Budapest may not be among the richest cities in the European Union, which it joined last May. And it hasn't yet cashed in its forint for the euro. But the Hungarian capital has already breathed in plenty of the cosmopolitan airs flowing so freely these days between the metropolises of the EU. Expectations are high among savvy travelers—and this former Communist city is swiftly rising to meet their demands. "Budapest has the hip factor of Amsterdam and the cultural pull of Prague," says Dianne C. Brown, an American art consultant based here. "But unlike both, it hasn't yet been processed and packaged for tourists. Budapest has more potential than any other city in Europe."
You can feel the buzz—it surrounds the National Concert Hall, a grand new space for the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra that opens this spring beside the (widely derided) National Theater. You also sense it in galleries like Kogart Ház; occupying three floors of a late-19th-century royal residence, it displays contemporary Hungarian painting and sculpture. Such official venues represent only a fraction of the ever-multiplying ranks of young artists. In a studio on the Buda side of the Danube—which divides medieval Buda from the 19th-century boulevards of Pest—Zsolt Bodoni and Dóra Juhász create expressive, colorful canvases that are attracting well-heeled buyers from abroad. One painting by Juhász hangs in the bar at the new Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, which is particularly resonant considering that the hotel, which took over one of the city's most resplendent buildings, is precisely what brought the serious art-collecting traveler to town. As Juhász says, "Who would have thought a hotel would put the spotlight on contemporary Hungarian art?"
Budapest needed this addition: The boutique-style Art'otel looks tired, the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus lacks heart, and the Grand Hotel Royal caters to conventioneers. So the Four Seasons' significance can hardly be overstated (that is, until another landmark, the 185-room Palazzo New York, opens in December with interiors by Adam Tihany). The 179-room Four Seasons is a 1906 Secessionist Art Nouveau extravaganza. The stained-glass windows and mosaics are by Miksa Roth, and the glass-roof lobby is wrapped in 23,000 ceramic tiles based on a Frank Lloyd Wright design. It's also in an unbeatable location, just opposite the Chain Bridge (which leads over the Danube to Buda) and has an inventive Italian restaurant called Páva. The spa, with an onyx-flanked pool, makes the city's famous Gellért Baths a mere historical curiosity, good for a quick peek at its stunning 1913 mosaics.
Beyond the landmarks, Budapest is full of the swirling decorative arts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And the streets around Falk Miksa Utca are lined with antiques shops selling period furniture, paintings, jewelry, and decorative objects. Among the best is Bardoni, which displays curvaceous Art Nouveau and Art Deco desks, tables, and chairs that are some of Budapest's most striking examples of those bygone styles. They rival even the classic Deco interiors of the old Hungarian cafés: Gresham Café, which gave its name to the Gresham Circle of artists from the twenties, is at the Four Seasons, and the New York Café, famously rammed by a Russian tank in 1956, will reopen in the Palazzo New York this year. Not that Budapest is in the grip of nostalgia. With the emergence of a young art scene come cool restaurants and bars. Café Miró Grande and Incognito are the anchors in a sea of flashy restaurants around Liszt Ferenc Tér. Negro, just a three-block walk from the Gresham Palace, is the hot spot of St. Stephen's Basilica, a neighborhood with no shortage of stylish dining rooms and wine bars: The ultramodern Tom George serves steak with Hungarian truffles; Mokka is the place for Eastern European dishes like smoked lamb trotters; and Menza, an orange-and-brown Formica'd hangout, does a great beef stew. Baraka is hard to find (look behind the Astoria Hotel), but it's worth getting momentarily lost for American-Hungarian David Seboek's fusion of Magyar ingredients and Asian flavors (like seared goose liver with kumquat compote). For true Hungarian comfort food—paprikash, goulash, potato croquettes—and outstanding regional vintages, there's only one address: Café Kör, a convivial, ocher-walled bistro near St. Stephen's. Here gather the chic of Mitteleuropa, forming an uncanny microcosm of Budapest now—writers, artists, musicians, and thinkers mingling with a coterie of powder-faced dowagers all perfectly turned out.
FOUR SEASONS HOTEL GRESHAM PALACE Rates, $375-$4,825. At 5-6 Roosevelt Tér; 36-1/268-6000; www.fourseasons.com
BARAKA RESTAURANT Dinner, $35. At 12-14 Magyar Utca; 36-1/483-1355
CAFE KOR $ Dinner, $30. At 17 Sas Utca; 36-1/311-0053
CAFE MIRO GRANDE At 9 Liszt Ferenc Tér; 36-1/321-8666
GRESHAM CAFE Lunch, $65. At 5-6 Roosevelt Tér; 36-1/268-6000
INCOGNITO At 3 Liszt Ferenc Tér; 36-1/342-1471
MENZA Dinner, $30. At 2 Liszt Ferenc Tér; 36-1/413-1482
MOKKA Dinner, $50. At 4 Sas Utca; 36-1/328-0081
NEGRO At 11 Szent István Tér; 36-1/302-0136
PAVA Dinner, $115. At 5-6 Roosevelt Tér; 36-1/268-6000
TOM GEORGE Dinner, $70. At 8 Október 6 Utca; 36-1/266-3525
KOGART HAZ At 112 Andrássy Utca; 36-1/354-3832; www.kogart.hu
BARDONI $ At 12 Falk Miksa Utca; 36-1/269-0090
The VENICE SIMPLON-ORIENT-EXPRESS leaves Venice for Budapest on April 13, June 1, and October 19. Rate, $1,460 per person, including meals; 800-524-2420; www.orient-express.com.The Budapest Spring Festival, March 18 to April 3, will open the NATIONAL CONCERT HALL with a lineup of conductors and performers such as Pierre Boulez and violinist Midori. www.festivalcity.hu.
Art consultants DIANNE C. BROWN (36-20/954-9941) and MARIA EL-CHAMI (36-30/906-6713) customize tours of galleries and studios. $ Rate, $125 an hour.
HORVATH ZOLTAN is a reliable guide and driver who knows the city inside out. Rate, $80 per hour; firstname.lastname@example.org.
EXETER INTERNATIONAL arranges trips that include private tours of the fine arts museum, the renovated Dohány synagogue, and the Holocaust memorial. Rates, $600-$750 per person a day; 800-633-1008; www.exeterinternational.com.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.