Explore: Budapest

Date Posted: 30/12/2014

Mark Henshall looks at the best of Budapest attractions: a city of two halves on the famous Danube.

Essential Sights

Dohany Street Synagogue: Budapest straddles the river Danube and is a city made of two halves - the historical ‘Buda’ side and the newer ‘Pest’ side, famed for its magnificent Art Nouveau buildings.

Until 1873 these two sides were different cities and today each still retains its individual charm. To get an idea of the city’s scale and history, start with the largest Synagogue in Europe, accommodating up to 3,000 worshippers.

Saint Stephen’s Basilica: The tallest building in the city is named after the founder of the Hungarian Christian state. From here, make your way to Heroes’ Square (Hosök tere) - much like a who's who of Hungarian history - City Park (Városliget) with the Petofi Csarnok concert venue, and Statue Park for a fascinating modern history lesson.

State Opera House: The opera house can be visited most days with a guide in the afternoon. It’s a Budapest highlight - a celebration of music and dance, but also of great historical interest given its construction started under Franz Joseph, emperor of Austria and king of Hungary in 1875.

Food & Drink

Hungary has a rich culinary legacy, with game a speciality. Try gulyásleves, the traditional goulash, served as soup, which is slow-cooked beef, carrots, onions and paprika - Hungary's trademark spice. Paprika Chicken with sour cream, sweet red peppers and served with egg dumplings (nokedli) is also a must.

In the evening, dine at the famous Gundel (opened in 1910), named after Hungarian gastronomic pioneer, Károly Gundel. On certain days you can try a special Hungarian ‘folklore’ menu with a performance. Then walk down stylish Andrássy Utca and take in an opera at the fabulous neo-Renaissance State Opera House.

For a desert to die for, indulge in the Hungarian Dobos cake, a delicious seven-layer sponge torte with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel. Look out for it in coffeehouses or relax in the grand interior of Budapest’s Central Kavehaz. For street food, try Langos, a flatbread with sour cream and grated cheese.

Where to Stay

  • The five-star Corinthia Hotel Budapest has a range of luxury suites with nice touches (Bose sound systems, marble bathrooms, roomy living spaces) and the Royal Spa, inside an Art Deco building, with a refurbished pool, originally opened in 1886.
  • The four-star Danubius Health Spa Resort Margitsziget is set ten minutes from the city centre on the tranquil Margaret Island. Come here to unwind in the thermal baths, surrounded by trees, flowers, historical ruins and a view of the Danube.
  • The Ibis Budapest City is a decent budget option with 84 rooms and efficient, friendly staff in the business district. Near to the Metro and some good restaurants, too.

Best for Group Holidays

Enjoy the Parliament building from the opposite bank of the Danube to begin with, to view its astonishing facade. Then cross the Chain Bridge and join one of the tours. If you’re lucky, your visit may coincide with a concert held in the Dome Hall.

How about a hot bath, a game of chess and a bottle of beer? Not a bad daily treat, for some of the ordinary folk of Budapest, at Széchenyi Baths. Budapest has 40 thermal spas and outdoor historic baths, including the upmarket Art Nouveau Gellért Baths - all great places to rub shoulders (literally) with the locals.

Take the Sikló (furnicular) to the UNESCO-listed Castle District to enjoy the beautiful views. Castle Hill is a collection of palaces, mansions and historic buildings that dominate the Buda skyline. Walk around the cobbled streets, visit the Fisherman’s Bastion, the colourful Mátyás Church and Budapest’s oldest cafe, the tiny Ruszwurm patisserie - serving cakes and coffee since 1827.

Live Like a Local

For very little money, you can eat some fantastic Hungarian cuisine upstairs at the Great Market Hall. Also, look out for gastro festivals during the year such as Budai Gourmet to get under the country’s skin (Hungary has 22 different wine regions). Locals, UnderGuide, have experiences from retro and film to foodie tours.

Fact File

Journey Time: Two hours 30 minutes from London to Budapest

Currency: Hungarian Forint (HUF)

Best time to go: Autumn is best as visitor numbers fall and the cultural calendar (cinema, music, opera, ballet, art, etc.) resumes. October is usually dry and sunny, with temperatures ranging from seven to 16 degrees Celsius. It can get chilly in the evenings.

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