The importance of
to Hungary is difficult to overestimate. More than two million people live in the capital - one fifth of the population - and everything converges here: roads and rail lines; air travel (Ferihegy is the country's only civilian airport); industry, commerce and culture; opportunities, wealth and power. Like Paris, the city has a history of revolutions - in 1849, 1918 and 1956 - buildings, parks and avenues on a monumental scale, and a reputation for hedonism, style and parochial pride. In short, Budapest is a city worthy of comparison with other great European capitals.
Surveying Budapest from the embankments or the bastions of Várhegy (Castle Hill), it's easy to see why the city was dubbed the "Pearl of the Danube". Its grand buildings and sweeping bridges look magnificent, especially when floodlit or illuminated by the barrage of fireworks that explode above the Danube every August 20, St Stephen's Day. The eclectic inner-city and radial boulevards combine brash commercialism with a
sophistication, while a distinctively Magyar character is highlighted by the sounds and appearance of the Hungarian language at every turn.
Since the Communist system expired, Budapest has experienced a new surge of dynamism. Luxury hotels and malls, restaurants, bars and clubs have all proliferated - as have crime and social inequalities. While the number of beggars and homeless people on the streets has risen inexorably, politicians and the media prefer moral posturing on other issues, like toning down the sex industry that has earned Budapest the nickname of the "Bangkok of Europe", or cracking down on refugees and illegal immigrants among the new ethnic communities formed in the last decade. Though many Hungarians fear the erosion of their culture by foreign influences, others see a new golden age for Budapest, as the foremost world-city of Mitteleuropa.
The River Danube - which is never blue - determines basic
, with Buda on the hilly west bank and Pest covering the plain across the river. More precisely, Budapest is divided into 23 districts (
), designated on maps and street signs by Roman numerals; many quarters also have a historic name. In
, the focus of attention is the I district, comprising the Várhegy and the Víziváros (Watertown); the XI, XII, II and III districts are worth visiting for Gellért-hegy, the Buda Hills, Óbuda and Római-Fürdo.
is centred on the downtown Belváros (V district), while beyond the Kiskörút (Small Boulevard) lie the VI, VII, VIII and IX districts, respectively known as the Terézváros, Erzsébetváros, Józsefváros and Ferencváros.