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Visiting Budapest
 
Area: 525 sq km Population: 2 million
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1 (+2 in summer)

Telephone Area Code Hungary: 36

Telephone Area Code Budapest: 1
 
Budapest

With its multifarious and often embittered history, incredible architecture and rich cultural heritage, Hungary's capital deserves its reputation as the 'Paris of Eastern Europe'. It has a complex identity, somewhere between Western luxury and simple traditions.

The city straddles a gentle curve in the Danube. It has broad avenues, leafy parks and elaborate bathhouses. It also has a turn-of-the-century feel to it, for it was then - during the industrial boom and the capital's heyday - that most of the city was built.

 
 
Orientation

Budapest is in north-central Hungary, some 250km (155mi) southeast of Vienna. The focal point is the Danube River, which bisects the city into two distinct parts: Buda is mostly residential and built on the hills and high river terraces of the western side; and commercial Pest is on a large, sandy plain across to the east.

It is a sprawling city, with the areas beyond the Nagykörút ('Big Ring Road') in Pest and west of Moszkva tér in Buda mostly residential or industrial and (with the exception of the Buda Hills and City Park) of little interest to visitors. It is also a well laid-out city; you'll have done well to get yourself lost. Ferihegy international airport is 24km (15mi) southeast of central Budapest.

 
 
Attractions
Castle Hill
The Castle District on Castle Hill is the premier destination for visitors and contains many of Budapest's most important monuments and museums, not to mention grand views of Pest across the snaking Danube. The walled area consists of two distinct parts: the Old Town where commoners lived in the Middle Ages, and the Royal Palace. Stroll around the medieval streets of the Old Town and take in the odd museum. A brief tour in one of the horse-drawn hackney cabs is worthwhile for the leg weary. The Old Town is filled with attractively painted houses, decorative churches and the famous Fishermen's Bastion. The latter was built as a viewing platform in 1905, named after the guild of fishermen responsible for defending this stretch of wall in the Middle Ages. It has commanding views over the city, and is dominated by seven gleaming turrets (representing the seven Magyar tribes who entered the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century) and a statue of St Stephen on horseback. Immediately south of the Old Town is the Royal Palace.
 
 
Activities

Budapest is a sprawling city, with many places vying for your presence. It is a big strain on the feet. Thankfully, certain parts of Budapest are well set up for cycling, including both City and Népliget Parks, Margaret, Óbudai and Csepel Islands and the Buda Hills. Bikes can be rented on Margaret Island and in City Park. Other ways of experiencing Budapest a bit differently include rowing or kayaking on the Danube or - for an underground look at Budapest's belly - caving; a number of caves are open for tours.

If all that is way too energetic, Budapest caters equally well to the more indulgent among us. Bathing in Budapest's many thermal baths and swimming pools is not a luxury but a way of life; a necessity for one's sanity. Another speciality from the house of Hungary are its diverse wines, and no visit to Budapest is complete without ample wine sampling, perhaps combined with a night at the opera.

 
 
Getting There & Away

Budapest's Ferihegy airport has thankfully emerged from the 1970's brown-veneered chaos of its old terminal, and its shiny new terminal is serviced by over three dozen international airlines. The national carrier Malév Hungarian Airlines operates nonstop flights between Budapest and North America, the Middle East and most European centers. There is no schedule for domestic flights.

The bus is also a popular means of getting to Budapest. There are three main stations, with all international buses and some domestic ones to/from Hungary's south and west arriving at and departing from Népliget bus station. Buses to/from destinations in Hungary east of the capital, leave from the Népstadion bus station. Buses to the Danube bend and parts of the Northern Uplands arrive and leave from bus station Árpád híd. The main carrier is Volánbusz/Eurolines with connections to all major continental European cities. Some of the journeys are long, so take a cushion and avoid flat bottom syndrome.

The Hungarian State Railway (MÁV) links to the European rail network, with different stations handling various destinations. Most international trains arrive at and leave from Keleti station, but always check the station when making bookings. Hungarian trains are clean and punctual but hardly luxurious, so bring along snacks and drinks for longer voyages. For the extravagant traveller, a hydrofoil along the Danube to Vienna is a luxurious possibility.

 
 
Getting Around
Ferihegy international airport is 24km (15mi) southeast of Budapest. It is pointless getting a taxi unless in a real hurry, with several much cheaper options linking the airport and city. If you still want a cab however, phone one from arrivals - it will save you about one-third off the posted airport fares. The buses provide a thriftier alternative, with the Airport Minibus offering an ultra convenient door to door service. The ultra budget option is the airport bus between the airport and Köbánya-Kispest metro station, 20 minutes from Budapest. Look for the stop marked 'BKV Plusz Reptér Busz' between terminals 2A and 2B. Budapest has an ageing but safe, inexpensive and efficient public transport system that won't have you waiting more than five to 10 minutes - which will be more than long enough if you're there in winter. It is by far the supreme way of getting around Budapest, with links between the metro, HÉV (green trains), yellow trams, red trolleybuses and blue buses abounding. Tickets are readily available from kiosks, newsstands or metro entrances.
 
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