Budapest’s stunning skyline
Taking the waters at a thermal bath is somewhat of a rite of passage in Budapest, so doing this just after arriving in the city feels fitting. As we gingerly test the 40°C waters in the cathedral-like Gellert baths, I’m reminded that the first people to take advantage of the city’s natural hot springs were the Romans.
Since then, this pretty, cosmopolitan city has gone through all sorts of historical turmoil to become the place it is today – not least when the distinct cities of Buda and Pest merged in 1873.
German occupation during the Second World War, followed by Soviet occupation, means Budapest’s recent history has been turbulent, but you get the impression that the city has shaken off its past with a new, fun-loving attitude.
Some of the best examples of this are the “ruin bars” that have sprung up since the millennium in the Jewish Quarter’s tumbledown buildings. One of the most famous, the labyrinthine Szimpla Kert, is the perfect place for a post-swim pint, with its bric-a-brac decoration and shady courtyard.
At night, these bars turn into clubs and cocktail hangouts, which you’ll find by exploring the winding streets of this old part of Pest after dark.
If you prefer your refreshment a little more refined, Budapest is home to some fine old literary coffee houses. The most famous is the gilded and glamorous New York Café, a great spot for breakfast. Legend has it that renowned writer Molnár Ferenc threw the key into the Danube on the café’s opening night, so that it would stay open forever.
The Parliament building in the sunset
Just down the street, the beautiful Corinthia Hotel Budapest stands proud on Erzsebet Korut, one of the major thoroughfares in Pest, and is said to have been an inspiration for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Since it opened in 1896 as The Grand Royal Hotel, it’s played host to luminaries from Josephine Baker to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and its impressive lobby makes a starry first impression.
Our executive room was just as good, with a cloud-like kingsize bed and marble bathroom with ESPA goodies.
Exploring the hotel’s gorgeous Royal Spa, which was forgotten and rediscovered during a renovation, poking my nose into the grand ballroom, sipping cocktails in the cosy bar or just pretending to be presidential on the wide lobby steps mean we could easily spend the whole evening here, but there’s eating to be done.
Dinner at the Brasserie and Atrium, housed in a cavernous glass space, is a chic experience – try the goulash for a true taste of Hungarian haute cuisine.
The St Stephen’s Cathedral is located in a romantic square in the heart of the city
The next day, it’s time to walk off all the feasting, so we set off to explore the boulevards of Budapest. No visit would be complete without learning about some of the city’s history at some of its excellent museums.
Most harrowing is the House of Terror on Andrassy Avenue, which was home to the fascist and then communist regimes that controlled Hungary from the 1940s to the 1980s.
With recreations of Soviet-era dungeons in the basement (we can even go inside the cells), it’s a chilling visit, but allows us a much deeper understanding of what residents have been through.
Another such haunting memorial is the sculpture Shoes On The Danube Bank, a touching tribute to the Jewish men, women and children who were shot on the banks of the river by Arrow Cross militiamen in the 1940s.
A walk down the Danube and across one of the many bridges is a refreshing change, so we head over to Castle Hill, where the impressive Buda Castle complex juts out of the hillside.
You can walk up one of the winding paths to take in the views but for us, the funicular railway was a lazier and much more fun idea.
At the top, gelato in hand, we admire the panoramic views of the Danube and Pest’s Art Nouveau and neo-Renaissance architecture and make plans to come back again and explore more of this city’s hidden gems very soon.
Way to go
Wizz Air operates several daily flights from London Luton to Budapest, with fares from £43.99 one way. See wizzair.com. The Corinthia Hotel Budapest has Superior rooms from £130 per room, per night. Executive suites start at £517 per room, per night.
Ten things you must do in Budapest
1 Take the funicular railway up Castle Hill from Chain Bridge for beautiful views.
2 Soak up culture at the art-packed Hungarian National Museum, or pop culture at the pinball museum.
3 Enjoy a drink in the Jewish Quarter, home to Budapest’s fashionable and arty ‘ruin bars’.
4 Sample the traditional local tipple, pálinka, a strong fruit brandy.
5 Take a dip in Budapest’s healing thermal waters – try the outdoor Szechenyi baths (pictured left) or the grand, cathedral-like Gellert Spa.
6 Tuck into hearty local dishes such as goulash (paprika beef stew, left), lángos (fried dough with cheese) or dobos torta, a sponge cake with chocolate buttercream.
7 Admire the architecture, particularly the neo-classical St Stephen’s Basilica and domes of the Moorish Revival Great Synagogue.
8 Visit the Great Market Hall, named the most beautiful market in Europe, to purchase all kinds of produce.
9 Stroll down Andrassy Avenue, a smart boulevard of cafés, designer shops and the Hungarian State Opera House.
10 See Shoes On The Danube Bank a moving and powerful memorial to Jewish residents shot during the Second World War.