Budapest City Guide by Fiona Lazareff
If it's your first visit to a city, and you're only spending a couple of days there, the biggest challenge is singling out the most exciting things to do, while steering clear of the tourist traps.
My request for a selection of the six must-dos or must-sees at the Budapest tourist office was met with a customary handful of brochures which narrowed the choice of things to do and to see down to about 500. A coffee with Andras Torok, a former Secretary of State for Hungarian culture, was not much more helpful: His answer was a book of no less than 200 pages, which he'd written. He signed a copy for me, saying, "You'll find it all in here". Then he added "except for the new MEO Contemporary Art Collection, which is in a disused leather factory - that's too recent".After gallivanting across the city (or, more accurately, cities-Buda and Pest were two separate cities until just 125 years ago) for five days and talking to numerous people, I managed to single out four things that make Budapest very special, and which you really should try to do or see if you go there. The most elementary and unique (or maybe I should say downright weird) thing about Budapest is the layout of the city, which is, of course, closely connected with its history. The best way to make sense of it is to spend half a day taking a guided tour of the city. After your tour, you'll probably agree that the most magical place in Budapest is the Castle District, so you should set aside another half day to wander around there. It's also important to note that the oft-held notion that this city is a twin of its Central European neighbour Prague is just that, a notion. Although both cities still have strong Belle Epoque flavour and influences, Budapest is more authentic and gritty, and a lot less polished (and therefore less touristy) than its Czech cousin - it's a real working city.
With the essentials out of the way-- learning a little about the history, culture and layout of the city-that should leave a little time left over for a bath and dinner. Among the most special features in Budapest are its Turkish Baths, so you should try to find two to three hours for a soak. As for food, any trip to Budapest, however brief, should include a visit to a one of those splendid turn-of-the-century coffee houses which are now coming back into fashion, as well as at least one meal in a Hungarian restaurant (complete with gitane (gypsy) band, playing traditional Gypsy music).
For the cherry on the cake - simultaneously enjoying the resplendent architecture and some marvellous music-- you should also try to get your hands on some opera tickets. And finally, a visit to the MEO Contemporary Art Collection is de rigeur.
The Guided Tour
You'll begin to understand something about the present city when you learn that it has been the subject of 101 sieges; it has survived the fall of an empire, two world wars, two occupations, and half a dozen difficult political systems. Under Stalin, it was more or less isolated from the rest of Europe from 1945-1956 and it was only in 1990 that the communist star was removed from the top spire of the parliament buildings; and it is still evidently dusting off the effects of Communism. Moreover, until just 25 years ago, Buda and Pest were two separate cities, and even today the two are divided by seven bridges, most of them unable to be crossed by foot, which is why we suggest taking a guided bus tour.
We used Buda Tours, which starts off from Andrassy Ut, Budapest's grand boulevard, which is a close equivalent to one of the enormous Paris boulevards, which were so fashionable at the end of the 19th century. Just a few doors down from the Buda Tours office is Muvesz, one of Budapest's most splendid examples of a turn-of-the-century coffee house. Allow yourself half an hour there for a delicious cake (250ft)or some creamy hot chocolate (300ft), before you start your tour. Shortly after boarding the bus, as you begin to make your way up Andrassy (with a good running commentary via headphones, offered in numerous languages), you'll get an immediate and clear idea of the city's architecture: grand ornate stone buildings with enormous doors and windows which reflect the prosperity of The Grande Epoque. One of the best examples is the opera house, on the left-hand side, to which you will (or rather should) return later. Today, Andrassy is the favourite address of banks, but if you're interested in seeing how the prosperous upper-class Hungarians lived at the turn of the century you can always pop in to No 3, later on. Today it's The Post Office Museum, but it was once the apartment of a bourgeois, and it has been carefully preserved.
Toward the end of Andrassy, the surrounding area becomes residential, and you will see the enormous villas on both sides, set amidst spacious grounds.
