Cultural influences from both East and West have left their mark on Hungary’s capital, from the grand cafes of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire to neglected statues of one-time Soviet heroes. Stuart Wadsworth delves into Budapest.
Centre of Europe, grand old dame of the Habsburg Empire, inventor of ‘Goulash Communism’ and, more recently, one of central/eastern Europe’s major weekend getaway destinations: Budapest is a city which demands your attention. A heady mixture of Vienna’s elegance and coffee-house culture and Berlin’s rough-edged, arch-hipness, Budapest packs a massive punch and leaves you reeling with options for exploring, starting from its world-famous baths right down to the kerts, semi-legal drinking dens set up in ruined courtyards, and much loved by local imbibers.
The Hungarian capital is really two cities – Buda and Pest – separated by the wide tract of the Danube, and only officially became one entity towards the end of the 19th century. Hilly Buda – calm and serene, full of elegant architecture such as the Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion, looks down onto flat Pest, where business, commerce, culture and a thriving nightlife scene co-exist, along with a slightly seedy sex trade, giving the city a remarkable multi-faceted nature; it really does seem to have something to offer everyone from history and culture buffs and fans of architecture to beer-guzzling hedonists and all-night ravers.
Best of the Beaten Track
The first thing to do on arrival in Budapest should be a stroll along the Pest-side of the river, with its views up to Buda, the bridges and Parliament Building. The latter, a massive Gothic-style construction from the turn of the century, dominates the skyline and impresses from virtually every angle. A tour (with discounted price for EU citizens – so bring your passport) is short but informative, and allows you into the inner sanctum of Hungarian law-making. The building contains 691 rooms, but you see just a few – the Lower House (where the National assembly meets) being the most impressive. Other notable buildings on the Pest side of the river include St. Stephen’s Basilica, a massive neo-renaissance edifice, and the Great Synagogue, the largest of its kind in Europe and second-largest in the world. For a bit of background on the country’s complex history, a visit to the Hungarian National Museum is in order. The museum (founded 1802) contains over one million objects of art and is housed in a handsome neo-classical building constructed in 1846. Although it could be a bit more interactive and lacks information in English, the sheer number of exhibits impresses.
Cross the Danube via the Chain Bridge (Szechenyi) and head up to Citadella via Gellert Bathhouse – another impressive 19th century construction – for the best views of Budapest. Check out the little Gellert Hill Cave church on the way, which contains an underground church. Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion, a little further north, should both be seen – the latter particularly at night, when the orange lighting give the place a shimmering hue and offer excellent photographic opportunities. During summer you can stroll back down the hill and escape the heat and noise on Margit Island, situated in the middle of the Danube, where you can relax in one of the many shady parks and have a beer at Holdudvar.
For a more off-beat experience in Budapest, head out to the suburbs (take bus 150 from Kosztolanyi Deak Ter) to Memento Park – a unique totalitarian theme park, which houses monuments and statues of communist icons like Lenin, Stalin, Marx and Engels, along with Hungarian leaders of the era like Bela Kun and Endre Sagvari. A good time to visit is dusk, when the statues cast a slightly forlorn, eerie shadow. Whilst on the theme of Communism, you should check out the Terror Museum; a building which, for several decades, was the most dreaded of locations – the HQ of the political police.
If you want to explore more of Buda than just the castle, head up into the hills via the Cog Railway, which winds uphill 14km, before changing trains onto a narrow-gauge Children’s Railway. A living reminder of Communism’s wacky side, this is a railway run entirely by kids, including station masters and ticket inspectors! Take a chair-lift from the highest point on the route – Janos-Hegy (527m) for a bird’s-eye view of the hills. If you still have time to spare, head to the Danube Bend where each of the towns of Szentendre, Esztergom or Visegrad offer a change of scene from the capital – the latter is home to a mighty castle looking down from a hill to the Danube. The bend is a one hour bus journey from Ujpest in north Budapest.
For more hipster fun check out our Top Five Budapest Design Spots, for “made in Hungary” sneakers, glasses frames and eco-friendly fashion. And don’t forget to call by our Secret Seven list of unusual things to do in the capital.
Experience & Events
If you come to Budapest and fail to visit one of its many bath houses, shame on you (click on the link to reveal our special extended Top Five!). Hands-down the best baths in Budapest are Szechenyi, in the east side of Pest near the zoo. With 15 different pools to lounge around in, ranging from freezing to steaming hot, it is not only the largest bath house in the capital, but also one of the largest in Europe. Watch chess players immersed to the neck in the thermal waters, admire the neo-baroque architecture or make new friends – this is one of the most sociable baths you’ll ever visit. Have a wash and scrub-down, sauna, swim, sauna or even go to the gym. Your 12 Euro entry fee is a bargain for a day of luxury, and you’ll leave feeling wonderfully relaxed.
Come nightfall, if you’re not fed up of baths by now, try a ‘sparty’ courtesy of Cinetrip Water Circus – a unique monthly club night which takes place in Rudas baths. It’s steeply priced (25 euro in advance or 40 on the door) but a night of techno music with jugglers, air acrobats and belly dancers surrounded by beautiful people in swimsuits is not an experience you get every day, and it has rapidly been gaining fame (and notoriety) across Europe.
