From a Celtic settlement to the Roman city of Aquincum to a powerhouse in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Budapest has always been in the thick of things in Central Europe. Today this dynamic city boasts a vibrant arts and culture scene, Michelin-starred restaurants, and edgy fashion. Amidst this contemporary buzz however the remnants of the city’s past still abound, be it in the form of the imposing Buda Castle or the offbeat Memento Park.
There is a reason Budapest is known as the ‘Paris of the East’. Actually, several reasons—wonderful vistas, sumptuous baths, and cosy cafés. The city evokes romance at every turn. Begin at Buda Castle where you get a peek into the lives of Hungarian royalty in a stunning baroque setting. The white turrets and arches of the nearby Fisherman’s Bastion is the perfect spot for a stylised couple’s photo shoot with a local professional photographer (try flytographer.com). Pop in at the nearly-200-year-old Ruszwurm Confectionery (Budapest’s oldest café) for a slice of their legendary cream pastry or the traditional Esterházy cake, named after a Hungarian prince. Other historic coffee houses worth trying are the opulently gilded New York Café (now part of Boscolo Hotel), the charming Café Gerbeaud that dates to the mid-19th century, and Centrál Café, where the city’s writers, poets, and artists once hobnobbed.
If you’re in Budapest on a fine summer’s day, pack up a picnic basket and head to Margaret Island, a popular recreational area in the middle of the Danube. Check out the medieval ruins of a Franciscan church and a Dominican nunnery on the island; wander around its landscaped parks; or splash about at Palatinus Bath, the largest open-air bath complex in Budapest. Speaking of baths, the city’s many thermal baths are a wonderful place to relax. Széchenyi Thermal Bath and Swimming Pool is the biggest and most popular with tourists, while Lukács Bath is the local favourite. Other options include the striking art nouveau Gellért Baths, in Hotel Gellért, and the medieval Turkish-styled Rudas Bath. Wind up the day with a twilight dinner cruise on the Danube; it’s the perfect time to catch the sunset and watch the city’s many buildings and attractions being lit up, as you feast on a four-course meal with goulash, chicken paprikash, vegetable dumplings, and more, while being serenaded by a gypsy band (budapestrivercruise.com).
Get off the beaten path and take a trip back in time, specifically to the 1970s and ’80s when Hungary was under Communist rule. Rent A Trabant (rentatrabantbudapest.com) offers customised tours in a vintage Trabant, the boxy East German car that was marketed as an affordable people’s car in the communist era. Their Retro Tour gives you a quick history lesson as you drive around Budapest, with the car attracting several glances. Not much remains of the communist landscape within the city, but the tour takes you to Memento Park, where the ghosts of communism seem to have congregated. When communism fell in the 1980s, many of the giant statues of leaders such as Lenin and Marx, as well as other allegorical monuments glorifying the movement, were moved to this park. The tour also includes a visit to an authentic retro bar-café where the decor doesn’t seem to have changed since the 1960s, complete with red leatherette sofas, crochet tablecloths and faded chequerboard tiles.
The Buda Hills has many walking trails, including a 100-kilometre section of the 1,128-kilometre National Blue Trail that meanders around Hungary. Get a bird’s-eye view of the city from the hills, tramp through the surrounding forests, and then head over to the hilltop castle at Visegrád. Another fun way of exploring the hills is to climb aboard the Gyermekvasút or the Children’s Railway which winds up the hills, criss-crossing scenic spots. Fun fact: The train line is entirely run by children (under supervision of adult railway employees), from selling tickets to signalling to traffic management.
Both the Museum of Fine Arts in Heroes’ Square and the Hungarian National Gallery inside the Buda Castle have an impressive collection of Hungarian and European classical art, while Mucsarnok (Hall of Art) is the main contemporary art museum in the city. However, several new art spaces and galleries are creating quite a stir more recently. In a striking contrast to the stunning art nouveau building it is housed in, Art + Text, for instance, presents contemporary artworks of emerging local and international artists, including Ákos Ezer’s energetic, often grotesque paintings and Mira Dalma Makai’s abstract sculptures. Kisterem is another gallery worth checking out for the cutting-edge mixed media artworks on display.
