Winter scene from the square of Saint Stephen's Basilica in the center of Budapest; view from the square in front of the Cathedral, on 30 December 2010
Overview and HistoryHome of handlebar moustaches and spicy food. Budapest is a cultural island in the otherwise slavic Central Europe. Fiercely proud, full of heroes and monoliths.Budapest is the capital city of Hungary and like most European cities, it's built on a river. The Danube! Follow it up to Prague and it will become the Vltava. Check out Bratislava on your way, go to Nu Spirit for some awesome funk lounge music there. Back to the point now.This time that old flowing phantasm has given the city two unique halves, Buda and Pest. These were only officially unified in 1873 to become one city, which means they had a long time of individual development over the centuries. How many centuries? Eleven? Twelve? Let's see.Archaeological remains beneath the Castle Hill prove human activity in a pebble industry dating to 45,000 B.C. Don't ask me what they wanted pebbles for back then, probably either roads or walls. In any case, the duration of unrecorded activity around Budapest is TWENTY TIMES LONGER than our current "Anno Domine" calendar of only a measly 2,000 years. Try to understand that right now.Budapest sprouted out into recent world history a few snaps ago in the eighth century as the Celtic outpost of Aquincum. It dressed up in many costumes after that, appearing as the Roman capital of Lower Pannonia and then as a tackling dummy for Mongolian invaders.For a medieval and Renaissance stronghold of culture, look no further than Budapest. Budapest was unfolding within the organized Hungarian Empire while the German region of Europe scuttled about in scattered pieces. It already had two universities before the year 1400, and a rudimentary publishing industry to service them by 1473.It reached its peak size by the beginning of the sixteenth century, firmly rooted in cattle trading, wine and everything else coming through on the trade routes between Eastern and Western Europe that meet here.Craftsmanship was also prized in Budapest, patronized by the royalty and the needs of their armies. At one time you could find masterpieces of German, Armenian and Arabic workmanship for sale in the resplendent marketplaces.Following the Renaissance fructification, Budapest was taken under Turkish rule and experienced a relative decline, while Hungary was split into Turkish and Hapsburg control. While Budapest was occupied by the Turks, the Hapsburgs moved their posse to Pozsony which is the same as Bratislava. By the way, Bratislava and Vienna are only 40km apart, the closest neighbors of all modern European capitals.It's not a new story from here on out. Consolidation of powers, repressed insurrections, the industrial revolution, etc. This time the Hungarian revolt resulted in Budapest being granted equal status with Vienna, making it a twin capital in a dual monarchy. This compromise opened the second great phase of Budapestian development, which lasted up until the final collapse of the Hapsburg Empire in 1918.Because of its political connections, the industry in Budapest received bonus attention. When railways were being constructed, Budapest had main lines leading out in every direction to all parts of Europe and beyond. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Budapest is estimated to have been the world's second largest center of agricultural industry.Not only that, but within the city they had the good fortune to receive organized urban planning to keep the entire setting harmonious, rather than chaotic. A coordinated system of roads, trams and underground trains were all in place before 1900.This industrial development brought an intellectual and artistic boom along with it. While Freud was racking his brains in Vienna, Mahler and Bartok were teaching music in Budapest, and architecture was embracing its own forays into Art Nouveau.The two World Wars were disastrous for the monarchy, obviously, and they weren't so hot for Budapest's economy and infrastructure. It came through and landed in its own fifty years of socialism, which just ended in 1989.Getting ThereHungary is now part of the Schengen zone. This means that if you're backpacking around Europe, you don't get a new visa when you enter the country. FYI, Austria is a lot more picky about passport control than Hungary, Slovakia or Czech Republic.You can get to Budapest by plane, bus or rail. Airport data can be found here. The Student Agency (big yellow busses) is a good one to look up for bus lines, and train info is here.There are three main train stations in Budapest: Deli Palyaudvar, Keleti Palyaudvar and Nyugati Palyaudvar. Right away you've learned the word for train station! (it's the one word in common in the preceding list of three.Anyway, international trains come and go from Keleti Station -- and there are 54 of them scheduled per day.TransportationBudapest had the first underground train line in Europe! Look for the sign that says "Foldalatti", which means electric trains.Here's a map of the metro system and brief explanation of the different metro lines. Don't forget to punch your ticket in the orange machine!Taxis, buses and trams are all good options for getting around in Budapest. Call ahead to book a taxi so you get a better price. For an overview of tram lines and bus usage, look here.People and CultureBefore one more instant of time passes, go to Goulasch Exotica's myspace page and get their music playing in your headphones. They're a local band from Budapest that will rock your head open.Hungary is not on the Euro yet. Their currency is called the Forint, abbreviated HUF in the exchange places. You can change Euros, Dollars, Pounds, and Slovak Crowns safely and easily at post offices and accredited exchange locations. You can also do it dangerously and illegally on the street, whichever you prefer.Cops, crime, corruption. Remember the three C's and you will understand street life in Budapest. It's a little wild and wooly, nevermind the incomprehensible language. Sorry kids, your romance-langauge amalgamation that got you through Italy and Spain will not fly here.Things to do & RecommendationsFirst of all, you need a place to lay your weary head. Colors Budapest Hostel will do the trick.For nightlife, head to Franz Liszt Square and Raday Utca to find cocktails, music, pubs, crazy lighting and all sorts of people and everything else.Okay, okay here's a link to the 4 Play Lounge strip club too. But remember about the three C's... if you're into strip clubs, be ready to get ripped off by anybody including doormen, taxi drivers, bouncers, etc.Check out The Hub, Budapest's nightlife blog! Why don't more cities have this on their main website?Text by Steve Smith.