Esquire travel guru Tom Barber offers up his 8 essentials for a weekend in Budapest.
As the post-Communist generation comes of age, Eastern Europe is booming and the city leading the charge is Budapest, a place with a seriously split personality: part baroque reminder that this was once the joint-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and part buzzing modern metropolis.
For centuries, the twin cities of Buda and Pest eyed each other warily across the Danube, only forming their alliance in the 1870s, and the sides still retain very distinct feels, with the rocky headlands of the west bank (Buda) looming over the bustling flat cityscape of Pest. In the eyes of the more earthy Pests, at least, the residents of Buda have adopted a similarly lofty opinion of themselves.
This sense of contrast makes for a city break that combines the bohemian café lifestyle, contemporary art galleries and dive bars prevalent in Pest, and the fine dining and high culture that is the order of the day in Buda. Here’s how to make the best of your time in Hungary’s very individual capital city.
1. Where to stay
Brody House, a private member’s club and boutique hotel, is both chic and shabby and boasts a modest haul of eight stylish guest bedrooms. Brody’s deeply clued-up concierge can also ease your way past the most militant clipboard tyrants at the city’s happening haunts. Oh, and think about investing in one of the artworks lining this hotel’s walls: it’s all for sale and it’s surprisingly good. brodyhouse.com
2. Where to have lunch
Hungarian food has a reputation for stodginess but Baldaszti’s, with its lighter, fixed price tapas-style local classics (goulash, egg dumplings), makes a perfect lunchtime stop. For something sturdier, try the veal tartare, washed down with some excellent local red wine (anything by Gere Attila). baldasztis.com
3. What to do
Take an early bath. Budapest rests on a series of hot springs famed for soothing hangovers and there are several baths to choose from. More elegant spas than “happy ending” bathhouses, they have been a fixture in the daily routine of the city’s residents for centuries. Try Gellert for its spectacular architecture, or Kiraly for a more intimate Turkish bath atmosphere.
4. Where to shop
What East German car manufacturer Trabant was to the Communist-era automotive industry, Tisza was to footwear. It made spectacularly poor quality shoes. How things have changed. The brand is now Hungary’s primary purveyor of homegrown trainers. Meanwhile, the company’s original shop can be found at Károly Körút 1. tiszacipo.hu
5. Where to drink
The in-crowd inhabit the brick vaults of Boutiq’Bar, and if you can come up with a cocktail the bartenders don’t know the ingredients for, then the drinks are on them. Dust down your copy of The Savoy Cocktail Book or go local with a paprika-spiked vodka concoction. boutiqbar.hu
6. Where to have dinner
It’s technically a wine bar, but Innio also has a small, spot-on menu. Combine that with excellent DJs, regular photographic exhibitions and the fact that it boasts a large proportion of Budapest’s bright and beautiful people as regulars and you’re onto a winner. innio.hu
7. Where to party
This city may be regenerating fast, but there are still a number of neglected buildings around. The solution? Romkocsma, or “ruin pubs”. One of the best is Instant, complete with an open air courtyard, one room decked out like a dentist’s theatre and another with all the furniture attached to the ceiling. We’re not making this up. instant.co.hu
8. What to avoid
What’s not to like about a wine called Bull’s Blood that comes from a place called The Valley of the Beautiful Women? Quite a lot, it turns out. This stuff does the other, often excellent, Hungarian wines no favours in the PR stakes.
Tom Barber is a founder of award-winning travel company Original Travel