One week in Budapest: why Hungary’s capital, the “Paris of the East”, is every architect’s dream.
Words Tiffany Chan
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 86, August 2017
Budapest is most beautiful after dark. There is a moment, just after sunset, when the sky is the perfect hue of deep blue above the River Danube, which flows through the city like a glittering vein. On one bank, hilly Buda is quiet and residential; on the other, flat, buzzing Pest (pronounced pescht) is the “fun bit”, I’m told time and time again. Grand buildings illuminated on both riverbanks throw warm pools of golden light onto the water.
The architecture is arresting. Rather than people watching, one could spend a day simply building watching. The Hungarian capital has endured a long, merciless history, which it wears (sadly, but proudly) on its sleeve – or, rather, on its building façades. It was ravaged by the Mongols in the 13th century, occupied by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th (“The Turks came and forgot to go home for 160 years,” our guide, Gyuri, says wryly), and by the Soviet Union in the 20th, during the second world war.
Every corner reveals something different, and often dark, about its past. There are Gothic cathedrals, crumbling Roman amphitheatres, ornate neoclassical buildings, opulent, domed Turkish baths and uniform ranks of ugly, grey Communist blocks. It is an architectural melting pot, nicknamed both the “Paris of the East” and the “second Venice”. Sure enough, visitors can experience the splendour of Venice on its bridges, the romance of Paris in its ring-boulevards, as well as the grit of Berlin in its well-worn cobbled streets.
Most visitors spend only a weekend in Budapest. For them, there are three essential things Dan Freeman to do: party at a ruin pub, soak in a Turkish bath and eat a lifetime’s worth of kürtőskalács, an infinitely delicious chimney cake. I was told it’s entirely possible to “cover” the city in three days, but I beg to differ. Budapest is fairly large, but largely walkable. The towns of Buda and Pest (and neighbouring Óbuda) were independent until 1873 and remain so distinct from one another that visiting Budapest is like visiting two cities. Three days is hardly enough.
The city is divided into 23 districts, but many of the major landmarks and hotels are squeezed into the fifth district in Pest, the unofficial “downtown” area between the first and third bridges across the Danube. The Liberty Statue atop Gellért Hill, in Buda, offers one of the best vantage points for panoramic views of the city. The historic royal district of Castle Hill, or Várhegy, is a 1.5-kilometre-long plateau that crowns Buda and encompasses some of the city’s most important monuments. Fishermen’s Bastion, a fish market in the Middle Ages, resembles a sandcastle and is always awash with tourists. The 13th-century Matthias Church has undergone several incarnations, including the wedding venue of Hungarian kings and a mosque during the Turkish occupation. After a facelift, it was turned into a Baroque church, and is now an emblem of Hungarian nationalism.
At the foot of Gellért Hill is the famed Gellért bathhouse, attached to the art nouveau Danubius Hotel Gellért. Grandparents, children and tourists whisper in the bubbling baths under a glass roof supported by ornate, towering columns. The outdoor pool is a must on a summer’s day.
Across the river, Pest is a sprawling cityscape with a surprise around every shadowed courtyard, sunlit street and wide pastel-stained boulevard.
Perhaps the prettiest street in Budapest is Andrássy út. Modelled after Paris’ Champs-Élysées, it is lined with some of the most spectacular buildings in Budapest, including the stunning Hungarian State Opera House, which happens to offer some of the cheapest tickets in Europe. Among the shiny storefronts of luxury brands are neoclassical residential villas and mansions. Stop at one of the cafes for a Esterházy torta cream cake, chased with a coffee, if only to people-watch – and building-watch.
Váci utca was once the main street in Pest. Although unremarkable, the pedestrian street is dotted with international brands and souvenir shops filled with paprika and tacky “I Love Budapest” magnets. Escape the sun, and the crowds, in 1000Tea. Its sunny courtyard offers respite from the chaos just beyond its wooden doors.
Perhaps the most interesting district to wander around is the old Jewish Quarter, an intimate, gentrified neighbourhood thick with hip cafes, bars, galleries, boutiques and bookshops. With dilapidated buildings and arresting street art around every corner, the area oozes with edge and brims with eclectic spaces serving street food, where it is easy to spend the better part of the afternoon swinging on a hammock with a l.ngos (deep-fried flatbread) and a book.
