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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Adee Braun takes us to a city that she called home for a year—one of the stateliest and underappreciated capitals of Central Europe. We’re headed to Budapest, Hungary.
WHAT TO DO
When the medieval kings of Hungary decided to build themselves a capital, they chose their new home wisely on a rocky hill overlooking a wide river. Today that rocky hill is home to the Buda Castle and that wide Danube River flows through the majestic city of Budapest. Like its neighboring countries, the last century has been a difficult one for Hungary. It has lost wars and an empire and spent years behind the Iron Curtain. Despite this, Budapest today stands out as a beautiful former capital of a realm that once spanned from the Carpathian Mountains to the Adriatic Sea. A lot of people have passed through Budapest at one time or another—the Romans, the Turks, the Austrians, the Germans—and they’ve all left their mark. But Budapest is no mausoleum. It is a lively city with diverse neighborhoods full of cafes, yellow trams, historic buildings, new constructions, vibrant markets and colorful festivals.
The Danube River runs through the city, dividing Buda from Pest, which were once two separate cities until they merged in 1873. Today, Budapest is Hungary’s capital and largest city. Buda is the city’s old Medieval neighborhood where the Buda Castle looks down on Pest and the leafy Buda hills are dotted with the homes of the city’s elite.
The most direct (and expensive) way to visit Castle Hill is by funicular. A local bus will also take up there via a twisting scenic route for a lot less money. Castle Hill is a dense collection of sights, hotels and some cafes and restaurants including the Ruszwurm Cukraszda, one of the oldest and best pastry shops in the city. You’ll find the Buda Castle, Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion on the hill, as well as the National Library and National Archives. The brightly colored medieval and Baroque buildings, cobblestoned streets and magnificent views make Castle Hill the prime tourist spot of the city.
The castle itself is not a singular gothic structure as you might imagine, but rather a sprawling complex of buildings from various periods dating back to the 13th century. The main structure is a wide Baroque palace that stretches across the top of the hill which houses several museums including the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery.
Across the Danube, Pest offers the livelier, 19th-century section of the city, with grand avenues and buildings. The iconic Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd), built in 1849, was the first permanent bridge to span the Danube. A few block inland from the bridge is Budapest’s Champs-Élysées, Andrássy Avenue, the grand boulevard that cuts through central Pest to City Park.
It was in fact modeled after the Parisian boulevard, and you’ll find many of the same designer shops along it as well as the magnificent Hungarian State Opera House. Tickets are affordable and can usually be bought that the same day, or a day or two in advance. Andrássy Avenue ends at the crescent shaped Millennium Monument on Heroes Square, completed in 1900 to celebrate 1,000 years of the Hungarian nation. Beyond the square lies City Park, a leafy respite with strolling paths, a couple ponds, and a reconstruction of a Transylvanian Castle that is now the musty Museum of Hungarian Agriculture. But the gem of the park is the palatial Széchenyi Bath.
Budapest has dozens of thermal baths ranging in size and style, but if you only go to one, this should be the one. It’s in a lemony colored neo-Baroque building featuring indoor and outdoor baths as well as a pool. It’s not a luxurious spa experience, but taking a soak in a palace amongst both locals and tourists is one Pesti experience that is not to be missed.
Also in Pest is the Jewish quarter, which was once home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. The Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, is Europe’s largest and is a stunning example of neo-Moorish design. The synagogue welcomes visitors for tours, which includes entrance to the adjacent museum. The Jewish Quarter, once a ghetto, has been thoroughly gentrified and today is one of Budapest’s hippest neighborhoods with great restaurants and secret “ruin bars,” which have set up shop in the carcasses of grand abandoned buildings.
