Divided by the Danube, Hungary’s capital is two tantalizing cities in one. Budapest takes to its streets on foot to trace its many-layered history at the crossroads of Europe.
It is barely a century and a half since the Chain Bridge was thrown across the River Danube, linking medieval Buda to the elegant new city of Pest. Even today the Hungarian capital’s two halves are not quite reconciled. „Buda is our pas, Pest our future,” remarks my friend István. As for the present, it is altering daily but, for once, change is for the better.
Budapestiek are content to leave recent history behind. Communist oppression ended only in what they refer to as „the changes of 1989-90”, yet the city has thrown off Soviet gloom, and with a genius for reconstruction, its tree-lined boulevards are being restored to their Austor-Hungarian heyday.
A notable example of this process can be found in Erzsébet Square where the former police headquarters have been transformed into the luxurious Le Meridian Budapest. Meanwhile, the recently reopened New York Palace is establishing itself as the place to stay for fashionistas, though its location away from the center challenges stiletto wearers. Funkier quests put up the four-star Art’otel in Buda, where the modernist riverfront building connects to guestrooms in old town houses behind.
For location and comfort the theoricaly restored Four Seasons Gresham Palace is unsurpassed. Views over the Chain Bridge to Buda are sublime and the 165 guestrooms and 14 suites are sumptuously furnished with Hungarian antiques and art. Exception has been taken, however, to the redecoration in modern style of the famous Gresham Kávéház, home of the 1920s Odium Cabaret (whose comére had a day job with MI6).
Despite resorted Budapest’s resemblances to Paris, its essence is mittel-Europe and a distinctive Hungarian flavor pervades everything from gastronomy to the arts. Such exoticism derives from the city’s location at the crossroads of trade routes from the Orient, and as the prize of successive empires – Ottoman, Hapsburg, Russian, to name the most recent. Searchers after the long weekend of luxury will find an architectural mélange of neo-gothic, art nouveau and Stalinist brutalism in a city pulsing with renewed vitality. Only the Magyar language remains impenetrable, but English and German are widely spoken.
Historic Buda, capital since 1247, has spectacular views over Pest from the Austrian Citadel and Castle Hill. So frequently was the latter stormed and rebuilt that it is today crowned not with a fortress but with the Royal Palace. Gellért Hill, commanding a panorama of the city, is waggishly claimed as the home of extreme sports following the confinement of Bishop (soon to be Saint) Gellért in barrel rolled down the hillside into the Danube. Acceptance of invitations to repeat this experience is likely to invalidate one’s travel insurance.
The best means of orientation is to take tram number 2 from Parliament - this extravagantly gothic leisure is well worth a visit – along the length of the Danube embankment with its magnificent views of Buda. Make the return journey facing inward to Pest, nothing for later exploration the Great Market Hall and Roosevelt Square.
Beyond is Margaret Island, a one-and-a-half-mile retreat mid-Danube, shaded by 10,000 trees. An open-air theatre, two spa hotels and swimming pool make it a treasured escape around which families pedal on bicycles made for four.
It can be reached by car, bus or, most stylishly, by water taxi. For the Danube, unlike the Thames, is in full use. A memorable experience is to take a night cruise aboard the MV Legenda with a multilingual taped guide to the illuminated buildings.
Budapest is an eminently walkable city, with few sights more than half an hour’s stroll. The network of buses, trams, trolleybuses and metro is extensive and a Budapest Card gives you unlimited access. Or take taxis – but only those displaying the badge of one of the main cab companies and make sure the meter is running.
If you trust your feet, there are three walking routes, each of three hours, which will best reveal the city’s charms. With the main hotels clustered in Pest near Chain Bridge, the first itinerary crosses to Buda and a ride on the funicular up Castle Hill. Within the Palace the National Gallery displays a lavish treasury of renaissance and baroque art, 19th century painting and sculpture that no aficionado of gothic style should miss. The interior of the Matthias Church, established in the 13th century but remodeled since, exudes romanticism, its walls embellished with murals. The Ecclesiastical Art museum begins in the crypt.
