Strangely enough, as I wrote the title of this article, I thought this might even be a little unfair to Budapest. Having experienced both cities during less than stellar weather conditions (Paris in pouring rain, Budapest in the freezing cold and under grey skies), I found the allure of Hungary’s capital impossible to resist, and unlike some cities I go to, I’m already planning my next visit. Conveniently split into two separate sides that merged in 1873 – the hilly outlook from Buda, and the flat centre of Pest containing most of the social and business activity, the city is made up of 23 districts and around 2 million residents.
Even on a short stay in the heart of winter, you’ll quickly warm to the city with its easy charm and beautiful architecture. The exterior of the Hungarian Parliament, currently the largest building in the country, is truly a sight to behold – make sure you see it from both the road and also from a boat cruise on the Danube (if you time the cruise to start about 30 minutes before sunset you’ll see it under normal light and then again when it is lit up quite majestically on the journey back from Margaret Island).
With the temperature close to freezing, I was keen to sample one of Budapest’s most famous attractions – and thankfully there are several thermal spas to choose from (123 in total, with a handful in the centre being the most accessible). I plumped for the Gellert baths in the Art Nouveau-style hotel of the same name, though the Rudas Turkish spa and the Szechenyi were also very tempting. My advice would be to go as early as possible, before the rest of the tourists arrive, and you may find yourself (as I did) sharing the male-only pools with local Hungarians, mainly in the autumn years of their life. Obviously I can’t comment on the women-only pool room but the men-only room was beautiful, a little more detailed in the mosaics on the wall and ceiling, whereas the main swimming pool and mixed hot pool is more of a grand architectural statement.
With my morning soak done, I felt energised enough to explore the city on foot a little more, wandering up the hills of Buda to the castle and palace area, which also offers excellent views over the city. If you don’t feel the same, or for places a little further out of the centre, you might want to take a ride on the oldest metro network in Continental Europe (only London’s is older) but the city is ripe for exploration on foot.
Where the city really comes into its own though, is it’s incredible “ruin pubs”. It amazes me that these are not better known but considering that even the original one, Szimpla Kert, is barely 10 years old it seems that the reputation of these atmospheric drinking holes has been slow to spread outside of Hungary. Even coming from the UK, a country famed for its pubs, I absolutely fell in love with the idiosyncratic style, crumbling architecture, laid back vibe and bargain prices of these temples to drink. Each one is completely different to the last, but they share the same ideal of eclectic decor (the interior of “Instant” is best described as like a bomb going off between an art gallery and a flea market) and being a little off the beaten track, often just a small doorway giving little evidence of the cavernous bar lurking behind.
After all that partying, or perhaps as a prelude to it, the New York Cafe is a must. Expensive by local standards (a main dish, coffee and service will set you back around £15) but as soon as you step through the front doors into the world of opulence, you’ll realise that it’s well worth the price. A grand European cafe in the purest sense, it has enough bling to tempt Jay-Z into chowing down a bowl of goulash. It was, admittedly, a little more touristy than the ruin pubs but the interior is truly worthy of the attention and the food and service justified its inflated price tag.
If you manage to blow your budget at the New York Cafe or the ruin pubs, then fill your stomach with a cheap, tasty and filling local specialty like Langos, and wash it down with some Palinka, or fruit brandy. After that, a bit more sightseeing could include a look at one of the largest synagogues in the world, the baroque style St Stephen’s Basilica, Matthias Church with its striking mixture of gothic, Eastern and mystic interior influences or the grand and the impressive Great Market Hall – the lower floor is better than upstairs, and you’ll be able to stock up on local food and produce. The market is also right next to Szabadsag hig (or Liberty Bridge) which crosses the Danube over to the Gellert Hotel.
Over the centuries, Budapest has been attacked or occupied by an assortment of Celts, Romans, Turks, Mongols and Hapsburgs. Thankfully nowadays the invading hordes consist mainly of tourists, and after a visit to this beautiful city its easy to see why.
Words and pictures (except New York cafe) by regular contributor Lee Hubbard.