Once two independent cities divided by the Danube, Hungary’s capital is the perfect mix of culture, history and lively nightlife. Our Budapest city guide will help you get to the best bits
Where to stay
They may have unified in 1873, but Buda and Pest remain markedly different. To the west lie the hilly, cobbled streets of old Buda while eastwards is Pest, a flat, urban metropolis. The Ritz-Carlton, on the Pest side of the Danube, is the perfect base, whether visiting for work or pleasure. A stone’s throw from the shopping and business districts, the hotel, which reopened in April after refurbishment, is opulent but contemporary (marble staircases, velvet armchairs and modern art). Originally built in 1914 as offices for an Italian insurance company, it has 170 rooms, 30 suites, a ballroom, five meeting rooms, a luxury spa and an exclusive business lounge with a library. But the pièce de résistance is the hotel’s stunning stained-glass cupola with a magnificent crystal chandelier, under which sits the sleek Kupola lounge.
Where to eat
Ritz-Carlton’s Deak Street Kitchen is stylish and laid-back (low-hanging lights, bird-print wallpaper and leather seats), serving grilled plates including steak and Hungarian farm-raised chicken. The extensive wine and cocktail menu includes such unusual concoctions as Budapest Sour – a blend of Bulleit rye whiskey, lemon, sugar, egg white and a red wine reduction. For breakfast in Ritz-Carlton’s Kupola Lounge Director recommends pirkadat, a Hungarian speciality of sausage, smoked ham, paprika, tomato, red onion, goose crackling and bread. Delicious.
Where to drink
The transformed Seventh District, once a languishing quarter full of run-down buildings, is now a trendy drinking destination, popular with locals and tourists alike. The city’s romkocsma or ‘ruin bars’ are derelict buildings converted into hip watering holes. After a few palinkas (a tasty, traditional fruit brandy), you’ll worry less about the health and safety. If you don’t fancy a tipple, Budapest is brimming with cool cafés. Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda is a terrace with incredible views of the city. Order a coffee, sit back and relax.
What to see
If you’re staying in Pest, a visit to Buda is a must (take comfortable shoes for those hills). Travel by tram or trolley bus to the Castle District and explore Buda Castle – a world heritage site and national museum – then head to Várkert Bazar, aka Castle Garden Bazaar. This complex of historic buildings is surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens, and is quieter and less touristy. Szechenyi Thermal Baths is also worth a visit. Built in 1913, this impressive complex has 15 indoor baths, three outdoor pools, 10 steam rooms and numerous private massage cabins. Most pools have naturally heated spring water but there some breathtakingly icy pools,
said to have healing properties.
Budapest is the commercial centre of Hungary and English is widely spoken, especially among the young, while German is a minority language. Hungary has been a member of the EU since 2004 and many global corporations (IBM and Microsoft, for example) are based in the capital, while the European Institute of Innovation and Technology is headquartered there. The economy is export-driven, and the business culture fairly Western, though business attire remains formal. Socialising outside the workplace is common as business relationships are built on familiarity.
For the flight
To read, pick up a copy of Arthur Phillips’ misleadingly titled Prague, which is almost entirely set in early-1990s Budapest and follows the story of five US expats seeking their fortune in the city. Or settle down with the film version of John le Carré’s spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in which you can see Budapest Western rail station and, in a particularly tense scene, the shopping arcade Parizsi Udvar (Paris Court), which, though now empty, is said to have hosted many clandestine meetings during the Cold War era. If espionage isn’t your bag you’re spoiled for choice as Budapest has masqueraded as numerous cities in flicks from Evita (Buenos Aires) to Red Heat (Moscow) and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (Berlin) to The Martian (Beijing).
Budapest City Guide: view the gallery
You can fly to Budapest from most major UK airports, including Belfast, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and all London airports.