Budapest, the once overlooked Hungarian capital, has reclaimed its place as the cultural heart of Eastern Europe – the historic city fizzes with energy and creative renewal
Sophisticated and shabby, beautiful and brash, opulent and restrained – Budapest is a city of contrasts. It flowered during the 50 years leading up to 1914, becoming the beating heart of Eastern Europe and a cultural rival to Paris. Then war, political chaos and 40 stagnant years of communist rule left its handsome buildings to quietly crumble. However, all of this is changing as the Hungarian capital rises again in a newly confident frenzy of restoration and creativity.
Walk the hilly streets of the old town and the flat boulevards that surround it to discover the living, breathing spirit of the city. Wonder at the restored art nouveau buildings, with their unique Magyar style. Sip an espresso in a chic café, smell spicy paprika-flavoured sausages cooking in traditional restaurants and pick up a pastry as good as Vienna’s best.
What to do
The Jewish quarter in District VII is one of the few thriving Jewish communities left in central Europe. Grab a kosher pastry from a bakery and explore the narrow lanes and peaceful squares. Don’t miss the magnificent 19th-century Central Synagogue on Dohány Utca, the second biggest in the world – its museum is well worth visiting. The enormous Basilica of St Stephen, looming majestically over Zrínyi Utca, contains the right hand of St Stephen; pop a coin in the slot and the box will light up to reveal the mummified appendage. Soak up the atmosphere at one of the city’s public baths (www.spasbudapest.com); Rudas is open for late-night soaking sessions – the great dome echoes to the sounds of running water and conversation. Castle Hill overlooks the Danube and is worth a half-day visit despite the ever-present tour groups. The white stone Fishermen’s Bastion and colourful tiles of Matthias Church are particularly attractive. To learn more about the country, Budapest History Museum (www.btm.hu; entrance on Szt György Tér 2) and the National Gallery (www.mng.hu) are both housed in the castle itself.
Where to stay
The New York Palace is a restored 19th-century neo-baroque edifice with beautiful, contemporary rooms set around a serene covered courtyard. The Four Seasons Gresham Palace is an art nouveau masterpiece. Even if you’re not staying in one of the super-luxurious rooms, pay a visit to the spectacular lobby and the on-site restaurant Páva (00 36 1268 5100), one of the finest places to eat in town. When it was built the art'otel was one of the city’s first boutique gems, today it continues to offer a mix of post-modern minimalism and authentic 18th-century style; the front rooms have great views. For a healthy break, the Danubius Grand Hotel Margitsziget is a tranquil spa hotel nestled among the greenery of Margaret Island, in the middle of the Danube.
Where to eat and drink
Hungary’s food scene is bursting with delicious offerings, particularly game, challenging any misconceived ideas of it serving up uninviting, stodgy fare. Vadrózsa (00 36 1326 5817; www.vadrozsa.hu) serves sumptuous fish and game dishes complemented by a fine wine list that includes several good local choices. Try the goose liver – it’s lighter than foie gras and just as delicious. Café Bouchon (00 36 1353 4094; www.cafebouchon.hu) offers a light, creative take on Magyar cuisine – the fogas, a fish found in the nearby Lake Balaton, is worth sampling.
Grand cafés were a feature of fin de siècle Budapest, hosting the great writers, artists and thinkers of the day, and are undergoing a renaissance. Tuck into cream-slathered cakes at Gerbeaud (www.gerbeaud.hu; V Vörösmarty Tér 7), or drop into Gerlóczy (00 36 1235 0953; www.gerloczy.hu), a traditional coffee house, for a fantastic breakfast. Piaf (00 36 1312 3823) on VI Nagymezö Utca, is a tiny bohemian piano bar whose crushed red velvet seats and candlelit tables lend a touch of decadence to the relaxed nightly performances.
Time running out?
Spend your last few hours enjoying a coffee in the New York Palace’s beautiful café. It was the artistic and cultural centre of Budapest’s golden age.
Buy a Budapest card (from metro stations, tourist offices, travel agencies and some hotels). It allows free travel on public transport and admission to many key attractions.
Currency is the Hungarian forint. Budapest is one hour ahead of GMT and a two-hour 30-minute flight from London.
Malev (0870 909 0577; www.malev.com) flies daily from both Gatwick and Heathrow to Budapest. EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies direct from Gatwick and London Luton. Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; www.lufthansa.co.uk) flies from Heathrow and London City to Budapest via Düsseldorf, Frankfurt or Munich.
Budapest Tourism Office: Deák Square (00 36 1322 4098; www.budapestinfo.hu/en/). There are also information centres at the main railway station and the airport.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.