Even the best guidebooks cannot prepare you for a trip to Budapest. It is chance encounters and unexpected discoveries in the Hungarian capital that keep on luring visitors back
Travel literature about Budapest, Hungary's capital, is generally awash with the same tropes: marvel at the beautiful baroque architecture; relax in one of the city's many thermal baths; shop in cosmopolitan markets; enjoy some of the finest cuisine in Europe.
These are all well-founded truisms. Budapest does have some of the most stunning architecture in the world: you can walk from its gob-smacking Houses of Parliament beside the Danube to its grand yet intimate opera house, awe-struck by of the sheer scale and ambition of the place. The thermal baths alone would justify your travel costs. Dotted across the city, they are among the most romantic and relaxing places I have ever been.
The best parts of Budapest, however, are not necessarily the ones you would expect. For me, they were the places I happened across quite accidentally in a city that is as deceptive as it is captivating. The thermal baths should certainly be top of your list of attractions. Budapest is home to the largest number in Europe, and none of them will disappoint. My recommendation would be to head first to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, located in Városliget city park. It has its own underground train station, so getting there should be a doddle – and you can tick off a few of the obligatory tourists attractions on your list as soon as you're done relaxing. Only a short walk away are the Museum of Fine Arts, the Mucsarnok Gallery and the Hosok Tere monument.
The hottest pool at the beautifully renovated, baroque Széchenyi Baths is maintained at a regular temperature of 38C. In winter, steam rises from the water, obscuring anything further away than 3ft. Don’t be surprised if, on emerging from the vapour, you happen across a group of old gents playing chess. It's surreal, but drawing attention to it (as I did) would be culturally insensitive – and, more importantly, rude. Széchenyi’s spa facilities include massages and saunas, all very good value.
I’ve already touched on the museums and art galleries – all of which are well worth your time. If it's the truly highbrow you are after, the Hungarian National Opera (on Andrássy Ucta) should not be missed. Inside, this baroque masterpiece manages to feel both grand and intimate. The ornately painted and gilded roof – a work of art in itself – kept me thoroughly entertained in the run up to the performance.
Here I must declare myself an operatic green-horn who had previously associated opera with pretentious families, the kind who name their children rather like movie sequels (Sir Walterdale Montague IV, and so on). However, at the Hungarian National Opera, the performance blew me away. Tickets are priced in such a way that opera is accessible even to the thriftiest backpacker. I managed to pay a little under £5 for a seat up in the gods. It afforded me a brilliant view, as the opera house itself isn’t that large. Tickets are best bought from the box office within the building, so you may want to turn up a few days earlier to get the best seat for your hard-earned Hungarian forints.
Finally, let me tell you about the hidden marvel that I (like thousands of others, I'm sure) discovered during my short stay. I stumbled by chance across a bar called Kuplung – at the end of a dark alley off Kilray Ucta, where a door has been cleverly disguised as a wall. Give it a push, and you will find yourself in one of the best pubs in town. Once a mechanic's garage, it has been converted (in the loosest sense of the word) into a beer hall. Hanging over the room looms the giant skeleton of a whale made entirely of papier-mâché. Rumour has it that it once had fairy lights inside – but sadly, like papier-mâché whales, they have all died out.
The walls are covered in the type of graffiti art made only by the most talented of artists – though I cannot say the same for the graffiti in the toilets. Kuplung’s atmosphere is constantly chilled. When the bar fills up in the evenings, bohemian locals rub shoulders with wide-eyed tourists. Every so often, you will see a new group of visitors step timidly through the wall-way and glance around in either amazement or disgust. More often than not, their reaction is the former.
All in all, I found Budapest enthralling – from the half-naked old men playing chess in the bath, to the giant whale hanging ominously overhead as I contemplated one more drink. The place was not how I envisaged it after reading the guidebooks – and I sincerely hope it won't be for you either.