This was the chic residential part of town at the turn of the century, but most of the villas have now been turned into embassies. Andrassy finally deposits you at Heroe's Square, a former favourite of Communist demonstrators. This vast open space with The Millenary Monument, a 36-meter statue, in the centre was commissioned to mark Hungary's millennium in 1896. On the left, the Museum of Fine Arts, built in 1906, is worth coming back to if you like Old Masters. The collection of Spanish (El Greco, Velazquez, Goya) and Italian (Bronzino, Bellotto and Raphael) works here are especially great. After circling Heroe's Square the bus will take you on a circuit around a park. Don't miss Restaurant Gundel on the left, another shrine to The Belle Epoque and to Hungarian cuisine. It was re-opened in 1992 by an American of Hungarian descent, who also happens to have an astonishing collection of Hungarian Old Masters. The Zoo, a classified historical monument in the style Art Nouveau, merits a visit for its architecture as much as for its animals. Just across the park, you'll see another Belle Epoque building: The Szé chenyi is one of the largest public baths in the city. Built at the end of the century, you often see postcards showing people playing chess on floating chess boards here. In the distance you'll see an odd-looking castle, Vajdahunyadin. Originally built in wood to incorporate every different Hungarian style, its success was such that it was rebuilt in stone and now resembles something out of a fairy tale. Inside is the rather more down-to-earth Museum of Agriculture. In front of the castle is a lake which features boats in summer and an ice-skating rink in winter. The next part of the route, a wide alley called Felvonulasi will give you an idea of what Budapest was like under the Communists, who used this stretch for military marches. In 1989, the statue of Lenin on the esplanade was removed by the city, on the pretext that it needed cleaning!
From this point on, there's not much of interest except perhaps the enormous Eastern Railway station, once again a monument of the Grande Epoque. Between here and the river you'll travel down another Andrassy-style boulevard, only this one is dirtier, shabbier and distinctly down-at- heel.
Having crossed the Danube at Elizabeth Bridge (which was opened in 1964 to replace a bridge that was blown up by the Germans in 1945), you are now on the Buda side of the river. And having turned right along the river's embankment, you'll see the Castle District up on your left, which is confusing because there is no castle there (and never was)! You'll also see the Fishermen's Bastions above you on the left.
This terrace, which includes six towers built between 1890 and 1905, is so-called because in the Middle Ages the fisherman who ran the fish market here were also responsible for the defence of the city. As the bus travels further from the centre of town , it continues around the back of the Royal Palace and on to the Citadella at Gellert Hill, a fortress that the Austrians built to keep Budapest under their thumb and to prevent a repeat of the 1848 revolution. Rising above the Citadella is the Liberation monument. The inscription, which once bore tribute to the Soviet army, has since disappeared.
As you begin to make your way back to the city centre, you'll see the Royal Palace on your left, then travel through the castle tunnel then back up the embankment to cross the river via Margaret Bridge. This bridge was built, in 1872 - 1876, according to the design of a French engineer; its two halves meet on Margaret Island at an angle of 150°.
The rest of the journey includes a close-up view of The Parliament, Hungary's largest and best-known building. A symbol of Budapest and very similar to the British Houses of Parliament, it was built in 1885-1904 with an eclectic façade, neo-Gothic details, and a Renaissance and Baroque layout. Finally, just before you return to your point of departure, you will see St Stephen's Basilica to your left. The right hand of St. Stephen I, the first Hungarian king, is still kept here. The Basilica has survived a woeful history -- construction was interrupted soon after it began in 1848 by the War of Independence, and by the time it was finally consecrated in 1905 two of the architects had died and the dome had collapsed -- which makes it all the more worth a visit today!
For details of Buda Tours' guided tours of Budapest, as well as further information and bookings, visit www.divento.com Bath Time Having absorbed the entire potted history of Budapest, seen most of its important monuments and having a general grasp of the city, it's time to relax with a visit to the Baths.
The most talked about and oldest spa-hotel is The Gellert and the springs that supply the water have been doing so for at least 2000 years. Baths have existed on the site since the Turkish occupation (1541-1686), but the Baths that can be bathed in today were built in 1912 and took six years to complete. It was and still is a social centre of Budapest, with its ornate glass domes and indoor and outdoor thermal pools. The hotel and its baths have added to Budapest's reputation as an international spa city, welcoming stars, royals and politicians from around the world. There are however over 200 other springs gushing into other less well know spas around Budapest such as the Kiraly baths, Rac baths and Rudas baths, that help secure the city's spa orientated lifestyle.
The water originates from Gellert Hill above (at 45 degrees) and is cooled before entering the baths. Even though the hotel was badly bombed during World War Two the baths stayed intact and with their rococco-style pillars, mosaic floor and Secerrionist Hall lined with pink marble pillars and bronze curlicue decorations the place is worth a look even if you don't fancy a dip. If you are staying in the hotel then you can enter the baths (now separately owned from the hotel) by a direct lift, and for 1,600ft you can test the thermal baths to the right of the entrance. You receive a token and a cabin (complete with porthole) and are handed soap for an obligatory shower. Then you are free to immerse yourself in a choice of heated water along with other women (or men depending on the day) who are mainly naked.
