Over two million people – one-fifth of Hungary’s population – live in Budapest, and it is the political, cultural and commercial heart of the country. After the 1867 Compromise, which gave the Hungarian monarchy equal status with Austria under the final half-century of the Hapsburg Empire and ushered in a high age of Hungarian nationalism, the city was rapidly developed to become a standing celebration of Hungarian culture and power, and the sheer scale of its vast iconic buildings, from the castle to the Parliament to the Gellert Baths, testifies to Hungary’s central role in European history.
Since the unification of Buda and Pest in the nineteenth century, the Danube (Duna) is less a dividing line, more the heart of the city itself – providing its most splendid vistas, from both banks. Pest is on the eastern bank of the Danube and Buda on the hilly west bank. Each of Budapest’s 23 districts (kerületek) is designated on maps and at the beginning of addresses by a Roman numeral; “V” is Belváros (inner city), on the Pest side; “I” is the Castle district in Buda.
Castle Hill (Várhegy) is the crowning feature of the Buda side; a plateau one mile long, it rises steeply from the Danube bank, bearing the imposing Buda Palace, a web of cobbled streets and the Mátyás Church, symbolic of Hungarian nationalism. Pest is thick with hip cafés and bars, as well as home to the historic Belváros (central old town) and the intimate Jewish district.