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City life: Budapest

Grand architecture, centuries of tradition and left field thinking have established Budapest as a city break of some distinction. But it’s the 21st-century developments that have given it a rebooted chic and adventurous personality

City life: Budapest
Fisherman's Bastion, a neo-Gothic folly overlooking Pest. Image: Richard James Taylor

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With its grand castle squaring off against the fairytale Parliament Building across the waters of the picture-perfect Danube River, bathhouses dating back to Ottoman times, churches ablaze with colourful roof tiles and grand avenues lined with baroque and art nouveau buildings, Budapest is one of the knock-out capitals of Eastern Europe. And there’s more to it than mere looks. This is a city bursting with culture — the Hungarian State Opera House is one of Europe’s most revered, and it’s not for nothing that the city was once known as the Paris of Eastern Europe. Other strong suits include tradition — as one look at the lines for the bathhouses will tell you — and boho thinking (this has always been a city for artists, and it shows). Of course, the pound’s strength against the Hungarian forint doesn’t make it any less appealing, either.

But although at first glance Budapest comes across as a deeply traditional city, over the past decade or two it’s been turning in a whole new direction. First came the romkocsmák (‘ruin bars’) — half-indoor, half-outdoor affairs occupying winsomely dilapidated courtyards and apartment blocks on the Pest side of the river. Restaurants started to rediscover Hungarian culinary traditions, and shoppers began to gravitate towards local designers. Even Buda’s famous Ottoman bathhouses are adding 21st-century wellness centres.

Today, Budapest has a fast-developing design district, a burgeoning culinary scene, and even a new direction for its trademark ruin bars. Modern history has not been kind to this city, and until recently, Budapest was still looking backwards, intent on restoring things to their pre-war finery. Today, though, it’s headed full throttle towards the future.

Sights

Certain things are obligatory when visiting Budapest: taking the funicular from the Danube to the castle-topped bluff on the Buda side; following the cobbled streets to the Mátyás Church, with its beacon-like, colourful roof tiles; paying your respects at the Dohány Street Synagogue. Europe’s largest synagogue was once the pride of the Jewish Quarter. It’s now a sobering reminder of the city’s dark history — over 2,000 Jews who died in the city’s wartime ghetto are buried in its garden. Other compulsory experiences include riding Tram Number 2, whose route — along the Pest side of the Danube — is considered one of the most beautiful public transport routes on Earth.

Some of the ships that ply the Danube, including those operated by the Legenda sightseeing company, have optional stops at Margaret Island — a mid-river sanctuary that’s home to sprawling gardens, a ruined 13th-century convent and two bathhouses. Those baths, by the way, are another must.

“Bathhouses are a huge part of Budapest’s culture,” says Szabolcs Divinsky, of the Rudas Baths in Buda, whose Ottoman-built hammam dates back to the 16th century. “The water is certified medicinal — it’s good for drinking, for your joints, and for high blood pressure.” Elderly locals queue around the block to get their thermal water fix, and for tourists, Rudas has something else: a wellness centre with sauna, steam rooms and aromatherapy showers, as well as its crowning glory: a rooftop hot tub overlooking the Danube.

This is a city that’s always had a boho air to it, but in recent years Budapest’s alternative scene has flourished, with the alleys of the Seventh District — once the Jewish Quarter, now hipster central — filled with everything from vintage shops to raw food bars and coffee houses. “It’s the most authentic part of the city now,” says Fanni Sarkadi, a fashion designer who moonlights as a tour guide for Budapest Underguide, a company whose tailor-made tours shun obvious sightseeing in favour of places you might not otherwise venture to — like the new street-food stalls and hidden synagogue that Fanni led me to. But one of Budapest’s biggest secrets is standing right in front of you — a nondescript lift next to the doors of St Stephen’s Basilica, the main church of Pest, whisks you up to the rooftop viewing platform via the vast wooden struts holding up the church’s huge dome. “It’s my favourite thing to do in Budapest,” says Fanni.

