I’ll admit, I’d been nervous about the language - unable, here, to get by on school-boy French, German, or Spanish - but I needn’t have worried; everyone we met spoke perfect English, friendly and welcoming without ever seeming in your face. It’s beautiful, too. You can't help but be drawn in by the mix of old-world and new; the romance of the Chain Bridge, the Parliament building, and the Disney fairytale crenellations of the Fisherman’s Bastion - and the Danube itself, of course - nestling hand in hand with the tiny “18-plus” tobacco shops behind beaded curtains and the quirky little cafes that look as though they’ve been there for decades.
If it's gilded splendour and impressive architecture you're after, then stop off Andrassy Ut and wander around St. Stephen's Basilica and the Opera House, and perhaps grab a drink at the Opera House Cafe and watch the world go by on Andrassy Ut. Pizza's a big thing in Budapest, and the Opera Cafe is a prime location to dig in!
Tucked away behind the shuttered facades of what look to be, at first glance, run-downstreets, these are monuments to ingenuity and entrepreneurship, quirky, cool, and just great, cool, fun. You could spend hours, if not days, here, just chilling out and finding stuff hidden away in odd nooks and crannies; the best known, like Simpla Kert and Daboz, along with the covered melange of bars and eateries that make up Goszdu Court in the Jewish Quarter, are target destinations in themselves these days, but in Budapest, it seems, you’re never far from a bar, one man’s ruined building another’s prime location, location, location.
Want a beer and an apple-flavoured Shisha pipe whilst sitting in an old Trabant? Sure. No problem. Someone’s turned the outside of this apartment building into the inside, and vice versa? Hah. Cool. Wherever you go, though, you have to try one of the local Hungarian dishes - Beef stew with pasta, or Chicken Paprikash. Wash it down with some excellent Hungarian wine or, even better, local (dark and hoppy) beer!
The Hungarian composer Gyorgi Ligeti said of Budapest that ‘...if you go from Paris, you think you’re in Moscow, but if you come from Moscow you think you’re in Paris ’, and from the minute you see the yellow trams trundling between the mix of Art Nouveau and traditional Eastern European architecture it's obvious exactly what he meant. Cosmopolitan and yet still obviously Eastern European, it feels both familiar and unknown all at once.
Linking Erzsebet Square with the Varosliget in the City Centre, this is one of Budapest's main shopping streets; built in the 1870's, with some gorgeous architecture (it was declared a World Heritage Site in 2002) it's home to a number of hotels and designer shops (TAG Heuer, Rolex, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, etc., etc,), interspersed with independent little businesses selling everything from Shisha pipes to trainers with pompoms on. Think London in microcosm, with better weather and people who actually speak to you. It's friendly, and never intimidating or overly busy, with plenty of cool bars and eateries (and lots of Ice Cream shops, if that's your thing) dotted along the tree-lined street. One way is the Opera House and, ultimately, the Danube; the other, the Terror Haz and the art galleries.
Buda side of the river: The shoes along the West bank of the Danube, the fascinating “House of Terror” situated in the old Secret Police headquarters on Andrassy Ut, and the Hospital in the Rock, an ex-Nazi and then Communist nuclear bunker-cum-hospital which served the city through the Siege of Budapest, and an ideal place to spend an educational couple of hours out of the midday heat amongst the waxwork figures and artefacts from Hiroshima.
Back in the sunlight, take a ride on the Castle Funicular, see Matthias' Church and walk the fairytale castle that is the Fisherman’s Bastion, grab some lunch whilst taking in the views across the river towards Pest before crossing the Chain Bridge and seeking out some reminders of Hungary’s communist past.
No visit is complete without seeing these reminders of Budapest's troubled past - the Arrow Cross government allied with Nazi Germany, and the Soviet administration after WWII. The German Occupation Memorial is probably one of the most controversial anywhere, with the locals wanting it torn down. It's something you need to see simply for that reason - a strange attempt to re-write history and probably one of the most confused statues ever. The protest installation next to it is incredibly powerful, though. And try not to get taken by surprise by the statue of Ronald Reagan!
This is another one of those 'you have to visit' places which is, again, powerful, depressing, and uplifting all at once. Housed in the old Secret Police headquarters, this museum/exhibition tells the story of Budapest, the Arrow Cross/Nazi allies, and the Soviet occupation. It's very well put together, with some hugely moving stories told by 'talking heads' video clips, and the sight of the old cells really does hit home, but if you eschew the (recommended!) audio guide then the alternative English language handouts (typewritten on A4 paper) make it feel a little like History Homework! Even so, if you want to put the city and Hungary as a whole into context you can't visit Budapest without coming here. Just don't scrimp and get the audio guide too!
No visit to Budapest is complete without dinner at another 'Ruin' establishment, this time the amazing Mazel Tov restaurant. Hidden away on Akacfa Ut in the Jewish quarter (not far from the synagogue), it's hard to describe - the food (shall we say modern middle eastern fusion) is superb, but it's as much about the decor, the vibe, and the cocktails. Often a live band plays, too - but Mazel Tov is often busy and booking is recommended to ensure getting a table (particularly in the larger, open area). It's an absolute must-do, though, and genuinely not to be missed, with an excellent wine menu (the sommelier will come and help you choose the perfect wine to compliment your food) and great service. And not as expensive as you might think. Oh, and the cheesecake is something special too!
Budapest is a small city compared to, say, London, with everything in easy walking distance of the centre. It’s cheap, too, especially for a capital city; a couple of hundred quid spending budget for two will allow you to eat and drink well (very well!), without scrimping on the 'touristy' stuff, and still probably have change for dinner at the airport.
There aren’t that many capital cities that you can say that about over a weekend break, and certainly not many that can leave as lasting an impression over such a short space of time and expenditure. It feels safe and friendly, too, self contained and full of surprises that catch you off your guard; If you'd never have thought of opening a bar in a dilapidated storehouse this beautiful city will give you memories to treasure and food for thought in more ways than one.