Magnificent architecture, great value food, and seriously good cocktails - what's not to like about Budapest?
Budapest is literally a city of two halves: Buda, quieter and more traditional, perched on a hill to the west of the Danube river, with outstanding views of the city; and on the east side Pest, with its throbbing nightlife, bustling markets offering cosmopolitan shopping and contemporary cuisine. It has outstanding Art Nouveau architecture throughout, cheap prices and the sort of cultural attractions any European capital would be proud of. It’s cleaner than Paris, less commercial and grander than Prague; and the glamour that made it the imperial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire back in the ‘golden age’, is still very much present today.
Where to stay
In Pest, the simply magnificent Four Seasons Gresham Palace was built in 1906 and is a gracious Art Nouveau/Secessionist building that’s amongst the best in the world. Today it isn’t just rich aristocrats, architects and artists who can enjoy the splendour of the famous wrought iron peacock gates and beautiful mosaics. Thanks to the Four Seasons Gresham Palace giving it a no-expense-spared facelift in 2004, we can all relish in its grandeur – albeit at a price! When you open your window to the spectacularly lit Szechenyi Chain Bridge and medieval Castle Hill, it will seem like money well spent. Standard rooms start from around £260. On the Buda side is the minimalist Art'otel. As buildings go, it’s the antithesis of the Four Seasons with its dowdy, modern exterior; inside, though, it’s pleasant and also has a superb location. Standard rooms from around £90
Budapest is popular with filmmakers, so has played host to a glittering array of A-listers. Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Munich was filmed here, as was Evita, starring Madonna. Other regulars who enjoy Budapest’s discretion are Hollywood’s Adrian Brody and rock legends the Rolling Stones.
Best brunch spot
The New York Café on Korut Erzsebet Street, Pest, might not be to everyone’s taste but is well worth checking out. It’s an inflated representation of Budapest’s opulence, dripping with decadence and comparable to the Sistine Chapel in its ambition to cover every conceivable space with gold. On the menu for £12 is ‘Libaeroieves Ludgege tesztaval’ – or goose throat pasta to you and me. Perhaps more appealing is whisky- flavoured ice-cream sprinkled with amarena and pistachio with warm chocolate, at £5. Followed with a nice cup of espresso with grappa for £3, or Epres Kave strawberry coffee for £2, it all makes for a rather lavish morning.
An obvious way to while your afternoon away would be to rest your weary joints in the healing waters of Budapest’s many thermal baths, some of which date back to the Turkish occupation. Slightly apprehensively, I opted for the famous Gellert baths, on Szent Gellert St in Buda, a stand-out Art Nouveau masterpiece. My apprehension wasn’t eased by the confusing payment methods and strange aroma flowing from the baths (and some of my fellow bathers). Inside, although a little rough around the edges, the baths were regal and, in their day, I’m sure, extremely sophisticated. Not now though, unfortunately; although it was an experience, the Elemis spa at Four Seasons Gresham Palace was far more my cup of tea. If the baths aren’t for you, a leisurely afternoon on Castle Hill will do the trick. Buda’s old town is quaint, resembling the kind of mountain village you’d expect to see in Austria or Slovenia. A set lunch in cute restaurant Pest-Buda costs £6 and will see you suitably full on goulash soup, paprika chicken, and delicious strudel for afters. Just don’t have anything else planned – Buda’s laidback waiters will ensure a long lunch!
Budapest’s restaurants are excellent value. A top end meal at Café Kor on Sas Street, tucked behind the Basilica of St Stephen, is a real gem, with large portions of home-cooked Hungarian fare in a relaxed, intimate environment. My girlfriend and I had two generous starters of prawn salad, followed by steak and mashed potatoes with warm paprika sauce and pickled vegetables, complemented by a Hungarian red, all for around £25. Pava, at the Four Seasons, is a contemporary Italian restaurant overlooking the river Danube, with an excellent yet pricey menu. The green asparagus risotto with black truffles is gorgeous. For a meal with two, with wine, expect to pay around £120.
Sleek and trendy Bar Negro, in Szent Istvan Plaza, caters for affluent cocktail sippers and has excellent views of the Basilica. The menu is immense – I counted over 200 cocktails, although admittedly I’d had two or three by then. From a Latin Lover for the ladies to a vodka martini for the men, there isn’t much they can’t shake and make. The nightlife centres on Andrassy Street and Liszt Ferenc Plaza, where you’ll wrestle all night for a seat outside one of the many excellent bars and restaurants.
Did you know?
The ballpoint pen, the first computer, antiseptic and Rubik’s Cube all originated in Budapest. More importantly, Hungarian wine is delicious.
EasyJet flies from Gatwick, Luton and Bristol, with prices from around £28 one-way or £50 return.