Essentially two cities in one – Buda and Pest – Hungary’s magnificent capital is now firmly established as one of Europe’s most enticing destinations. Its dramatic setting astride the Danube is reason enough to visit, but the city packs in a multitude of things to see and do.
First and foremost, no visitor to Budapest should pass up the opportunity to experience one of its many spas; elsewhere, you can admire Baroque churches, wander amongst Communist dictators, or head through the hills on a narrow gauge.
Add to the mix the city’s famous ruin bars, grand coffee houses and now a burgeoning gastronomic scene, and you’ve pretty much got everything covered. Oh, and to boot, it stages one of Europe’s biggest and best rock festivals.
What should I see?
For conventional sightseeing, take the Siklo (funicular) up to the Vár, or Castle District, where you can easily spend a day poring over fabulous Baroque architecture. Over in Pest, the revitalized Jewish quarter is jam-packed with sights, most obviously in the shape of the magnificent Great Synagogue, the second largest in the world.
A little-known gem is the Southeast Asian Gold Museum, featuring a sumptuous collection of secular and religious artwork, ninety percent of which is gold. Beyond here, in leafy City Park, lies Budapest Zoo, as renowned for its Art Nouveau enclosures as it is for its inhabitants.
For some respite from the often brutal summer heat, take to the Buda Hills, home to the Railway Circuit, comprising the 3km-long Cogwheel Railway, and the Children’s Railway, an 11km-long narrow gauge built by Communist youth brigades after World War II.
There’s more Communist-era nostalgia at the Memento Park, a remarkable assemblage of oversized statues of former Communist dictators like Stalin and Lenin. Lastly, take a ride on Tram #2, which runs the length of the Pest Embankment, affording superlative views of the Castle District opposite.
Why should I go to the spa?
Budapest lies on more than a hundred thermal springs, so it’d be remiss not to indulge in one of the city’s many fabulous spas (furdo). Take a dip in Art Nouveau splendour at the Gellért Baths, the evocative, Ottoman-era Rudas Baths, or the enormous sixteen-pool Széchenyi Baths, where the sight of old fellas playing chess on the water is a wonderfully surreal spectacle.
For an alternative bathing experience, make for one of the night-time pool parties, which variously put on music, film and laser discos.
What is there for foodies?
Budapest is hardly renowned for its culinary prowess, but this is changing, and fast. Of the city’s four Michelin-starred restaurants, Borkonyha is the most appealing, with dishes like quail breast with lavender and buttered green peas, complemented by one of the finest wine lists in the city.
Child-friendly Zeller Bistro is no less snazzy, with beef cheek and goose liver among those dishes rated highly. But for something more old-fashioned, try Café Bouchon, a charming little French outfit with gorgeous Art Deco furnishings and fine food to match. For picnic supplies, make for one of the city’s many indoor markets, the biggest and brashest of which is the Great Market Hall.
Which is the best coffee house?
Like Vienna, Budapest has long been synonymous with great coffee houses: your first stop should be Centrál Kávéház, erstwhile retreat of writers and intellectuals around the turn of the nineteenth century, and still a thoroughly grand place to sip an espresso. Though the diminutive Ruszwurm patisserie, up in the Castle District, arguably does better pastries.
Where’s the party?
That’s easy: Pest’s seventh district. Here you’ll find the city’s heaviest concentration of ruin bars, so-named as they occupy formerly abandoned – and in many cases still ramshackle and graffiti-strewn – buildings and courtyards.
The pick of these include Instant – comprising some twenty, differently themed rooms – Kuplung (an old motorcycle repair shop – the name means “clutch”), and Rácskert, the newest member on the scene. At any of these places expect a consistently brilliant roster of happenings, from live music (jazz, folk, rock) to film screenings and literary readings.
Elsewhere, the riverside bars lining the Danube and the open-air venues on Margit-Sziget do cracking trade in the summer months.
Hungarian wine is superb, though still little appreciated. However, its growing popularity is reflected in the number of wine bars popping up all over the city. For starters, try Doblo, a buzzy, brick-vaulted bar in the Jewish quarter where you can sip wine by the glass alongside a meat and cheese platter.
Where should I stay?
If you can afford it, then the spanking brand new Aria Hotel is top dog; dazzling, musically themed rooms are complemented by a Turkish spa and a stunning glass-covered courtyard. Similarly cool, but more realistically priced, Baltazár offers artfully-designed rooms inspired by the likes of Warhol and Haring.
Home Made Hostel is a sweet and welcoming abode whose small, cleverly-conceived dorms – refreshingly, no bunks – are furnished with random cast-offs culled from homes around the city, such as rugs, trunks and typewriters.
Photo credit: Aria Hotel Budapest
Are there any great festivals?
The undisputed king of Budapest’s summer events is the Sziget Festival, a monster week-long gathering starring the very biggest names in rock, pop and world music – this year, Kasabian and Kings of Leon are among those on the bill.
Elsewhere, the Jewish Summer Festival is a rousing week of classical, jazz and klezmer, and if you’re here on August 20 (St Stephen’s Day, named in honour of Hungary’s national saint and founder), you’re unlikely to miss the fireworks spectacular on the Danube.