Arguably the most beautiful city in Eastern Europe, Budapest boasts wonderful medieval and art nouveau buildings, an elaborate Opera House, romantic restaurants with gypsy music, buzzy bars and atmospheric cafes with exquisite pastries and cakes. Dubbed the Paris of the East, its wide boulevards are indeed reminiscent of those in the French capital and romance is everywhere.
It's mid winter and the evening's young. People stroll the city streets whose skeleton trees are shrouded in a gentle fog that seems to cushion them from the rest of the world. It's as if we've stepped back in time – on to the set of a black and white movie – a brooding European one where clouds of condensation puff around smiling faces engaged in intimate whispered conversations.
Budapest has all the hallmarks of other great European cities – but without the crowds, the traffic and the cacophony of the masses. It’s a gentle city, a gracious city, one you’ll want to go back to time and again.
Considering that just 22 years ago it was still under Communist rule, it has grown in leaps and bounds to become a sophisticated, welcoming and classy place where real culture, warm hospitality and endless grace seems to be in everyone’s DNA.
In recent years, the signature stores of international labels such as Gucci, Armani, Burberry, Jimmy Choo, LouisVuitton and Roberto Cavalli have opened and now line the centrally located Andrássy Avenue. Discerning diners have come to appreciate the finer tastes of Nobu and the contemporary Costes – the country’s first Michelin-star accredited restaurant. However, Hungarians still love their traditional dishes hence dinner with a live gypsy band at iconic Gundel Restaurant (whose own tradition dates back to 1894) is usually kept for special occasions.
This culturally-rich city is responsible for producing some of the most brilliantly creative minds in such diverse fields as music, science, film and even cosmetics.Think pianist and composer Franz Liszt, war-time photographer Robert Capa, the multi-married glamour sisters Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and it was Hungarian Jewish émigré Michael Curtiz who directed one of the most romantic love films ever made, Casablanca.
Geographically and historically, Budapest was originally two cities straddling the beautiful Danube with the peaceful green Buda Hills on one side of the river and the Great Plains of buzzy Pest ten minutes away on the other. It was not until 1873 that they came together as one when the first bridge was built over the very wide and often fast-moving river.Today there are seven – all very different, all with a purpose and strategically linking the two sides together like huge decorative safety pins.
Without question, the historic Castle District of Buda is the most romantic. Crowned by the enormous Royal Palace complex that now houses the National Gallery and Budapest History Museum, the elevated precinct contains the city’s most important medieval monuments and museums and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although currently under repair, you can still appreciate the 400-year old gothic Matthias Church with its unusual colourful roof. Lovers can stroll the cobbled- stone roads lined with beautiful 18th and 19th-century buildings that now house atmospheric restaurants, coffee houses and appealing shops, or take one of the olde-worlde horse and carriages that line up at the top of the hill to take visitors on an intimate tour of the area. For the best view across the Danube overlooking Budapest and the impressive Parliament building on the opposite riverbank, go to the neo-Gothic Fishermen’s Bastion and walk along its ornamental arcaded walkway.
Art and art nouveau or Secessionist architecture blend seamlessly throughout the city. Check out Bedö-Ház whose permanent exhibition of Hungarian art nouveau spreads over several floors. Then seek out the historic and recently restored elaborate New York Palace and Café considered when it first opened its doors to the country’s literati in 1894 to be the “most beautiful café in the world.” Even if you are not an opera buff, a visit to admire the beautiful decorative interior and plush décor of the Hungarian State Opera House is a must. Besides, there could be a popular ballet or symphonic orchestral concert on (with tickets among the most affordable in Europe).
Budapest is known for its spa culture – there being some 123 natural thermal springs in the city alone. With the happy combination of cold winters and an abundance of hot springs, Budapest is indeed one of the world’s great spa cities – if not the spa capital of the world, and for locals, spa culture is a way of life. Take the waters with regulars in the sunny yellow and white-trimmed neo-Baroque complex of Széchenyi -- the largest thermal spring spa complex in Europe or blend in with tourists in the art deco pools at Gellért Spa.
While the Danube is perhaps the lifeblood of the city, the beautiful World Heritage Listed tree-lined Andrássy Avenue with its grand mansions and historical 19th-century buildings (many now converted into elegant hotels, boutiques and restaurants) must be the main artery leading to the heart, Heroes’ Square. Go at night when you are likely to be the only ones there and feel the presence of the colossal statues of former Hungarian kings and warriors – the imposing monument being built in 1896 to celebrate the country’s millennium.
As a word of warning, there is nothing about the Hungarian language that is remotely like any other on the planet. But, many Hungarians do speak English and are only too happy to demystify the language and help show you around.