The Austrians brought cafe culture to Budapest, a legacy that remains strong today. Budapest cafes come in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few historic ones that should not be missed including the New York Cafe in the Boscolo Marriott (mentioned below), Centrál Café and Lukács for a strong Hungarian kávé (small, strong coffee) and a buttery krémes (cream pastry). Budapest is still low on culinary diversity, but the Central Market is a great place to get a taste of Hungarian food from dried meats, cheeses, pastries and fresh produce. Every district has its own market as well, where the prices are lower and crowds are thinner. Dining in Budapest is a casual affair with decent lunches of traditional fare such as goulash and chicken paprika. Fine and international dining is slowly finding its way to the city which now boasts two Michelin star restaurants: Onyx and Costes.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport (BUD), formerly Ferihegy Airport, was a bit pokey by international standards until 2012 when an expansion and renovations were completed. Although Budapest is a hub for Central Europe, there are no non-stop flights from the US. This is partially due to the fact that Hungary no longer has a national airline since Malév went bankrupt and then ceased operations in 2012.
When it comes to SkyTeam, KLM offers non-stop service to Amsterdam, and Air France flies direct to Paris-Charles de Gaulle. On Star Alliance, you can connect through Frankfurt, as Lufthansa flies from there as well as Munich and Dusseldorf among other airports. Oneworld flyers could connect through London-Heathrow on British Airways. RyanAir and Wizz Air both have a large presence at Budapest and provide low-cost air transportation within Europe, though beware the extra fees.
The airport is located about 10 miles outside the city center. There are several ways to get there varying in convenience and cost. A train runs very frequently from Terminal 1 to Nyugati Train Station and takes about 25 minutes for 370 HUF ($1.60). Alternatively, the 200E bus runs every 10 minutes from Terminal 2 to the last stop on Metro Line 3 at Kőbánya-Kispest. The whole trip takes about 50 minutes and only costs 320 HUF ($1.40). You can also take a taxi (Főtaxi has the monopoly), which will take about 25 minutes to get to the city center. The prices are set by zone and run 3,800-6,500 HUF ($16-28). There’s also the Airport Shuttle, which you can reserve ahead of time. It will take longer but will cost 3,200-5,500 HUF ($14-23).
Radisson Blu Beke Hotel: This property is centrally located in Pest two blocks from Andrássy Avenue and the Opera House. The hotel is housed in an early 19th-century building with basic rooms, though a little outdated. All rooms have free WiFi and flatscreen TVs. The hotel provides a gym, with a sauna and pool. The hotel restaurant, Olive’s, offers Mediterranean inspired Hungarian cuisine and the Zsolnay Café features Hungarian pastries. This is a Category 1 property with rates from 9,000 Gold Points or 60 EUR ($80) in July.
Other Club Carlson properties include the Park Inn by Radisson Budapest, another modern option in a business district in Pest, about 4 miles from the Chain Bridge. It is also a Category 1 property with rates from 9,000 Gold Points or 60 EUR ($80) in July. There is also the Art’otel Budapest, by Park Plaza which is located right on the water on the Buda side, a few blocks from the Chain Bridge. This is a Category 3 property, with rates from 28,000 Gold Points or 85 EUR ($110) in July.
Hilton Budapest Hotel: This property is about as close as you can get to sleeping in the Buda Castle itself. The hotel is a former 13th-century church perched on Castle Hill just steps away from St. Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. The design is more functional than inspired, but with panoramic views of the Danube and the Parliament, who really cares? There is a fitness center with a running track, spa and sauna. WiFi is available throughout the hotel, and in the rooms for a fee. The Lobby Cafe and Bar serves breakfast in the morning, and drinks and light fare in the afternoon and evening. The Icon Restaurant serves Hungarian and Mediterranean food with stunning views of Pest and the Parliament. This is a Hilton Category 5 hotel requiring 30,000 HHonors points (30,000-40,000 seasonally) or rates in July start at 69 EUR ($90).
Hilton Budapest WestEnd: This Hilton property is right by the Nyugati Station and is geared largely to business travelers. This is a Hilton Category 5 hotel requiring 40,000 HHonors points (30,000-40,000 seasonally) with rates starting from 92 EUR ($120).
Budapest Marriott Hotel: This property is located right on the Danube in Pest. The fabulous views from many of the hotel’s 362 rooms make up for an otherwise spiritless building design. The rooms themselves are warmly decorated with contemporary furnishings. WiFi is available in the public areas and guest rooms. Guests can enjoy free access to the fitness center, which includes a gym, whirlpool and sauna. The hotel’s restaurant, Peppers! offers Hungarian infused Mediterranean cuisine, including a buffet Sunday brunch. There’s also a hotel bar and cafe. This is a Category 6 property, requiring 30,000 Marriott Rewards points or room rates start at 119 EUR ($154) in July .
