Eastern Europe’s remarkable destination has attracted the world’s attention since the Roman Empire, but it’s appeal remains as current as ever. See history comes to life in a magnificent feast for all the senses, as our global raconteur Ashley Dobson discovers
Sailing down the Danube River one evening with a glass of champagne in my hand, it was easy to see how people fall in love with the beautiful city of Budapest. Paris might have dominated the title of “City of Love” for a century now, but the romance of Budapest can certainly give it a run for its money. Floating with my husband along the city infused with rich historic beauty, it felt like we were sailing down a movie set.
On one side of the river you have the Buda side, known as the Castle district, with historical monuments as far as the eye can see. The other side, Pest, is more lively; featuring some of the city’s most famous attractions. The Danube River, connecting the two halves, flows like the beating heart of the city.
IN ROYAL COMPANY
In Budapest, history comes to life. Vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire can still be found near signs of the 17th century Turkish occupation. Of course, the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty’s reign over the region figures prominently in Pest’s architecture. The historic Jewish districts tell the story of World War II, and remnants of Communist rule remain in the design of buildings from the 1980s. Still growing, the city is working to add a series of modern buildings to its skyline.
Hollywood is quite familiar with Budapest’s allure and has helped send the city a new wave of tourism. The Grand Budapest Hotel, set in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, sent people to the city searching for similar experiences, and Spy featured the city prominently after director Paul Feig fell in love with it while location scouting.
Travelers who visit Budapest will no doubt enjoy soaking up the culture, and indeed relish a literal soak in one of the city’s famed thermal spas. I dipped my toes in both on this Eastern European adventure.
FOUNTAINS OF YOUTH
In the spirit of adventure, I ventured to discover Pest, the city’s more vivacious half. Here, delightful restaurants and cocktail bars are tucked into repurposed ruins, along with fabulous shopping, and of course, Budapest’s crown jewels, the thermal spas.
The Szechenyi Spa Baths are the most luxurious way to spend a day in Budapest. It was an easy way to escape real life as the naturally warm water swirled around us for hours. If you are a regular spa-goer, Szechenyi will be quite a different experience. There is no soft woodwind music playing in the main area and the thermal treatments are enjoyed in large shared baths.
Despite the communal ambience, the spa offers highly personalized attention. Attendants graciously help us find our way around the enormous spa. Szechenyi is one of the largest spa baths in Europe with 15 indoor baths, three outdoor thermal pools and a stunning gold-colored palace containing rows and rows of private cabins.
A world-class indulgent experience like Szechenyi draws more than just travelers. Locals, too, swear by the healing powers of the waters and many go out of their way to enjoy a daily soak in the thermal pools. Our local guide she couldn’t wait to tell us stories of people she knew who had been healed by the baths. From infertility to cancer – these magical waters have restorative properties for everyone. In fact, as a healthy-looking woman walked past us in her bathing suit, our guide asked me to guess how old the woman was. I guessed she was about 55. But the truth is that she was in her seventies and that she had been soaking every day for 30 years. So, if you’re looking for the fountain of youth, you can find it in Budapest.
If it is not the pools that heal you, it just might be the massages. Szechenyi has a rooftop VIP lounge with massage rooms and relaxation areas for more privacy. The deeply soothing Harmony Aroma massage at the baths was perfect for me, while my husband opted to spend time in one of the facility’s many saunas.
TO DINE SO DIVINE
It was hard to say goodbye to the relaxing waters, but the call of our stomachs demanded to be answered. The food scene in Budapest is one we didn’t want to pass up. With myriad renowned restaurants and a food culture that centered on meat, the hearty use of paprika, and lots of baked desserts, my husband and I knew that we could both find something to love.
Michelin-starred Onyx Restaurant offers a take on Hungarian food that is almost too pretty to eat. Presentation is just as important as the food itself. The tasting menu was the perfect sampling of what they had to offer. Onyx also shares a roof with the world-famous Café Gerbeaud confectionery, an added bonus for anyone with room left for a sweet treat after their meal.
Robinson Restaurant in City Park, down the street from the Szechenyi Baths, is the best place in Budapest to get a great steak. The restaurant’s sommelier, Masciuch Béla, really knew his wines and offered fantastic recommendations. Monk’s Bistrot, located just off the bank of the Danube River, is the place to enjoy a dish of lamb or suckling pig. The cozy atmosphere was great for conversation.
