Hungary’s blissfully laid-back capital is full of great sights by day, thermal spas to while away the pressures of sightseeing and a choice of jumping nightlife. Once you’ve filled your days with must-see sights, here are 10 things you did not know about Budapest.
1. Budapest was once three cities
Founded on the west bank of the Danube River, hilly Buda came into existence in the 10th century, named after Bleda, brother of Attila the Hun. Its castle and fortifications still dominate the skyline. The flat sprawl of Pest (which is thought to mean ‘oven’ due to the hot springs that lie beneath Budapest) sprang up some years later on the opposite side of the river. In 1873 the two towns finally married up with the town of Óbuda, just north of Buda, to become Budapest. Today there are seven bridges over the Danube; the most famous is the Chain Bridge, one of the city’s best-loved sights.
2. Budapest is built upon 130 thermal springs
Formed in the karstic limestone on which the city stands, Budapest’s thermal springs are known to have therapeutic properties and provide 18.5 million gallons (70 million liters) of hot water daily to power the seven major spa baths in the city. The water’s temperature ranges between 70°F (21°C) and 168°F (76°C).
Budapest’s famous spa baths are open to all but there are certain guidelines for visitors to adhere to when bathing. First, always shower, then relax in a warm pool for up to 20 minutes (any longer is bad for the heart, apparently) before plunging into a cold pool. Afterwards alternate a steam bath with the cold plunge pool a couple of times, then dip into pools of differing temperatures before showering again and wrapping up in a towel to relax for an hour in a warm room. Newly renovated Veli Bej was built when the Turks controlled Budapest in the 16th century and is the least known of the city’s spas.
4. Budapest’s vampire is a local hero
Although Dracula and his cohorts originate from Transylvania in present-day Romania, the real-life inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s fictional character was imprisoned Visgrad Castle in Buda for ten years. Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia, is revered as a folk hero in Hungary as he defended the country against invading Ottoman troops in the 15th century, despite the fact that he is reputed to have impaled and murdered tens of thousands of victims.
5. Budapest has been invaded many times
The Celts first settled in Buda around the fourth century BC. Then came the Romans who were driven out by the Huns. In the 10th century, the Magyars were in control but the Mongols conquered in 1241. By 1458 Buda was the center of the central European Renaissance under Hungarian rule before the Turks arrived in 1526 (Pest) and 1541 (Buda). The Hapsburgs subsequently destroyed virtually all the city in 1686 but were thrown out in 1848 by the Austrians. In 1956 the Soviet Union took Budapest behind the Iron Curtain, but this came down in 1989 and Hungary finally won independence in 1990.
On top of all this, the Ashkenazi Jews came to Budapest in the 13th century and thrived until WWII. The legacy of this rich cultural soup can be admired in the Ottoman hamams (thermal baths) such as Király and Ruda, and the Dohany Street Synagogue, which is the biggest in Europe. The elegant boulevards of Pest were built under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Memento Park is the depository of the massive propaganda statues erected during the Soviet Era.
6. Going underground in Budapest
The hills of Buda conceal a network of up to eight miles (10 km) of limestone caves and tunnels only discovered during building work in the early 20th century. The tunnels underneath Castle Hill were used for military and storage purposes during WWII. The tunnels and caves came into service again following the 1956 Revolution against Communism and were used as nuclear fall-out bunkers until the end of the Cold War in 1985.
Today the tunnels can be explored as part of a guided tour from Buda Castle. The Gellért Hill Cave Church was built in the 1920s by a group of Pauline monks and temporarily requisitioned as a hospital during the war; it was later closed by the Soviets in 1945 and did not reopen until 1992 after the fall of Communism. Entrance to the Cave Church is behind the statue of St Stephen half way up Gellért Hill.
Hungarian wines such as Tokay and Eger are justly famous but now boutique beers are in the ascendancy. Sample locally brewed ales such as Keserű Méz and Grabanc IPA at ruin pubs in the fetchingly dilapidated 19th-century residential buildings behind the main boulevards of Pest. Budapest Craft Beer Festival runs from June 13 through 16 at Buda Castle and showcases around 25 brews from wheat beer to fig beer.
8. Budapest’s flea markets are some of the best in the world
If you’re after Communist memorabilia or cut-price Russian icons, start searching in the Budapest flea markets. Get there early in the morning, take cash and be prepared to haggle at the daily Ecseri Flea Market at Nagykorosi Street 156, where stalls are often simply upturned cardboard boxes, or check out the sprawling mass of the weekend PECSA flea market in the middle of City Park.
Budapest has a reasonably efficient public-transport system, including three metro lines on the oldest subway in Europe. Buses and trolleybuses travel out into the suburbs, and trams ply routes in the city center 24 hours a day, daily. Travel cards are available in 24- and 72-hour chunks as well as seven-day tickets, providing excellent value for sightseers – but always carry your ticket with you as checks are frequent and fines heavy. Taxi drivers, on the other hand, are known to delight in ripping off foreigners. At the airport, pick up an official Fő taxi, which will be a metered vehicle with a yellow license plate and a ‘taxi’ sign on the roof. If you must travel by taxi when in Budapest, book ahead with a reputable company through your hotel concierge.
Just as the Hungarian Magyar peoples are not related to the Slavs of central Europe, nor is their language. Hungarian tops the list of tricky languages to learn, along with Finnish and Estonian, with which it shares a distant common root. Its origins are through to have been in the Ural Mountains around 10,000 years ago; today Hungarian has around 14.5 million speakers and is an official language of Serbia. You won’t struggle to be understood in Budapest, however, as most people involved in tourism there speak excellent English.