Hungary’s evocative capital of Budapest is one of the standout tourist cities of the former Eastern bloc.
Not quite as hyped as Prague — and yet offering a wealth of interesting sights, great-value shopping, hundreds of thermal spas, and wonderful vistas from virtually everywhere in the vicinity of the River Danube — Budapest is an easily affordable travel option, and a fascinating place to observe a city still transforming from a Communist past to a modern European future.
It’s divided into two halves by the Danube — hilly Buda lies to the west and flat Pest to the east. Pest’s Habsburg-era architecture and historical grandeur is slowly being eaten into by the appearance of modern office blocks, hotels and shopping malls, while Buda has acquired increasing numbers of new villas. But these sorts of encroachments are easily forgotten as the overall atmospheric effect of the city is still enthralling — whether it’s the buildings by the Danube in the early morning light or the bullet-marked walls of Pest showing their scars of the 20th Century.
At the end of the 19th Century, Budapest was the fastest-growing metropolis in Europe. The Millennium celebration of that time, organised in the City Park, was a statement of the city’s confidence. The park, and Heroes’ Squareattached to it, is a good place to start a tour of the city, while the Gundel Restaurant nearby is the city’s most famous and elegant establishment in which to sample Hungarian cuisine (both top-of-the-range and expensive). Pancakes, goose liver and pork feature heavily on the menu, which can all be accompanied by some excellent sweet Tokaj from the restaurant’s own vineyard.
Budapest’s efficient and extensive public transport system makes it an easy city to circumnavigate — the renovated M1 line was the first underground railway in continental Europe — and is preferable to being at the whim of the city’s cowboy taxi drivers. The network is cheap and has three metro lines, trams, buses, trolleybuses and local trains to get you right to your destination.
First among the must-see sights is Parliament, on the Pest banks of the Danube. When it opened in 1902 it was the largest in the world, and it bears an uncanny resemblance to London’s (although it’s a lot more kitsch). Another worthwhile (and surreally ghoulish) stop is theBasilica of St. Stephen, Budapest’s largest church, which contains the holiest relic of Christian Hungary: the mummified right hand of St. Stephen (a coin in the slot will light it up!). Hungarians celebrate their founding father on St. Stephen’s Day, August 20, with a spectacular fireworks display from Gellért Hill. The display is so dramatic that water is fired from boats onto the hill in the week preceding the show because it caught fire a few years back.
The Central Synagogue is the second largest in the world (after New York’s Temple Emmanuel). It’s had an expensive facelift in the past ten years and the newly cleaned brickwork, fresh gold leaf and sparkling glass are a beautiful symbol of regeneration. The Opera House is a gem of a theatre with everything an Opera House should have — and something many don’t: namely, cheap and accessible tickets. But the best environment in which to appreciate Hungary’s potent musical identity is the Zeneakademia (the Franz Liszt Music Academy), where you can hear the works of classical music giants such as Liszt, Kodály and Bartók.
Buda’s Castle District is the biggest draw for tourists. Amid its cobbled streets and small Baroque houses are the formerRoyal Palace, the neo-Gothic extravaganza that isMátyás templom (a historical mish-mash of a church dating from the 13th Century and spectacularly restored in that style) and national institutions such as the Széchényi Library and the National Gallery. Perhaps the best reason to head up the hill is to go to theFisherman’s Bastion — a vantage point with seven turrets that offers stupendous views of Budapest and its environs.
The hedonistic highlight of any visit to Budapest is to enjoy a long soak in one of its many thermal baths. The city is Europe’s largest spa town, offering more than 120 thermal springs. Among the best are the Gellert baths — in the hotel of the same name, though non-residents can pay (around £5, depending on the exchange rate) to use the beautiful Art Nouveau swimming pool, saunas, steam rooms and thermal waters — and the Széchenyi (Europe’s largest health spa, where some two million people each year dip into the indoor and outdoor waters). But the most atmospheric spa is definitely theRudas on the Buda banks of the Danube. Unfortunately, only men can enjoy the almost religious experience of a visit to these original Turkish baths, where shards of different-coloured light pierce through its cupola roof into a steamy, echoing complex of pools.
Budapest can offer some great-value shopping. Váci Utca is the city’s main shopping street, but those in search of bargains or unusual purchases should escape these branded and tourist-oriented surroundings to hunt out the unexpected from smaller retailers across the city. Antiques, porcelain, local wines and handmade shoes are the best value purchases to be found.
At night there are plenty of options for drinking, dining and dancing. The price of booze will come as a welcome surprise to most visitors, as will admission prices to clubs and the liberating feeling of much less regulation than in western Europe or the States. While Hungarian food tends towards the heavy side and portions are usually huge, there are plenty of decent clubs for dancing off the extra calories in refreshingly unpretentious surroundings.
Be it the mystifying language, the historical grandeur and beauty, superb soaks in thermal pools, the inexpensive cost of living, or simply a shot of the local firewater, Palinka, you’re sure to find a taste of something on a visit to Budapest that will make it both hard to leave and ensure you’re keen to return.