There is a small tank shaped pool of cold water for those also wanting to invigorate circulation as well as relax. Massages are offered for 1000ft a go, and there are three sauna's available as well of varying heat to stagger your sweating, as well as steam, salt and mud baths. There is also an indoor pool (33-metres long) with a retractable glass roof which is opened in the summer heat, although once the sun hits Budapest the Gellert terrace of outdoor pools is the place to be.
Don't arrive at the baths expecting to be pampered too much. I found the ladies on hand to help dressed and acted like matrons, and proudly spoke little or no English. There are other baths to choose from but remember that the locals provide their main custom and therefore you will be treated the same.
Gellert Medicinal Baths: 111 Budapest, Kelenhegyi ut 2-4; tel: 466-6166.
Pool hours: October1-April 30, Mon-Fri 6am-7pm, Sat and Sun 6am-5pm.
Thermal pool hours: October 1st-April 30th, Mon-Fri 6am-7pm, Sat and Sun 6am-2pm.
Now that you've got your bearings and have had a bit of relaxation, it's time to visit the Castle District. Set on a hill overlooking the Danube, this quarter was once fortified to keep the Mongul invaders out. The Germans used the hill as their last stand during their siege of Budapest in 1945, reducing most of the area to a heap of rubble. Having been rebuilt, the district has reclaimed much of its original charm, but is now generally overrun with tourists. The best way to get there is by taking the funicular which is about 100m long and was originally built in 1870 to transport the people who worked in the castle. Once steam operated, it was renovated in 1986 and now ferries tourists using electricity. You can also walk up, however, as it will only take about ten minutes. At the top of the funicular, at your left, is the Buda Palace. Various royal residences have graced the hill since the 13th century and each, in turn, was destroyed. The current "palace", which has never been inhabited by a monarch, is a Baroque-style building rebuilt along the lines of the building that stood on the site in the 18th century. The delightful exterior does not, however, prepare you for the garish interior, which houses several museums. The Hungarian National Gallery features art from medieval to contemporary times and boasts a top floor dedicated to rather spooky Communist propaganda, and is definitely worth a visit. The Contemporary Art Museum is smaller but just as impressive, and includes works by Claes Oldenburg and Jasper Johns, as well as their Hungarian counterparts. The Budapest History Museum, also part of the Buda Palace, includes a vaulted chapel from the original medieval palace. On the ground floor, the permanent exhibition takes you through Budapest's entire history, from the victorious siege against the Turks in 1686 to the collapse of Communism in 1990.
On the right hand of the funicular is the delightful Castle District, more or less a village all its own. After being destroyed several times the area was finally restored in 1945 to its former Baroque splendour. Definitely take some time to wander around the cobbled streets, looking at the unique character of each of the pretty painted houses and taking a peek into the inner courtyards. Not surprisingly you won't be alone, as this is one of Budapest's most popular tourist destinations. In the summer, the best time to enjoy this saunter is early in the morning or late in the evening.
Looking out from the Fisherman's Bastion (see above) you have a clichéd, but interesting view of Pest, Margaret Island and the seven bridges which cross the Danube. But don't look behind you, as the hideous Hilton glows a painful orange. Rebuilt in 1976 to great acclaim, it was described as "the pearl of the necklace." It now looks, at best, outdated and at worst, like the thorn in the crown.
Another building of controversial architectural merit up here is Matthias Church. It dates back to the 13th century and went through a Baroque phase, but it was finally almost completely renovated in the late 19th century with the addition of the usual dose of Gothic. The most eye-catching feature, however, is the interior, which has been painted from top to bottom, with an end result that is almost quite theatrical.
Just opposite the church is the House of Hungarian Wines where you can take a figurative stroll around/learn more about the 22 wine regions of Hungary, and you can also taste and buy wine.
House of Hugarian Wines: Mon-Fri 11am-9pm, Sat, Sun 1pm-9pm; Szentharomsag ter 6; Buda 1 + 212 1030.
Budapest's answer to the Guggenheim
The MEO Contemporary Art Collection is Hungary's first new art museum in 100 years. It was opened last autumn in a former leather factory in Ujpest, at a time when the contemporary art scene in Hungary is undergoing important change.
