For centuries a tumultuous crossroads of art, architecture, invasion and rebellion, the bohemian capital of Hungary has finally found serenity. But it’s still got a maverick soul.
Author Sarah Horne
Flick through any history of Budapest and it’s abundantly clear that for every flourishing of the arts and architecture, for every golden decade filled with pastries and sweet coffee and endless conversation, residents have had to endure less lovely periods. It’s no wonder Budapestians have a reputation for telling it like it is. Suffering invasions by the Turks, the Germans and the Communists, the city’s denizens developed a taste for both decadence and rebellion, tempered by a hefty dash of sunny resignation.
And yet, in spite of it all, Budapest is flourishing again, its grand buildings refaced, its pitted streets once more lined with Belgian blocks, its edgy spirit thriving in unexpected corners. But don’t worry—the city’s rebirth hasn’t diminished its bohemian dreaminess. Hollywood couldn’t have concocted a more evocative, nostalgic scene. All you have to do is step into one of the city’s smoke-filled bars, where locals squabble good-naturedly until dawn. Or you can take in the buildings skirting the Danube (which splits the city in two: Buda and Pest), all moody in the hazy afternoon light. Budapest is moving forward, but its heady past is everywhere.
And rest assured—the shopkeepers are still delightfully surly.
1 | DAY ONE Channel the minor European aristocrat within as you wake up under starched sheets at The Gresham Palace 1, a 1906 Art Nouveau masterpiece ravaged during World War II and restored to its former glory in 2004 by Four Seasons. Descend to the lobby and linger for a while, transported back to the height of Budapest’s Golden Age, when The Gresham’s shopping arcade was filled with every fop and dandy worth knowing.
HIT THE DECK!
A peaceful nook at the
Lánchíd 19 Design Hotel
Steel yourself for a day of walking with a carafe of strong coffee, fresh bread, cheeses and dried meats—vegans beware, you’re in Hungary now—at the Gresham Kávéház, where British bankers in pinstripes seal their investment deals with a handshake. Step through the whimsical peacock-adorned wrought-iron gates and out into the city.
Cross on foot from Pest, the commercial 19th-century city, to Buda, its leafy, medieval counterpart, by way of the landmark Széchenyi Lánchíd (Chain Bridge) 2 and keep your eyes out for the façade of the Lánchíd 19 Design Hotel 3, a cutting-edge building designed by Hungarian architects and artists on the Buda side of the river. Its high-tech shutters move constantly in response to the shifting daylight, rippling like translucent fish scales. Ascend to Castle Hill on the quirky funicular railway and set about exploring Várhegy, the tourism nerve center, before the crowds gather.
After surveying the cobbled streets and taffy-hued cottages, wander over to the Fisherman’s Bastion 4, a purposeless fantasia erected at the start of the 20th century to evoke medieval ramparts, and take in the stunning views of Pest and the Gothic Revival Parliament building across the river through the arches. Inevitably, a charmingly impoverished music student nearby is playing a mournful tune on his violin.
Before you give up on the ever-so-slightly artificial-seeming Buda, take a taxi down the hill to Krisztina Tér and lunch at the landmark Café Déryné, a 1914 coffeehouse and patisserie once frequented by Budapest’s literati and now restored and refreshed as a funky French-Hungarian bistro. Watch local swells flit about in scarves and horn-rimmed glasses as you dunk fresh-baked bread into finely spiced pumpkin soup.
Next, hop onto the No. 18 tram. Alight from the kitschy buttercup-yellow vehicle in front of the Hotel Gellért 5, named for an 11th century Italian bishop who was martyred when he was rolled from the heights of Gellért Hill inside a barrel lined with nails. (Ouch!) Cheered by this news, enter the dramatic 1918 building and follow signs marked “swimming pool”—a vast understatement. Pass through the turnstile into the amazing tiled baths, don a bathing cap and do some laps with the local gentry before slipping into hot and cold underground pools. The ritual will leave you pleasantly befuddled and invigorated.
Immersed in the
timeless thermal baths
Back on the Pest side of the river, don some stylish duds and take a stroll down the pedestrianized Zrínyi Utca, the imposing St. Stephen’s Basilica 6 looming before you. Walk a few short blocks to Café Kör 7, a wood-paneled institution with clubby green library lights where the night’s Hungarian dinner specials are scrawled on a sheet of craft paper on the wall. Order wine from the Lake Balaton region, a hearty plate of chicken paprikas and rice, and sit back and wonder how you can possibly consume portions this large for the next 48 hours.
After imbibing a postdinner sour cherry pálinka, waddle back to your hotel absurdly sated, and sleep like a baby.