Take an unforgettable trip to this eastern culture capital, where grand architecture, picturesque castles and medieval ruins meet gloriously green parks, hip nightlife and modern European swagger
Credit: Kirsten Rodenhizer

Take an unforgettable trip to this eastern culture capital, where grand architecture, picturesque castles and medieval ruins meet gloriously green parks, hip nightlife and modern European swagger

Budapest formed in 1873, when the hilly burg of Buda and flat Pest, across the Danube River, merged to become one city. Today, it rivals Vienna and Prague as a culture capital, yet remains more affordable than both. And it still has a delightfully split personality. Stay on the Pest side, or east bank, for the buzzing cafés and restaurants, boisterous nightlife and turn-of-the-century architecture, and make day-trips across the river to wander among the forested hills, castles and medieval monuments of Buda. And put these items on your to-do list.

Soak in a thermal bath
Credit: Kirsten Rodenhizer

Soak in a thermal bath

Budapest has a tradition of public bathhouses going back to Roman times, thanks to the region’s wealth of natural hot springs. Tote your swimsuit to 19th-century Széchenyi Thermal Bath, in City Park, and splash around in 18 outdoor and indoor geothermal pools, housed in neo-baroque buildings. Or, take a dip at the temple-like Gellert Baths, an art-nouveau-style complex at the foot of the Buda hills. 

Be gobsmacked by grand architecture
Credit: Kirsten Rodenhizer

Be gobsmacked by grand architecture

The gargantuan red-and-white Hungarian Parliament is Budapest’s most iconic building, visible from the river, Castle Hill and pretty much every viewpoint in the city. You might not be certain whether the 100-year-old, 96-metre-tall structure is beautiful, bizarre or simply behemoth – but it’s certainly worth a closer look. Walk around the neo-gothic exterior, squinting up at the spires, or book a tour (online in advance) to go inside a few of the 691 rooms, and peek at the Hungarian Crown Jewels.

Architecture buffs should also check out the circa-1884 Hungarian State Opera House, on palace-lined Andrássy Avenue (itself a UNESCO heritage site), to glimpse opulent chambers laden with gold, marble and oak. The clincher is the main auditorium, dripping with velvet, gold leaf and hand-painted murals. A 3,050-kg bronze chandelier illuminates a ceiling fresco depicting the Greek gods. For a little extra cash on top of the tour price, one of the company’s singers will serenade you on the red-carpeted grand staircase. 

Cycle around Margaret Island
Credit: Kirsten Rodenhizer

Cycle around Margaret Island

The Stanley Park of Budapest, this 2.5-km-long, 500-metre-wide island in the Danube, just north of downtown, is a car-free slice of paradise. Rent a bicycle, egg-shaped pedal-car, golf cart or other wheeled contraption at the entrance and go for a roll along a shady network of paths and manicured gardens. If you have extra time, there are also thermal baths, restaurants, medieval ruins, a waterpark, a music-playing water fountain and a Japanese garden scattered among the trees. Or, climb the island’s art nouveau-style water tower, built in 1911, for a view of the island and green-thatched Buda hills. 

Party in a ruin pub

Party in a ruin pub

Around 10 years ago, “ruin pubs” (romkocsma) started popping up in the abandoned apartment buildings, derelict factories and dank cellars of Budapest. Open-air Szimpla Kert is one of the oldest; trendy with the student crowd for its retro décor, free concerts and affordable taps (and, strangely, a farmer’s market on Sundays). Corvintető, above a department store, has a rooftop terrace and a dance club that stages DJ performances, indie-rock concerts and slam-poetry nights.

Sip craft cocktails in an art nouveau palace
Credit: Kirsten Rodenhizer

Sip craft cocktails in an art nouveau palace

Kollázs, the brasserie and bar at Budapest’s Four Seasons hotel, near the Pest waterfront, gives classic cocktail recipes a twist with local ingredients. Ease into a leather armchair and order up a Paprika Sazerac, flavoured with – you guessed it – Hungarian paprika. Or, try the Turay Ida Martini, named for a Hungarian film actress of the ’40s and blended with pálinka, or Hungarian brandy. Post-libation, go for a stroll through the lobby of this circa-1906 building. A former palace, it became a luxury hotel in the late 1990s, retaining many of its art nouveau architectural features: sinuous curves, patterned stained-glass windows, floral details and wrought-iron peacock gates. 

Climb Castle Hill
Credit: Kirsten Rodenhizer

Climb Castle Hill

Most of the city’s medieval sites lie atop Castle Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Buda side. Cross the Széchenyi Chain Bridge (Budapest’s first permanent bridge across the river) and give your calves a killer workout scaling the Royal Steps to the apex. Or: hop on the circa-1870 funicular for a breathlessly steep ascent. Up top, check out Buda Castle, home to the National Gallery and History Museum, or head for Fisherman’s Bastion, a medieval fortification with seven cone-topped towers and sweeping views of the city.

Don’t miss 13-century Matthias Church, where a colourful jumble of paintings and Hungarian folk-art patterns adorns every wall, arch and column. The structure served as a mosque during the Ottoman occupation of the 16th and 17th centuries, and later as a coronation spot for Hapsburg kings.

 

Cruise the Danube at dusk
Credit: Kirsten Rodenhizer

Cruise the Danube at dusk

The water may not be the shade advertised in The Blue Danube waltz (it’s green) but the views from all sides are completely captivating. Book an hour or two of sightseeing on one of the passenger boats that dock along the Pest waterfront. Some provide supper or live music; others a glass of wine and a recorded guide. Try to depart just before sunset to see Budapest’s stunning skyline in daylight, then by night on the return journey, when the lights of Buda Castle come up honey-coloured against a pink-tinged sky.