The story behind the founding of the museum reminds one of the story of Saatchi, who housed his outstanding contemporary art collection in an old paint factory in North London. Lajos Kovats, a rich Hungarian businessman and the founding owner of the Blitz gallery in the centre of Pest, has loaned his extensive private collection to make this the largest contemporary art collection on view in Hungary.
The last ten years have had their plusses and their minuses for Hungarian artists: the plus being their recently-found freedom, the minus is that they are now expected to compete internationally with other artists around the globe. However, the creation of this new museum, dedicated to contemporary works, can only encourage Hungarian artists to persevere.
Comprised of an immense hall a few stories in height and at least half a city block in length, the museum offers almost 2000 square meters of exhibition space, which is ideal for large paintings and installations. The
space has been beautifully revamped and the art on display already speaks to many of the major trends visible on the international arts scene.
MEO Contemporary Art Collection: 4-6 Joszsef Attila, Budapest 1047. Tel 2720876. Open every day except Monday, 11am-6pm. Friday: 11am-10pm. Metro station, Ujpest-Varoskapu.
Among the requisite activities for any tourist is shopping, and Budapest has plenty of options to help you spend your money. The Hungarians are very proud of the Utca vaci, which is the equivalent of Bond Street or Avenue Montaigne, so if you're looking for luxury goods, this is where to go. There are also some shops selling up-market "local" products, too - leather and carved wooden goods, crystal, etc. - with even more markup than usual. A far
better idea is to head for the Central Market Hall in Budapest. It's a spectacular building - a monument in itself, which will remind you of the Eiffel Tower. An enormous steel-and-glass structure, with a floor area of 24,000 square metres, it was built in 1896, at a time when market halls had already appeared in several big European cities with the aim of eliminating the unhealthy market conditions of the time. By centralising the markets, and protecting them from bad weather, the quality of the food could be improved. After an international competition for the design, Pecz, a Hungarian architect eventually received the commission. The Hall was designed for both the wholesale markets-- including livestock which arrived directly by road, rail and/or water and could be auctioned in a central area--as well as retail goods and produce, where butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers had their stalls. The Market Hall quickly became one of the must-see sights in the Hungarian capital.
The Market was seriously damaged in the World War II, but was reconstructed and restored in 1992. Today the ground floor is still full of food stands selling every type of fresh produce. The first floor, which you can reach using one of the iron staircases, features small stands, many of them selling local Hungarian products, such as handmade lace, at reasonable prices. There is also a very good self-service restaurant on the first floor, Fakanal Etterem. It's a rustic-looking cafe with red check table clothes, which offers a complete choice of traditional and tasty Hungarian dishes. The portions are enormous and unbelievably cheap. A bowl goulash soup alone will probably keep you going for the day. Unfortunately, however, vegetarians may have to settle for a plate of red cabbage and potatoes. As for wine, try the Gere Villanyi Kekoporto, a robust red from the South of Hungary near the Yugoslav border.
Fakanal Etterem: Vamhaz krt 1-3; tel +36 1 2177860.
There are two other places where you can find good traditional Hungarian food. One is Karpatia, which dates back to 1877, has a very pretty interior as well as a menu full of Hungarian specialities such as spicy fish soup (1,600) Goulash (902ft), Sirloin of deer with forrested mushrooms (3,500), Paprika Chicken (2,600), and Goose liver with apple (4,500). It also has a good choice of vegetarian dishes. The charming gypsy background music descended only once into Andrew Lloyd Webber, but still, this restaurant doesn't seem to have been spoilt by tourists.
Karpatia: Ferenciek tere 7-8; tel +36 1 317 3596.
You can also try Szazeves Etterem Restaurant, just off the Utcan vaci, which claims to be the oldest restaurant in Budapest. Diners sit on wooden pew-like benches, effectively separating each table from the others, and thanks to the stone-flagged floor, ochre-coloured walls and a gitane band, there is a cosy, cheerful atmosphere. The menu is full of Hungarian specialities, and the standard of cuisine is fair, but the dishes for vegetarians are disappointing.
Szazeves Etterem Restaurant: Pesti Barnabas u.2; tel +36 1 3183608.
Finally, no visit to Budapest could be complete without a visit to Le Gerbeaud. Dating back to 1858, it was once the most famous tea room in the whole of Europe, where society figures came for lunch, for tea and after the theatre, all to their habitual tables. The lovely 19th century décor and the mouthwatering cakes make the wait worthwhile. If you want to avoid the tourists and the wait try to get there around 9am, for breakfast.
