Travelling Budapest: Grand in every way
Every great city has a storied past, but few places have a history as dramatic as Budapest, which has been invaded, conquered, occupied, amalgamated and reinvented.
With everything that has happened to Hungary in the past 150 years alone -- 45 years of Soviet rule, chaos between two world wars, decades of wealth and power as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire -- it's not a stretch to say its capital, modern Budapest, has a split personality.
The most obvious divide is between the two cities that became one -- busy, buzzy Pest on one side of the wide Danube River, and sedate Buda spreading across the green, forested Buda Hills on the other.
But every aspect of the city's turbulent history has contributed to making it the fascinating multi-faceted destination it is today. Consequently, there is a Budapest for almost everyone ...
IF YOU LOVE ARCHITECTURE
Walking around Budapest is a treat for the eyes. The city's architectural gems are too numerous to list but include Roman, Turkish, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Classicist and Art Nouveau styles. Many buildings are designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Stand outs include:
-- The magnificent 691-room Parliament, a fusion of three different architectural styles that somehow work together. The Hungarian crown jewels are housed in its soaring Domed Hall. Tours are offered in eight languages.
-- The Castle District, home to the green-domed former Royal Palace (now a museum), Matthias Church, where several Hungarian kings were crowned, and the Fishermen's Bastion (a faux medieval fortress with seven towers that offer great views of the Danube and famous Chain Bridge).
-- St. Stephen's Basilica, a Neo-Classical cathedral home to the hand of St. Stephen, an important religious relic.
-- Dohany Street Synagogue, aka the Great Synagogue. With seating for 3,000, it's the largest in Europe and second-largest in the world. The building also houses the Hungarian Jewish Museum.
-- Two restored Art Nouveau gems: The Boscolo Budapest hotel with its opulent New York Cafe and the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, steps from the Chain Bridge.
IF YOU'RE A FOODIE
Hungarian cuisine is more than goulash. While main dishes usually feature generous portions of meat, the cuisine is generally excellent, tasty and varied with lots of veggies and fruit. Restaurants -- even hotel restaurants -- are not over-the-top expensive.
During six days in Budapest, our group of six Canadian journalists dined at places across the price spectrum -- on everything from casual pub grub to fine dining -- and never had a bad meal.
Be sure to try local specialties such as the ubiquitous goulash soup, chicken paprikash, langos (a street treat of fried dough with toppings, usually sour cream and cheese), palacsinta (Hungarian crepes with sweet or savoury fillings), pogacsa (little biscuits often with cheese), dobostorta (chocolate buttercream sponge cake-heaven) and more. Pair dishes with excellent Hungarian wine, and finish with a sweet Tokaji dessert wine.
-- Tasty casual fare at coffeehouse/bistro Ket Szerecsen and Menza, the funky Terminal (housed in a Soviet-era bus terminal and boasting an extensive selection of wine and spirits), modern Hungarian at Baltazar, and light bites at Spiler BistroPub.
-- Traditional Hungarian dishes with a twist at Es. This eatery and wine bar in the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus is a joint venture between the hotel and the folks behind Baltazar and Spiler. Many dishes include regional specialties, such medallions of Mangalica pork (aka the Hungarian hairy pig). The Rigo Jancsi -- a rich sweet chocolate mousse with raspberries -- was almost addictive.
-- We enjoyed an outstanding wine-pairing lunch at the Michelin-starred Borkonyha Winekitchen, which boasts a cellar with more than 200 wines to choose from.
-- Another memorable meal was had at Gundel, a beautifully decorated, art-and-music-filled Budapest institution in City Park that has entertained everyone from royalty to presidents to Hollywood celebrities.
To market, to market
-- Lunch at Fakanal Restaurant in the Great Market Hall was filling and fun. The savoury goulash soup served upstairs was the best of the trip. Visitors can take a cooking class and learn how to make it at home. The renovated market building is jam-packed with vendors selling produce, meats, sausages, fish, cheeses, pastries, prepared foods, souvenirs and more.
-- Szimpla Kert Sunday Market is an authentic slice of city life. The farmers' market takes place every Sunday in a popular "ruin pub" and is chock-a-block with shoppers and small-scale growers and food producers selling everything from Hungarian truffle-salt to organic produce, preserves and artisan cheeses. (Ruin pubs -- hip bars that pop up in derelict buildings -- are a Budapest phenom.)
Travel tip: Paprika is closely associated with Hungarian cuisine. A brightly coloured tin of hot paprika makes a nice souvenir for friends back home.