Not all art is within closed spaces in Budapest. The city’s walls and buildings are splashed with colourful, humorous, and political murals, graffiti, and other street art by legal artist groups such as Neopaint Works and Színes Város. Check out Filatorigát, the city’s only legal graffiti wall. Other murals worth seeing are the giant Rubik’s Cube (a Budapest invention) in District VII, and those on the firewalls of torn-down houses in the historic Jewish Quarter. While you are there, stop by to admire the Otto Wagner-designed Rumbach Synagogue, a Moorish Revival building from 1872. Nearby is the recently opened Shoah Cellar Museum, a poignant Holocaust exhibition housed in a former Nazi bunker.
Budapest is also an architecture lover’s delight. There’s everything from Gothic Revival to neoclassical to ogle at. The Hungarian Parliament Building on the banks of the Danube on the Pest side is a prime example of Gothic Revival—a massive brick-and-stone building capped by an impressive dome and 27 intricately decorated spires, not to mention the statues of Hungarian rulers adorning its facade, numerous gargoyles and other Gothic ornamentation. The neo-Classical and neo-Renaissance styles are also prevalent in buildings such as St. Stephen’s Basilica and the ornate Hungarian State Opera House. For fans of art nouveau, Bedo House is a must-see. The pistachio facade of this home-turned-museum sports curving lines, and elegant leaf and tendril motifs. Another art nouveau gem worth seeing is the Hungarian State Treasury building on Hold Utca. Its roof is laid with glossy green and yellow ceramic tiles, while its heavily ornamented facade sports floral motifs as well as bees and dragons, supposedly guarding the treasure within.
Lángos: Deep-fried flatbread topped with garlic, sour cream and grated cheese
Kürtoskalács: Golden-brown split cake with a sweet, crispy crust
Chicken Paprikash: Stew of roasted chicken in tomato-paprika sauce, served with short, thick pasta
Kolbász: Sausage with a side of pickled vegetables, best eaten at a self-service eatery
Gulyás: Hearty soup of meat, potatoes, and paprika
Pálinka: Potent fruit brandy
Drop in at a ‘ruin bar’. They are derelict spaces repurposed into swinging bars, boasting salvaged, mismatched furniture, quirky decor, and a distinct grunge vibe. Szimpla Kert is the most famous, but Csendes is more atmospheric.
Take a ‘Taste Around Budapest Tour’ with Budapest Underguide to get a flavour of the city, along with a side order of its many architectural gems (underguide.com; €150/Rs12,000 per person for a 4-hour tour, it’s quite steeply priced but group discounts are available).
Get the Budapest Card, which gives you free entry into several museums and attractions, as well as free use of public transport. Two free, guided walking tours and one free entry to Lukács Baths are also thrown in (budapestinfo.hu/budapest-card; €22/Rs1,800 for a 24-hour card).
Tucked away on a quiet, leafy square off the busy József Körút, Hotel Palazzo Zichy is the ideal romantic hideaway. The hotel is housed in the restored 19th-century neo-baroque palace of Count Nándor Zichy, a prominent aristocrat and politician. The ambience here is a mix of stately and slick (hotel-palazzo-zichy.hu).
Located in a heritage building in the Palace District, Brody House is a bohemian, boutique hotel with 11 uniquely designed rooms, each of which feature upcycled furniture and original artwork by artists who formerly used the space as an atelier (brody.land/brody-house).
Hotel Moments Budapest is a boutique art deco property, housed in a 19th-century palace that later became the town’s first cinema. Located on Andrássy Avenue, it is the perfect base to explore the city. (hotelmomentsbudapest.hu).