You get two cities for the price of one in Hungary’s capital. The meandering Danube slices through the city, dividing regal Buda and its Castle Hill from the busy commercial centre of Pest. It’s an effortless blend of classic and cool: magnificent Art Nouveau architecture lines wide boulevards, while trendy bars have brought buzzing new life into decaying buildings.
Dignified Buda sits on the hilly western side of the Danube, its Baroque streets recalling a royal past when monarchs were crowned here. Walk up Castle Hill for sweeping views of Pest including its wonderfully ornate Parliament that dominates the eastern side. The river island of Margit-Sziget offers a green haven from the bustle of the city, where private cars have been banished and you can enjoy a picnic in peace.
Most visitors gravitate towards Pest, the heart of Budapest’s street life. Its cultural richness is everywhere, from the opera houses to the hugely varied restaurant scene.
A comfortable bed
The restored 19th-century Klotild Palace in Vaci utca in central Pest is a sumptuous setting for the five-star Buddha Bar Hotel (www.buddhabarhotel.hu; 00 36 1 799 7300). Luxurious fabrics and plush oriental touches fill the spacious rooms, which start at €149 (Dh727) including breakfast. A compact spa includes a hot tub, and a giant Buddha presides over the opulent restaurant with its Asian-influenced cuisine.
Just around the corner, the mood is modern at the new four-star Estilo Fashion Hotel (www.estilohotel.hu; 00 36 1 799 7170), whose comfortable rooms come with some funky furnishings. Doubles start at 24,000 forints (Dh390) including breakfast.
There’s a distinct Parisian feel to Gerloczy Rooms de Lux (www.gerloczy.hu; 00 36 1 501 4000) in a pleasant residential square in central Pest. Stylish rooms hark back to the turn of the 20th century, with doubles starting at €104 (Dh508) including breakfast and a free minibar.
Find your feet
Pest’s touristy pedestrianised Vaci utca is a lively sight but you might want to eat elsewhere unless you like seeing “tourist menu” written everywhere. An excellent public transport system of metros, trams and buses connects all areas of the city, including a funicular to Buda. Daily tickets cost 1,500 forints (Dh25; check www.budapestinfo.hu or www.gotohungary.com for details). Catch some fantastic views by hopping on the No 2 tram, which trundles past the river’s best sights. As more of central Pest is in the process of being pedestrianised, expect some disruption.
Meet the locals
Budapest’s so-called ruin bars, which took over derelict buildings and empty spaces in Pest’s Jewish Quarter about a dozen years ago, are among the most popular meeting places. Some are firmly on the tourist radar, such as the original ruin bar, Szimpla Kert (www.szimpla.hu; 00 36 20 261 8669), although locals outnumber tourists during the day. On the Buda side, the site of an old toddlers’ pool has been converted into a relaxed bar, Pagony (00 36 1 877 5581), a cool place to escape the heat of summer.
Book a table
Hungarian classic dishes such as goulash for 1,960 forints (Dh32) and chicken paprikash for 3,760 forints (Dh61) are given 21st-century updates at 21 (www.21restaurant.hut; 00 36 1 202 2113) in the Buda Castle area, along with a succulent goose liver “burger” in a brioche for 2,940 forints (Dh48). There’s tapas on offer as well as classy Hungarian fare at Bock Bisztro (www.bockbisztro.hu; 00 36 1 321 0340) within the Grand Corinthia hotel in Pest (plus a branch in Buda). The delectable choices range from a tapas portion of cabbage stuffed with catfish tartare for 1,400 forints (Dh23) to a main course of roast pigeon with pumpkin ravioli for 3,700 forints (Dh60). Stop for coffee and pastries at Kurtoskalacs in Vaci utca (www.kurtoskalacs.com), specialists in the cylindrical Hungarian cake of the same name, which roughly translates as chimney cake.
You’ll find international brands among the souvenir shops in and around Vaci utca, but it’s worth hunting down some of Budapest’s more unusual shops hidden in passageways. Tisza Shoes (www.tiszacipo.hu; 00 36 1 266 3055) on Karoly Korut has resurrected the old Hungarian communist brand and turned them into very trendy trainers and bags. Retrock Deluxe (www.retrock.com 00 36 30 472 3636) on Anker Koz is the place for vintage gear and local designers. Great Market Hall on Vamhaz Korut is a bit on the touristy side but still has a mouthwatering choice of local produce within its splendid neo-Gothic interior.
What to avoid
There is still the occasional instance of men being fleeced when women invite them for a drink in a bar that will end up costing a fortune. Smokers should be aware of Hungary’s new tobacco sales law, which came into effect this year. Cigarettes are sold only in shops with “Nemzeti Dohanybolt”, with a large “T” and “18” on the outside.
Budapest’s thermal baths are the place to wallow and have a good gossip with friends. The Szechenyi Baths (www.szechenyibath.com; 00 36 1 363 3210) have 15 pools behind its wonderful 19th-century yellow façade; the ones indoors have healing thermal properties while the huge outdoor ones are hot enough to keep you warm even on a winter’s day.
Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com) begins flights from Dubai to Budapest in late October. The journey takes about five hours and return flights cost from Dh880 including taxes.