If I had to choose one favorite city in Europe, I would choose Budapest. It is filled with grand buildings, sweeping views across the Danube River and many interesting areas to explore. The people are friendly, the city is easy to get around, there is an excellent tourist infrastructure and – perhaps best of all – goose liver!
The once three separate cities – Buda and Óbuda on the west side of the Danube and Pest on the east – united in 1873 to form Budapest. Castle Hill on the Buda side was the seat of Hungarian (and Austro- Hungarian) royalty, while much of the area's business was conducted along the wide boulevards of the flatter Pest side.
Many of the grand historic landmarks seen today were built in the second half of the 19th century or the first decade of the 20th. The 1000 year anniversary of Hungary's founding took place in 1896. (In 896, seven tribes of Magyar horsemen from east of the Carpathian Mountains took control of the area that is now Hungary.) In anticipation of this anniversary, Budapest experienced a building boom (though in many cases the buildings were not complete in time for the celebrations).
Among the great structures that hail from this period are St. Stephen's Basilica and the Parliament building, both with domes that reach 96 meters (320 feet) in height in honor of the 1896 millennium. On the west (or Buda) side of the Danube, the Matthias Church on Castle Hill was substantially rebuilt, Fishermen's Bastion was added and the Royal Palace achieved its present design during this period.
Aside from the upcoming celebrations, Budapest's building boom was prompted by something almost as rare in Hungarian history as the millennium – peace and prosperity. During its 1000-year history, Hungary had been overrun by the Mongols, the Turks and the Austrians. Only during the latter half of the 19th century, and the creation of the "Dual Monarchy" of Austria-Hungary, did Budapest enjoy both the peace and the wealth to undertake the building (or the rebuilding) of a great city. It soon became a center of European culture. Gustav Mahler, for example, conducted in the opulent State Opera House and Franz Liszt gave classes at the Conservatory of Music.
But it was not to last. Hungary entered World War I on the side of the Hapsburg Empire and came out on the losing end. The Treaty of Trianon stripped it of about two-thirds of its former territories, including present-day Slovakia, portions of Croatia and the Transylvanian region of Romania. Hoping in part to recover these lost territories, Hungary entered World War II on the side of Nazi Germany (even declaring war on the United States on December 13, 1941). German troops occupied Hungary in March 1944 and by October of the same year the Soviet Red Army invaded. Budapest, in particular, was subjected to a punishing Soviet siege. Castle Hill was reduced to rubble and all bridges across the Danube were destroyed before the city was liberated in April 1945. Two years later, Hungary fell behind the Iron Curtain. An attempt at independence in 1956 was brutally crushed when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest on November 4. A week later, some 25,000 people were dead, thousands more were arrested and 250,000 fled the country. The city itself sustained heavy damage, some of which is still visible today.
Finally, in 1989 the Communist era came to an end. Free elections were held and Soviet troops left the country in June 1991. After an initially painful transition to a market economy, Hungary has become one of the most successful countries in Eastern Europe. The historic landmarks of Budapest have been rebuilt and many new buildings have been added.
Today, Budapest is a wonderful city to visit. I have been there three separate times and would be happy to return anytime. Although the city is not quite the bargain it was during my first visit in 2000, it still beats Western Europe. And, while Budapest has certainly been discovered by tourists, it is not nearly as crowded as Prague (or at least doesn't seem as crowded, perhaps because things are more spread out here). Budapest is also my favorite city for running. Margaret (Margit) Island in the middle of the Danube has a rubberized track around the whole island. No cars, great views and easy on the feet! And then there are the very drinkable (and very affordable) Hungarian wines and the excellent restaurants with multi-lingual menus and waiters (because no tourist could ever hope to decode Magyar). Plus, did I mention the goose liver?
Sights in Buda: The hilly, western bank of the Danube holds the Buda (and Óbuda) sections of Budapest. On Buda's Castle Hill stand the magnificent Matthias Church, Fishermen's Bastion, the Royal Palace and a whole complex of other historic sights that were once within the walls of the city. There are also museums, shops, restaurants and spectacular views across the Danube to Pest. (23 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]
Sights in Pest: Pest, along the flat eastern shore of the Danube River, boasts wide boulevards (Andrássy Út is the grandest) and majestic buildings, including the Parliament building, St. Stephen's Basilica, the Great Synagogue (Europe's largest) and a wonderful indoor market (Nagyvásárcsarnok). This slide show also includes a look at some of Budapest's famous bridges, in particular Széchenyi Lánchíd, the Chain Bridge. (27 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]
City Park (Városliget) and a Hungarian Wine Festival: Budapest has a large City Park, though there is not a lot of open space in it. Within the park are restaurants, a zoo, mineral baths, Vajdahunyad Castle (which seems an attempt to include every architectural style ever invented) and lots of other things to see. And, on one September weekend, there was also a wine festival with musicians, dancers and people in regional costumes and, of course, lots of wonderful Hungarian wines to sample! (17 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]
Statue Park (Szoborpark): During the years of Soviet domination, Budapest was filled with statues extolling the virtues of the Communist ideology. After independence, one's first instinct might have been to destroy them all. But the people of Budapest had a better idea: remove all the hated statues from their city, but place them in a special park where tourists, curious Hungarians and unreconstructed Communists could still view them. It's an interesting glimpse into a world of Socialist-Realist propaganda art. Also on display, an East German Trabant, once a popular car in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. With its 25 hp, two-cylinder, two-stroke engine, it took about 20 smoke-belching seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph, despite the light weight achieved by using Duroplast plastic for many body panels. Although the manufacture of Trabants ended in 1991, not long after German reunification, the car remains popular among nostalgia buffs. (10 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]