I've never been to Budapest. Is it worth going?
I’ve never been to Budapest either and, for me, that’s an excellent reason to go. The Eastern European city and Hungarian capital has transformed since the Soviet days, but travellers sometimes liken it to Prague before the tourists took over.
That may be a little generous, though there’s no doubt Budapest has many alluring attributes. Bisected by the expansive river Danube, the city’s grand churches, cobbled squares, neo-Gothic parliament and 13th-century castle adorn most city postcards.
These can be covered off in a few days. But after that, some insider tips are required. To get the lowdown, I enlisted two Budapest-based experts for some goulash-hot recommendations.
“Budapest is an easy city to fall in love with,” says Carolyn Banfalvi, culinary tour guide and author of Food Wine Budapest. “There’s everything from funky bars and local wine to gorgeous architecture and streets loaded with history. It’s also one of Europe’s best values at the moment.”
Travel blogger Adri Bruckner (adriknows.com) agrees, indulging in a little grandstanding to make her point. “Budapest is grander than Paris, more exotic than Berlin and as hip as New York,” she says proudly. “It combines glittering palaces along the Danube with the grittiness of a former Eastern bloc country.”
But what, specifically, would they recommend to wow a first-timer? I asked each for their five reasons why you should book that flight and start packing. Here, in their own words, is what they suggested.
Bring a bathing suit and flip-flops for the thermal hot springs. Try the grand, turn-of-the-century Szechenyi Baths, where you can soak outdoors or indoors in one of 16 pools. There are also many saunas and steam rooms here.
Visit a “ruin pub.” These quintessentially Budapestian bars are built in crumbling courtyards scattered with vintage, scavenged furniture. Szimpla is the most famous, but also pop into Kek Lo Fashion Pub. You can try on handmade clothes and go home with something to treasure.
Try a city tour on a Trikke, a three-wheeled electric scooter. Faster than your feet for getting around, it’s also safer than a bike because you use the sidewalks.
Check out Vadjutka, my favorite jewellery designer in the Jewish quarter. They use fabric, photos and other unusual bits and bobs and have a cult following.
Try a local food tour. I’ve been here 13 years and I still learn a lot from them. I took a guided market tour that opened my eyes to the wonders of Hungarian salami, sausage and cheese. See Taste Hungary (tastehungary.com) for options.
Borkonyha (which means wine kitchen) is one of my favourite restaurants, serving creative contemporary Hungarian cuisine. Try the foie gras appetizer: ultra-crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. And sample some Hungarian wines here; many of them are not available outside the country.
You can spend hours wandering the three-level Central Market Hall. The strudel stand near the entrance is great – or try a langos [deep-fried flat bread] on the upper level.
Get a taste of the past at coffee houses like Central Kavehaz. These were where writers, editors and artists once spent their days. The Central has been beautifully restored and offers a full menu – plus coffee, of course.
I agree with Adri about the thermal baths, but my own favourite is the 16th-century Rudas Bathhouse, centred on an octagon-shaped pool under a dome.
Budapest is just the right size for wandering. Get a good map – or get lost – and explore the old Jewish quarter in the seventh district, the palace quarter in the eighth district, Buda Castle and Margaret Island. There are cafés everywhere for refuelling.
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