Cradled by the undulating curves of the Danube, the Hungarian capital has changed beyond recognition over the past decade.
The city carries a heavy history of occupations, sieges, conflicts, revolutions and uprisings. But today it’s one of the most desirable European destinations for young people studying, working and holidaying. Here’s our guide to 48 hours in Budapest.
When you’re in town for a few days, there’s really no time to waste in getting to know the city. Companies like Underguide offer a variety of tours that can act as crash courses on various different aspects of the city’s history and culture.
They tailor-make tours to fit all different tastes and interests, on themes like communism, art nouveau, Jewish culture and cakes.
My lovely tour guide Orsi versed me in Budapest’s complex history and its visible relics around the city. For example, the first bridge over the Danube built in 1849, named after István Széchenyi [above]; the 96m tall Basilica [below] built in 1905, where St Stephen’s mummified hand lies.
Also be sure to check out the majestic Gothic revival-style Parliament building [below]; the Liberty Square where various Soviet monuments are found; the historic Jewish Quarter and its majestic synagogues, and the unsettling sites of conflicts from the Second World War.
We also explored the eclectic architecture of the city which sees the grand and nostalgic opulence dating back to the architectural boom of the late 1800s interspersed with art nouveau of the belle epoch and motifs of Hungarian folklore.
Budapest is home to a number of great food markets. The Central Market Hall [below], located next to the Szabadság (Liberty) Bridge and dating back to 1897, is an enormous indoor market. It boasts everything from local wines and spirits, fresh fruit and veg, confectionary, spices, meats, charcuterie and touristy knick knacks.
Locals come to shop here as much as tourists come to ogle. Upstairs is a row of eateries serving ready-to-devour Hungarian specialities. These include some of the best langos in town – think a pizza, with a base made of pastry instead of bread – drool.
Getto Gulyas is a fantastic restaurant in the city’s old Jewish quarter serving Hungarian specialities like pörkölt meat stew and nokedli dumplings.
For a more formal experience, Budapest has a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants with incredible value for money for British holidaymakers. Onyx offers a three course lunch menu of things like trout, guinea fowl and squid for an affordable price. And the newly opened Costes Downtown does a delicious breakfast.
One of Budapest’s surviving legacies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Cafe is the Viennese cafe culture, typified by institutions like Cafe Gerbeaud – stop by for a coffee and a slice of the Gerbaud cake. Bluebird Coffee House, located opposite one of the many striking synagogues of the Jewish quarter, has some of the best freshly ground coffee in town, sourced from all over the world.
Budapest’s famous ruin bars are unmissable. These started popping up about a decade ago, in old aristocratic buildings dating back to pre-flood days that were nationalised during communist rule, and fell into disrepair after years of no maintenance. Young Hungarians then decided to rent the buildings from the council and started hosting film nights and drinks parties in the inner courtyard. Today, bars like Szimpla Kert [below] and Kisüzem are the buzz of the town every night of the week.
Gay bars are somewhat fewer and further between. But holes in the wall like Funny Carrot (which resembles a large hallway with a dark toilet – we think – at the back) and Habrolo (right next door) are worth popping your head into. Capella, a bar in the river bank near Erzsebet Bridge, does drag shows a few nights per week.
Budapest’s gay scene is scattered around the city, without any specifically gay area as such. But there are quite a few good monthly parties, often held in different locations, to keep an eye out for. Garçons usually takes place in an underground casino, pumping commercial beats for young and pretty boys. Or, for muscles and techno, there’s Omoh. Things get steamier in regular venues like Action and Coxx Club – as the names might suggest.
Budapest has a fantastic range of contemporary art galleries and museums, such as the Hungarian National Gallery sitting in the heart of the magnificent Buda castle. For contemporary art, there’s the Ludwig Museum. The National Dance Theatre [above] and the Hungarian Opera House host performances by prestigious ballet and opera companies from all over the world, while Trafo House and Juranyi House present more quirky and off-beat programmes of visual arts and performance.
For a boutique experience, Budapest is home to a number of fantastic design hotels like Lanchid 19 [above] – read our review here.
If you’re a large group looking for a private get-away, the newly opened Brody Villa [below] – from the guys behind the city’s reputed boutique hotel and private members art club Brody House – is nestled in the Buda Hills of Budapest, a restored 19th century villa accommodating groups of up to 14 people.
There is also a good amount of specifically gay accommodation in Budapest. Hotels like KM Saga and Connection Guesthouse, as well as gay-run private accommodation.
For more information on traveling in Budapest visit www.gotohungary.com.
Words: Agnish Ray