Out of all the subregions in Europe, Eastern Europe has always been the one most plagued by misinformation.
Dating back to the Cold War, when the West-East divide was at its peak, misconceptions about the latter’s safety levels have continued to permeate the American imaginary.
The Russo-Ukrainian War has done the bloc no favors, as several of those countries border either Ukraine or Russia, and despite being full NATO allies, as well as members of the European Union, the ‘East’ continues to be perceived negatively by some, including Travel Off Path readers.
Well, believe it or not, Eastern Europe can be safer than the West, with one fascinating city in particular, in a hugely underrated country neighboring Ukraine, ranking as one of the safest in the world. This winter, this is where you should be headed:
Budapest Is One Of The Safest European Capitals
Budapest was recently named by Planet Cruise the seventh safest city destination in the world and the second safest in Europe after Prague.
While other European capitals like Paris and Rome have been struggling to cope with rising levels of crime and pickpocketing and have thus been awarded a Level 2 status by U.S. authorities, Budapest continues to be classed as Level 1.
But how come it is so safe when Hungary borders Ukraine and lies so close to the warfront?
First of all, to fear that Hungary, or in fact, any Eastern European state, would be directly affected by the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War merely because of geography is simply irrational.
Yes, there has been a massive migrant influx into Hungary from Ukraine, as victims flood into the country to escape the bombs, but Americans must bear in mind Hungary is both a member of the European Union and NATO and, thus, essentially a risk-free territory.
Russia cannot fire missiles over the border into Hungary without triggering a major war with the West, and this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Not only are Americans not advised to exercise greater caution when visiting, but they are assured safety risks are remarkably low, unlike many Western European hotspots.
This may sound surprising to some, as Western Europe has been traditionally considered the more developed half, and considering Hungary borders a country ravaged by war.
As it turns out, Hungary – Budapest included – is as safe as can be, with very low levels of crime reported yearly. In 2022, only 89 homicides were recorded in the entire country of 9 million inhabitants, a number that could easily be surpassed in any major French or British city.
We have now established it is a perfectly safe destination, but still, why should you visit Budapest?
One Of The Most Beautiful European Cities
The national capital of Hungary, Budapest lies on the banks of the Danube River, one of Europe’s largest, and has a history spanning at least two millennia.
Previously three separate settlements, ‘Budapest’ was only unified as a single city in the late 19th century, though throughout the medieval age and at the peak of the Hungarian Empire, it existed in the form of its predecessors, Buda, Obuda, and Pest.
It is a major European metropolis, with a population of over 1.7 million people and an intriguing past and architectural heritage hard to rival. Budapest is best known, in fact, for its stately civic buildings, which cover a wide range of styles and reflect the city’s multicultural past.
There are ruins as old as 1934 years, when the area where it now stands was settled by the Romans, lying beneath Romanesque churches erected much later in the 12th century, palatial complexes reflecting the delusions of grandeur of 18th-century rulers, and even Brutalist monuments.
Budapest – or Buda, Obuda, and Pest, prior to unification – existed under monarchies and empires, including as a Turkish outpost, a union with Austria, and finally, a Soviet satellite state, when communism was imposed on Hungary by revolutionaries, a painful era that lasted well into the early nineties.
Walking around Budapest, tourists will find remnants of all of those strikingly different periods, from majestic Gothic churches and ornate Baroque facades to traditional Islamic baths and gray Brutalist apartment blocks, making it one of the most diverse capitals in Europe.
Architectural Gems Galore
The city’s most easily recognized landmark is certainly the Hungarian Parliament.
Located on the ‘Pest’ side, it is a textbook example of Gothic Revivalism, featuring detailed handiwork and a central red dome that can be spotted from several viewpoints around the city.
Other important buildings include Buda Castle, which towers above the old town of Buda (now part of the wider Budapest), and it’s both a historical citadel and massive Baroque effort that routinely ranks as one of Europe’s prettiest regal palaces, up there with Prague Castle and Vienna’s Schönbrunn.
Still on Buda’s side, visitors will find the Fisherman’s Bastion, a seven-tower monument with lookout terraces commanding an incredible panorama of the Hungarian Parliament and the former city of Pest across the Danube, as well as the historic Chain Bridge.
Vajdahunyad Castle, built in the Transylvanian Gothic style, a homage to Hungary’s lost Transylvanian territories that now form part of Romania, the commemorative Heroes’ Square, flanked by sculptures of important Hungarian leaders, and the Neoclassical St Stephen’s Basilica complete the offer.
If you’re lucky enough, you might even get to bear witness to Budapest’s grandeur as its tall spires and fairytale castles are dusted by snow. Arguably, this is when you will find the city at its most magical state.
Chase Away The Winter Blues In A Thermal Spa
Besides the majestic cityscape, tourists should know the Hungarian capital is famous for its high concentration of spas, and spending a relaxing afternoon in one, either sinking into the warm waters of a heated pool or enjoying a deep-tissue massage, is also part of the ‘Budapest experience’.
Overall, Budapest has over 80 geothermal springs, as well as the largest thermal water system in the world. Whether you’re based in the Buda, Obuda, or Pest districts, rest assured you won’t have to walk great lengths in the bitter cold this winter to find the nearest termál.
If you’re looking for the trendiest and best-frequented, you should definitely pay the Széchenyi Baths a visit. If Versailles is the palace of palaces, Széchenyi is what every thermal spa should aspire to be: with a stunning design and as many as 18 pools, it is the largest medicinal bath in Europe.
Nightlife in Budapest is yet another reason why you should add it to your bucket list.
There is no denying Hungary can be quite a conservative nation when it comes to politics.
Whether it’s restrictive reproductive or gay rights or increasingly regulated media, the country has been at loggerheads with its EU counterparts over the rule of law and human rights since the incumbent administration came into power.
It is easy to assume Budapest wouldn’t have much to offer when it comes to adult entertainment, but that’s when tourists get surprised the most.
It has a bubbling clubbing scene able to accommodate all sorts, from ‘ruin bars’ where sociable backpackers meet to chat over a Pálinka, to far wilder, underground LGBTQ+ venues (except they won’t be marketed as such).
Granted, it is no Berlin or Amsterdam, but there is more than Budapest than meets the eye, and it will only take you a single night out in lively, club-packed Király Street to realize the restrictive policies are in no way reflective of the needs and wants of libertarian Budapestians, or the situation on the ground.
All you have to do is look beneath the surface. Sometimes, quite literally.
A Cheaper City Break
Finally, Budapest can be a lot more affordable than your average European city break, especially in winter, when prices are not as inflated.
It may be in the EU, but it is not yet in the Eurozone, and the Hungarian currency (forint) is historically weaker than the U.S. dollar, which means your hard-earned money could stretch a lot further here, especially when the cost of living is so low.
On average, you should plan on spending $23 on meals per day when visiting Budapest and $11 on public transportation, while the median price for a hotel room is only $51.
Of course, you can go way above the average when staying in four-star properties and going for dinner at the opulent New York Cafe, but if you’re intent on saving and you’re actively seeking a cheap winter destination, Budapest can meet and even exceed your expectations.
The Hungarian capital is safe, the cultural wealth is vast, and it is probably the cheapest city break in Central-Eastern Europe this winter, so tell us: for how much longer will you put off finally booking those flights?
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com