Le Berbeaud: V.Vorosmarty ter 7; tel +429 90 00. Open daily, 9am-9pm.
A night at the Opera
Budapest's opera house, built in 1884 in the Italian Renaissance style by Miklos Ybl, was inspired by the opera house at Vienna and took nine years to build. The artist's entry is on the right and the carriage entrance is on the left. The opera continues to enjoy a good reputation and there are performances scheduled throughout the year.
For more details, programme information and bookings, visit www.divento.com
As for accomodation, we can suggest three distinctly different possibilities:
The Hotel Corinthia Aquicum is in the north of the city on the banks of the Danube. Although it's a good distance from the city centre, it's a very comfortable five-star hotel, with all that that entails: efficient concierge, internet access, 24-hour restaurants, etc. What sets it apart from all the other hotels (even other five-stars) is that it has its very own health and fitness club with thermal baths, Turkish baths, sauna, jacuzzi, swimming pool and so on, which are, not surprisingly, uncrowded.
Don't worry too much about staying outside the centre of town: taxis in Budapest are very inexpensive, so although it's a 15-minute ride from the centre it'll only set you back roughly 5€ each trip. (For more about taxis see Practical Budapest, below.)
Prices range from160-260 Euros
The Hotel Corinthia Aquincum: 111 Arpad Fejedelem utja 94; tel 250 3360.
If you want to be closer to the centre, you adore the romance and splendour of turn-of-the-century architecture and you don't mind sharing the Turkish bath experience with the hoards, you should book the Gellert. Built in 1918.
It's an enormous classical hotel of The Belle Epoque on the banks of the Danube. Although its restoration has not been very faithful in terms of original décor, many of the hotel's original features remain. And it does have the most beautiful indoor thermal baths and swimming pool in Budapest.
Location-wise it's quite handy for getting to both the Castle District in Buda and for exploring Pest.
Prices from 100-160 Euros
Danubius Hotel Gellert: H 1111 Budapest, Gellert ter 1. Tel 36 1 385 2200 firstname.lastname@example.org or www.danubiusgroup.com/gellert.
Another possibility is the Hilton, which is in a great area for siteseeing.
Located in the middle of Buda's Castle District, the hotel is a terrible eye-sore from the outside, but inside it has all the usual five-star comforts, as well as the remains of a XIII century cloister. Although it's perched up in the Castle District, and out of the city centre, there's always a line of taxis waiting outside.
Prices range from 130-500 Euros
Hilton: 1, Hess Andras ter 1-3. Tel: 214 3000.
Live acts and modern beats fill the underground dance floor, while the maze-like levels above are littered with seats in a relaxed bar-and-club atmosphere ferek ut, 36 : tel 2163948. Admission Ft500.
Although the name might suggest differently, this is no mecca for drugs. But once immersed in the house beat and dancing with the crowd on the mirrored dance floor upstairs, you are sure to be buzzing.
Teréz körút 55; tel 302 2849. Open 10pm-6am Thurs and Sat; 10pm-4am Fri. Admission Ft800.
A friendly, alternative-minded crowd drinks Hungarian beverages and mingles between the dance floor and "chill-out room" in this club located under an art gallery near the Margaret Bridge in Buda.
Henger utca 2. Tel 212 3996. Admission Ft200 Open 9pm-5am Fri.
Közgáz Pince Klub
This large student club is conveniently positioned beneath the Economics University, where a young-but-varied crowd drink and dance to their favourite hits.
Fővám tér 8. Tel 215 4359. Admission Ft400.
The local currency is the Forint, the exchange rate is approximately 300 florints to one Euro. All major credit cards are accepted in Hungary, and you can easily withdraw cash from cash distributors.
Some important abbreviations:
Korut (krt)=boulevard, rakpart (rkp)=embankment , ter=square, ut=avenue, utca=street.
Public transport is reasonably good. The entire city is accessible by buses, trolley buses, trams and/or underground trains. However, you must buy you tickets in advance at the underground station, or from post offices, where instructions are included in several languages. Also good to know: If you change lines you have to purchase two tickets. Plain-clothes ticket inspectors check tickets from time to time, so beware.
Taxis are not as bad as most guide books make them out to be. Provided they are licensed, cabs are clean, cheap and reasonably easy to find. The best-and cheapest--way to get one is to call.
Telephone numbers: Citytaxi: 211-1111; Fototaxi: 222-2222; Radiotaxi
377-7777; Buda Taxi: 233 3333.