Lay of the Land
“Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East”~M. John Harrison
At the top of Budapest’s Gellért Hill stands a slender sculpture of a young girl hoisting a palm leaf over her head. The so-called Liberty Monument, commemorating the end of Fascism, was erected here in 1947 by a hopeful people who could not have predicted that their liberators would soon turn into occupiers, and that the freedom they had fought for would not arrive for another four decades. Today, the statue, visible from afar, is both a reminder of the city’s long history of occupation—everyone from Genghis Khan and Suleiman the Magnificent to the Hapsburgs and Lenin staked a claim on the Hungarian capital—and a poignant symbol of independent, modern Budapest.
As with many cities in fast-changing Central Europe, Budapest finds itself in the position of crafting a new identity by finding a balance between the past and the future. History is woven throughout its very landscape—arguably one of the most glorious in Europe. The Danube divides the former sovereign townships of hilly Buda and flat Pest, which are engaged in an age-old dialogue across the rushing waters. The Art Nouveau palaces of Pest’s waterfront soar and slope and rise delicately—architecture as frozen music, indeed—while Buda’s grand fortifications and gleaming Baroque monuments answer with ancient tales of kings and wars. But Budapest is also a city in motion, and the mood is one of optimism and vibrancy.
Even more so than Prague or Vienna, Budapest is a city ruled by water: the Danube River is crossed by eight bridges, including the iconic Chain Bridge. There are twenty-three districts, though chances are the main ones you will frequent during a visit are district I (Castle Hill, on the Buda side) and V, VI, VII (Downtown Pest). Specific districts can be explored on foot, especially if you’re centrally based, but many sights are relatively far apart and will require taking cabs.
When to Go
As with many European cities, Budapest can be visited year-round, but the winters can be chilly and the summers tend to be popular with other tourists and backpackers.