#1 - Where Eastern Europe meets Western Europe: Geographically and culturally, Budapest is at the border of Western and Eastern Europe. Ottoman Turks, Austrian Habsburgs, and Soviet-led communist regimes each left distinct marks on Budapest. Not only on what it looks like, but also its people's characters. Are you looking for a clean, disciplined, orderly, well-functioning city? Or, rather, an exciting, unpredictable, gritty urban center with an edge? You'll find them both here.
#2 - Naturally beautiful: By all objective measures, Budapest is shockingly pretty. Divided by the Danube River, Buda sits perched atop verdant hills that were once the eastern bastions of the Roman Empire. The hot-springs-rich Gellért Hill and the medieval Castle Hill, parts of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, overlook at the flatlands of Pest, which is boiling with energy. In-between is Margaret Island, a leafy weekend hangout.
#3 - There's an island in the center of the city: Budapest's 2.8km long (1.7 mile) Margaret Island is a gift of nature. This bucolic land enclosed by the Danube River was home to various monastic orders in medieval times, later the Ottomans set up a harem here, then the Habsburg family used it as a private resort. Today, locals stroll through its scenic parks, massive sycamore trees, and medieval ruins, or run on the 5.3 km (3.3 mile) track stretching around the island.
#4 - Unique local population: Flanked by Germanic and Slavic populations in most neighboring countries, Hungarians are an outlier with a unique language and Asiatic ancestry. Today, the local population is a mix of all sorts, bearing German, Slavic, Jewish, Turkish, and Romanian cultural and ethnic marks adopted over the centuries. Hungarians can seem to shut themselves off from foreigners, more so than locals in other countries. Perhaps this is due to their odd language that makes it difficult to communicate with non-Hungarians.
#5 - Walkable and bikeable: Although Budapest is a sizeable city with almost two million people, it's easily walkable - most points of interest are within the Grand Boulevard in Pest, and near the Danube bank in Buda. The more far-flung locations are best accessed by public transport or MOL Bubi, the city's bike sharing network. Refer to this neighborhood overview for details.
#6 - Unhurried lifestyle: The slower, laid-back lifestyle that characterizes Balkan cities has left a welcome mark in Budapest too. Part of this stems from communism, when the absence of economic incentives created an unrushed pace to life. This is best enjoyed during the outdoor season - come summertime, cafés and restaurants take over sidewalks and the city's nightlife, often enhanced by live music, extends into the wee hours.
#7 - Mixed neigborhoods: For historical reasons, home ownership is around 90% among Budapest residents. This means that neighborhoods take longer to transform than elsewhere - no rapid gentrification here. Even today, you can usually find a no-frills, unpretentious bar or restaurant amid downtown's priciest real estate.
#8 - Thriving food scene: Spurred by a young crop of foreign-trained chefs, fresh ingredients, inventive recipes, and international dishes are replacing forlorn-looking Hungarian staples. Budapest currently has four Michelin-starred restaurants (more than each of Prague and Warsaw), but there are plenty of excellent traditional Hungarian restaurants and trendy venues too.
#9 - Excellent museums: The city has plenty of fine art, and Budapest-specific thematic museums. One can as easily go inside the building of the Hungarian Parliament as find paintings by the international stars of pop art (Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art) or learn about a famous Hungarian liquor producing family business (Zwack Unicum Museum). Two poignantly moving museums, the House of Terror and the Holocaust Memorial Center, portray the darkest periods of Hungary’s recent history.
#10 - Not (yet) cluttered with tourists like Prague and Vienna: While Budapest's tourism has been skyrocketing in recent years, it's still less crowded than Prague and Vienna. If you're interested to see how regular locals live, your best chances are in the more under-the-radar neighborhoods like District 8, District 9, District 11, and Újlipótváros. Peruse this neighborhood guide for more information.
#11 - Thermal baths, yes: With a rich supply of hot springs beneath its surface, Budapest's history of thermal bathing goes back to the Romans. Today, Budapest has nine main baths, ranging from medieval hammams built by a Turkish pasha to grand Baroque Revival buildings. But some baths are better than others - read this summary guide before you decide which one to go to.
#12 - Beautiful architecture: Most of Budapest's impressive buildings sprung up during the city's golden era when it was, along with Vienna, one of the capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918). The buildings comprise the architectural styles of the era from historicism to art nouveau, art deco, and early modernism. They began to decay during communism, but the elaborate details behind the sooty facades lend them a war-torn elegance.
#13 - Rich Jewish heritage: More than 200,000 Jews lived in Budapest at the turn of the 20th century, accounting for 23% of the city’s population (Europe's largest functioning synagogue is in Budapest). While the tragic events of the Holocaust wiped out most Jewish life in Hungary, Budapest Jews left a lasting impact on the capital's industrial, cultural, and urban fabric.
#14 - Sziget Music Festival: What in 1993 started as a student event has grown into one of Europe's biggest music festivals, drawing over 500,000 people every August over the course of seven days. Besides headliners like Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, and Arctic Monkeys, the festival also features art, dance, and local Hungarian bands across more than 50 venues. The icing on the cake is the festival's location on a verdant Danubian island in northern Budapest.
#15 - Special bar scene: Perhaps you've already read about the famed ruin bars of Budapest. In general, Budapest is swarming with unpretentious, often grungy bars located in delapidated pre-war buildings. Worn-down though they may be, the lively local crowds and wallet-friendly drinks lend them a unique atmosphere. These are some of the best ones.
#16 - It's cheap: In most other European cities tourists would need to shell out more for the quality of food, drinks, live music, and accommodation offered in Budapest. Prices are certainly on the rise, much to the frustration of the local population (average after-tax annual salary is only c. €10,000), but for foreigners they're still a bargain.
#17 - It's clean & safe: When walking around, even at night, you don't need to worry about looking over your shoulder. As for cleanliness, the formula is simple enough: plenty of sidewalk trash cans and garbage collectors make Budapest’s streets largely litter-free.
#18 - Excellent Public Transportation: Most people didn't own a car during communism, relying instead on cheap and efficient public transportation. To this day, Budapest has an outstanding bus, tram, trolley, and subway coverage, and tickets are still relatively cheap (a weekly adult pass valid for all forms of transport costs about €16). You can buy all types of tickets from the vending machines located at most stations or, if you need personal assistance, go to the main one at Deák Ferenc Square.