Budapest Travel Guide

Budapest straddles a gentle curve in the Danube. It has broad avenues, leafy parks and elaborate bathhouses.

The city also has a turn-of-the-century feel to it, for it was then - during the industrial boom and the capital's heyday - that most of the city was built.

With its incredible architecture and rich cultural heritage, multifarious and often embittered history, Hungary's capital deserves its reputation as the 'Paris of Eastern Europe'.

It has a complex identity, somewhere between Western luxury and simple traditions.


Facts in a glance

Area: 525 sq km
Population: 2 million
Country: Hungary
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1 (Central European Time)
Telephone Area Code: 1


The story of Budapest begins in 1873 when hilly, residential Buda and historic Óbuda on the western bank of the Danube River merged with flat, industrial Pest on the east to form what was at first called Pest-Buda. Budapest's history is far more complicated.

Hungary, in the Carpathian Basin, has been populated by successive peoples for hundreds of thousands of years. Celts, Romans, Huns, Mongols, Turks, Slovaks, Austrians, Germans and Russians, have re-forged and distilled Hungary's identity many times over.

Hungarians, or Magyars as they call themselves, are part of the Finno-Ugric group of peoples, who originated from western Siberia.

It is believed that one group of Magyars, fleeing attack, established themselves on Csepel Island and Óbuda when Pest and Buda were no more than small villages. Known for their equestrian skills, until they were stopped by the Germans in 955, the greater Magyars raided far and wide.

This and subsequent defeats left them in disarray, and later forced them into an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire.

1000: the Magyar prince Stephen was crowned 'Christian King' Stephen I (later canonised Saint Stephen), with a crown sent from Rome by the pope, and Hungary, the kingdom and the nation, was officially born. The next two and a half centuries were marked by constant struggles between rival claimants to the throne, and land grabs by powerful neighbours, sending the kingdom into decline. A castle was built at Buda to arrest the slide and Pest was proclaimed a royal municipality.

1301: After the death of Andrew III, the Árpád's last in line, Hungary flourished with a succession of able rulers, beginning with Charles Robert, his modestly named son Louis the Great, and then Sigismund of Luxembourg (who enlarged the Royal Palace, founded a university at Óbuda and erected the first pontoon bridge over the Danube). This period culminated in the golden reign of Matthias Corvinus ('The Raven'), who made the country one of Europe's leading powers and brought Buda into the nation's focus for the first time.

1526: His successor was crushed inside two hours by the Ottoman Turks. Buda was sacked and burned before the Turks returned and took it for good in 1541.It marked the end of a relatively prosperous and independent Hungary, sending the nation into a tailspin of partition, foreign domination and despair, the results of which are still evident in the ethnic mix today.

1699: Resistance to Turkish rule forced the Turks out. The country became a province of the Austrian Habsburg Empire, thus beginning a period of enlightened absolutism. Hungary blossomed economically and culturally, as did nationalism.

1783: Buda effectively became the German-speaking town of Ofen and was the nation's administrative centre, while Pest began to outgrow the city walls. Pest later became an important commercial centre while Buda remained a royal garrison town.

1849: Under the rebel leadership of Lajos Kossuth, Hungary declared full independence. The Habsburgs were able to crush the revolution and instigated a series of brutal reprisals.

1867: Passive resistance among Hungarians and a couple of disastrous military defeats for the Habsburgs eventually led to the Compromise, creating the Dual Monarchy of Austria the empire and Hungary the kingdom.

1873: Buda, Pest and Óbuda united to form Budapest. This 'Age of Dualism' instigated an unprecedented economic, cultural and intellectual rebirth. Much of what you see in Budapest today was built during this time - from the grand boulevards and eclectic-style apartment blocks to the Parliament building and Matthias Church in the Castle District.

1896: The apex of this belle époque was a six-month exhibition in City Park celebrating the millennium of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian Basin.

The Dual Monarchy entered WWI as an ally of Germany - with disastrous results - and was replaced by a republic immediately after the war. Hungarian Communists seized power, but were overthrown five months later by troops from Romania.

1920: the Allies drew up a postwar settlement under the Treaty of Trianon which drastically reduced Hungarian territory. Hungary sought help from the fascist governments of Germany and Italy to recover its land, but found itself again on the losing side in WWII. Budapest bore the brunt of Hungary's spilt blood, with the retreating Germans blowing up Buda Castle and every bridge spanning the Danube.

1947: Rigged elections brought the Communists to power. There was bitter feuding within the Party, with purges and Stalinesque show trials the norm.

The nation was then rocked irrevocably by the 1956 Uprising, an anti-Soviet revolution in Budapest, which left thousands dead after brutal Russian military retaliation. This was followed by the worst reprisals in the country's history, and the consolidation of the regime, lead by János Kádár, who managed to transform himself from traitor and most hated man in the land to respected reformer.

Many buildings around Pest to this day bear pockmarks and holes from the bloody showdown. He embarked on a program of 'goulash' (consumer-oriented) Communism and by the mid-1970s, his reforms had successfully transformed Hungary into the most liberal, developed and richest nation in the region. Continuing unemployment, a soaring inflation rate and mounting debt saw Kádár ousted in 1988.

1989: Following the collapse of Communism, the nation became the Republic of Hungary. The celebrated Soviet troop withdrawal from Hungary in June 1991 soon saw the first free elections in more than four decades.

2002: In April, Hungarians tired of their right-wing government and its bullish nationalist rhetoric despite the strong economic growth it had managed to achieve, and voted the Socialists into power.

Two days before accession to the EU, the Budapest city council revoked Stalin's honorary citizenship of the city, granted in 1947 in recognition of his role in Hungary's liberation in WWII. Hungary joined NATO and became a full participant in the EU in 2004, with adoption of the euro set for 2006 at the earliest.

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