The Budapest Travel Guide: A Cacophony of Contradiction
The Hungarian Capital is famed for its ability to exist as two cities in one. Luxury travel writer Mark Southern visits to find out if it’s learned to co-habit with itself.
If cities could sit down on a shrink’s couch and be psychoanalysed, it would make for interesting reading.
New York would be considered paranoid to the point of paralysis, but then we would have guessed that all along. Milan would be too busy looking in the mirror to hear it being diagnosed as clinically narcissistic, and Budapest, the Capital city of Hungary, would undoubtedly be locked up in a padded room as a classic case of split-personality disorder.
For whilst every city has its fair share of different influences, Budapest is such a series of contradictions that it makes most other European Capitals appear positively mundane.
Even the name itself is almost predictably bi-polar, deriving itself from one side of the city being `Buda’, and the other side being `Pest’.
These two factions are so utterly different they may as well be considered individual destinations on their own. However, much like Brad Pitt and Ed Norton in Fight Club, rather than work against each other, they act as two sides of the same coin; entirely different but unquestionably the same.
Located on the West side of the Danube, Buda sits above a towering tree-lined hill looking rather snootily at its less-affluent twin. Here, culturally significant reminders mingle silently with obvious money. “Aspire to be us” it taunts its flip-side.
The other side of the river houses Pest, which veritably snarls up at its other-half with a barely concealed passive-aggressive passion. Down here you’ll find bohemia and excess tempting its more sensible sibling to danger. “Come on down here”, it seductively whispers.
Let’s be honest, it’s a city with issues…
However, whilst it would take our psychologist an age to get to the root causes, the inherent yin and yang across the city does makes it a splendid weekend away for travellers wishing to experience a range of emotions in 48 hours.
Visitors really do have the range of city-break must-haves on tap here, and can lurch from one to the next, safe in the knowledge that there’ll be on their own adventures in wonderland. Top class hotels, restaurants, museums, attractions, activities and people converge on the city in wildly different ways which creates a marvellously eclectic, electric atmosphere.
Like a beast with a split personality, you’ll never know what you’re going to get from Budapest. One thing you can guarantee though is, like owning a tiger for a pet, you know it’ll be interesting.
Being a relatively small city means that nothing is too far away, and the business district mingles with the night-time playground district at close quarters. Cabs and trams are everywhere, and remain the quickest way to get around. However, the movie star glamour of the architecture seems wasted on four wheels, and you should try to get around on foot where possible.
Five star hotels are plentiful, but the best hotel in town is the Four Seasons. Situated right on the Danube with views across both sides of the divide, the hotel is opulent to the power of majestic. Rising like an Art Nouveau jewel in the glorious skyline, it’s impossible to set foot in the Four Seasons and not believe you’re James Bond.
Old-school glamour and picture-postcard good looks combine to make this so unquestionably cool you’ll feel like Moneypenny will be on the phone at any second.
Alternatively, try the Boscolo New York Palace for breath-taking glamour in regal surroundings. Featuring a contender for the most ostentatious lobby in Europe, the Boscolo uses marble, and lots of it, to create a feeling of absolute wealth and splendour.
Probably more suited to business than the Four Seasons, businesspeople taking clients here will astound them quicker than you can say, `oh my, what a lot of marble’.
If you like goulash, you’ll love eating out in Budapest. If you don’t, then you won’t get as much from the experience as everywhere purports to offer the best in town, but cuisine is something the Hungarians take seriously so you’ll still have a great time.
Probably the most famous restaurant in Budapest is Gundel, serving traditional Hungarian fare. Here, you’ll rub shoulders with the glitterati of Budapest society, with everyone who’s anyone fighting for the best tables in the house.
Book early, as it gets busy, but by Western standards is surprisingly reasonably priced for such a prestigious place.
For something a little more edgy, get along to Alabardos, located in a quaint old Gothic building just across from the impressive Matthias Church. With walls covered in medieval memorabilia the atmosphere should be oppressive, but the simple local food they serve spins this on its head and provides a warm, friendly ambience.
The local gyspy bands playing live give it a bohemian feel, making the restaurant one for lovers rather than clients.
Nightlife is where Budapest really comes into its own. Hundreds of legal and less-legal nightspots beckon from the shadows of the imperious gothic facades, with music pumping out from the darkness below.
Having a good time is the number one obsession for everyone you’ll see after dark, and you’ll not be making the most of the experience if you’re not buying into this mantra.
Belying its location in the more sensible part of town, the best bar you’ll go to is Oscar Café; a cool spot for locals and tourists to party the night away in style. Just big enough to feel like an event-venue, but not so cavernous it loses its soul, Oscar’s serves up whiskey and cocktails in a scene that could be out of a Hollywood picture in the 1940′s. Expect to see famous faces of the Hungarian OK Magazine circuit.
Budapest is a gambler’s paradise, and features many casinos, and less-reputable places to bet big. However, for a cool atmosphere, and relaxed setting, get across to the Hilton Budapest’s chilled out casino. You won’t be hassled like you will in other less-law-abiding nightspots, and the cocktails are excellent.
Few views in the city can compare with the vista that opens up at the top of St. Stephen’s Basilica.
As the largest church in town, it gets busy with worshippers and tourists alike, but it’s worth waiting for. There is an elevator, but you’ll get more from it by climbing the near-400 steps before the panorama that awaits. Get there early or late though, as queues are notoriously bad.
To see a city from above and below is to understand it, and what better way to get the ultimate birds-eye view than to charter a helicopter ride.
Being a traditional city, helipads are few and far between, so for the truly ultimate airborne experience charter a yacht with helipad on top, and take the chopper up for a spin whenever you feel like it. This also has the added advantage of memorable parties aboard your luxury sailing suite.
Flights go from around the UK priced from £99 return.
Main image above copyright FreeImages.com/renato cardoso.