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 THREE | Now a devoted habitué of Budapest’s medicinal baths, you trudge to The Gresham’s top-floor spa and steep yourself in its hot tub, allowing last night’s toxins to evaporate in a cloud of steam. It’s all beginning to make sense. After a good 20 minutes, you emerge wrinkled like a prune, ready to face the day.
Walk the Danube and watch the pleasure boats bound for Vienna. Stop in at Café Gerbeaud 1, a grand, 150-year-old coffee shop once favored by Sissi, the Queen of Hungary. Step inside to admire the historic interiors and scarf down a doughnut.
Then it’s on to the Great Market Hall 2 for further lessons in Hungarian gastronomy. Watch as salesmen proffer bags of sweet or spicy paprika, fruit brandies, Pick salami and piles of fresh cherries to little old ladies carrying wicker baskets for their shopping.
Feeling overwhelmed by the vast quantities of sausage on display—which really doesn’t travel well, let’s be honest—it’s on to the Hungarian National Museum 3 and somewhat more cerebral pursuits. Across the street, browse in one of a half-dozen bookstores, where you can get lost thumbing through antique maps of Hungary and vintage books in Magyar. Head for a highly intellectual lunch at Múzeum, and watch professors from the nearby university locked in serious conversation, seemingly oblivious to the powder-pink tablecloths.
In the late afternoon, it’s time to wander farther into the Józsefváros district until you finally stumble on the fantastical Museum of Applied Arts 4. An art nouveau Hungarian hybrid, the museum is inspired by Hungary’s Turkish and Asian roots (dating back to the days of Attila the Hun), with nearly every surface adorned with colorful Zsolnay tiles.
Just when you’ve rebounded from the last multicourse meal, it’s on to the next. Take a taxi to Arcade Bistro 5, a chicly understated restaurant located on a quiet back street in Buda. Indulge in the sweet pea soup, rich, tender duck and a dessert of homemade ice cream and fresh raspberries.
Hop a taxi to Gödör Klub 6, an outdoor bar with an anything-can-happen vibe, housed amid the unfinished foundations of what was to be the National Theatre on Erzsébet Tér—a fine example of the Budapestian knack for turning disappointment into an excuse to party. Here, the capital’s young scenesters throng around café tables and talk about how Budapest has changed over the years. Without much effort you’re absorbed into a group of expats, who insist that the city is becoming a more cosmopolitan place. But everyone, even the traditionalists resistant to such changes, seem to agree: Budapest is still delightfully raw and decadent.
In the small hours of the night you wander back to The Gresham, its sophistication standing in stark contrast to the hip gypsy band you’ve just heard at the Gödör. Intrigued by this enigmatic city, you throw back your heavy teal drapes and step out onto your balcony, awestruck by the nighttime view of Buda Castle and the Chain Bridge, the glittering, ominous currents of the Danube swirling below.
Sarah Horne has never felt so ravishing as she did wearing a standard-issue Gellért Spa bathing cap.