Budapest’s Great Synagogue can accommodate approximately 3,000 worshippers, making it the largest of its kind in Europe. // © 2014 Hungarian National Tourist Office
Feature image (above): The name “Budapest” is the combination of what were once two separate cities on either side of the Danube River: Buda and Pest. // © 2014 Hungarian National Tourist Office
When shopping, it's always a treat to find two items on sale for the price of one — in effect, a “twofer.”
Quite literally, that's what awaits visitors to the Hungarian capital city of Budapest. Here are two literally distinct cities — Buda and Pest — with one on each side of the Danube River, but joined together in 1873 to make one city.
Each can be experienced on its own, or both together. And while Budapest has a 1,000-year-long cultural history that includes some rather violent periods as well as being a royal seat during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it has only emerged as a central European travel destination in the very recent past.
That's because Hungary threw in with Nazi Germany in World War ll. As a consequence, it suffered some damage from Allied aerial bombings and almost complete destruction during the 100-days of the Soviet siege, one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war. All five of the historic bridges over the Danube were destroyed by the encircled Germans. Russian units defeated the Germans, but then replaced a brutal dictatorship with Communist rule.
Locals will point out with bitterness a structure in Pest that was home of the dreaded Gestapo, subsequently occupied by the equally cruel AVO, the Stalinist secret police.
The Rise of Tourism
It wasn't until 1989 that the Communist regime ended and the Hungarian Republic was proclaimed. Since then, as the capital, Budapest has worked to become a major central European travel destination, restoring the magnificent structures so badly damaged during the war as a major first step. I’ve heard Budapest referred to as Europe’s most earthily beautiful capital.
Admittedly not as well as known as Prague or Vienna, its major regional urban rivals for the tourist dollar, Budapest offers visitors sights, experiences and a cuisine all its own. Think goulosh, dumplings, breaded and stuffed mushroom caps, rantott csirke (fried chicken) and for dessert, dobos torta, among other favorites.
When it comes to libations, Hungarians are proud of their tokaji, a sweet desert wine, and palinka, a potent (40 percent proof) fruit brandy. Visitors will find, too, that young local chefs are actively moving menus away from the relatively heavy traditional fare.
Tale of Two Cities
While Pest and Buda are united each has retained its own personality. Residents refer to themselves according to which side of the river they reside on. If you live in Pest you're a Peshti; in Buda, you're a Budai.
“Pest is lively, full of fun, with theaters, the opera, movies and coffee houses,” commented one resident. “Buda, however, is perhaps more elegant. It’s quiet and people there don't sit all day in coffee houses.”
There are geographic distinctions, too. Pest, on the eastern side of the Danube is essentially flat while Buda, on the western side, is hilly.
One assumption visitors often make that is guaranteed to upset any Hungarian is that they are all descendants of the Huns, hence the country's name. You'll be quickly corrected. The early Hungarians were Magyars, mounted tribesman who probably migrated out of the Ural Mountains to the east in the 9th century. A group of these warriors is depicted in a fine stature in Heroes’ Square.