The Danube winds its way through this ancient city, the capital of Hungary—actually, two cities, Buda and Pest, facing each other across its riverbanks. For 1000 years, ancient people settled here, first the Celts and then the Romans. Being overrun by the Mongols, led to some 150 years of Ottoman rule and then becoming the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each people left their mark on this global city, where art and culture meet food, wine and relaxation in equal measure.
#1 Why Not the Best?
For a real splurge, book a room at the Fours Season Gresham Palace, on the banks of the Danube with the famous Chain Bridge within view. All of the thoughtfulness and ultra luxury of the chain combines with this magnificent Art Nouveau landmark building. Built in 1906, Gresham Palace was abandoned and ultimately restored in 1998 by the best local craftspeople the Fours Seasons could employ. A two million-piece mosaic tile floor, a grand, sweeping staircase, stained-glass floors, and a wrought iron elevator are just a few features of this stunning hotel. The spa ranks at the top of its class in a city of spas, and the Kollázs Brasserie & Bar off of the lobby provided an outstanding dining choice. We really liked breakfast, ordering Hungarian scrambled eggs – pepper, onion, and homemade sausage.
Tip: Reserve a room with river view; the lights of the city are worth it. For a splurge, get a River-View Park Suite which is a huge open concept room with a king bed, sitting area or two queens complete with a marble bathroom and a soaking tub!
#2 The all-day bus pass
We usually start any visit to a new city with a Hop On Hop Off Bus trip. We stayed on for the entire two-hour circuit with views of Heroes’ Square, noted for its iconic statues of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, the Hungarian Parliament Building and the towering dome of St. Stephen’s Basilica. Then the next day we rode the bus to the stops we wanted to see like the baths.
#3 Spa City
If you love spas like I do, this is a city for you. There are 118 thermal springs feeding 15 public baths, as well as spas like the one at the Four Seasons and several other hotels. We tried two public baths including the Széchenyi Thermal Bath located in the City Park. It is one of the largest spa complexes in Europe and is frequented by locals and tourists alike. Be careful of the Thai massage bookers, however. They grabbed us in the lobby and aren’t a part of the formal spa. The Gellért Thermal Bath has a succession of pools, inside and outside. We enjoyed sitting on the outside deck with a beverage, watching people at the wave pool. My Swedish massage at the Gellert fully met my expectations, and I’d book a repeat. With so many more spas to try, I’ll definitely be back to work my way through the remaining dozen or so.
#4 Castle Hill and a traditional Hungarian meal
We were looking for a traditional meal and found Pest Buda Bistro in the heart of the castle district, the oldest section of the city. What else do you order but goulash at this cheerful restaurant with its red-checkered tablecloths? Pest Buda offers a Hungarian home-cuisine approach to their entrees.We sat outside and took in the medieval feel of the district centered around the old Royal Palace. After stuffing ourselves, we took a leisurely stroll including visiting the Matthias Church.
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#5 Walking the Vaci utca to the Central Market Hall
A vital shopping and dining thoroughfare in the heart of the city winds its way to the Central Market Hall. The Market includes lots of shops to pop into for shopping of all kinds—upscale clothing, gadgets, or a cup of coffee (and, of course, paprika). The Central Market Hall is a bustling two-story building stuffed with stalls selling just about everything from foodstuffs to souvenirs to clothing. Food fills the first floor, with other goods upstairs. It was very crowded when we visited, but was still a great place to pick up souvenirs.
#6 St. Stephen’s Basilica
One of the must-see sites, St. Stephen’s is a Roman Catholic Basilica, named in honor of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038). Although we didn’t see it, his hand is supposedly resting in the reliquary.
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#7 A lovely evening stroll to Rezkakas Bistro
In the evening, we wanted to take a brief walk, dine outside and sample traditional cuisine. The concierge directed us to this charming restaurant where all three goals were met. High concept goulash!
#8 A nighttime cruise on the Danube
Along with our two-day bus pass, came a nighttime cruise on the Danube. This was a remarkable way to see the lights of this romantic city on our last night in Budapest. The boat was a little crowded, but the views of this UNESCO World Heritage city were remarkable.
#9 Who knew Hungarian wine was terrific and inexpensive?
One of the reasons no one knows about Hungarian wine is that they drink almost all that they produce within their own country, which boasts nine wine producing regions. Hungarian wine production dates back to at least Roman times. Outside of Hungary, the best-known wines are the white dessert wine, Tokaji, and the red wine, Bull’s Blood of Eger (Egri Bikavér). Domestic wines include superb syrahs and cabernets. Plan a visit to The Tasting Table (Brody Sandor, Utca 9) to taste a great range of local wine and to snack on the bounty of a tasty local cheese and charcuterie board. Our favorite wine was a lovely Bulls Blood, Kovacs Nimrod, Rhapsody (2012). Tip: Buy a wine that isn’t exported and bring home at least two bottles per person.
Finally, who knew there were so many types of paprika? Mild and sweet, to fiery spicy were just a few of the choices. Most importantly, we learned that we should throw out the paprika we had at home since it is a spice that does not keep its flavor once open to the air. As a spice, it is almost synonymous with Hungarian cuisine especially paprikash and goulash.