IF YOU'RE A WATER BABY
Hungary is blessed with an abundance of thermal springs. Some 118 hot springs course through Budapest alone, which is has been called "the city of spas." That warm and mineral-rich natural resource is put to good use at 15 public thermal baths around the city, which are frequented by locals and visitors.
In the past baths typically had separate pools for men and women bathers, who soaked au naturel. Today, most baths have gone coed and a swimsuit is required. Some baths still offer special days for men or women only. Most also offer medicinal treatments or massage for a modest fee, but be aware these are not usually the pampering experiences provided at resort spas, but all-business therapeutic massages.
A few places to take the waters
-- Housed in a Neo-Baroque building, Szechenyi Baths in City Park is a vast complex of 18 indoor and outdoor soaking and swimming pools with temperatures from a cool 18 C to a toasty 38 C. The entrance fee covers gyms, saunas and group exercises in the pool.
-- Gellert Thermal Baths, part of the hotel of the same name, is world famous for its Art Nouveau architecture, stained glass windows, and mosaics, which create a shabby chic ambiance indoors. The complex also has an outdoor pool with artificial waves and nicely landscaped grounds, saunas, plunge pools and an effervescent swimming pool.
-- Built by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century, Kiraly Bath is the city's oldest, smallest and most atmospheric. Its four pools are softly lit by natural light from rooftop domes.
Take a scenic cruise along the Danube at night. We toasted the city with sparkling Hungarian wine as we sailed in a wooden speed boat past the Parliament and Castle Hill, and under many beautiful bridges all lit up in the night. See dunarama.hu.
IF YOU'RE A MUSIC LOVER
-- Attend an opera or ballet performance at the Hungarian State Opera House, an ornate Neo-Renaissance building with marble columns, frescoes, a vaulted ceiling with elaborate murals, a sweeping staircase, and a royal box decorated with sculptures representing the operatic voices -- soprano, alto, tenor and bass. English tours are offered daily.
-- There are many options for classical music lovers from concerts at the Liszt Academy (named for Hungary's famous composer/piano virtuoso) to performances by accomplished young musicians at Liszt's former house (the Old Academy, now a museum), to concerts at Matthias Church and St. Stephen's.
-- Check into the new Aria Hotel Budapest, a 19th century bank building transformed into a luxury boutique hotel steps from St. Stephen's, the pedestrian shopping area, restaurants, the Danube and most other attractions.
Part of the New York-based Library Hotel Collection, Aria has been designed for music lovers with four wings -- Classical, Opera, Jazz and Contemporary, each with its own decor -- a music concierge and musically themed public spaces (Satchmo's Bar, Stradivari Restaurant, Teatro Aria, etc.). Many rooms have balconies opening onto an interior courtyard, and all have iPads preloaded with a musical library and Nespresso coffeemakers.
Two highlights are the High Note Skybar, which has a retractable roof for year-round use and puts you at eye-level with the Basilica's dome, and the Harmony Spa, which offers pampering treatments, a steam bath, whirlpool and swimming pool. Breakfast, afternoon wine and cheese reception, and Wi-Fi are all included. See ariahotelbudapest.com.
EASIER TO REACH
Travelling to Budapest will become easier when Air Transat's new direct flights from Toronto and Montreal take off June 17. The seasonal flights between Canada and Budapest will continue through Oct. 8 with Economy, Option Plus and Transat's pampering Club Class seats offered. Return fares in economy class range from $854 to $1,164 depending on travel dates. See airtransat.ca.
In addition to flights, Transat Vacations has several packaged holidays for Budapest.
These range from the Budapest Your Way city package for those who want to explore on their own -- package includes round-trip flights, airport transfers, seven-nights' accommodation, seven meals, four excursions and more -- to the fully escorted Wonders of Hungary trip -- with round-trip flights, coach transportation, seven nights' accommodation (five in Budapest and two in Balatonalmadi), 15 meals, touring in Budapest and other towns, and guide services). Another Transat Vacations package combines Budapest with other destinations including Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Italy. Prices vary. For details, see transatholidays.com.
-- For travel information on Budapest, visit the Hungarian Tourist Board at gotohungary.com.
-- We toured with guide Eva Takats, who provided excellent information. Takats speaks several languages and is very knowledgeable about all things Hungarian, including wine. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- We also did a fun sightseeing/wine-tasting excursion with Budapest Under Guide, which specializes in tours with a twist and customized itineraries. See underguide.com.