BUDAPEST, June 29 — This summer, if you’re looking to avoid the typical tourist hordes, consider heading to Budapest, the capital of Hungary. While most Europe-bound travellers would opt for the familiarity of London or Rome, Budapest has a vibrant history, beautiful architecture, a world-class classical music scene, relaxing thermal baths, a delicious, hearty cuisine, and — best of all — a more affordable price tag.
Budapest comprises the two major towns of Buda (the more historical district) and Pest (the more youthful city pulsating with nightlife) that are divided by the river Danube. This UNESCO World Heritage site is often called the Paris of the East; isn’t it time you found out why?
The castle on the hill
Begin your tour of Budapest with a trek up Castle Hill, the oldest part of the city. If you’re leery of walking uphill, take the Funicular (or Sikló, as it is called in Hungarian) which offers splendid panoramic views. It was initially built in 1870 as a cheap means of transport for clerks working in the Castle District. The cable car ride only takes about three minutes and gives you a headstart on your cobblestone stroll of Buda Castle and its many courtyards.
The Royal Palace was initially built in the Gothic style before subsequent additions over the years gave it its final Baroque finish. Interestingly, the palace had never been occupied by the Hungarian Royal family, and today houses three large museums and the National Széchényi Library.
Look out for the statue of Hussar general András Hadik on horseback. A closer inspection of his stallion’s testicles will reveal that they are shiny, unlike the dull patina on the rest of the statue. Apparently superstitious university students favoured rubbing on these orbs for luck before examinations. No one knows if good fortune found these students but the general’s horse certainly isn’t complaining.
Other highlights include the Mary Magdalene Tower, part of a 13th-century Franciscan church that was the only church allowed to remain Christian under Turkish rule while others were converted into mosques, and the Matthias Church, famed for its striking rococo spire.
Further down from the Matthias Church is an impressive white tower known locally as the Fisherman’s Bastion. Built in the late 19th century, it earned its moniker thanks to the former medieval fish market that existed nearby and the Guild of Fishermen who defended the wall against attacks in the past. There is perhaps no better spot for dramatic views of the river Danube and Pest on the opposite banks.
The city of baths
Don’t leave Budapest without visiting one of the celebrated thermal baths here. Thanks to a profusion of thermal springs, some of the city’s baths date back to Turkish times. Little wonder Budapest is also known as the City of Baths.
Popular spots include the Gellert Bath with its Art Nouveau façade and the Neo-Baroque-style Szechenyi Bath. However, for something more traditional, try the Rudas Bath, an authentic Turkish bath favoured by locals.
Located at the foot of the scenic Gellert Hill, the Rudas Bath has an astoundingly beautiful 16th-century dome encrusted with coloured glass. It is a medieval Turkish bath, not a modern steam bath, which means it has an octagonal-shaped thermal pool at its centre that links to adjoining smaller pools. Every pool has a different water temperature ranging from 12°C to 42°C.
Legend has it that the bath was originally a healing place built by the knights of St John in the 13th century. It was later transformed into a Turkish bath by the Ottoman Turks after the Buda Castle siege. Today, its waters from hot springs deep underground are still treasured for their relaxing and healing properties.
Modern facilities include a hamam (Turkish sauna), massages and wellness therapies such as drinking cures. The baths alternate between men-only and women-only on weekdays, when many guests opt to wear aprons rather than swimwear. On weekends, the baths are co-ed and bathing suits are compulsory.
Crossing the Danube
There are seven bridges crossing the river Danube. The most famous one, the Chain Bridge is also the oldest and was completed in 1849. This bridge is especially beautiful at night when it is lit by lights. (For pop music fans, this was the bridge featured at the start of Katy Perry’s music video for her song Firework.)
When it was first constructed, the Chain Bridge was the second-largest suspension bridge in the world. It was the first structure to permanently connect Buda and Pest, and as such is a symbol of unity. Look out for four stone lions resting at the ends of the bridge; these regal felines are survivors of air raids during World War II.
Take a slow stroll along the bridge and enjoy the views of the river and the receding Castle Hill and as you get closer to Pest.
The great market hall
Once you’ve crossed the Danube over to Pest, your first stop ought to be the Central Market Hall at the end of the busy shopping street Váci utca. This is the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest, commissioned by the city’s first mayor, Károly Kamermayer, and built by Hungarian architect Samu Pecz in 1897.
The market’s distinctive roof features colourful Zsolnay tiles while its entrance has a Neo-Gothic design. The building covers an area of 10,000 square metres, mainly constructed from steel. When it was first opened, ships would sail directly into the market hall via dedicated docks.
The Central Market Hall has three levels, each offering different wares. The basement has the fish market, butcher shops and the stalls selling an unbelievable variety of pickles made from beets, cauliflower, cabbage, cucumber, tomatoes and even garlic!
On the ground floor, you will find a large selection of meats and sausages, cheeses and pastries, spices and candies, and even luxuries such as caviar. There are plenty of foods particular to Hungary such as paprika, tokaji (a Hungarian wine) and Túró Rudi, a popular local chocolate bar.
The second floor contains the food vendors and souvenir shops. Try lángos, a Hungarian street food speciality. It’s basically a deep-fried flatbread that is eaten while hot, topped with sour cream, grated cheese and garlic butter. Souvenir-seekers will find plenty of handicrafts and embroidery here to bring home.
After leaving the Central Market Hall, walk along the picturesque Andrássy Avenue with its great architecture, including the State Opera House. Unseen, the Millennium Underground Railway (or M1) runs beneath this avenue and is the subway option for those who are tired of going on foot. This underground line is the second oldest in the world after the London Metro, and has been in operation since 1896.
At the end of Andrássy Avenue, next to City Park (Városliget), is the Heroes’ Square. The square is an iconic space with the statues of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The central column depicts the Archangel Gabriel at its apex, looking down on all of Hungary.
The Heroes’ Square is also where the annual National Gallop (Nemzeti Vágta) is held every summer. For three whole days there are horse-riding competitions, mock battles and exhibitions. Hungarian tribesmen were renowned horse-riders in the past, rumoured to shoot arrows backwards while still on horseback.
The riders are dressed in the colourful uniforms of the Hussars, a light cavalry that had existed since the 15th century. The hussar uniform is not complete without a colourful jacket braided with gold called dolman and a tall fur hat adorned with feathers called csákó.
While waiting for the next race to start, head to “The Kitchen of Hungary” nearby, a street market held in conjunction with the National Gallop with Hungarian delicacies from all over the country. First try the gulyásleves, a hearty Hungarian goulash soup made from heavily spiced beef and vegetables cooked over open fire.
Then there are smoked Hungarian sausages grilled on the spot for you. Keep some space for csirkepaprikás, a chicken stew spiced with plenty of ground paprika. This is best enjoyed with thick, crusty slices of freshly baked Hungarian bread called cipó. Down it all with a cold glass of beer or two, and let the heavenly flavours of Budapest linger on your lips for a good long time.
1014 Szent György tér 2, Budapest, Hungary
Courtyards open 24/7
1013 Döbrentei tér 9, Budapest, Hungary
Open Mon-Wed 6am-6pm, Thu-Sun 6am-8pm
Central Market Hall
1093 Vámház körút 1-3, Budapest, Hungary
Open Mon 6am-5pm, Tue-Fri 6am-6pm, Sat 6am-3pm, Sun closed
Hungarian National Gallop (Nemzeti Vágta)
Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square), Budapest, Hungary