#1 - Where Eastern Europe meets Western Europe: Geographically and culturally, Budapest is at the border of Western and Eastern Europe. Over the centuries, the city was subjugated by Ottoman Turks, the Austrian Habsburg Empire, and the Soviet Union, and each left distinctive marks on the city. 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 an exciting, unpredictable, loud, gritty urban center with an edge? You will find them both here.
#2 - Unique local population: Flanked by Germanic and Slavic populations in most neighboring countries, Hungarians are an outlier with a unique language and Asiatic ancestry. The local population today is of course a mix of all sorts, bearing Germanic, Slavic, Turkish, Romanian, and Jewish 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 the unique Hungarian language that renders it difficult to communicate with non-Hungarians.
#3 - Naturally beautiful: By all objective measures, Budapest is shockingly pretty. Divided by the Danube River, Buda sits majestically on top of hilly greeneries 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, graciously look down at the flatlands of Pest, which is boiling with energy. In-between is Margaret Island, a leafy weekend hangout for locals.
#4 - Walkable and bikeable: While Budapest is a sizeable city with almost two million people, it's easily walkable, even beyond the city center. Most points of interest are within the Grand Boulevard in Pest, and near the Danube bank in Buda (there’re exceptions of course, like Heroes' Square or the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, but those too can be reached by foot from Downtown). Alternatively, use the the city's bike sharing network (MOL Bubi), which has an amazing coverage of inner Pest.
#5 - Unhurried lifestyle: The slower, laid-back, relaxed 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 phenomenon is best enjoyed during the warm weather months: come summertime and a specific energy absorbs Budapest. Cafés and restaurants take over sidewalks and the buzzing nightlife, often enhanced by live music, lasts into the wee hours.
#6 - Thriving food scene: Since 2010 or so, a gastronomic revolution has been taking place in Budapest. New ingredients, inventive recipes, and international dishes are entering the mainstream that was previously dominated by carbs- and meat-heavy Hungarian staples like beef stew. Four Michelin-starred restaurants in Budapest (more than in Prague and Warsaw) are proof of this development. But those who're looking to taste traditional Hungarian dishes or find the most buzzing restaurants have also plenty to choose from.
#7 - Excellent museums: The city has plenty of fine art, and Budapest-specific thematic museums. One can just as easily visit the building of the Hungarian Parliament, as find famous paintings by the international masters of pop art (Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art) or learn about a famous Hungarian liquor producing family business that caught the attention of the Habsburg Emperor (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. #8 - A very special bar scene: Perhaps you've already read about the famous ruin bar scene of Budapest. In general, Budapest swarms with no-frills bars located in delapidated pre-war buildings. Worn-down though they may be, when combined with the lively local crowds and dirt-cheap drinks, they exude an impossibly cool atmosphere. These are some of the best ones.
#9 - Not (yet) cluttered with tourists like Prague and Vienna: While tourism has skyrocketed in Budapest in recent years, the city is still less crowded with tourists than Prague and Vienna (and it's also cheaper). If you're looking to get to know some locals, your best chances will not be in the Castle Hill or the Jewish Quarter, but plenty of interesting neighborhoods are still under the tourist-radars. To find out which Budapest district is the best match for you, see the district overviews here.
#10 - Thermal baths, yes: With a practically endless supply of hot springs beneath its surface, the city's history of thermal bathing goes all the way back to the Romans. Today, Budapest has nine baths, which range from medieval hamams to grand Baroque Revival buildings. But some baths are better than others. Make sure to read this unbiased summary guide before deciding on one.
#11 - Rich Jewish heritage: More than 200 thousand 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 of Jewish life in Hungary, Budapest Jews left an enormous impact on the capital's industrial, cultural, and urban development. Many of the country’s best-known scientists and artists were Hungarian Jews, including Eugene Wigner, Robert Capa, Andre Kertesz, Marcel Breuer, and László Moholy-Nagy. Unfortunately for Hungary, plenty of them left the country and never returned when anti-Semitism was on the rise.
#12 - Cheap: Budapest is cheap. In most other cities tourists would need to shell out way more for the quality of food, drinks, live music, and accommodation offered here. Prices are certainly on the rise, much to the frustration of the local population (average after-tax annual salary is only c. EUR10,000), but for foreigners they're still a bargain.
#13 - Monumental architecture: Few cities in Central Europe have the grand, consistent, systematically-designed architecture and urban planning of Budapest. Most of these former mansions and residential apartment buildings were erected during Budapest’s golden era of Empire-building (1867-1918). They encapsulate the leading architectural styles of the era from historicism to art nouveau, art deco, and early modernism. Buildings were left to decay during communism, but the elaborate details behind the sooty, gritty façades lend a bizarre war-torn elegance to them.
#14 - Clean & Safe: Compared to most European capitals, Budapest is safe and clean. When walking around downtown districts, 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 litter-free. #15 - A green island in the heart of the city: Few cities can boast of an island, let alone a car-free and green one, in the center of their towns. Budapest's 2.8km long (1.7 mile) Margaret Island is a gift of nature. This small piece of land enclosed by the Danube River was home to various monastic orders during medieval times, later the Ottomans set up a harem, and in the 19th century the royal Habsburg family used it as a private resort. Today, it's a popular destination to stroll through its scenic parks, massive sycamore trees, and medieval ruins. The 5.3 km (3.3 mile) track stretching around the island is packed with runners on weekends.
#16 - 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 across the city, and tickets are still pretty cheap (a monthly adult pass valid for all forms of transport costs HUF9,500 or c.€30).
#17 - Mixed Neighborhoods: Most Budapest neighborhoods, including the downtown districts, have mixed local residents. Lower- and middle-income people often live in the same building, creating a healthy, diverse, and better-adjusted community. This otherwise positive phenomenon is actually the result of large-scale forced reshuffling of people during communism into, out of, and within Budapest. To this day, there isn’t any one neighborhood in Pest that's categorically fancy or elite.