Three days in Budapest
April 2, 2013
Budapest appeals to the Cold War history buff. It's definitely got something for the couple searching for a romantic and unique getaway. And young single will find a lively social scene. Comprised of two cities with distinctly different flavors, the capital of Hungary is youthful and vibrant while still managing to honor its rich history. Separated by the Danube River and each uniquely different, Buda to the west is a quaint and ancient reminder of the city's imperial Ottoman era. Pest, on the eastern side of the Danube, is the newer, more cosmopolitan of the two cities; a center of Art Nouveau architecture, sprawling boulevards, delicious cuisine and haute shopping. In three days you can get a true taste of everything the "Pearl of the Danube" has to offer.
Day 1 -- PEST
Travel north along the Danube toward the Hungarian Parliament Building. Breathtaking in scope, this impressive Gothic Revival building -- largest building in Hungary -- houses the country's legislative and executive branches of government. If you're interested in an English speaking tour, make sure to book online in advance of your visit.
Walk the maze of streets from Parliament south past St. Stephen's Basilica until you arrive at a street known as Andrássy út. A stroll along this iconic boulevard gives visitors a chance to experience the pre-Soviet luxury of the city. Andrássy út is home to a number of Budapest's Art Nouveau and Neoclassical mansions, the Hungarian State Opera House, boutiques and embassies as well as being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can easily walk from the Opera House until the boulevard ends at Heroes Square. This massive plaza is marked by the Millennium monument and flanked by the Palace of Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts.
Beyond the square lies City Park, where you can follow the paths meandering through abandoned Soviet-era tennis courts, random sculptures and ancient oak trees. Explore the architecturally mish-mashed Vajdahunyad Castle and bargain hunt at the park's weekend flea markets. Vendors accept the Euro, but use the local currency: the Hungarian Forint, in order to avoid a vendor's sloppy arithmetic in exchange rates.
At the outer edge of the park stands the stunning Széchenyi Thermal Baths complex. This beautiful yellow Neoclassical building houses the largest medicinal bath in Europe and no trip to Budapest is complete without a soak in one of their pools. Visiting during the winter? The baths offer a memorable opportunity to sit in the outdoor thermal baths and enjoy a snowfall. Allow for a two to three hour visit and check the bath's website for day-specific details. Pack your swimsuit and flip-flops, and grab a towel from your hotel before heading to the baths. Book your tickets in advance at your hotel to reserve a cabana for changing and to store your belongings while you swim.
Day 2 -- BUDA
The old city of Buda houses some of the grandest reminders of the city's imperial history. Begin your day early in order to beat the crowds. Stroll across the Chain Bridge to the Victorian-era Funicular, where you can ride the antique vehicles almost vertically up the side of Castle Hill. Wait times for the funicular can be long in the summer months, but there is an alternative: Just hike it. The trek is long but allows for some of the most vast and beautiful scenery across the Danube. It's also shaded by trees, keeping the summer heat at bay.
Atop the hill, visit the National Gallery housed inside the former Royal Palace. Wander the castle grounds making your way through archeological remains of the Palace complex, destroyed during WWII bombing raids. You can spend your entire day strolling the nearby hill-top neighborhood lined with quaint 18th and 19th century houses and shops, perhaps treating yourself to a piece of antique Hungarian porcelain at one of the many antique stores.
Navigate your way toward the rainbow-roof of St. Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion, a 19th century terrace that resembles a sandcastle. This vantage point offers postcard-worthy pictures of Parliament, the city's three major bridges and Gellert Hill to the south. Explore the area by simply wandering the complex and take pictures from the numerous viewpoints accessible for free. The tallest tower of the Bastion houses a bar where you can sit riverside and sip an espresso or a pint of the locally brewed lagers Dreher or Soproni. In the summer time, order the Hungarian version of a white wine spritzer called fröccs (pronounced "fru-ch").
Another must is participating in a wine tasting. Hungarian wine is a coveted gem of Hungary and is rarely exported. Although integral to the history of the country, Hungarian wine was banned from commercial production prior to 1990, only adding to its elusive status. The selection and experience you will have at Faust Wine Cellars is one to remember. For each wine you sample you'll receive instruction in its background and production. Getting to the cellar is a little tricky. Immediately next to the St. Matthias church and the Fisherman's Bastion, you will enter the Hilton Hotel. Follow the signs through the hotel and then down to the foundation of a 13th century Dominican cloister. There in a tiny cellar room you are treated to tasting some of the finest wines the country has to offer. Make sure to email or call the company to make reservations prior to your visit and allow two to three hours for a six-wine tasting. Keep in mind that the funicular closes at 10 p.m., so plan a walk down the hill if your wine tasting or visit to Castle Hill runs beyond that time.