A TOAST TO BOAST
Hungarians have a lot to be proud of, but there is nothing they pride more than their wine. The vast majority of vineyards and winemakers do not export wine out of the country, so it is a luxury not many foreigners get to enjoy. For the best wine tasting experience in Budapest, there is simply no better spot than Faust Wine Cellar.
Tucked away underground in Buda’s castle district, behind the stunning Matthias Church and underneath the Hotel Hilton Budapest, Faust Wine Cellar is an exclusive experience. With only five tables and two reservation times per day, it can be tough to get a seat at the cellar. But the intimate setting ensures just the right amount of personalized attention and, even better, access to the most exclusive vintages.
Hungarian wine is the stuff of legends – literally. While sipping a bold red wine – properly called Bikavér, but commonly known as Bull’s Blood – my husband and I were regaled with tales of how the wine got its name. According to one legend, the name came about while the Turks were trying to invade the town of Eger. To give themselves strength and the courage to fight during the siege, the people of Eger drank red wine. The red color of the wine stained their beards and armor and the invading Turks thought they had been drinking the blood of bulls. The Turks withdrew in fear, and the Hungarians prevailed. Sitting underneath the historical Castle district and drinking a cup of “Bull’s blood,” Budapest made me feel like a fierce warrior ready to take on anything.
FLOATING ON A DREAM
But for a city that always leads back to the water, we realized that we had eaten all of our meals on land. On our last night in Budapest, we decided to try one last unique experience. We booked a candlelight dinner cruise down the Danube River on the Legenda Boat and watched as the sun set on the water, illuminating the city’s famous landmarks against the night sky.
Our time in Budapest had flown by too quickly. As dinner ended and the Legenda started back to the dock, I wished the boat would slow down. I wasn’t ready for our trip to end. Drifting along with the current, I replayed memories of our trip in my head as we passed back by each location – the Chain Bridge, Hungarian Parliament, Buda Castle. Each one made me smile, and I knew I would be sharing memories about this trip for months to come.
I also knew that I couldn’t let this be my last time in Budapest. My husband was thinking the same thing. “When we come back here,” his next sentence started. I was grinning too hard to fully register the rest of his sentence. I only had one reply. “I can’t wait.” Give yousrelf the pleasure of experiencing Budapest for yourself, too. You’ll soon find yourself planning your own return voyage to this magical city.
Budapest is a stunning city, so look for a hotel that gives you a great view. Also, consider location. Since the city is bisected by the Danube River, you should stay on the side of the river where you plan to spend most of your time.
For a regal look and an unbeatable river view, the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest definitely lives up to its architecture by giving you the full royal treatment. Add the bonus of the Four Seasons spa to Budapest’s booming spa culture and you’re in for the perfect vacation.
Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest
Budapest, Széchenyi István tér 5-6, 1051 Hungary
If you want a city experience and to be close to the famed Hungarian Opera House, Boscolo Budapest is for you.
Budapest, Erzsébet krt. 9, 1073 Hungary
For true art lovers, boutique hotel Brody House may be more your style. Each room in Brody House includes a unique art installation. With only 11 rooms on the premises, the concierge promises devoted attention to guests.
Budapest, Bródy Sándor u. 10, 1088 Hungary
Narrowing down what to see in Budapest can be tough, but here are a few can’t-miss locations.
You must see the immensely impressive State Opera House. If you don’t have time to enjoy a performance, be sure to at least go inside and admire the grand décor.
Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts features an impressive collection of Dutch, German and French art from the 15th to 19th centuries. It is also home to the second largest collection of Spanish painters after the Prado in Madrid.
Hungarian Parliament is one of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings. It is the largest building in Hungary and is the highest building in Budapest.
Matthias Church is simply breathtaking. Located in the Buda’s Castle District, this Roman Catholic Church was constructed in the Gothic style and includes a tile roof with mosaic tiles that can only be found in one other European city, Vienna, Austria. The church also has its own legend that surrounds it, the “Mary-wonder.” In 1686, during the siege of Buda, a wall of the church collapsed due to cannon fire. A Madonna statue was hidden behind the wall and was revealed in the fall. As the sculpture of the Virgin Mary appeared before the Muslim invaders, it is said that they fell at her feet and immediately surrendered.
Buda Castle is the historical palace of the Hungarian kings in Budapest. While no traditional castle exists here now, the Castle District is famous for its baroque and 19th-century houses, churches, and public buildings.