After Communism fell in Budapest nearly 30 years ago, travelers were attracted to the city primarily for its Eastern European feel and dozens of well-preserved Art Nouveau buildings. Today, however, Budapest has evolved beyond the baths and goulash it’s known for. While gritty remnants of Communism still remain, the city has a new, sophisticated side worth exploring now.
Hungary’s capital—in the northern part of the country, 30 miles south of Slovakia and 150 miles east of Vienna—is divided into two districts: hilly, suburban Buda on the west bank of the Danube, and flat, urban Pest to the east. Travelers should spend the majority of their visit in bustling Pest. Easy to explore on foot, it is home to the neo-Gothic Parliament Building, with its maroon roof, and the Hungarian State Opera House (Andrássy út 22; 36-1/332-8197; opera.hu). Beside the strudel stalls at the popular Great Market Hall (Vámház krt. 1–3; no phone) is the Liberty Bridge, “the most astonishing bridge in the world,” says Zoltán Varró, who designed Pest’s Aria Hotel and the Michelin-starred Onyx restaurant.
The top rooms in the city center, 20 minutes east of the river, are the four newly remodeled one-bedroom Executive Suites at the 445-room neoclassical Corinthia Hotel Budapest (rooms from $175; Erzsébert krt. 43; 36-1/479-4000; corinthia.com). Alternatively, staying at the glass-domed Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest (rooms from $345; Széchenyi István tér 5–6; 36-1/268-6000; fourseasons.com)—a 1906 Art Nouveau eyepopper near the Chain Bridge—ensures a luxe base close to the river. Of the 179 rooms, book one of the fifth-floor Tower Suites, which have Danube views. Will Clothier, the British cofounder of Brody House hotel, recommends the Four Seasons’s afternoon tea. Brody House (rooms from $75; Bródy Sándor utca 10; 36-1/266-1211; brodyhouse.com) is further south in the on-the-rise Eighth District. Each of its 11 rooms was designed by a different artist, such as Hungarian painter Attila Stark.
In and around the city center, Zeller Bistro (Izabella utca 38; 36-30/651-0880), a rustic cellar restaurant, offers sparkling elderflower wine from the Zeller family’s vineyard in Badacsony, in the western part of the country, and elegant Hungarian fare like tender pork loin over bulgur. At Fricska Gastropub (Dob utca 56–58; 36-30/520-3277; fricska.eu) nearby, the menu changes based on what’s at the market, but expect such dishes as spinach soup topped with a poached egg and paprika-chicken stew. Inside the famous neo-Baroque opera house is the popular Opera Café (Andrássy utca 22, Hajós út 6; 36-1/800-9210; operacafe.hu), where the thing to order is jalapeño pizza. Near St. Stephen’s Basilica, Margaret de Heinrich de Omorovicza, cofounder of Omorovicza, a skin-care range, stops at Café Kör (Sas utca 17; 36-1/311-0053) for the beef goulash. “If you ask nicely, Gabor, the owner, may make you his famous potato chips,” she says. By the Great Market Hall, at Borbíróság (Csarnok tér 5; 36-1/219-0902; en.borbirosag.com), the specialty is lecsó, a Hungarian-style ratatouille.
The local wine’s reputation is often defined by the too-sweet dessert wines from the Tokaj region in the northeast. But there are notable varietals—rarely seen in the U.S.—from Villány and Szekszárd, in southwestern Hungary. Order a bottle of Sebestyén Cabernet from Szekszárd at DiVino Wine Bar’s (Király utca 13; 36-70/413-4899; divinoborbar.hu) outpost in the Jewish Quarter.
Budapest sits on 118 hot springs—more than any other capital in the world. In Pest’s City Park, a 15-minute subway ride from the Danube, is Széchenyi Gyógyfürdő (Állatkerti krt. 9–11; 36-1/363-3210; szechenyibath.hu), one of the largest bath complexes in Europe and, Varró argues, among the best. “It is like a baroque palace,” he says.
Buda’s biggest draw is the Buda Castle District, home to medieval museums and churches dating back to the 13th century. Start the day with croissants and wiener sausages at Villa Bagatelle (Németvölgyi út 17; 36-1/213-4190; villa-bagatelle.com), located in a three-story house. For lunch, Tanti (Apor Vilmos tér 11–12; 36-20/243-1565; tanti.hu), one of the city’s four Michelin-starred restaurants, is beloved for dishes that include cumin-scented octopus with cabbage. It’s best to go during the day, when the restaurant is flooded with light. Closer to the river, Varró shops at Ligno Art (Fő utca 10; 36-70/772-8046; en.lignoart.com) for Hungarian furniture. Of the district’s hotels, Baltazár’s (rooms from $140; Országház utca 31; 36-1/300-7051; baltazarbudapest.com) 11 rooms feature vintage furniture and Vivienne Westwood wallpaper. Its restaurant’s sidewalk is perfect for sipping Kreinbacher sparkling wine, from the Somló region in the northwest.
But the real reward for venturing to Buda is the panoramic view from its Citadella, a fortress on top of Gellért Hill. “The day after an evening out, you cannot beat a walk up to blow the cobwebs away,” Clothier says.
Image Credits: Paul Thuysbaert Photography, Brody House Group