#1 - Where east meets west: Geographically and culturally, Budapest is at the border of Western and Eastern Europe. Over the centuries, Budapest was subjugated by Ottoman Turks, the Austrian Habsburg Empire, and the Soviet Union, and each of these powers left distinctive marks on the city. Not only on how it looks, but also its inhabitants. 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 - 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 bastion of the Roman Empire. The hot-springs-rich Gellért Hill and the medieval Castle District, 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.
#3 - 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 breed of all sorts, bearing Germanic, Slavic, Turkish, Romanian, and Jewish cultural and ethnic marks adopted over the centuries. Hungarians can seem to shut themselves down from talking to visitors, 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.
#4 - Unhurried lifestyle: The slower, laid-back, relaxed lifestyle that characterizes Balkan cities like Belgrade has left a welcome mark in Budapest too (part of it also stems from communism, when the absence of economic incentives created an unrushed pace to life). This is best enjoyed during the warm weather months - come summertime, a specific energy absorbs Budapest. Cafés and restaurants take over sidewalks and the nightlife buzz, often enhanced by live music, lasts into the wee hours.
#5 - Monumental architecture: Few cities in Europe have the grand, consistent, systematically-designed architecture of Budapest. Most of these former mansions, palaces, and 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.
#6 - Rich Jewish heritage: Around the turn of the 20th century more than 200 thousand Jews lived in Budapest (23% of the city’s population). The tragic events of the holocaust brought a sad ending to Jewish life in Hungary, but Budapest Jews left an enormous impact on the capital's industrial, cultural, and urban development (Europe's largest synagogue is in Budapest). 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.
#7 - Thriving food scene: Since 2010 or so, there has been a restaurant boom 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 looking to taste Hungarian food, be it traditional or with a modern twist, have plenty to choose from too.
#8 - Interesting museums: The city has a fascinating offering of fine art, and Budapest-specific thematic museums. One can just as easily find famous paintings by the international masters of pop art (Ludwig Museum) as learn about a famous Hungarian liquor producing family business that caught the attention of the Habsburg Emperor (Zwack Unicum Museum). Two poignantly moving museums (House of Terror and the Holocaust Memorial Center) portray the darkest periods of Hungary’s recent history.
#9 - Margaret Island: 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 here, and in the 19th century members of the royal Habsburg family used it as a private resort. The island was finally opened to the public in 1908, and today it's a popular destination among locals for picnics and taking long strolls/bike rides through scenic parks, massive sycamore trees, and medieval ruins. The 5.3 km (3.3 mile) running track stretching around the island is packed with locals on weekends.
#10 - Diverse nightlife: Probably you've already read about the ruin bar scene of Budapest. Aside from being a genius idea, ruin bars are fun, cool places (just watch out for the ruin bar copycats). But what makes nightlife unique in Budapest is the depth and breadth of options. Within a less than 1 mile radius, hardcore punk, electronic, indie, hip-hop, and popular music fans alike can find bars and clubs catering to their particular tastes.
#11 - Cheap: Budapest is cheap. In most other cities tourists would need to shell out way more for the quality of food, drinks, 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 are still a bargain.
#12 - 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 behind your shoulder. The outer parts of districts 6-9 (beyond the Grand Boulevard) are generally poorer and become eerily quiet at night, but those too are safe. As for cleanliness, the formula is simple enough: plenty of sidewalk trash cans and garbage collectors make Budapest’s streets litter-free.
#13 - Excellent Public Transportation: One of the heritages of over four decades of communism is that people come to expect the state to act as a surrogate mother. When it came transportation, since few people had cars at the time, locals relied on buses, trams, trolleys, and subways, which cost close to nothing. To this day, Budapest has exceptional public transport coverage across the city. And it's still cheap too.