The second walk, back in Pest, begins at St. Stephen’s Basilica, the city’s largest church, the dome of which stands 96m high, the same as that of the Parliament. The acoustics render the regular choral concerts transcendent. From St. Stephens’s follow Andrássy Utca, grandest of the Boulevards radiating out through Pest. A third of the way along its 2.5km length is the State Opera House, an extravaganza of neo-renaissance architecture unsurpassed in Europe. If you don’t attend a performance, the interior may be seen on the 40-minute daily tour.
Beyond in Andrássy 60, an address feared in both Nazi and Communist times as the headquarters of the secret police. Today, it is the House of Terror, an arresting multimedia memorial to the prosecuted, complete with Russian tank, torture chambers and gallows. On the walls are photographs of the victims and – controversially – of the persecutors.
The avenue ends in Heroes’ Square and the Museums of Fine Arts, offering a comprehensive overview of the Italian schools of painting from the 13th to 18th centuries. The jewels of the Spanish collection are seven El Grecos.
Close to the museum is Hungary’s most famous restaurant, Gundel. Both legend and cliché for over a century, this atmospheric place of Magyar gastronomy has attracted almost every prominent visitor to the capital, including Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II. In the 1920s Károly Gundel pioneered a lighter, less coronary-inductive school of cooking, though retaining the classic dishes of goose liver and venison. Gundel palacsinta is served throughout Hungary, the pancake’s filled enriched with rum, raisin, lemon rid and walnuts, and served with chocolate sauce.
Invariably, gundel palacsinta is flambéed – but not at its birthplace. For, as the manager dryly observes, „Fire was never the recipe. Károly finished his pancakes in a high oven.” Magyar cooking tends to the spicy, with paprika ubiquitous in both its mild and fiery forms. Note that gulyás (goulash but pronounced with silent „l”) is properly stew and gulyásleves a meaty soup. Another essential dish is halászlé, a Hungarian bouillabaisse based on carp.
Some of Budapest’s most interesting restaurant are encountered on the third walk, running south from Roosevelt Square through pedestrianised Váci Utca to the Great Market Hall. These may be characterized as „with- and without-fiddlers”. Even the grandest French restaurants, such as Le Bourbon, host Hungarian nights serenaded by gypsy virtuosi (tuck 500 forints under the violin strings). At the beginning of the route is Páva, an exceptional contemporary Italian restaurant (sans fiddlers), while nearby Mokka offers French/Asian fusion in an improbable African setting.
On the return walk, stop to reserve a window table at Spoon Café & Lounge, a fashionable floating brasserie dock by the Chain Bridge.
While Váci Utca is the city’s main shopping street with eccentric antique emporia, confectioners and intricate porcelain on the sale at the Herend store, the fashion on the offer is best ignored. At the very end of Váci Utca the magnificent cast-iron hall of Great Market shelters dozens of stalls selling unpronounceable cheeses (try one aged in wine), paprika garlands, foie gras and embroidered linens, all the modest prices.
Up on Buda, Bánsághi Studio is a working studio-cum-gallery run by a husband and wife who exhibit their accomplished Hungarian art at tempting prices. Close by, opposite Matthias Church, is the House of Hungarian Wines, where many of the 700 available can be sampled and shipped at reasonable cost. Eszencia, an ultra-concentrated Tokaji dessert wine in which grapes bearing the noble rot press themselves under their own weight, is reputed to bring the dead to life – as it should at ₤185 for half a litre.
To recover, visit a traditional coffee house. Some, like the glittering New York Café, have been restored to their 1890s literary magnificence. Others remain shabby – and full of character. Muvész opposite the Opera serves rolls filled with Tokaji-flavoured cream. The proper time for cakes is before 6pm – don’t expect patisserie on Hungarian dessers menus.
Opera, ballet and concert performances are listed in the free Open and the Budapest Sun: smart dress is expected. Clubs tend to the dubious, but safe bets are Alcatraz where waiters wear prison garb, or the Bahnhof behind the railway station. The liveliest bars are found in buildings scheduled for restoration, enjoying a brief flash of fame before closure. For peopl watching the outdoor cafés on Liszt Ferenc Square are good at almost any hour.
