Hungary’s capital city, Budapest, boasts some of Europe’s most impressive historical architecture, says Gemma Harrison.
It takes a pretty impressive city to inspire someone to write about it – especially if they haven’t been there.
The British pop star George Ezra admits he hadn’t visited Hungary’s capital before he penned his global hit ‘Budapest’.
Still, the Hungarian Embassy in London was so pleased with his efforts that a diplomat surprised him on a talk show by awarding him a special medal. The fact is, all our hearts should be in Budapest. It’s one of the world’s grandest cities; with an impressive skyline so beloved of cruise ship TV commercials for so long.
It’s a city that enjoys a stunning natural setting while boasting a magnificent array of architectural treasures that range from Roman ruins to bastions of Baroque splendour and monolithic-but-magnificent monuments to Modernism. There’s also a gastronomic tradition here to tantalise the taste-buds of tourists, and it delivers on the dining front at prices that are very reasonable for a European capital. Basically, the city gets its name from being split into two by the River Danube: the hilly Buda on one side, the flatter Pest on the other. The 19th century Chain Bridge connects the two districts.
Buda includes the commanding Royal Palace, and most of the Ottoman-era Turkish baths (the city is the king of spa towns) while Pest brims with magnificent Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture, a rich array of museums and art galleries and a vibrant array of cafés, eateries, shops, and street life.
Of course, Hungary gave the world goulash, but that’s not all there is to gush about when it comes to dining out.
Here, the foodie scene encapsulates the mood of the city: hearty, versatile, unpredictable, and rarely disappointing. From café or street snacks consisting of kolbasz (spicy sausages) to kacsamell (seared duck); from lunchtime nosh like salmon with sweet potato or Turkish-style salads topped with zingy dips; there are also Michelin-starred establishments. Hungarians are ardent meat eaters, sure, but there are enough eateries here to keep vegetarians and vegans happy.
But it’s better not to have a full stomach when checking out the city’s thermal baths, one of which is the Gellert Thermal Baths. Entry costs less than 10 Euros, and whether you choose to take a steam bath or sauna; a lap or two of its indoor swimming pool set amid its venerable Victorian colonnades just has to be done.
If swimming isn’t your thing, simply stretch the legs with a walk around the myriad attractions. It’s a very walkable city but offers excellent public transport that covers bus, tram, and metro.
My favourite place- Ambling around Castle Hill is an absolute delight. The area reeks of history, but from a more down-to-earth perspective. It’s split between Buda Castle and what would have been the homes of its servants. Bijou-like and Baroque, these 18th century residences can’t fail to fascinate. While many of the front gables were destroyed amid battles down the years, some still stand on their original walls. A stroll through this area’s narrow, winding alleyways offers a window on the world of ordinary folk, pre-industrial era.
Highlights- While so much of the city’s magnificent architecture will keep you busy, it harks back to the city’s imperial heritage when the Hapsburgs ruled the roost for centuries. I loved the Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum. Nestling under Castle Hill, the rock is a labyrinth of secret passageways that have been used for various purposes since ancient times. During the time of the Cold War, the hospital was secured against nuclear contamination and is now a museum. One of its most impressive exhibitions depicts the ghastly realities of deploying nuclear weapons, and it’s both chilling and informative.
Souvenirs- A pair of Tizsa trainers is one cool option. Before the Iron Curtain came down in 1989, this Hungarian brand was what teenagers sported then instead of Adidas or Nike (which would have raised too many questions even if people could have smuggled them in!). The brand is enjoying a resurgence, and can only be bought in Hungary. Authentic hand-made embroidery from the country’s Matyo region is another worthy memento.
Getting there- Turkish Airlines operate regular flights from Muscat via Istabul, which takes nine hours. Another option is Emirates, flying via Dubai, which takes ten hours.
Where to stay- As Hungary was once half of the mighty Hapsburg-ruled Austo-Hungarian empire, there is a fair number of majestic buildings that are now hotels, such as The Corinthia Hotel or The Four Seasons Gresham Palace. However, Hungary’s post-war Communist era has made for a few rather more funky options. Formerly, hotels with forbidding-looking front elevations such as the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus can really inject some Cold War intrigue into your trip. Check out options online with sites such as Trivago, Booking.com, Kayak.com and Expedia.
1. Visit Buda Castle by taking the funicular from Chain Bridge.
2. Gaze at the Crown Jewels on a tour around the Parliament Buildings.
3. Stroll along the banks of the Danube Promenade for stunning views.
4. Inspect the magnificent art works at The Museum of Fine Arts.
5. Relax, and let the kids run wild at the 300-acre City Woodland Park.