World's great divided cities: The most enchanting cities split into two halves

Not so long ago, Budapest didn't exist. In its place were two separate settlements on either side of the Danube: the royal capital of Buda and the commercial town of Pest. Less than 150 years ago, the two finally united to form Budapest, one city with two distinct identities.

Budapest is not the only city with a split personality. Think of Istanbul – one half of the city in Europe, the other in Asia – or Mostar in Bosnia, divided into two halves by a fast-flowing river. Istanbullus successfully bridge the divide on a daily basis, commuting from one continent to the other for work. In Mostar, by contrast, divisions run so deep that there are two post offices, two schools, an even two universities, each serving one half of the city.

Their contrasting characters and often turbulent histories make split cities fascinating to explore. So double up on your next holiday with one of these dual destinations.    

MOSTAR, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA

THE GREAT DIVIDE  

For centuries, Bosnia's most famous bridge joined the communities on either shore of the Neretva River, the Catholic Croats and the Muslim Bosniaks. The Balkan War destroyed the bridge, which has been rebuilt, and relations between the communities, which have not. Today, Mostar has two phone networks, two electricity companies, two school systems, two universities – for a population of just 72,000. 

EAST MOSTAR

Muslim Mostar is big on atmosphere, with winding streets leading to a lively market, waterfront bars, and an old bazaar. Among the tourist trinkets – fancy a key ring made of a bullet casing? –  some lovely copperwork pieces can be found. Even in this Muslim quarter, old Serb Orthodox churches, Jewish synagogues and Croatian Catholic churches still stand alongside the mosques, a reminder of the diversity that once enriched this society.

DON'T MISS

Kajtaz House. Inside this historic house, once the harem of a 16th-century family compound, original furnishings give a good sense of place. 

Koskin-Mehmed Pasha mosque. Climb to the top of the minaret if you have a head for heights; otherwise, refresh yourself at the courtyard tea stall.

The Turkish House.  The courtyard of this 350-year-old house is rich in symbolism, from the 12 spouts of the fountain (one for each month) to the watering pots representing the four seasons.

WEST MOSTAR

With its neoclassical and art nouveau buildings, West Mostar feels much more modern than its eastern counterpart. Highlights include the charming little Crooked Bridge and Spanski Trg, which was once on the front line of the fighting. Its ruined buildings have been left standing as a memorial. The restored high school nearby – a Moorish-influenced design in a vivid orange – creates a surreal contrast.

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DON'T MISS

The remarkable Partisan Cemetery, honouring those who fought with Tito in World War Two. Kravice Falls. An easy day trip out of Mostar, these semi-circular falls are at their best in the spring, when fed by snowmelt pouring down from the mountains. 

The Franciscan Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Destroyed during the war, this 19th-century church was rebuilt with a soaring new bell tower.

See www.bhtourism.ba/engHeading 3

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY

THE GREAT DIVIDE 

Founded  in the ninth century as forts on either side of the Danube, the cities of Buda and Pest remained independent for almost a thousand years. The first bridge linking the two was not built until 1849; 24 years later, the cities finally united. 

BUDA

The Hungarian kings and their successors, the Habsburg Emperors, littered their hilltop base with a swathe of grand monuments, from the mighty St Mathias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion to the castle itself. A stroll through Buda's narrow cobbled streets reveals tiny medieval houses and grand Baroque mansions. Slightly further afield, the hiking tracks through the forested hills are the city's favourite green space.  The area's quirkiest attraction is the Children's Railway, a narrow gauge train where 10 to 14 year olds do all the jobs except actually driving the trains.

DON'T MISS 

Matthias Church, The gothic church where Hungary's kings were crowned has ornate interiors and a colourful tiled roof.

Gellert Baths. Locals love soaking in the city's thermal baths. The striking art deco interiors at Gellert make this a top choice.

The Fisherman's Bastion. The Bastion's seven elaborate towers offer the most spectacular views across the Danube to Pest. (Take a 360° tour of the Fisherman's Bastion below)

PEST

Where Buda is hilly, Pest is flat. Where Buda is royally dignified, Pest is bustling and glamorous. From its grand cafes and art nouveau buildings to the gilded interiors of its lovely opera house, Pest is an exercise in old-school elegance.

This half of the city has its fair share of sights – in Heroes Square, the Millennium Memorial offers dramatic photo opportunities – but really, Pest was made for perambulating. The wide boulevards linked by narrow laneways are lined with lovely buildings ranging from belle epoque to art deco to Bauhaus. Glass domes, arched doorways, elaborately decorated facades: there's a delightful feature on every corner. Round off the day in one of Budapest's cosy wine bars, savouring the country's underappreciated wines, or make a night of it in one of the quirky ruin pubs.

