Budapest: a tale of two cities

A room with a view – Art’otel, Budapest

ITS reputation precedes it as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – rivalling the likes of Paris and Prague with its promise of romance and bohemia.

But from the rolling hills of Buda in the west to the vibrant nightlife of Pest in the east, this former Soviet city has far more to offer than passionate embraces on the banks of the River Danube.

My boyfriend and I booked our Jet2 flights from Leeds to Budapest – mindful of its agreeable September weather – and flew just two hours before checking into the four-star Art’otel for a three-night escape, a mere stone’s throw from the water’s edge.

A quick sweep of our stylish double room revealed a picture-perfect view of Matyas Church, its landscape backed by cyan skies and terracotta roofs, so we clambered up the sprawling streets of the medieval district to explore the city’s former seat of royalty.

From the summit of Varhegy (Castle Hill) are striking views of Pest’s skyline which are dominated by the towering spires of its grand parliament building. We dodged the tourists posing for pictures in archways and strolled through the castle district for a visual history lesson.

Castle Hill, Budapest

At the heart of Buda’s enchanting courtyards and passage ways is Szentharomsag Ter (Holy Trinity Square), its most prominent feature being the colourful church.

An amble to the southern side of the hill took us past Baroque houses in dusty shades of orange to the city’s palace and castle complex – demolished and rebuilt in the wake of several battles.

Retiring to our hotel after an exhausting trek through Buda’s winding hills it was lights out once my head hit the super-comfy, foam-topped mattress, but an eight-hour kip and superb buffet breakfast later, we were back on track.

The Danube, Budapest

Leaving the leafy ‘utcas’ of Buda behind for the day, we ventured towards Margaret Island via one of the many bridges straddling the Danube.

Sitting pretty between Buda and Pest, this peaceful island is home to verdant parks made all the more striking by the golden autumn leaves crumbling underfoot.

Luscious stretches of green space are peppered with flower gardens and a musical fountain, making Margaret Island a quiet retreat in the midst of the city.

From there it was a short amble into Pest to take in one of its most famous attractions – the thermal baths.

Szechenyi’s numerous pools are housed in an elegant Baroque building and it’s clear tourists and residents alike enjoy wallowing in its toasty waters. A dip in the outside pool – at a steamy 37 degrees – was a thoroughly relaxing way to spend the afternoon.

Szechenyi Baths, Budapest
Photo credit: Seeuinhungary.com

But it’s the indoor saunas and herbal baths which provide the real entertainment as gnarled Hungarian men play water chess.

Sufficiently shrivelled after an afternoon splashing around, we strolled into the centre of Pest down its iconic boulevard, Andrassy Utca, which is topped and tailed by the monuments at Hősök Tere (Heroes Square) and the city’s infamous ‘ruin bars’.

The 1.5 mile stretch is lined with Neo-Renaissance mansions, cafes, restaurants, theatres, and luxury boutiques, but a meander through the side streets will take you to one of Pest’s most famous bars, Instant.

The venue is a maze of surreally decorated rooms featuring taxidermy owls and the drinks are generously poured. The same can be said for the neighbouring waterholes serving cheap wheat beer and strong cocktails.

But a word of warning to unsuspecting tourists after a tipple or two – check your change. Somewhere in Pest we were slipped an old Romanian note instead of Forints (Ft), meaning we lost the equivalent of £27.

Ditto taxis. We had heard horror stories of shady street cabs but we learnt a hard lesson when a 90 second ride cost us £30.

Esceri flea market, Budapest

The safest – and most economical – way to cover large distances is to pre-book taxis through hotel reception, which was no trouble for the super helpful staff at Art’otel. A 9,000 Ft ride took us 20 minutes out of town to the Esceri flea market with an hour’s wait and return journey.

Budapest is not without its dark side –its history is etched with communism, revolution and unrest, and its legacy is for sale on the market’s stalls. An unnerving selection of gas masks, Nazi memorabilia and muskets were readily available for the right price, nestled alongside austere looking teddy bears and discarded dolls.

Back in Pest we followed the sound of our growling stomachs to a street fair selling Hungarian grub.

Pay-by-the-kilo street-food, Budapest

The country’s cuisine does not cater much for the vegetarian palette with its traditional menu of goulash and veal or pork stew. But I for one enjoyed tucking into a hearty portion of unidentified gamey meat spiked with Hungary’s signature spice, paprika.

For a more glamorous culinary experience head to Gerbeaud – a lavish tea room serving delicious cake and sundaes near to the tourist trap of Vaci Utca. Try the sublime dark hot chocolate or the apple strudel topped with cinnamon ice cream for complete indulgence.

Memento Park, Budapest

Finally, if you have any energy left, take a trip to Memento Park and see the ghosts of communist dictatorship. The venue is filled with Soviet statues which were removed from the city after citizens revolted in 1956.

These gigantic monoliths of oppression are both fascinating and creepy but are well worth the short journey and admission fee for a glimpse into Budapest’s chequered past.

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