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A three-hour train ride from Vienna’s grand palaces is Budapest, the equally wondrous yet delightfully scruffy capital of Hungary. The sounds of Magyar, a beautiful but seemingly inscrutable language, fill the charming streets, as do the lively bars, where locals are smitten with craft beer. It’s a compact, strollable city, but to maximize your days exploring here, consider these 10 insider tips from someone who lives in this magical metropolis.
1. Buda Is a Worthwhile Hangout
Pest is far buzzier than sleepy Buda on the other side of the Danube, so some tourists only amble across the Chain Bridge in order to explore the obligatory Castle District. It’s their loss. Instead, savor all-day breakfast at the fairytale-like Villa Bagatelle, or hang out with locals in the cafés of Bartók Béla Avenue, such as book-filled Kelet. The Hungarian National Gallery is a nice stop on the cultural itinerary. Drop in before tackling the climb up Gellért Hill for the panoramic vista. Afterward, unwind in Lukács, one of the city’s famed thermal baths that’s especially beloved among Budapest denizens like myself.
2. There Are Architectural Gems
Budapest teems with stunning structures like the Parliament Building and St. Stephen’s Basilica, two spots that should be mandatory sights for any first-time visitor. Among the less well-known edifices deserving a gander is Nyugati pályaudvar, the regal, cast-iron railway station designed and built by August de Serres and the Eiffel Company in the late 19th century. Ödön Lechner, often called the Hungarian Gaudí, was the architectural legend melding folk art and Eastern motifs with Art Nouveau in such landmarks as the Secession-style Postal Savings Bank. Like the Museum of Applied Arts and the Geological Institute, two other must-sees he designed, its roof is crowned in colorful, whimsical Zsolnay tiles.
3. The Jazz Is Awesome, Too
Classical music is divine in Budapest, as made evident by the quality performances that unfold in such institutions as the neo-Renaissance Hungarian State Opera House, Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music and Müpa. Less talked about than the operas and piano recitals, though, are the intimate jazz performances. Opus and the Budapest Jazz Club are all cozy lairs for taking in, say, the sounds of Hungarian quartets over a bottle of sparkling wine. But it’s the well-worn Jedermann Café, serving post-dinner slabs of homemade cake, that I love most for a live music session.
4. Városliget Is a Tranquil Wonderland
There certainly isn’t a lack of greenery in Budapest, what with Füvészkert Botanical Garden and outdoor ballets and picnics on Margaret Island. Városliget, otherwise known as City Park, is especially dreamy. Just beyond Heroes’ Square, the expansive grounds are home to Vadjahunyad Castle, Széchenyi Thermal Bath and one of the world’s oldest zoos. Several animated al fresco bars, including the retro burger joint Pántlika Bisztró, keep folks here well into the evening. Come winter, the lake transforms into an ice-skating rink that ensures a steady stream of revelers even in the cold.
5. Escape Rooms Are Not Gimmicks
Signs for escape rooms are plentiful in the Budapest city center. You might initially roll your eyes at the notion, but don’t think such places as TRAP are merely commercial haunted houses. The game, in which groups of friends or strangers are locked in dim basements and given an hour to make their way out, is a phenomenon here. That’s because they are challenging brain benders that require logically tackling puzzles in order to break free from entrapment in the allotted time.
6. Paprika Is Unavoidable
Whether it brightens chicken or is sprinkled over scrambled eggs, deep-red paprika is ubiquitous in Hungarian cuisine. Walk through the Central Market Hall and you will encounter numerous vendors hawking the essential spice, which comes in hot, sweet and smoked forms. While the actual peppers might be verboten on flights back home, dried, paste and oil versions make for ideal culinary mementos.
7. A Pálinka Toast Is Mandatory
Thankfully, it’s only a matter of time before you make the acquaintance of pálinka. Swilling this indigenous brandy, distilled from real fruits, is an age-old ritual among Hungarians. The heady shot is spawned from produce as diverse as beetroot and pumpkin, with apricot, plum, apple and cherry its most popular varieties. Enjoy it all day long, but it’s an especially apt aperitif, priming the palate for a plate of Mangalitsa pork loin.
8. Drink Wines You’ve Never Heard Of
Hungary produces some wonderful wines, but because the yield is low and the distribution minimal, most Americans haven’t heard of these native grapes and the top-notch wineries experimenting with them. One of Budapest’s many wine bars — Kadarka is my go-to — is an essential stop to sample the likes of crisp, white Furmint and Hárslevelű, or bold, red Kékfrankos. There are 22 wine regions in Hungary, and the closest is Etyek-Buda, less than an hour away. Let a visit to a winery like Haraszthy be the centerpiece of a perfect day trip.
9. Lunch Is a Terrific Value
During lunch, a large swath of Budapest restaurants offer alluring, three-course prix fixe menus, an affordable contrast to the usual roster of à la carte selections. Seek out the napi menü — but go early since they often tend to sell out— at joints like Ruben or Építész Pince, inside the Chamber of Hungarian Architects headquarters. On the more sophisticated end of the spectrum is Stand25, a contemporary Hungarian bistro at the Belvárosi food market. Afternoons are also the best time to snag a deal on dining at the upmarket, Michelin-starred Costes Downtown by springing for the business lunch.
10. Restaurant Reservations Are Essential
Securing dinner reservations whenever possible is always highly advised in any city. But the flexible walk-in routine of placing your name on a list, getting informed it will be a wait of an hour or two and not blinking an eye at this news because you can get a drink a few blocks away until a text announces the coveted table is now ready, is not something that happens in Budapest. Popping into a restaurant on any day of the week without a reservation here invites disappointment; on a weekend it’s sheer idiocy. Spontaneous dining plans often lead to gorging on pizza on the street. If that’s the case, I highly recommend a few slices from Pizzica.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Budapest? Tell us about them, below.
Featured image courtesy of Zsolt Hlinka via Getty Images.
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