As Published in The Gazette on 04.07.2014
Budapest is a city that has managed to hang on to its roots while stretching to embrace the modern Western world. You will fall in love with its Old World charm, with its bridges, castles and beautiful ruins. You’ll also like the city for its magnificently smooth public transport system and its welcoming people.
Hotel rates are a stark contrast to those in Western Europe. Even in peak season you have the luxury of choosing from a range of accommodations without emptying your pockets. Stay at the Hotel Gellért, one of the oldest hotels in the Buda district on the banks of the Danube. The biggest advantage is easy access to the hotel’s Turkish steam bath and spa. The architecture of the hotel is worth a look, with high domed ceilings and art nouveau interiors that recall the city’s glorious days as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Gellert Hill, offering one of the best views of the city, is just a hop, skip and a jump away. When you’re back at the hotel after taking in the views, stop by the coffee shop downstairs for cakes, pastries and fabulous ice cream.
If you’re a Michael Jackson fan you may want to stay at the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus, though the lavishly decorated presidential suite where he was put up might be a bit out of reach for most. You can, however, take a room with a view of the makeshift memorial to Jackson: It’s a tree covered in pictures, posters, letters and other tributes that have been stapled to the bark by fans.
You can never go wrong with a Michelin-starred restaurant, and Náncsi Néni, though not starred, is a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, offering, according to Michelin, “good food at moderate prices.” With its traditional home-style cooking and cozy atmosphere, what really won me over was the fairy tale menu for kids, which includes a Once Upon a Time soup, Handsome Prince main course and the Happy Ever After pudding.
There are plenty of places to dine, but what do you do when hunger pangs strike you when you’re walking down the street? You have a Lángos, of course. Made with deep-fried dough smothered with the obligatory sour cream and topped with grated cheese and your choice of fresh vegetables, it’s popularly referred to as a Hungarian pizza.
On a hot summer’s day, your concierge will likely direct you to the nearest ruin bar for a drink. Ruin bars started opening up in abandoned buildings whose owners did not want to spend money renovating them. These are usually interesting places to start with or have been made interesting with themed additions. Szimpla Kert is the original ruin bar, in operation since 2004. It was voted the third best bar in the world by Lonely Planet. Many ruin pubs have followed, but Instant is a notable one, with odd sculptures hung across the courtyard, comical paintings on the walls, and what may be the most eclectic collection of castoff furniture in the city. The music is great too with every room dancing to a different Hiphop or reggae tune, or live music. When evening sets in, join Budapest’s young at heart for a ruin crawl – a variant of a pub crawl where you visit the best ruin pubs in the city.
Start your exploration of Budapest off with a walking tour. Hour-long walking tours usually cover the Jewish Quarter, General highlights or the Buda Castle. The guides are well versed with the city and its history, and they add in a few tips for tourists on their first visit.
The opera is a must for music lovers, with regular performances at the Hungarian State Opera House. To relax, there are always the Turkish thermal baths and spas. Take the historical funicular railway uphill to Buda Castle and walk around for some spectacular views of the Danube. If you are lucky, you can attend one of the numerous events/festivals that are organized at Buda castle throughout the year. If you happen to catch one of the events where they invite the general public for dances, do join in. The steps are easy to learn and very difficult to forget even long after you have boarded a plane and flown home.