Rooftop view of St Stephen's Basilica. Image: Richard James Taylor

Rooftop view of St Stephen’s Basilica. Image: Richard James Taylor

Stays

Budapest has long been a city of affordable boutique hotels. Lánchíd 19 Design Hotel (the city’s only Design Hotels property) lives up to the brand’s reputation with a Danube-facing facade doubling as an art installation. The Continental Hotel Budapest, in the heart of the Seventh District, is built on the site of the former Hungária Spa and, although the rooms are business-chic, the public areas are stunning — particularly a breathtaking arched lobby that’s a faithful recreation of how the baths once looked, and a rooftop pool. Brody House, meanwhile, is a destination in itself — a members’ club with rooms that embrace the shabby-chic aesthetic.

With Budapest growing in popularity, however, 2015 saw the opening of the city’s first five-star boutique property. The music-themed Aria Hotel Budapest — owned by Manhattan hotelier Henry Kallan — sits a stone’s throw from St Stephen’s Basilica. Its 49 huge rooms are divided into four themed wings — contemporary, opera, jazz and classical — with each named after a composer or performer. The design is slightly outré but the attention to detail (memory foam beds, a music concierge, daily recitals) is superb and the rooftop High Note SkyBar pitches guests up above the city, level with the Basilica’s dome.

Shopping

“Hungarian style has changed recently,” says Ildiko Marillai, co-owner of Wonderlab, a self-styled ‘incubator’ of local design. “It used to be trendy to shop at H&M and for everyone to look the same. But people are starting to combine a fast fashion wardrobe with a few unique pieces, and now it’s becoming trendy to wear something by a Hungarian designer.”

At Wonderlab’s tiny premises in the Fifth District, Ildi and her sister showcase around 30 up-and-coming labels, including Fanni Sarkadi’s Ooh my deer. Not only do they handpick the brands, they also work on a commission-free basis — there’s no store mark-up on the clothes — and encourage customers to liaise directly with the makers. Out of stock in your size? Not a problem; if the designer has the fabric, they’ll run you up a custom piece.

The surrounding Fifth District — the focus of a recent major regeneration project — doubles as Budapest’s nascent design district. Other shops in the area championing Hungarian labels include Mono Fashion and Black Box Concept Store.

But it’s not only in the clothing market that Budapest is going local — Hungarian food and wine stores are popping up, from the Sunday farmers’ market at Szimpla Kert (see Nightlife) to Market, attached to Terminal restaurant, which works with 30 organic and biodynamic local farmers to fill the shelves with what it calls ‘living wines’. “Before WWI, Hungary was the third biggest wine exporter in the world, but under communism, mass production led to low quality,” says manager András Bóka. “Since the 1990s, we’ve been trying to rebuild the market.” Prices range from the cheap to the eye-watering, shipping costs are reasonable and — the best part — tastings are free.

For a more traditional Budapest shopping experience, try the Central Market Hall — an ornate art nouveau building whose vast interior is lined with stalls, selling everything from paprika and saffron to Tokaji (wine). A sweeter option is Szamos Gourmet Palace. Founded in 1935, it’s now a major Hungarian brand, known for its chocolate and marzipan. Stock up or get stuck in with a chocolate-making class.

Rosemary lamb, Menza. Image: Richard James Taylor

Rosemary lamb, Menza. Image: Richard James Taylor

Eats

Hungarian cuisine, as it stands today, is relatively new. “Budapest used to be compared to Paris in the old days,” says Zoltán Hamvas, owner of Onyx, Budapest’s first Hungarian restaurant to win a Michelin star. “Hungarian gastronomy was able to preserve its traditions up to the mid-20th century, but then came wars, revolutions and dictatorships. Under communism, our heritage was deliberately damaged.”

Now, they’re making up for lost time. “Over the past two decades we’ve worked tremendously hard to create a culinary revolution,” says Zoltán. In rarefied, white-glove surroundings, Onyx’s Hungarian tasting menu gives traditional dishes a lighter, modern twist — its goulash, for instance, is a homemade ravioli stuffed with beef shoulder and doused in a meaty broth flavoured with sautéed coffee beans and lemon peel.

Even some of the trendiest restaurants are sticking to their roots. 21 Hungarian Kitchen, on the Buda side of the river, is a hip take on a pre-WWII tavern. Menza (‘Canteen’) is a kitsch pastiche of the 1970s, with lime green walls and waiters in pastel T-shirts. Yet while the look is tastefully ironic, the food is solidly traditional: the bread is made to a 70-year-old recipe, for example, and most of the menu stays the same all year. “Hungarian restaurants can be so old-fashioned, and the service can be slow,” says manager Szilvia Ispán. “We serve food your grandmother would make, but we try hard to be casual about it.”