No visit to Budapest would be complete without a dip in a geothermal spa. The Hotel Gellért’s art nouveau spa is flooded with warmth and light, and massages are expert. For a more authentic experience at baths dating back to Ottoman rule, join locals at Rudas Turkish bath (men only) or the Király, which is open to women on alternate days – just don’t expect to be pampered.
THE HIT LIST
Prices are for two people sharing a double room, including breakfast.
- Art’otel, Ben Rakpart 16-19 (00361-487 9487); from ₤128.
- Four Seasons Gresham Palace, Roosevelt Tér (00361-268 6000; from ₤235.
- Le Méridien Budapest, Erzsébet Tér 9-10 (00361-429 5500; www.lemeridien.com); form ₤141.
- New York Palace, Erzsébet Körút 9-11. (00361-886 6111; www.boscholohotels.com); from ₤209.
Restaurants, cafes and clubs
Prices are for a three-course meal for one with a half bottle of wine.
- Alcatraz, Nyár utca 1. (00361-478 6010).
- Bahnholf, VI. Váci Utca 1. (00361-302 4751)
- Le Bourbon, Le Méridien, Erzsébet tér 9-10. (00361-429 5770), ₤29.
- Gundel, Allatkerit utca 2. (00361-468 4040) ₤36.
- Mokka, Sas utca 4. (00361-328 0081), ₤21.
- Muvész Kávéház Andrássy út 29 (00361-352 1337)
- New York Café, Erzsébet körút 9-11 (00361-322 3849)
- Páva, Gresham Palace Hotel, Roosevelt Tér 5-6. (00361-268 6000) ₤44
- Spoon Café & Lounge, Vigadó tér 3. (00361-411 0933) ₤26
Bánsági Studio, Uri utca 24., Buda (00361-202 1451), Great Market Hall, Vámház körút 1-3. Herend Porcelain, Josef Nádor tér 11. (00361-267 4826) House of Hungarian Wines Szentháromság tér (00361-212 1030)
Danubius Hotel Gellért, Szent Gellért Tér 1 (00361-889 55000). House of Terror Andrássy út 60 (00361-374 2600) Tues-Fri, 10am-6pm; Sat-Sun, 10am-7.30pm. Király Baths, Fő u. 84. (00361-202 3688). Legenda Cruises, Vigado Square Boat Station Pier 7 (00361-317 2203). Matthias Church, Szentháromság Tér (00361-355 5657), Mon-Sat, 9am-5pm. Museum of Fine Arts Dózsa György utca 41. (00361-469 7100) Tues-Sun, 10am-5.30pm. Natinal Gallery Szent György tér 2. (00361-175 7533) Tues-Sun, 10am-6pm. Parliament, Kossuth tér 1-3 (00361-441 4000) Mon, 8am-11am; Tues-Sat, 8am-6pm; Sun, 8am-2pm. Rudas Baths, I Döbrentei tér 9 (00361-375 3873). St Stephen’s Basilica Szent Istvan tér 33 (00361-317 2859), Mon-Sat 9am-5pm; Sun, 1pm-4pm. State Opera House, Andrássy út 22 (00361-331 2500), tours daily 3pm-4pm.
Less than an hour away
Szentendre is an absurdly picturesque artists’ colony on the Danube 12 miles upstream. Originally settled by Serbian refugees, its Orthodox churches and Mediterranean townscape provided an appealing contrast to Budapest.
When to go
Autumn is mild until early November. The city is at its spring best from April.
How to get there
Julian Allason traveled courtesy of Abercrombie & Kent (0845-070 0612; www.abercrobiekent.co.uk) which offers a three-night package staying at Four Seasons Gresham Palace, from ₤810. British Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com) has three flights daily from Heathrow to Budapest, from ₤88. Malév (0870-909 0577; www.malev.com) has two flights daily from London Gatwick to Budapest from ₤87.