DON'T MISS

The Hungarian Parliament. With its 691 rooms, this lavish building gives London's Westminster a run for its money. 

Coffee culture. Like that other Habsburg capital, Vienna, Budapest has made an art form of the grand cafe. Try Cafe Gerbeaud or the New York Cafe in the Boscolo Budapest Hotel. A touching memorial, Shoes on the Danube depicts the shoes left behind by Jews massacred by the local fascist Arrow Cross.

Read: Twenty reasons to visit Budapest

See  www.budapest.com.

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL

THE GREAT DIVIDE

It is the holy city of three great religions, so it is no surprise that the ownership of Jerusalem is so fiercely contested. Most visitors see little of either the city's Jewish western half or the Arab eastern half, spending most of their time exploring the many sights in the walled Old City.

WEST JERUSALEM  

Many visitors limit their West Jerusalem sightseeing to just three attractions: the Israel Museum, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls; the sombre Yad Vashem​ holocaust memorial; and the bustling Mahane Yehuda​ market, with its 250 stalls. However, exploring its vibrant neighbourhoods gives you an insight into modern Israeli life.

Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony is where Jerusalem's hip young things congregate, noshing on sushi or falafel in trendy cafes. Bezalel Street, the city's design hub, is just as happening, particularly during the Friday Arts and Crafts Fair. Also worth a visit are the neighbourhoods of Yemin Moshe and Rehavia, with their classical mansions and modernist buildings of Jerusalem stone. 

DON'T MISS

Yad Vashem. Highlights of this moving collection of Holocaust museums and memorials include the Hall of Names and the Children's Memorial.

Emek Refaim. Head to Jerusalem's trendiest street when you are in the mood for alfresco dining.

The Israel Museum. The national museum is home to the famous Dead Sea Scrolls and a reconstruction of the Second Temple. (Take a 360° tour inside the Israel Museum below)

EAST JERUSALEM

Walk out of the Old City through the Damascus Gate and you could be in any colourful, clamorous Arab city. East Jerusalem's most popular attraction is the Mount of Olives, home to a number of significant biblical sites, each one marked with a church.

Start at the lookout at the top of the hill and walk down to the Garden of Gethsemane, stopping whenever something – perhaps the teardrop-shaped Dominus Flevit​, perhaps the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene – catches your eye. 

Afterwards, enjoy a drink in the peaceful garden of the American Colony Hotel. Housed in a former pasha's palace, the hotel's historic guest list includes Lawrence of Arabia and Graham Greene. 

Also worth a visit is The Museum of the Seam. Technically it is neither east nor west – as the name suggests, it sits on the dividing line between the two – but Jerusalem's most thought-provoking art exhibition space is too good to miss.

DON'T MISS

Mount of Olives. From the Garden of Gethsemane to the Tomb of the Virgin, it has an extraordinary cluster of Biblical sites.

A drink in the garden courtyard of the American Colony Hotel is a must. A short walk from the Damascus Gate, the tranquil Garden Tomb is said to be the place where Christ was buried and resurrected.

See www.itraveljerusalem.com.

ISTANBUL

THE GREAT DIVIDE

Istanbul is the only major city in the world that straddles two continents. On one side of the Bosphorus lies Europe; on the other is Asia. Most visitors never venture beyond the monument-rich European side, missing out on the Asian side's very different ambience.

EUROPEAN ISTANBUL 

The city's historic heart is also its economic engine, a place where ancient winding alleys open on to traffic-choked streets. The Sultanahmet​ district alone is packed with sights: the magnificent Ayasofiya​, the beautiful Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and the nearby Grand Bazaar. The Beyoglu​ district is buzzing day and night: crowds stream along the grand boulevard of Istiklal Caddesi​, while the district's rooftops are home to the city's hippest bars. 

Equally beguiling is the former fishing village of Ortakoy​, tucked under the Bosphorus bridge. Ortakoy's squares are lined with tea houses and shops, while restaurants and cafes cluster along the waterfront. 

DON'T MISS

The Ayasofya. First a Byzantine church, then an Ottoman mosque, now a historical monument.

The Galata Bridge. Anglers trail their lines and loungers smoke nargiles in the cafes while traffic rushes past. Pure Istanbul.

The Basilica Cistern. An atmospheric underground reservoir dating  to the sixth century.

ASIAN ISTANBUL 

When the Ottomans needed to escape the city, they headed to the Asian shore, reclining in the expansive gardens of their elegant mansions. Now, around a third of the city's population lives here, commuting across the Bosphorus to work.

The area's most memorable monuments include the magnificent Renaissance-style Haydarpasa​ Railway Station, built in 1908 as the launching point for the Istanbul-Baghdad railway, and the baroque Beylerbeyi Palace, one of the many summer residences built for the sultans. 

