48 hours in Budapest

Healing hot springs, neo-Gothic spires, Habsburg glories - and a mummified hand. It's the tale of two cities straddling the Danube.
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Budapest is a place where you can still enjoy old-fashioned geniality - just (work on 2,000 much-needed new hotel rooms is under way). Try to visit around 20 August, when the city's own millennial celebrations take place. This year it's 1,000 years since Hungary's founding father, the canonised King Stephen, was crowned, so the annual parade of his mummified right hand round the Basilica (1) should be even more dramatic than usual. For a racier incentive, the Hungarian Grand Prix gets under way a week before.

BEAM DOWN

Budapest is two hours from London Heathrow or Gatwick on either Malev Hungarian Airlines (020-7439 0577; www.malev.hu) or British Airways (0845 7733377; www.britishairways.com), or from Heathrow only on British Midland (0870 60 70 555, www.britishmidland.com). Return flights cost from £212. Hungarian Airtours (020-7831 7626) offers two night packages, with flights and accommodation, from £269.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The Danube flows right through the middle of the city, with the old, hilly Buda and Obuda on the west bank, and the political, economic and cultural hub, Pest, on the flat, eastern bank. Buy a three-day "Budapest Card" (£8.50) and travel free on trams, buses and the metro, plus reductions on the airport minibus. This costs £1.50 one-way and runs every half an hour to Deak ter (2) but, for £2.50 more, it will take you where you like.

CHECK IN

Buda: a double room costs £25 a night at the Hotel Citadella (3) (Citadella setany, 00 36 1 466 5794) or £52 at the clean, friendly City Panzio Ring (4) (22, Svent Istvan korut, 00 36 1 340 5450). Book a £70 double and enjoy the art nouveau pool at the opulent Gellert Hotel (5) (1, Szent Gellert ter, 00 36 1 385 2200). Pest: £150 buys a double at the Marriott (6) (4, Apaczai Csere Janos utca, 00 36 1 266 7000) where Liz Taylor and Richard Burton celebrated her 40th birthday.

TAKE A RIDE

The Danube is perhaps at its most seductive at night, when a river cruise (£8.50, with drinks) sweeps you past softly illuminated monuments, bridges and curvy church spires to a (loud) fanfare of music by local composer Liszt. Go by day, though, and you can journey up to Margaret Island (£7.50) and hire a "Bringo" (a double bicycle). Alternatively, take a regular boat (£2.90 return) up to Esztergom and explore Bratislava, across on the opposite bank. In Budapest, most boats leave from Piers 6 or 7 (7), opposite the Marriott hotel.

TAKE A HIKE

In the narrow streets of Castle Hill (the Var) you'll find the stunning St Matyas church (8) and the former Royal Palace (9) but suckers for punishment should climb Gellert Hill to the Citadella (10), with its 14m-high Liberty Statue. There are fantastic panoramas from both hilltops but, for a good, old-fashioned walk, simply stroll beside the river underneath chestnut trees and watch the number 2 tram rattling past from time to time.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

With over 130 hot springs, Budapest is the spa capital of Europe. Bathing in the mineral-rich water is free for locals as part of state health care, and even the successful breeding of hippos in captivity in the zoo opposite is put down to their bathing in the waters. Prices range from £3.75 at the Gellert (5) to around £1 at either the Szechenyi baths (24) or in the 16th-century Ottoman pool at the Kiraly (25) (on Fo utca).

SUNDAY MORNING, GO TO CHURCH

Part of St Matyas (8) is medieval, but it's mostly 19th-century neo-Gothic. Almost all the country's kings were crowned here and the walls are painted with the story. The largest synagogue in Europe, the Central Synagogue, (21) is on Dohany utca. Nearby is the udvar (22) (16 Dob utca/15 Kiraly utca), an intriguing, dilapidated chain of interconnecting archways and courtyards linking two streets in the Jewish quarter.

BRACING BRUNCH

In Budapest the nearest thing to brunch is a three-course, £9.50 feast at the Gundel (23) (2, Allatkerti ut, 00 36 1 321 3550). This means a three-course meal beginning with a salad or cold sour-cherry or melon soup, followed by a meat-based course such as beef stew. For the finale, order the celebrated Gundel pancake - it's a delicious, gooey mass of ice cream, hot chocolate and walnuts.

A WALK IN THE PARK

On summer evenings, concerts take place in the City Park (24), in the shadow of the rather odd-looking Vajdahunyad Castle. Performances by orchestras like the Hungarian National Philharmonic cost £7.50 and are reached by a bridge across a boating lake. Also in the City Park are a zoo, a weekend flea market and the Szechenyi baths, where men like to while away the hours, sitting in the water playing chess.

DEMURE DINNER

For a hearty meal in a convivial atmosphere, go to Fatal (18) (67 Vaci utca, 00 36 1 266 2607). Despite the name, the food is interesting, tasty and cheap. A bread roll scooped out to serve as a dish for chicken soup costs £1.25, and a plate of fried tuna and potatoes is around £2. Hungary is also just starting to cater for the vegetarian market. One of its best vegetarian restaurants is Gandhi's (19) (4, Vigyazo Ferenc utca, 00 36 1 269 1625). Or, for meat, vegetarian and fish dishes, head to Fortuna (20) (4, Hess Andras ter, 00 36 1 375 6857), where there's a folk orchestra playing, and you can decant your own "champagne" with a hand-turned corker in the cellar afterwards.

AN APERITIF

A traditional Hungarian pub with wooden booths and a spotless chequered floor, Apostolok (15) (4, Kigyo ut, 00 36 1 267 0290) serves half a litre of beer for just over £1. You might prefer to keep the vampires from nearby Transylvania at bay by drinking the nation's favourite, but pungent, liqueur and hangover cure, Unicum, at Old Amsterdam (16) (14, Kiralyi Pal Utca, 00 36 1 266 3649). Or, stroll down to Club Verne (17) (60, Vaci utca, 00 36 1 318 6274) for cocktails above an illuminated floor.

WINDOW SHOPPING

If you want to catch a bargain, the Central Market Hall (11) opens for business at 6am and is a good bet for linen. Nearby, the city's main thoroughfare, Vaci utca, offers an eclectic mix of shops, including many which sell Hungary's folk-art and floral "Victoria" china. For something a little different, make your way to Ekes (14), a tiny traditional glove shop just off Vaci utca on Regiposta utca.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Meat-eaters will rejoice in the variety of sausages available. If you go into the Central Market Hall (11), just off Vaci utca, stretching as far as the eye can see around the inner perimeter opposite the vegetable stalls are traditional butcher kiosks. Do as the locals do and carry a pocketknife to cut up your kolbasz (smoked sausage) on the go, or head upstairs and sit on a high stool to snack on langos (a piece of dough fried up with different sausage or vegetable toppings).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The National Museum (12) (14-16 Muzeum Korut, 00 36 1 338 2122) offers an overview of the city's turbulent past, from the first royal dynasty to life behind the Iron Curtain. For £3, tour the parliament building, or Orszaghaz (13), which holds the country's fabled crown. To get in the spirit of the St Stephen fest, pay £1 to visit the Basilica for a close-up of his bejewelled right hand before taking the lift (or climbing 302 steps) to the roof for a heart-stopping view.

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