Budapest, Established a Thousand Years Ago
Bustling Budapest is a mix of the many peoples — from Magyars, Germans, Slavs, and Jews to Turks — who’ve settled here over the centuries. This former Habsburg power, which now rules only Hungary, is known for its grand parliament building and fun thermal baths.
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Hungary, landlocked deep in central Europe and formerly part of the Warsaw Pact, is now part of the European Union. The separate cities of Buda and Pest once straddled the Danube River. Now they’ve grown together to make Budapest.
This mythic bird, the Turul, was the bird of the original Hungarians — the Magyars — who migrated out of the plains of Central Asia. In 896, the bird dropped its sword here indicating this was to be their homeland. The Magyars settled here setting into motion a tumultuous and fascinating thousand-year story which ultimately gave us the modern nation of Hungary…and this great capital.
Situated on a crossroads between Europe and Asia, those original Magyars absorbed waves of migrating ethnic groups. Who are the people of Budapest? Start with those first Magyar settlers, mix in Germans, Slavs, Jews, Gypsies, spice with a dash of Turkish paprika…and simmer for a few centuries in its famous thermal baths. Each group had an impact. All this ethnic piling on created a cultural goulash that is distinctly…Budapest.
Starting in the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks ruled here for about 150 years. Later, as part of the Habsburg Empire — ruled from Vienna and energized by an influx of German-speakers — the city became more European.
The last half of the 1800s was boom time for Budapest — its cafes were packed as was its opera house. The Habsburgs agreed to a treaty making Hungary a junior partner in a vast realm it now called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As Vienna’s second fiddle, Budapest governed a huge chunk of Eastern Europe. The boom peaked with a flurry of construction working up to a grant party in 1896 — it was Hungary’s 1,000th birthday.
Like so much of Budapest, Hungary’s parliament was built for the big 1896 party. Its elegant neo-Gothic design and riverside location were inspired by its counterpart in London. It’s enormous — with literally miles of grand halls — designed to help administer that sprawling multinational Habsburg Empire.
By the end of WWI, the Habsburgs were gone and Hungary — while much smaller — was fully independent. But then came the Nazis…followed by the Communists. That illusive freedom was finally won after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Since then the city has blossomed.
Today, Hungary rules only Hungary — and it’s ruled not by an emperor but by democratically elected representatives who legislate from what is now a palace of democracy.
Like Vienna, Budapest feels more grandiose than the capital of a relatively small country. But the city remains the cultural capital of Eastern Europe with a keenly developed knack for good living.
You can enjoy that Hungarian joy of life at the Szechenyi Baths. Soak with the locals. Of the city’s two dozen or so traditional mineral baths, this is the most accessible and fun.
Budapest is hot — literally. It sits on a thin crust over thermal springs, which power all these baths. Both the ancient Romans and Ottoman Turks enjoyed these same mineral springs.
They still say, “poke a hole in the ground anywhere in Hungary, and you'll find hot water.”
Magyars of all shapes and sizes squeeze themselves into tiny swimsuits and strut their stuff. Babushkas float blissfully in the warm water. The Speedo-clad old boys club gathers pensively around soggy chessboards. And the circle of rapids brings out the kid in people of all ages. After 2000 years of experience and innovation, locals have honed the art of enjoying their thermal hot springs.
Budapest straddles the Danube River. On the west side is hilly Buda, dominated by Castle Hill. The royal palace marks the place where one of Europe’s mightiest castles once stood. Since the 14th century, Hungary has been ruled from this spot.
As World War II drew to a close; Buda became the front line between the Nazis and the approaching Soviets, who sieged this hill for several months. Today’s palace — rebuilt from the rubble of WWII — may not be worth touring, but it sits on soil drenched in Hungarian history and is close to the soul of this nation.