I wanted something away from European icons like Paris, London or Amsterdam. Marco, and our bank accounts, wanted to stay in Europe. So, Eastern Europe it was!
A quick scan on Ryanair and EasyJet and our option was made for us. For just 120 euro we had two roundtrip tickets from Milan to Budapest! (That’s less than half of what two train tickets from Milan to Florence would cost, just to give you some idea.)
We arrived at 10 am on Friday morning, waking up slowly and adjusting to seeing unfamiliar letters on all the signs. We only brought carry-on bags and we’re quickly on a cheap airport shuttle bust to our hotel. As we barreled through the city (“and you think we drive aggressively,” Marco said) it dropped off each passenger at their respective hotels in Pest. One by one they jumped out and disappeared into revolving doors, until we were the only ones left in the mini-bus.
Our hotel was located on the other side of the river, the “right side of the river” according to our driver. I was surprised, seeing as how we were the only ones heading that way, but it turns out that is where he was born and raised.
Cut in half by the Danube river, Buda and Pest have not always been united as Budapest, but instead existed as two separate cities. Throughout their histories the two cities have been ruled by Hungarians, Mongols, Turks and the Hapsburgs – each ruler leaving his mark on the cities, typically building them up as partners in trade and culture.
The opening of The Chain Bridge in 1849 connected the cities, helping them merge even quicker, but it wasn’t until 1873 when the nearby neighborhood of Óbuda (“Old Buda”), Buda and Pest were all three united into one city to become the capital of Hungary.
The driver’s English was just about perfect, and I asked if he had studied it in school from a young age. Actually he didn’t because when he went to school students were forced to study Russian. After WWII power of Budapest was transfered again when Hungary fell under harsh Soviet control until the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Today the two cities are united by many bridges, including a common culture, history and language. That’s just about where the similarities end though. While Buda is all green hills and strolls in the park, Pest is all energy and architecture.
In an article about Budapest in the U.K. Daily Mail, author Mark Sampson writes: “Pest is frankly where it all happens.” This may be true, but in my opinion it’s all about perspective.
Perhaps Pest has more to offer, including more neighborhoods overall, such as the Jewish Quarter or the Municipal Park, but by default this makes it infinitely more tourist-filled as well.
Buda, on the other hand, is calmer and if you can find it, shows a glimpse of everyday life. The people of Pest in particular love to spend their weekends escaping for long walks in the hills of Buda, far from the pollution and chaos of their side of the river … at least according to my Lonely Planet: Budapest guide.
It’s not just a matter of opinion, but of literal perspective as well. Circle the Parliament Building from Pest to view the architecture up close, then head to Castle Hill on the Buda side to see a completely different view of the famous building.
Marco and I didn’t hesitate to return to Castle Hill to view the city across the river in a different light in both the morning and afternoon. And, though Pest is the place to be for nightlife, we went more than once to Castle Hill for a peaceful after-dinner treat.
Budapest has a unique and interesting history, one that is visible across the entire city. While the debate Buda vs Pest is alive and well in Internet forums throughout the web, the city is so available and open in any capacity that no matter what “side” your hotel is located, I don’t think a choice is necessary. Enjoy the different aspects of both Buda and Pest close up, then cross the river to enjoy a new perspective.