
The Habsburg Kings who took over demolished what was left of the old palace to rebuild it only for it to burn to the ground in 1723. It was not until Queen Maria Theresa gifted the re-building of the Palace in 1748 in return for the support of Hungary during the Wars of the Austrian Succession that work was re-commenced. Unfortunately the Queen had little use for the Castle so gave it to a Nunnery, who then decided it was unsuitable, so it then passed to an University, who also moved out to make way for Habsburg advocates called the Palatines. More battles followed the Hungarian rejection of the Habsburgs who were then defeated causing more damage to the building. Franz Joseph used it has a Royal Palace followed by Charles IV who was the last Habsburg King to use Buda Castle until the end of WW1.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge was at its time one of the engineering wonders of the world when it was completed in 1849 creating the first link between Buda and Pest over the River Danube. Brooklyn Bridge in New York was modelled on it when it was built in 1883 creating as much a cultural symbol since.
These days the Chain Bridge is a great way to get across from Pest to Buda castle, for connection with the funicular railway. You get a great view of the Danube from on here. It was built by and Englishman, William Tierney Clark, who built a smaller version in Marlow. The engineer was a Scot, Adam Clark (no relation). It suffered damage during the Battle of Budapest in 1944 but was re-built by 1949.
For anyone visiting Budapest with a camera try to get a good vantage point from the Citadelle Setany above the Bridge or from the Hotel Gellert from where you’ll get a lovely cityscape.
Hero’s Square and City Park
Hősök Tere forms part of the UNESCO Heritage Site of Budapest which can be access from the Metro Station of the same name. It forms the entrance to Budapest’s City Park Varosliget where you can lose a couple of hours walking around the lake or visiting the Zoo. On a wet day you can spend all day at the Museum of Fine Arts on the left and the Palace of Art on the right. From the centre of the Arc you look down Andrássy Avenue which leads you back in to the old centre of the city and the River.
The Square was built by the Habsburgs with its sole aim to promote themselves as the hero’s with a few others thrown into the mix for good measure. During WW2 it was badly damaged but was rebuilt with new statues of Hungarian Hero’s from medieval times like Stephen, Bela IV and Matthias Corvinus.
Hero’s Square has great emotional resonance for the Hungarians which manifested itself when Imre Nagy, the hero of the 1958 Hungarian Uprising against the Soviets was ceremonially re-buried in 1989.
Hungarian National Museum
Serving not only the role of a Museum, but a potent symbol of Hungarian Nationalism, having been used as a pedestal by revolutionaries now represented by statues on either side. The National Museum is located close to the Metro Station “Magyar Nemzeti Muzeum” in the centre of Budapest. Admire its neo-classical frontage, and learn more about the various stages of Hungarian History.
St, Stephen’s Basilica
No visit to a major European city is complete without visiting a large Cathedral, but St Stephens is big (96 metres tall) and the most important church in Hungary. It is also the joint tallest building in Budapest (with the Parliament Building) as current regulations disallow any other building to be higher than it on fundamental Catholic grounds.
It is named after the 11th century King of Hungary, Stephen I, whose mummified fist is still housed here. Get a 360 degree view of Budapest from the top.
The Great Synagogue
Also known as the Dohány Street Synagogue, the Great Synagogue is the fifth largest in the world, and the largest in Europe, seating nearly 3000 people. Built in the Moorish Revival Style in the mid 19th Century it is poignantly opposite where the Jewish Ghetto was situated at the time of WW2. It was badly damaged during the War and during Soviet times but was renovated between 1991 and 1998 aided by Estee Lauder who donated $5 Million to the project. The Dohány Street Synagogue complex consists of the Great Synagogue, the Jewish Museum, the Heroes’ Temple, the graveyard and the Holocaust memorial.
Similar to the Parliament of Westminster, the Budapest Parliament building was built in Gothic Revival style in 1873. It is right on the Riverbank and is hard to miss. You will get an ideal view of it from Buda Hill but it is worth getting close to admire it fully.
Where to stay
The Grand Hotel is right on the historical island itself, with its very own health spa facilities and that of its sister hotel next door. The island has its own rubber running track, so for those who want to make a longer visit, and to do some fitness work this place is more than ideal. The rooms are large, but the decor needs updating.
This place has bags and bags of character, and is right in the heart of the city, which makes sightseeing far easier than at the Grand Hotel. There is Metro station at the foot of the hotel but the river is only about 300m away so you can walk very easily to the Buda side. Highly recommended, particularly for people staying just a couple of days. Use the bar, it is art Nouveau masterpiece.