St. Stephen’s Basilica // © 2014 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): Located on the Buda side of Budapest, the Hungarian Parliament Building is one of the city’s more popular tourist sights. // © 2014 Thinkstock
As one of central Europe's newest democracies, Hungary — and its capital Budapest, in particular — is quickly becoming recognized as a dynamic travel destination. However, after decades under Communism, the revitalization of the private sector economy is still taking place.
In many respects, Budapest looks much as it did a century or two ago, with a skyline unmarred by high-rise office towers, condo complexes and the like. Visitors might even experience deja vu when riding down the grand Andrassy Avenue through the heart of Pest. The thoroughfare was designed to emulate the Champs-Elysees, and indeed it does. Stately residences in neoclassical style line both sides of the boulevard, and one portion of the Andrassy has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Budapest, of course, is made up of two cities — Pest, which occupies the eastern shore of the Danube River, and Buda on the western side. Of the two, Pest occupies two-thirds of Budapest's total area. The two were united in 1873, but each offers visitors a distinctive look and plenty of historic cultural and religious attractions.
Buda's Castle District offers small restaurants, Buda Palace (also referred to as the Royal Palace), the baroque St. Anne's Church, Hungarian National Gallery, Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. It's something of a grand viewing platform overlooking the Danube and providing visitors with a truly sweeping view of Pest in the near distance as they enjoy coffee and pastries and listen to strolling musicians.
On the opposite bank of the Danube, in Pest's Inner City, is the spectacular Parliament Building. It is the second-largest in Europe and has a striking resemblance to London's Houses of Parliament. Also in Inner City, visitors will find The Great Synagogue, also known as The Dohany Street Synagogue, which was once the largest Jewish place of worship in Europe. Now, Byzantine-Moorish style synagogue is known best as a museum and a Holocaust Memorial commemorating the murders of as many as 600,000 Hungarian Jews.
Just some of the other major attractions in this historic area include Museum of Fine Arts, Hungarian National Museum, Hungarian State Opera House, St. Stephen's Basilica and Chain Bridge (the first permanent crossing over the Danube to Buda). Destroyed by the Germans during the brutal siege of Budapest in 1945, Chain Bridge has been restored to look the way it did when first constructed some 125 years ago. To the particular delight of visitors equipped with cameras, the city's five bridges and historic riverside buildings are illuminated almost every night.
While many of Budapest's attractions represent contribution by those in political power over past centuries, none is more distinctive than those introduced during the occupation by Ottoman Turks in the mid-1500s. Then, the Turks discovered that the city sat atop reservoirs of hot springs, so they built huge bath houses. Several of these remain to this day that feature thermal and mineral waters widely known for their healing powers.