This is also the home of Budapest’s famed ruin pubs, or romkocsma. Located in massive, decaying buildings, these bars and clubs are the trendiest, edgiest places to drink. It’s typical to start early and visit five or six during the night. The oldest and largest ruin pub is Szimpla Kert. Opened in 2002 in an old factory building, its labyrinth of eccentrically themed rooms and outdoor garden have achieved a sort of cult status. Another ruins bar to visit is Mazel Tov (pictured), open all day also as a restaurant and cultural space. The Middle Eastern food they serve is not especially delicious, but you’ll stay for the dirt-cheap wines by the glass, live music and laid-back vibe. After a few glasses of wine, move on to a rooftop romkocsma. The sky will be black, but in the distance, the glorious skyline will be bathed in a golden glow. And all you will be able to think is that three days is not enough.
| First Things First
What to Do
Begin the day with a light breakfast and coffee at Fekete. The beautiful shadowed courtyard is perfect for slow mornings. Wander down Váci utca and pop into Nanushka, a cool local brand, for a spot of shopping. In the Central Market Hall, skip the restaurants on the upper level and seek out vendors selling sausages and pogácsas. Across the Chain Bridge, in Buda, browse boutiques such as Repertory. Meander through the colouful. cobblestone streets lined with pastel centuries-old houses in the Castle District, a UNESCO Heritage Site. Stop at Hotel Gellért for a massage and to soak in the baths.
Few sunsets are more beautiful than those viewed from the promenade overlooking the Danube. A drink at the Four Seasons lobby is a must. After dark, walk around the Jewish Quarter and call in at Fragola for an ice cream, or Printa Design Shop for local prints and ceramics. No evening is complete with a drink at a ruin pub.
Where to Stay
Best location: Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace
At the foot of the Chain Bridge, facing the Danube, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfectly located hotel than the Four Seasons. Dating from 1906, the restored baroque building is stunning and much loved in the city.
Szechenyi Istvan tér 5-6, Budapest 1051
T +36 (1) 268 6000
For artsy types: Brody House
Ultra-cool and unapologetically trendy, boutique hotel Brody House in the Palace District has 11 rooms, each uniquely decorated by a different artist.
Bródy Sándor utca 10, Budapest 1088
T +36 (1) 266 1211
For the history buff: Danubius Hotel Gellért
The art nouveau Hotel Gellért, in Buda, oozes character. It’s attached to the world-famous Gellért Spa, with its elaborately decorated thermal baths, wave pool, glass-roofed jacuzzi and outdoor pool and sun terrace.
Szent Gellért tér 2, Budapest 1114
T +36 (1) 889 5500
Where to Eat and Drink
Essentially deep-fried dough, l.ngos is a beloved Hungarian speciality. The disc is crisp on the outside, soft inside and can be rather crumbly. It comes slathered with various toppings, typically sour cream, cheese and garlic butter. We loved ours filled with potato and cabbage at Lángos Land in Fény Street Market.
Hungarian for “biscuit”, these golden golf ball-sized pastries are fluffy and flaky rather than crumbly, and come in savoury and sweet options. We liked ours simply baked with shredded cheese. They are available at any local supermarket or bakery, but the best are at Daubner Cukrászda, which has been making the pastries for more than a century. Warning: these are highly addictive.
Goulash is the first dish that comes to mind when you think of Hungarian cuisine, but our favourite was székely gulyás, a thicker and richer version that resembles a hearty stew. It’s typically made with three kinds of meat, sweet Hungarian paprika and German sauerkraut. It’s designed for cooler weather, but it’s also available in the summer with a pint of beer.
Also known as chimney cake, kürtőskalács were traditionally a festival snack, popular at weddings and baptisms. It derives its name from its shape, with a strip of yeasted dough spun and wrapped around a cone-shaped spit, until it resembles a chimney. Rolled in sugar and baked over charcoal, the cake is caramelised to a beautiful golden-brown, and is at once soft, chewy and crunchy. Powdered cinnamon and chocolate are two of the more popular toppings. Try it at Molnár’s Kürtőskalács.
One of the first things to try in Budapest is a slice of Esterházy Torta at Café Gerbeaud, in Vörösmarty Square. A cream cake named after diplomat Paul III Anton Esterházy de Galántha, it was created in Budapest in the early 20th century and is an indulgent stack of five or more layers of sponge cake, oozing with buttercream, candied fruits, chocolate and nuts.