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
“Go to Citadella, the old fort on Gellert Hill, and have a look at Budapest from above. Whenever I travel to Paris, London, Rome or Helsinki, on my first day I try to find a high spot to have a look at the city from above. It gives you a certain point of view.”
“I love Bambi, a kitschy coffee shop in Buda that’s a throwback to the Communist era. You’ll see little old ladies in orthopedic shoes and men playing dominoes, and the waitresses are notoriously mean. It’s just so great—and so typical.”
FASHION DESIGNER, NANUSHKA
“Budapest’s a great design city. I love to check out what’s going on in Hungarian fashion at Retrock Deluxe, a boutique (that also sells my clothes) on Henszlmann Imre Utca. For retro 20th century furniture there’s Möbelkunst, and for quirky objects or gifts, I also love Forma.”
PHOTO STUDIO OWNER
“If I want some quiet I head to Margaret Island, right in the middle of the Danube. Parts of it feel quite wild, and there’s an old ruined church on the island that looks like something out of an eerie fairy tale—lovely, weird and out of place.”
Even if you can’t pronounce the national toast, you can still partake like a local.
Thought to have been discovered by accident when a 16th century Hungarian princess postponed the wine harvest (due to those pesky Turkish invaders), Tokaj wine is produced partly with grapes that have been afflicted with “the noble rot.” Fans of the stuff include Peter the Great, Louis XIV and Queen Victoria. Go on, indulge in a glass or three.
First prescribed by a Dr. Zwack to the Austro- Hungarian royals for the treatment of digestive troubles, this powerfully bitter national institution isn’t just a kitschy nostalgia act. Pop into just about any corner grocer and ask for a bottle of the black bitters. Take a swig and see if you still need that Rolaids.
Downed with breakfast in the countryside, and 24/7 in Budapest, this fruit brandy comes in many varieties (all throatsearing) and has been described as “a necessity at village pig killings” by food writer Carolyn Banfalvi. Sour cherry is a good bet, but if you’re feeling a surge of patriotism, go for the “Barack,” which means apricot in Hungarian.
Diving into Budapest’s inscrutable spas
It’s not easy to understand the rituals of the Hungarian spa, but never mind the obtuse entry procedures: It’s best to plunge right in. People have been “taking the waters” in Budapest since the days of Aquincum, when the Roman colonists took great pleasure in turning themselves into prunes in a steamy communal setting. At storied old baths like the Széchenyi in City Park, you’ll be privy to an anthropological experience central to life in Budapest.
Note the placards imploring you not to smoke or eat Sachertorte in the pools. From the sidelines, oiledup octogenarians watch the healthful proceedings approvingly, all the while eating fried chicken sandwiches and puffing away on ciggies. You do a lap or two, watch some old guys playing nearly-naked chess, and lie back on your scratchy towel. Ah, relaxing.
Coffeehouse culture done right
Hungarians are rightfully proud of their gorgeous kávéházes, where turn-of-the-century writers and intellectuals once energized endless debates with the local joe (dubbed “black soup”). Today, the tradition continues. Kávéházes still offer artist-friendly prices, suitably sudbued venues to write and think, and three meals a day. Fine brews can be found at glitzed-up grande dames like Café New York (at the New York Palace Boscolo Hotel); and the more wellworn, like Café Central, where you might actually spot a writer or two settling in for a day’s scribbling, laptop at the ready. Then there’s the funkily restored Dunapark, first opened in 1937, where, as Metternich had it, “the coffee is as black as the souls of diplomats.” We think he meant it in a good way.