budapest overview


Budapest yokes together two formerly separate cities: Buda and Pest, on opposite sides of the Danube.  Buda, on the West side of the river is hilly and semi-suburban, and has winding, narrow streets wending their way up into the hills.  It is greener, more residential, and far harder to navigate by public transportation.  Because there are hills everywhere, and they are steep, and because the city is very old, most streets are really unable to support modern automobiles.  That doesn’t stop people from trying.  And because the city is rather densely built with houses crowding against each other and hugging the curb or the hillside, there’s really no way to change it.  There’s a lot of greenery and trees, and, because the side streets are bad, people don’t easily hop into their cars to go shopping.  [Oddly, people complain constantly about the traffic in Pest, but no one seems to complain about the streets in Buda.]  The result is that Buda is filled with lots of autonomous little neighborhoods and has the feel of Montmartre crossed with the hills of Berkeley, California.  It’s worth a walk.  The public transportation is pretty good in Buda, though very hard to figure out (at least for me…it’s almost entirely trams and buses and there are no good maps of all the bus routes in the city).

Adjacent to the river, up on two of the hills, there are spectacular old buildings, churches, monuments, and the castle district.  Further south, there are seemingly innumerable faceless homes of the pre- and post-1990 bureaucracy.  More or less separating the two areas, the Gellert Hotel and spa sits at the base of Gellert Hill, below the Citadella, a monument that seems to have no real meaning, or more precisely to have changed its real meaning with the revolving-door-conquerors-du-jour so frequently as to have blurred any possible enduring significance.  [Not surprisingly, since Budapest is extremely close to the geographic center of Europe, virtually everyone intent on conquering the entire continent more or less had to pass through it repeatedly.  Add the fact that it’s surrounded by a breadbasket and that it’s on the Danube, and the whole thing must look pretty inviting to a conquering horde. Most invaders passing through paused a moment to conquer Hungary as well.]  The country is actually named after two different conquering hordes (the Huns, in English, and the Magyars, in Hungarian, neither of whom can authoritatively  be demonstrated ever to have actually set foot there).

Pest is the urban center of the city, on the east side of the river.  Parliament, the basilica, the synagogue (the largest or second largest in the world, depending on what you are measuring, and whether you are Hungarian or American; the other one in the competition is Temple Emanuel in New York), the Opera, Music Academy, Central Market Hall, Palace of the Arts, and National Theatre are all here and in walking distance of each other (more or less…the last two are a pretty healthy hike), as is virtually everything else.  Naturally, near the river Buda affords great views of Pest, and vice versa.  Between the two cities at the northern end, in the middle of the river, lies Margaret Island, with parks and spas.  Further up the river, a boat ride away, lies the artists’ colony of Szentendre.

Speaking of spas, Budapest has many, on both sides of the river.  It also has grand boulevards, now somewhat dilapidated in parts (and therefore in frequent demand as the set for movies depicting war-torn 20th Century Europe), but others are being restored.  Váci utca (utca means street) is the old grand shopping street of Pest, and it still is a great place to stroll (cars are banned now) though there’s little worth buying there.  Gerbeaud is on Vorosmarty tér (tér means square) at one end of Váci utca, and it is as venerable among Hungarian patisseries as Vaci utca is among Budapest streets; my great grandmother used to frequent Gerbeaud (after shopping on Váci utca).  Still a wonderful place to sit and watch the world pass by, though the pastry is not as wonderful as, perhaps, it was; the prices are geared to tourists and the experience is rather kitschy, but somehow one still finds oneself sitting there, sipping coffee or tea, and watching the tourists flock and disperse. And it’s an unbeatable place to meet up if your group sets out in differing directions and wants to recongeal later in the day.

Pest is built, like many cities on rivers, in concentric semi-circles, beginning with one closest to the river that is bounded by the river on one side and a ring road enclosing the oldest and most central sections of the city on the other.  When it overgrew that boundary a second tier was added, bounded by a second ring road, and then a third.  The city is broken down into districts, each of which has its own municipal government (each is called a kerulet), and it gets confusing because as you pass along the ring roads from one district to another the ringroads (körúts) change names.

The oldest and most central part of Pest is the Vth District (the Belvaros, or Inner City). 


Like many cities that grew up around rivers, there are distinct neighborhoods, indeed distinct cities--Buda and Pest--on the opposite sides of the river.  Buda rises up to the west, splayed among hills and parks; Pest sits on a plane to the east, set in concentric circles that each marked its outer boundary until the city spilled over the edge and expanded.  The innermost ring demarks the Center City or Belvaros, the Fifth District, which remains the heart of the city.