There’s a welcoming air about Budapest, right from the grand palace sitting atop the Buda hills to the bridges that lead to quirky Pest.
The city is very picturesque offering beautiful views of the Parliament and other landmarks and I particularly love cities with hills and viewpoints. I still have the happy image of me holding a nice warm cup of mulled wine watching the river and the bridges on a cold February night - simply delightful.
Hungary is steeped in more than a thousand years of history, right from the Roman era, full of battles, kings, invasions by allies, the World Wars, communism and finally, its share of peaceful years. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy of the Danube came into being and the history of Budapest the year 1872 stands out as a milestone, for it was then that the three separate settlements of Pest, Buda and Óbuda (literally "Old" Buda) were united into one city.
Food: There's a lot more to Hungarian food than goulash. There’s so much to savour- from the local version of the Weiner Schnitzel to the Langos which serves as a quick cheesy snack. I was in Budapest when it was extremely cold, but, popping into one of the local cafes and having a hearty soup did the trick. There’s also stuffed cabbage (usually stuffed with pork) chicken paprikash and the incredible array of desserts. I don’t understand why many have not talked about the nutty cakes and dessert wines in Hungary, because they are one of the best I have tasted. I could go back to Budapest just for the dessert and the wines! I would highly recommend Café Gerbaud for the Som Loi Galuska – raisins soaked in the delightful Tokaj Aszu mixed with walnuts and served with whipped cream.
Drink: Budapest boasts a list of excellent wines – from Villány’s full-bodied reds and Somló’s fruity whites to honey sweet Tokaj. There’s also the killer apricot brandy – pálinka that dates back to the Middle Ages and goes down very well after any dish. What I found fascinating was the number of ‘ruin pubs’ in Pest. These are derelict and abandoned buildings occupied about ten years ago and kept the old charm of these buildings without much renovation.
My friend, the lovely Vitor Hugo, recommended the oldest and possibly most popular ruin pub- Szimpla Kert, which is possible the quirkiest of them all. There’s hairdryers and old rocking chairs hanging from the ceiling along with art and graffiti adorned all over.
The beauty and grandeur of the city has evolved significantly over the decades. Architecturally, the city is a treasure trove, with enough baroque, neoclassical, Eclectic and Art Nouveau buildings to satisfy everyone. Most of what you see today was built during the capital’s ‘golden age' in the late 19th century. The three main sites in the Buda hills are The Citadella with the proud Liberty Monument (the lady with a palm frond proclaiming freedom) perched on Gellert Hill, The Royal Palace and the Fisherman’s Bastion that is in front of St Mathhias Church.
During the 14th century, the Angevin kings from France established Buda as the royal seat of power. They built a succession of palaces on the Várhegy (Castle Hill), reaching its peak during the Renaissance under the reign of king Mátyás with a golden age of prosperity and a flourishing of the arts. Hungary's colossal defeat in the Battle of Mohács in 1526 against the invading Turks paved the way for the Ottoman occupation of Hungary. After their victory at Mohács, under Sultan Süleyman I (the Magnificent) many churches were converted into mosques, fine bathhouses constructed and defensive works modernized. Buda became the seat of a Grand Vizier.
Soaking the troubles away:
Budapest is known to have an abundance of thermal baths. As a result, ‘taking the waters’ has been a Budapest experience since the time of the Romans. Here, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to bathhouses– Turkish-era, Art Nouveau and modern establishments. Some people come seeking a cure for whatever ails them, but the majority are there for fun and relaxation. The best and oldest of them all are the Szechenyi Baths, where I felt strange, yet, wonderful using the outdoor pool. The temperature of the pool water was 38 degrees and the air outside then was probably -2 degrees.
Apart from being very friendly, the locals love telling the tourists their bit of the city's history and landmarks. The taxi drivers in particular, will recommend some fine restaurants and must-see places with a warm smile and a sense of pride.
I was up against time, but managed to get a taxi that drove past Margaret Island, Obuda, Erzsebetvaros and the Jewish Quarter, which are all certainly worth a visit. There’s also the Holocaust Memorial, Hungarian State Opera House, Heroes Square, house of Terror and Budapest’s stunning great synagogue.
Flights operate on a daily basis to Ferec Liszt International Airport.
Currency: Hungary’s currency is the Forint (Ft) and prices in most shops and restaurants are in Forint, but some state and accept the Euro as well. Though card payments are accepted everywhere, it’s best to carry some cash for the taxis, markets and pubs.
Stay: There are numerous choices for hotels and hostels, but I decided to stay at the Hilton in Buda overlooking the Danube and Pest for a more peaceful trip. Pest is certainly a more vibrant part of the city and better connected, yet, I found it slightly overcrowded with various groups celebrating their stag-dos.
Rashmi Narayan is a London based freelance writer, currently working in Immigration and International Affairs with a strong passion for travel and food writing.