The blue Danube, as the title of the famous waltz says, is a mighty river in the middle of a unique panorama. It flows through the centre of Budapest, a city of around 2 million inhabitants. On the western side, the hills of Buda embrace a residential area with the Royal Castle and the medieval town. Szent Gellért hill just above the Danube, gives an even more romantic flavour to this picturesque sight. On the eastern side of the river, busy, industrious Pest extends over a flat region which is continuous with the great Hungarian plains.
The history of Budapest begins with the Romans. Aquincum, the capital of their province Pannonia was built in an area which is now a northern district of the city. The ruins of the Roman city and military camp can be seen in an open-air exhibition area. In the early years of the Hungarian kingdom, around the 11th century, a monastery was founded on the Roman ruins with a small settlement around it. Later, the centre of the city moved to the south where the royal palace was erected and fortified. The Castle of Buda served as the royal residence and had its golden age in the 15th century. After a short renaissance period, Buda was destroyed during the Turkish wars. It was besieged several times and when finally occupied by the united army of the Habsburgs, a new building-period started in the baroque style. Churches and palaces were erected, but on the opposite side of the river, the formerly sleepy, little Pest began to catch up.
While aristocrats took up residence in the exclusive royal castle area, public institutions were usually located in Pest. This was the period of the classicist architecture dominant until the middle of the 19th century. In Pest, the university, hospitals, schools, theatres, concert halls, cafés, public gardens, etc., all contributed to the shaping of a modern city. Then, a great economic boom at the turn of the century had a major impact on further development. The historical Buda and the more modern Pest were united in 1873. The two halves on the opposite sides of the Danube were linked together by bridges, each one a masterpiece of engineering of their time, and the pride of local people who still carefully distinguish themselves as being the citizens of Buda or of Pest. Avenues and ringroads were opened connecting new districts, all built in a flamboyant Central European fin-de- siecle style, boasting of wealth and radiating self-confidence. For the fans of this type of European architecture Budapest is a rich hunting ground.
The cultural palette of the city is as colourful as its architecture. A number of galleries exhibit fine collections of European and Hungarian fine arts. Two opera houses and several concert halls attract lovers of classical music. Nine symphony orchestras and several other ensembles provide musical programs almost every night of the week. All kinds of rock- and pop-music can be listened to in pubs, discotheques, sports halls or at open-air concerts.
Thanks to its famous hot springs, Budapest is also a spa with a rich tradition of baths and swimming pools. This is partly a heritage of the Romans who discovered the springs (hence the name Aquincum, i.e. the city of waters). The Turks further strengthened the cult of waters. They built several baths, one of which dates back to the 16th century and is, unique in Europe, open to the public in its original form. A number of other baths and swimming pools built in various architectural styles can be found on both sides of the Danube.
There is no city transport system which could not be better but Budapest has an admittedly good and reasonably priced system of three undergound lines and many tram, omnibus and trolleybus lines. The major lines are operated almost around the clock.