Two weeks ago I left Rome for a mini break up north to Budapest. With its reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, I’d been dying to visit for years. And it did not disappoint.
Like most European capitals the cityscape is low rise. The Danube River divides the city centre with Pest on one side (the more commercial, political and financial centre) and Buda (kind of the old town with palaces and castles) on the other. Modelled on Paris and Vienna, the city centre (on Pest side) is made up of large boulevards featuring the most stunning baroque and gothic style buildings and palaces.
Just walking through the city and taking in the monuments – the castles, the palaces, old bridges, the architecture… you feel part of an old school society and can still sense the opulence of Budapest’s imperial origins. But just as its royal history is felt and seen throughout the city, so too are its communist / socialist origins, with lots of dull grey concrete buildings a stark contrast to the beautiful elegant palaces.
Like Vienna, Budapest is a city of coffee houses – the original meeting places for the middle class, writers, poets, political activists and philosophers. People have been meeting here for hundreds of years for dates, a family outing, business dealings or political conspiracy. These lavish cafes are scattered around the city and with many good enough in years gone by for the Queen of Budapest, they were good enough for me!
Here are some of my Budapest highlights and recommendations – just in case you find yourself in Budapest any time soon.
This restaurant is right in the centre (on Pest side) and offers authentic Hungarian fare & gypsy music. I had meat crepes for entree and then a beautiful veal casserole in paprika sauce served with cabbage and potato dumplings. Dessert was a traditional chocolate mousse cake served in a nut brittle basket – all accompanied by Tojak Hungarian wine.
I’ll confess that I didn’t know that Budapest is called as such because the Danube River brings together Buda and Pest. The tour I did started off on Pest side and I visited the Jewish Quarter and Synagogue, St Stephens Basilica, Heroes Square, the Szechenyi Spa House (largest thermal spa house in Europe), the financial district, the Houses of Parliament – the biggest building in all of Hungary. We then crossed the Danube over to Buda side and by this stage (4pm) it was already pitch black dark! On this side of the river we got to see the old medieval centre square, old royal palace and Fisherman’s Bastion. But importantly, we got an amazing view of Pest and particularly Parliament House which cuts a most striking figure on the Danube.
When I read that there was a Nobu restaurant in Budapest, I couldn’t interrupt what has slowly become a Nobu world tour that I started 2 years ago in New York city. This is the 5th Nobu I’ve eaten at including NYC, Melbourne, Dubai and London. I have at least another 20 to go! In Budapest, Nobu is located within the Kempinski Hotel in the city centre (Pest side). The menu at all Nobu Restaurants is the same, except for the addition of a few local specialties. I lunched on yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno, tempura prawn sushi handrolls and rock shrimp tempura… oh and the chocolate bento box for dessert.
Danube River Cruise
The Danube is a beautiful river that practically starts as a stream in Germany’s black forest, winds through Vienna in Austria and then cuts through the city of Budapest. It links countries, cities & people until it reaches the Black Sea. I decided to do a river cruise by night and while the city is beautiful by day, it’s just spectacular all lit up. On an hour trip, I got to see all the bridges (Liberty, Margaret, Chain, Elisabeth, Arpad, etc), the Houses of Parliament and all the palaces, castles and monuments on Buda side.
Vaci Utca & Fashion Street
These two streets sort of collide into this square (which is where all the Xmas markets were being set up – to start trading after my departure of course!) I’m pretty sure Fashion St has a name but everyone just calls it so! It has all your international fashion houses and designers including Prada, Valentino, Chanel, Bulgari, etc. Vaci Utca on the other hand has your high street shopping including Zara and H&M and UK department store Marks and Spencer plus a host of souvenir and other specialty shops, cafes and restaurants.
Gerbeaud Coffee House
This famous coffee house is positioned at the end of Fashion Street and was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth (affectionately called ‘Sissy’ by the Hungarians). I stopped by here one night for dinner and finally tried the local speciality – goulash. You can have goulash as a soup or as a stew. I had goulash soup served in the small metal pot that it’s cooked in. It’s a soup of beef, carrots and potato and paprika. I loved it! After dinner I moved into the coffee house area and had an apple strudel to die for!
This is the largest market in Budapest and located right in the city centre. I went here on my last day in Budapest and it was one of my favourite few hours I spent in the city – the sights, sounds and tastes were fantastic. You can buy traditional Hungarian crafts and souvenirs on the second floor, but my favourite was the ground floor – a huge fresh food market. Here you can buy fresh meat and fish, Hungarian bread, herbs and paprika of course, oh and salami… lots of salami! I bought some fresh cheese and onion bread and then was given a free taste test of Hungarian salami at one of the delicatessens. Cheap, tasty and unforgettable.
Boscolo New York Palace Hotel
I stayed at this Italian hotel because, well you know, I’m Italian and all 🙂 It’s 5 star all the way and became an option because I got a really cheap rate through Expedia. The dayspa is fantastic and the service was impeccable. On entering the hotel from the Grand Boulevard, I felt transported to an Italian renaissance palace. Think Italian marble from Carrara and Venetian chandeliers, plush silk and velvet furnishings. Devastated by two world wars and negligence of the communist regime, the hotel was restored to its original glory in 2007, more than 100 years after its construction. The Hotel features the famous New York Cafe on the ground floor – one of Budapest’s most historic landmarks.
New York Cafe
“The most beautiful cafe in the world” was the influencer in choosing to stay at the Boscolo Hotel. At the turn of the 19th-20th century, Budapest was home to about 500 coffee houses, the New York Cafe being the most exclusive of them. In its heyday in the early 1900s, the cafe boasted mythical fame and was the place to be seen in Budapest. It became a second home for writers, literary agents, poets and other bohemian representatives of the Hungarian art world. With a combination of gold, crystal, marble, cherrywood and red plush furnishings, it is one of the most stunningly elegant buildings I’ve ever been in. Legend has it that one famous writer threw the cafe keys into the Danube River so that it would stay open forever.
I had afternoon tea at the Cafe and also dined in the Salon area. It was a fine dining experience which was expensive with respect to cost of living in Budapest, but was about half of what you would pay in Australia for equivalent quality and service. I feasted on pork belly with chilli jam, fried Hungarian goats cheese balls, wild forest mushroom and potato gnocchi with rocket pesto, chocolate and cherry dessert and local wine. The white glove service didn’t stop there – I was served complimentary handmade chocolate pralines to finish the meal! It was fantastic and an experience I will always remember.
Signing off from Trastevere,