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
DAY TWO | Make your way back toward the Basilica and step in line for a pastry and a strong brew to go from the California Coffee Company 1, a local favorite near the steps of the church. Then make your way to Andrássy Út (Andrássy Avenue), an elegant boulevard built in the 1870s and seemingly invented for peacocking and pontificating. The avenue has recently undergone a renaissance, luring luxury brands like Gucci, Roberto Cavalli and Louis Vuitton, though it’s also retained its historic charm. Tucked between these designer behemoths are vintage spots such as the Müvész Kávéház 2, where tweedy types drain espressos under glinting chandeliers. After absorbing some of the beatnik grooviness, cross the street and peer into the lobby of the Hungarian State Opera House 3—which is all but plastered in gold leaf—where Gustav Mahler once directed the opera.
Then it’s on to lunch at Klassz 4, a swank wine bar and bistro. Peruse the bottles of local wine in the back and take a seat at one of the tables in the bar for a leisurely Hungarian lunch with a modern twist—don’t miss the lemon ginger risotto or the zucchini cream soup, poured ceremoniously at the table from a copper sauce pan.
Descend into the underground and take the M1 train, the second-oldest subway line in the world, emerging at Hösöck Tere (Heroes Square) 5. Behind the square sits Városliget (City Park) 6, home to the neo-Baroque Széchenyi Baths and the peculiar hodgepodge of Vajdahunyad Castle 7, built for the 1896 millennial celebrations marking the arrival of the first Magyar tribes in Hungary. Ignore the agricultural museum inside and feel a sense of awe as you bask in the shadows of the castle’s Disneyfied extravagance.
Find your way back to Liszt Ferenc Tér, a tree-shaded square decked with a contemporary statue of the composer Franz Liszt, who called Budapest his home for stretches in the 1870s and 1880s, and make your way past the Academy of Music 8, built in 1907 and also bearing Liszt’s image. Listen for the strains of students rehearsing cello and piano, and toast Budapest’s enduring love of classical music at Menza 9, a fashionably retro café and bar on the square, decorated in 1960s style in homage to the campy communist canteens of the era. Order a house beer and watch the now-contented capitalists quaffing cocktails and ordering (with a touch of irony Hungarian staples such as goulash and dumplings.
Then it’s on to dinner at M 10, a delightfully kitschy hole in the wall. Ask for venison stew chased with a bottle of Villány red, which will inevitably be consumed amid a haze of cigarette smoke (don’t bother protesting). Before you know it you’re chatting with the artists at the next table, draining a shot of Unicum and following your new friends to Szimpla Kert 11, a bar in the old Jewish quarter. A discreet sign leads into what appears to be an abandoned building, and suddenly you’re in a beer garden crowded with young night owls. Before you know it, it’s well past three. The Budapestians show no signs of letting up, but you call a taxi and fall asleep before your head hits the soft goose-down pillow.