Budapest’s biggest and best party is of course the Sziget Festival, which takes place on Obuda Island each August and brings a mix of the world’s best acts in dance, pop, rock, folk and metal together for a week of music and mayhem – check our review of the festival here. You can camp (provided you don’t need sleep) or book a hostel/hotel (way in advance). Day tickets are available for ageing ravers who don’t have the stamina for the whole shebang.
Probably by now you’ve already noticed the Escape Games phenomenon that has swept over Europe… but did you know it started in Budapest? And there are plenty of rooms to try out…
Cheapskates will be pleased to know that the hostel scene in Budapest is very competitive and, as a result, the quality is usually very good. Casa Del Musica, near Muzeum, is close to most of the nightlife, with a friendly vibe, very colourful decor and super-helpful staff. Nearby is Bubble Hostel – smaller, and cosier, and with a great party vibe. Young owner Olga herself is an enfant terrible of the local nightlife. For something a little bit quieter, head to the top of the hill in Buda where Citadella Hotel lies – it actually doubles as a hotel and hostel. Meanwhile if you’re a responsible adult contributing to the global economy you might prefer to stay in the the upmarket Hotel Gellert (which houses the baths of the same name).
Budapest’s dining options are endless, with many places offering great lunchtime deals, such as Ring with its top quality burgers – avocado and prawn with gorgonzola being the most mouth-watering. For great Hungarian food in rustic surrounds, try Fatal; the menu is extensive and you can sample great goulash here along with other Hungarian staples like spicy fish soup. A slightly more downmarket place which is nevertheless excellent is Brody café (Brody Sandor u.), near Muzeum – complete with posters of Ferenc Puskas on the wall, this is as Hungarian as it gets. Try the hearty bean soup or stuffed pancake filled with veal – soup and main course with a beer will set you back less than ten euros. Asian restaurants are in rich supply, but for an eaterie that combines Oriental and Magyar influences head to Parasz Presszo. If you fancy some Hungarian spicy soup followed by a Thai curry, this is the place to go.
The phenomenon of ‘rubble’ or ‘ruin’ bars in Budapest (known in Hungarian as kerts) is beginning to gain fame around Europe and the world. Derelict buildings which have been artistically transformed by decorating them with old junk such as bathtubs, bicycles and household items, they are wonderfully atmospheric and interesting places to hang out. Probably the most well-known (and best) of these is Szimpla – massive and with hundreds of nooks and crannies to explore, it has a great summer garden and cinema screen for regular viewings, and displays local artists’ work. Tuzrakter, complete with a Trabant, is great for live music events (read more about Budapest’s eccentric garden bars here!). Kerts-aside, Pince is a great place to go to sample some traditional Hungarian wine, music and dance, whilst maybe the best late-opening place to go is Instant – cavernous, friendly, with a great mix of people and general party vibe, it seems to be the default place to go for most people with a taste in music. For something more refined, go to either the Red Lion Tea House – dreamy and relaxing – or Sirius Tea House – an Alice-In-Wonderland place with incredibly imaginative design such as ropes, ladders, bean-bags and wardrobes that lead to other rooms. Wonderful.
When the weather is warmer be sure to check out the city’s best rooftop venues, as reported on by Urban Travel Blog.
Getting There & Around
It couldn’t be much easier. Budapest is in the centre of Europe, and has great communications with most cities in Europe, and the world. The Hungarian budget airline Wizzair flies to and from over 20 euro-destinations, including London, Rome and Madrid, whilst flight search engines can help you compare prices on all the major airlines flying into the capital. Train connections are excellent – there are three main train stations with services to and from the likes of Krakow, Bratislava and Belgrade – and buses are also frequent, running at all times of day to numerous destinations. The new bus company Orangeways links Budapest to many major European cities also, at very competitive rates.
For more info the excellent City Spy map series should be your first stop – www.cityspy.info – it shows plenty of cool bars, cafes, restaurants and other places of interest. Funzine.hu – the website for Budapest Funzine – a bi-weekly magazine and website, is another excellent source of information about what’s on. A bit more official is the Tourist office site – Budapestinfo.hu.
As usual, Lonely Planet’s Budapest guide is reliable and informative, especially on budget choices, and the Rough Guide also has a city guide for here. Rick Steve does a guide to the city also, popular with American backpackers. For some not so light reading, pick up Geza Csath’s The Magician’s Garden and Other Stories – disturbing stories written in the magical realist genre. The author was tormented by opium addiction, finally killing his wife and then himself in 1918. Dezso Kosztolanyi’s Skylark is a tragic story (Hungarians specialise in tragedy) of an old couple and their beloved child by one of Hungary’s most famous scribes. Imre Mora’s Budapest Then and Now reveals portraits of the city, past and present.
Budapest has featured in countless international films, albeit often masquerading as somewhere else – usually Moscow, but in the case of Evita for example is has even been featured as Buenos Aires. It has also starred as itself in I Spy with Owen Wilson and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and An American Rhapsody with Scarlett Johansson. For a great Hungarian movie check out Bizalom (Confidence).
Soundtrack to the City
Heaven Street Seven – Marta
Parno Graszt – Ratyake Phiro
Quimby – Most Mulik Pantosan
Kiscillag – Kockacukor
Besh O Drom – Amikor En Kissrac Voltam
Rezso Seress – Gloomy Sunday (aka The Hungarian Suicide Song)
View Budapest City Guide in a larger map