Take a tour of coffee houses on both sides of the Danube to discover the distinctive characters of Budapest's twin cities and sample the best of European confectionery
History, location, cuisine, atmosphere: Budapest has got the lot. But this, plus its unique combination of two historic cities, compounds the usual problem of what to see in a city break. Discover the distinctive characters of Buda and Pest and sample the best of European confectionery in this short, but sweet, coffee house tour either side of the Danube.
Start in the Belvaros, heart of modern Pest, whose ascendancy dates from the Belle Epoque period of the late nineteenth century when, after the union of the two cities, power and influence moved east across the Danube from Buda. At that time, Budapest vied with Vienna, its sister capital in the old Dual Monarchy, for supremacy in the Hapsburg Empire.
As in Vienna, intellectual and social life revolved round the kavehaz (coffee house). Central Kavehaz (www.centralkavehaz.hu), near Ferenciek ter metro, is perhaps the grandest of these old institutions. Opened in 1867, it became a haven for painters, architects and authors and was renovated in 2000, with the mission to “restore and continue the outstanding accomplishments of Hungarian artistic and scientific life.” Enjoy this unique atmosphere as you sample the café’s modern Hungarian menu and its special desserts.
Pass the Pest theatre and Fisher-girl fountain on the way to Vorosmarty ter, the tree-lined centre of the Belvaros. On the corner is the Gerbeaud patisserie (www.gerbeaud.hu). With its elegant pavement tables and palatial, gilded interior, it is a Budapest institution and, although it's usually packed with tourists, the service is impeccable and the pastries divine. This is the place to savour central European confectionery at its finest: ensure you taste the legendary konyakos meggy (cognac-cherry bonbon) invented by the café’s most famous owner, Emile Gerbeaud.
Turn north into Lipotvaros, and look for the fabulous dome of St Stephen’s Basilica. Finished in 1905, it took 50 years to build. The interior is adorned with beautiful frescoes and carvings and, if you have time, do inspect the mummified hand of St Stephen, Hungary’s holiest relic.
Head for the river, and stop at Roosevelt Ter, to admire the magnificent Art Nouveau Gresham Palace (www.fourseasons.com/budapest). Built in 1904, it was named after the famous British financier Sir Thomas Gresham and completely refurbished as a hotel in 2001. Step inside to wonder at the tiled lobby and glass-roofed arcade, or, better still, sip a cocktail, people-watch and admire the wrought-iron peacock gates and stained-glass windows from the foyer
Gresham’s is not Budapest’s only important connection with the British. Immediately in front of the hotel is the iconic Lanchid (Chain Bridge). Designed by William Tierney Clark and built by the unrelated Adam Clark, it opened in 1849 and was the first permanent link between Buda in the west and Pest in the east. It became the biggest spur to the union of the two ancient cities in 1873.
Cross the Danube to Adam Clark Ter and climb the stairs or take the Siklo (funicular) to Buda Palace. Spend time on the Varhegy (Castle Hill), admiring the wonderful views of Parliament, St Stephen’s and the river.
Its unique location gave Varhegy a vital, strategic importance throughout Hungarian history. In contrast to the nineteenth-century grandeur of Pest, the Varnegyed (Castle District of Buda) still retains a medieval character in its courtyards and passages. Interestingly for such a historic site, behind the ornate baroque facades many of the houses are still inhabited as family homes.
Soak up Buda’s unique history in the tiny Ruszwurm patisserie (www.ruszwurm.hu), just off Szentharomsag ter, to the north of the castle. A gingerbread shop in the Middle Ages, it has been a cafe and patisserie since 1827 and is run by the last, still active, Hungarian confectionery dynasty. Its history adorns the walls, the coffee is excellent and the only downside is choosing which and how many of the wondrous pastries on offer to eat.
Continue to head north, past Matyas church and the amazing Fishermen’s Bastion, and soon the steep incline will lead down to the busy centre of modern Buda. Behind the market and Mammut shopping malls, a small, ordinary shop front at II, Retek utca 19, disguises one last treat. Agi Retes may be tiny, with only one table, but its retes (strudels) are legendary. Try the szilva (plum) or meggyes (cherry) and if you can’t find a seat, take them with you. Food to go never tasted this good.
Where to stay
If you want to be right in the centre of things in the Belvaros, try Boutique Hotel Zara, at the bottom of Vaci utca. It's well-equipped, with wi-fi in the lobby. Doubles cost €178.
A quieter option in the peaceful and beautiful Rozsadomb area of Buda, is Hotel Papillon. The multilingual staff are exceptionally helpful, and there is a swimming pool, and great views over the Danube, all for €49 per night.