Boscolo Budapest, Autograph Collection: This beautiful historic hotel is right on Erzsébet Körút, the main ring road around the city and steps from the Metro and several tram stops. The hotel is housed in a stately Beaux-Arts building, but the lobby is the centerpiece. White archways wrap around five flights of hallways creating a dramatic courtyard with interior balconies reaching up to a large skylight. The rooms are less dramatic but still elegant, decorated in a modern style. There’s free Wifi in all the rooms and throughout the hotel. This hotel also houses the grand New York Cafe. It’s a step back in time to the heyday of Hungarian cafes. The cafe serves meals throughout the day, while the hotel’s restaurant, The Salon, offers Hungarian and international dinners. The Boscolo Spa offers a variety of treatments and there’s a gym with a pool, sauna and hot tub. This is a category 6 Marriott Rewards property, requiring 30,000 points or rates start at 110 EUR ($145) in July.
Courtyard Budapest City Center: This hotel offers centrally located, basic accommodations in Pest. This is a category 3 hotel requiring 15,000 Marriott Rewards Points, or rates start at 69 EUR ($90) in July. You can’t use points at the Marriott Millennium Court, Executive Apartments, but its location two blocks from the riverbank in Pest makes it a good option for longer stays. Room rates in July begin at 85 EUR ($110) per evening.
InterContinental Budapest: This hotel overlooks the Danube, mere steps from the Chain Bridge and many other sights. It’s a large, modern structure with contemporary interior designs and prime views of the river and castle. All rooms have flatscreen TVs, robes and WiFi (for a fee). Hotel amenities include a spa and indoor pool. The Corso Restaurant offers contemporary Hungarian cuisine overlooking the castle. Room rates start at 35,000 Priority Club Rewards Points or 119 EUR ($155) in July.
Holiday Inn Budapest: This modern hotel is about 6 miles from the city center in the commercial district of Budaörs. Room rates start at 10,000 Priority Club Rewards Points or 72 EUR ($95) in July.
Le Méridien Budapest: This stately hotel in the historic Adria Palace is located right on Erzsébet tér, a rare urban park near most of the major sights and several Metro stops. The lobby is an atrium with a dramatic glass dome as its centerpiece. Rooms are styled with warm and classic furnishings like poster beds, modest chandeliers and spacious, marble bathrooms. Rooms have free high-speed wired internet (WiFi for 19 EUR/day!), flatscreen TVs, bathrobes and slippers, and some have balconies. The hotel’s health club includes fitness equipment, a pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, steam room and massage treatments. There are two restaurants: The Bourbon offers French cuisine (with cheeses imported from Paris) and the more international Atrium with a more casual Hungarian and pan-European menu as well as a Sunday Brunch. Check out TPG’s review of the hotel from his stay in 2011. This is a SPG Category 4 property requiring 10,000 SPG points per night or 130 EUR ($170) in July.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, and other perks.
Four Seasons Gresham Palace: This is the destination hotel of Budapest. When you walk over the Chain Bridge from Buda to Pest, the spectacular Art Nouveau Gresham Palace greets you on the other side. Needless to say, the location cannot be beat, and the hotel is so striking that tourists (including this one) have been known to mill about the lobby gawking at the detailed mosaics. Built in 1906 as the Gresham Life Assurance Company, it reopened in 2004 as a Four Seasons after five years of restoration. The rooms are equally meticulously designed with eclectic and elegant mahogany furnishings and marbled bathrooms. Some rooms have Danube views and some suites have small balconies. The health club includes fitness equipment, an infinity pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and full spa services with seven treatment rooms. The Gresham Restaurant serves Hungarian and Italian cuisine. The Bar and Lobby Lounge offers lighter fare and drinks under the spectacular glass cupola of the lobby. For more on the Gresham Palace read TPG’s review from his stay. Room rates in July start at 275 EUR ($360).
The Le Méridien Budapest is also part of the Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts program.