It has the spectacular architecture, luxury hotels and enigmatic sights to rival any European city – but Budapest also has a bohemian side most capitals would kill for. Here, Barbara Walshe spies its secrets.
The opening scenes of the latest Mission Impossible movie were shot here. So were key parts of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And it’s no surprise why. From being dominated by the Romans, Turkish and Austrians historically, to being infiltrated by Nazi Germans and Soviet dictators more recently – there’s still something of the underworld about Budapest.
In fact, with the last Russian soldier vacating Hungary in just 1991, inhabitants are still somewhat reeling from their encounter with communism. Travel to other European capitals, and there’s enough English spoken there to get by. Not so in Budapest. With foreign rulers and dictators long attempting to snuff out their national language – it’s Hungarian here, loud and proud.
The same with their cuisine. Rather than lazily serving up pizza or pasta like other capitals, Hungarian people are proud of their food. Like their Lángos, the pizza alternative, a deep-fried flatbread smothered in everything from garlic and sour cream to ham and cheese or even sugar. Delicious. Or Goulash served as a soup rather than the stew it’s usually mistaken for – a gourmet experience in its motherland.
In other ways, Budapest couldn’t be more like other European capitals though. Firstly, there’s its awe-inspiring architecture. From their Parliament building, erected in 1904 and perched on the banks of the Danube river, to Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion, these are not only sights to behold but also boast some of the best views over the city.
Budapest also has a roster of luxury hotels. Over the last ten years, everyone from the Four Seasons Gresham Palace to the Kempinski Corvinus and Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal has opened here. But for luxury and location, Le Meridien is the one to beat. Step inside and there’s everything from the sweet corner full of artisan cakes to 26 hotel suites to choose from. Outside, the city is at your feet. Just seconds away is the Danube River, Hungarian Opera House and Academy of Music, as well as a glut of cafes, pubs and restaurants.
Vaci Street is also around the corner – Budapest’s main shopping area. But make sure you look up along the way. Many of these stores are housed in sumptuous Art Deco buildings which are easily missed if you’re too focused on the street level shopping.
For sights further afield, take the 16 bus outside Le Meridien to Buda Castle and the Castle Quarter area for a walk around this historical and cultural landmark. Need a rest? Try the tram or quirky Metro underground system, which is the second oldest in the world after London.
These will whisk you up and down Andrassy Avenue (Budapest’s version of the Champs-Élysée) and to seminal national monuments such as Heroes’ Square, which is flanked either side by the Hall of Arts and Museum of Fine Arts. If you’re planning a visit there, be sure to also pack your swimsuit though. Because the *Szechenyi Bath*, one of the city’s 15 spa baths and arguably its most popular, is situated right across the park.
Budapest has boasted 118 natural springs since Roman times, which pump 70 million litres of medicinal water to the surface each day at an average temperature of 21°C. This means that, come hail or sunshine, enjoying these thermal baths, housed in gloriously ornate in-and-out-door buildings, is not just a pass-time of the youth, but a health regime taken seriously by elders.
It would be easy to spend your time in this city visiting the rest of its beautiful sights. They’re all temptingly on your doorstep, including St Stephen’s Basilica, the Chain Bridge and Margaret Island – the island park in the middle of the Danube that separates ‘Buda’, the hilly side of the city, from ‘Pest’, the flat commercial side.
But, while undoubtedly enjoyable, you’d be missing a trick. Because, just as the spy movies have revealed, there are hidden depths to Budapest and thrilling secrets to uncover, if you know where to look.
The majority of these lie in the Jewish Quarter (again, just a short walk from Le Meridien). Start your descent on Király Street, then saunter through the quaint alleyways and graffiti art, and you’re unwittingly entering another world.
Like many European cities, Budapest was hit hard by the recent recession, leading to a number of buildings falling derelict. Innovative young entrepreneurs have taken a number of these and transformed them into eclectic eateries, art galleries, independent cinemas and drinking establishments. If you had to draw a comparison – it would be London’s bohemian East End – except it’s less pretentious and more compact.
The first thing you’ll notice are the smattering of cafes and restaurants at street level, all eye-catching for their edginess. But it’s the hidden bars and eateries you really want. Described as ‘Ruin’ bars by the locals, ‘Szimpla’ (www.szimpla.hu), located at 14 Kazinczy Street, is one of the originals, with retro furniture, funky art and a separate film gallery area.
Further along the same street is ‘Ellátó kert’ (48 Kazinczy), renowned for its large open space. But if it’s something more intimate you’re looking for, there’s also ‘Instant’ on Nagymező Street off Andrássy Avenue (take the Metro to the Opera stop) along with a whole host of others.
Most are open early afternoon to the early hours of the morning, and it’s impossible not to lose yourself there for at least a portion of the day thanks to their great ambience, inexpensive alcohol and delicious food at excellent prices.
What’s even more impossible is leaving this city without vowing to return. Together with its complex history, luxury hotels and beautiful sights, Budapest’s burgeoning bohemianism makes it a truly exciting place right now. And that’s something other European cities would kill for.
Find out more information about Budapest by booking a budapestUNDERGUIDE tour of the city or reading more about their Ruin bars.