Even Terminal — a slickly renovated former bus station, specialising in US-style barbecue (the chef smokes everything, from brisket to salmon) — has curd cheese dumplings as its signature dessert. “Every Hungarian grandmother makes these,” says manager Tomi Haluslager.

But Budapest’s real food revolution is perhaps in its burgeoning street food scene. From Street Food Karaván, an empty lot in the Seventh District filled with food trucks serving local specialities like lángos dough strips and Mangalica pork, to the Belvárosi Piac market, whose traditional food stalls have, this year, reopened as hipster joints like A Séf utcája, serving traditional Jewish snacks.

Nightlife

Budapest is famed for its ‘ruin bars’. These sprawling establishments are typically conversions of entire apartment buildings layered around open courtyards, called kerts (‘gardens’), with tables set up under decades-old trees, fairy lights strung amid the branches, and self-contained drinking areas among the remains of the old flats. Their genesis is less romantic — the Seventh District is the historic Jewish Quarter and two of the main kert-filled streets, Klausál Utca and Acácfa Utca, were part of the ghetto in WWII — but the regeneration of the area is one of Budapest’s biggest recent success stories.

Szimpla Kert was the first to open. “The rejuvenation of downtown started here,” says Fanni Sarkadi. “The building was in a bad condition when it was bought, but they decided not to demolish it and build a new one, but to keep it in its current state and make something new out of it.” The rest is history — and although it’s now a tourist magnet, it still retains its original bohemian, Alice in Wonderland atmosphere. In fact, Szimpla is such an institution these days that every Sunday it holds a food market, with farmers from around Budapest selling fruit, cheese, bread and cured meats to picnic on inside the kert.

Nearby Fogas Ház, signalled by a sign advertising dentures (found during the renovations), is one of the other top draws, with regular events taking place around its multilevel premises. But in the past few months, a new generation of venues has sprung up: high-end romkocsmák — occupying the same kind of derelict spaces but ditching the ‘ruin’ vibe.

“We wanted to attract people who like the ruin bar vibe, but prefer something more upmarket,” says Veronika Dehru, owner of Extra, which opened in the summer, converting a dive bar — once an apartment block — into a chic open-air spot. “Before, it was the poorest type of ruin bar — dangerous, and ugly too. But we scrubbed it down, stripped back the walls and built a new, central bar.” With its scarlet parasols suspended mid-air around a decaying tree, and plant pots as wall decoration, it’s certainly not your average ruin bar. Mazel Tov, beside Fogasz Ház, is another of the new generation, with a smart, tiled bar, gravelled atrium, mid-century lighting and an open kitchen serving Middle Eastern food.

Essentials

Getting there
Budapest is easily reached with direct flights from London airports with British Airways, EasyJet, Norwegian, Ryanair and Wizzair. The latter also flies from Birmingham and Glasgow, and Jet2 from Manchester, Edinburgh, Leeds-Bradford and East Midlands. Ryanair also flies from Bristol and Manchester.
Average flight time: 2h 30m

Getting around
Central Budapest is compact and easily manageable on foot, although the metro system is excellent. Trams run along the Danube on the Pest side, and taxis are affordable (although expect to wait up to 10 minutes after ordering one).

When to go
Budapest is known for its scorching summers and cold winters, so the shoulder seasons are generally the best time to go. From late March to the end of May, as the weather warms up, is ideal.

Need to know
Currency: Forint (HUF).
£1 = 422HUF.
International dial code: 00 36.
Time difference: GMT +1.

More info
Hungarian Tourist Board. uk.gotohungary.com
welovebudapest.com
ruinpubs.com

How to do it
Regent Holidays has three nights on a B&B basis at the three-star Star Inn Hotel Budapest Centrum, including direct flights, from £345 per person.
Hands Up Holidays has four nights’ B&B accommodation at Aria Hotel Budapest, with flights, transfers and lunches, from £2,850 per person. It includes a dinner cruise, spa package at the Gellért Baths, private tour of Buda, cooking class, walking tour and a voluntourism day, making furniture for low-income families.

Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)