Although its history reaches back to the ninth century, the city now known as Budapest was formed in 1873 by combining the separate cities of Buda and Óbuda (located on the west bank of the Danube) and Pest (located on the east). Today, the city is Hungary’s capital and largest city, described by many as the most beautiful in Europe. Although technically landlocked, Budapest is known for its river, the Danube, the second longest in Europe. As with most European cities with its clime, the best times to visit are the spring and fall shoulder seasons, when the weather is mild but pleasant and the tourist crowds are minimal.
Despite its size, status, and opulence, Budapest remains an affordable city, and its laidback lifestyle—not to mention the city’s splendor—have landed it on numerous lists of best places to live or visit. The area’s many natural geothermal springs have given rise to a prominent spa culture, with the most popular venue being the art deco Gellért Thermal Baths and Swimming Pool. Some of the biggest festivals occur during the summer, including the weeklong Sziget Festival, which features more than 1,000 acts; the Vajdahunyad Castle Summer Music Festival; and St. Stephen’s Day, the national holiday celebrated annually on August 20.
The origins of the Buda Castle, also known as the Royal Palace, date back to the 1200s, and many visitors prefer visiting at night, when the complex is lit up and the crowds have died down. Tours of the Parliament building include a history of Hungary, thus providing a foundation for the other city attractions. In Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square), home to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Art, massive statues of the leaders of Hungary’s original tribes tower over visitors. The religious sites of St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Central Synagogue are both aesthetic wonders, while the House of Terror details the atrocities committed when the city was under the fascist and communist regimes.
Budapest is divided into 23 districts, using Roman numerals. The Castle Hill (Várnegyed, District I) is located on a cliff above the Danube and features the scenic outlook of Fisherman’s Bastion, the Romanesque Matthias Church, and a warren of small winding streets. Formerly a separate city, Óbuda (District III) is situated on the riverbank and is home to the Aquincum, which showcases relics and ruins from the time when the area was a Roman territory. In Theresa Town (District IV), the main grand street of Andrássy út (Avenue) is the city’s main shopping center, with the theater district lying close by. Leopold Town, in Belváros-Lipótváros (District V), contains such landmarks as St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Parliament Building, and Gresham Palace.