Make time for a stroll through the area's welcoming neighbourhoods. Kadıkoy is famous for its bustling market and its bar and cafe strip, Kadifre Sokak​. Moda has a bohemian vibe, with bookstores, ateliers, record shops and exhibition spaces drawing a hip young crowd.

DON'T MISS

Kadikoy's market is one of Istanbul's most vibrant: pick up the makings of a picnic lunch here.

The wide seaside promenade stretching from Fenerbahce​ to Bostanci​ offers great people watching.

Head to the waterfront cafes of the Kanlica neighbourhood to enjoy their tart, creamy yoghurt, served with powdered sugar.

See www.howtoistanbul.com.

BERLIN, GERMANY

THE GREAT DIVIDE

For 40 years this was the fault line of the Cold War, a wall dividing the small capitalist outpost of West Berlin from Communist East Berlin.  Much has changed in the 25 years since the wall came down – the death strip that once ran next to Checkpoint Charlie is now one of the city's main shopping boulevards – but the two halves of the city still have their distinct flavours.

EAST BERLIN  

Everyone loves East Berlin. After the wall fell, the decaying 19th-century buildings were restored, the artists moved in, and the area's neighbourhoods became some of the most colourful in town. Throw in the fact that East Berlin is home to many of the city's major attractions, including the mighty Museum Island, and no wonder visitors flock here.

East Berlin also has Ampelmann​: a jaunty fellow with a top hat and a cane who flashes up whenever the pedestrian lights turn green. He has become a cult favourite, and also helps you navigate the city: if you can see Ampelmann, you know you are in the east.

DON'T MISS  

Hackesche Hofe​. This gorgeous art nouveau courtyard complex evokes Berlin's heyday; inside, the designer shops include one devoted to all things Ampelmann.

Walk the Wall. The Mauerweg​ memorial follows the route of the wall and commemorates the families divided and the people who died trying to escape.

Behind the unlovely Alexanderplatz​ lie some of Berlin's most inviting streets. Auguststrasse​, Alte Schoenhauser Strasse​, Potsdamer Strasse​ and Linienstrasse​ are all great for browsing. 

WEST BERLIN

It may lack the raffish charm of the east, but there is plenty to see in West Berlin, from the Berlin Zoo and the expansive Tiergarten​ park to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, its semi-destroyed facade deliberately left as a reminder of the desolation of war. Museum lovers are spoiled for choice, with the superb Picasso collection at Museum Berggruen​ a highlight. 

For after-hours entertainment, head for the charming Savignyplatz, the edgy Kreuzberg​, or to the area's favourite hotel, the 25 Hours Bikini Hotel: its rooftop restaurant and bar are among the area's hippest hangs. 

DON'T MISS

A canal cruise. Few people realise Berlin has more bridges than Venice. A cruise down the Spree gives a unique perspective on districts like the Regierungsviertel​, the diplomatic and parliamentary quarter.

Museum mania. West Berlin's unsung museums include the Mies van der Rohe-designed Neue Nationalgalerie​ and the Museum Berggruen. A sunset trip through the Reichstag dome remains one of the city's signature experiences.

Read: Twenty reasons to visit Berlin

See www.berlin.de/en

THE OTHER SIDE OF ...

Some cities have a hidden side. Go "off-piste" to discover a different aspect to these far-flung destinations.

ZURICH

Hard working and clean living, Switzerland's largest city is known for its neat streets, its luxury boutiques, its blue lake and its green hills. The revival of Zuri-West – a former industrial neighbourhood turned funky urban playground – has finally given Zurich a healthy dose of hip. See www.zuerich.com/en

CAPE TOWN

The brightly coloured houses are not the only thing to set the Bo Kaap​ neighbourhood apart from the rest of the city; the neighbourhood is the traditional home of the city's Muslim Cape Malay population.

Read: Twenty reasons to visit Cape Town

See www.capetown.travel.

OSLO

Norway's capital is a city of elegant buildings and green open spaces. The contemporary architecture and walkable streets of the new Tjuvholmen​ district, built over the old docks, offer a vibrant contrast.  See www.visitoslo.com.

SAO PAULO

Amid the soaring skyscrapers and endless traffic jams, one pocket of Sao Paulo gives visitors some much-needed breathing space. Home to the largest Japanese community outside Japan, the Libertade​ neighbourhood has everything from oriental lamp posts to tatami-mat restaurants. See www.visitesaopaulo.com/en

ROME

In central Rome, you can walk for days without seeing a building less than 500 years old. For a more modern take on the Eternal City, visit Garbatella​, a charming 1920s suburb of low-rise homes surrounded by small gardens.

Read: Twenty reasons to visit Rome

See www.turismoroma.it

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