Day 3 -- SOUTHERN PEST & BUDA
Atop Gellért Hill, in southern Buda, sits the Citadella and the Soviet-era Liberty Statue. From here you have the opportunity to fill your camera with even more postcard worthy panoramas of the city and the Danube River. You can follow the various paths leading you down the hill and wash off your post-hike sweat in the Gellért Hotel and Baths. The Art Nouveau bath house, built between 1912 and 1918, features an artificial wave pool, saunas, a plunge pool, bubble baths and massage services.
After your soak, walk across the jade-hued Liberty Bridge and make sure to visit the breathtaking Great Market Hall. The building is almost impossible to miss with its rainbow-colored tile roof. Upon entering the gigantic Victorian building, you are almost overcome with exotic scents and vibrant colors of each vendor selling their own unique product. The first floor overflows with cheese, fresh produce, warm breads and meat from every animal you can image. Take the escalator to the top floor and make your way though booths selling Hungarian linens, paprika, porcelain and hand tooled leather. Grab a snack to tide you over until dinner, or partake in one of their Hungarian cooking classes. Spend the remainder of your day walking the neighborhoods between the Market Hall and Andrássy út. The area is full of boutiques and souvenir shops that offer opportunities to find that "perfect" Budapest memento.
HOW TO GET THERE
Budapest is an easily accessible city by both train and by air. Fly into the Budapest Ferihegy Airport and take a train or taxi into downtown. Alternatively, reach the city by train, arriving at one of the three main rail stations and then hop on the metro to reach your destination.
WHAT TO PACK
Although part of the European Union, Hungary does not use the Euro as its currency. The country is still on the Hungarian Forint, a currency commonly used in denominations of thousands. Paying for an item with thousands of any currency promises to make one feel like royalty, even if it is only when paying for a bottle or water. Visit a conversion website prior to your trip. Also make sure you prepare for possible issues involving international currency.
Don't forget your passport. While residents living within the EU often cross borders freely, the agreement does not extend to U.S. or other non-EU citizens.
Be sure to leave enough room in your luggage for the bottles of wine or other delicacies you will surely want to bring back with you. After your wine tasting and Market Hall experience, it's nearly impossible to want to leave the city without a delicious bottle of Tokaji or pack of Hungarian paprika.
WHERE TO STAY
For a central location, look for a hotel situated near the Chain Bridge. If you don't wish to stay near the central portion of town, which can be flooded with tourists especially during the summer, look for a hotel that sits along one of the main Metro Lines.
While the city is easy to walk, Budapest's underground rail system is simple and easy to follow. There are three lines that connect the city, with a fourth currently under construction. For a time travelling experience, hop on the historic Metro Line 1 (Millennium Line), the oldest underground railroad in continental Europe. With its white tile walls, decorative columns and wood accents, not much has changed since the line opened in 1896. Purchase a block of 10 single tickets for 3,000 HUF (about $13) and be sure to validate each ticket before entering the train. While there are no automated entrance systems for the metro, tickets are checked manually by the pass controllers may inspect tickets anywhere within the metro system. Caught without a ticket? Expect a pay-on-the-spot 8,000 HUF fine.
WHERE TO EAT
Hungarian food is more functional than, say, French cuisine. It is based heavily on meats, vegetables, fruits, fresh bread and cheeses. When dining, try the goulash (gulyás), which ingredients change seasonally, or a savory strudel (Hortobágyi palacsinta) filled with veal, cheese and vegetables.
To start your day you can opt for a full brunch experience and duck into the eclectic Most! Bistro near the Opera House, where you can sip on a Kir Royale and treat yourself to their delectable goat cheese omelet. For a lighter breakfast at one of the city's famous coffee houses you can visit the historic and elegant Café Gerbeaud or sample the artisan bread made fresh daily at Gerlóczy Café.
For a dinner of authentic Hungarian cuisine with a modern twist, venture to Tigris Restaurant. Here you can indulge in traditional Hungarian staples such as goulash soup and foie gras while sipping on a glass of locally produced Tojaki- wine. Another option is to step back in time to pre-Soviet Budapest with a jazz dinner at Lado Café, an elegant and simple bistro that appears unchanged since the 1930s.