A weekend in Budapest: Simply the 'Pest

We enjoy a whistle-stop tour of a city that manages to appear both familiar and wildly exotic


There is something both comfortably familiar and appealingly exotic about Budapest. Wander the parliamentary area, whose buildings were inspired by Westminster, the high-end shopping malls that showcase global brands and some of the many museums, and you will feel totally at home.

Take in the view from the Danube - which divides the Buda and Pest parts of the city - the Jewish quarter with its shuls, street food, restaurants and ruin pubs, sited in crumbling abandoned buildings that come alive at night, and the tourist experience becomes rich with Eastern promise.

The latter is evident on our first morning. Having finally prised our 24-hour transport passes (around £4 each) from an annoyingly recalcitrant ticket machine, we step back in time on the Metro line 1, the first in continental Europe when opened in 1896 and, in terms of station interiors, still looking the part.

The line is recognised as a World Heritage Site by Unesco and such is the bygone vibe that you are literally transported into another age. You can also use your transport card to take the number two tram along the Danube, on a route considered the most scenic in Europe by National Geographic, taking in some of the most arresting sights of the city.

And if on foot, many of the key attractions are within less than an hour's sauntering radius. If only for panorama, you'll want to seek out the higher ground of the historic Castle area - and on weekends it's quicker to walk up than join the queues for the funicular that takes you there. For a scenic nocturnal stroll, take one of the bridges linking Buda and Pest.

Getting there

Fly: Wizz Air from Luton to Budapest, return fares from £85.
Stay: Corinthia Hotel; Room rates from E169, including breakfast but not taxes.
Sightseeing: The Hungarian Tourism website offers a variety of suggestions on how to spend your time in Budapest.

One such walk ended up with a wander around the Gellert hotel and spa, a local landmark conjuring up visions of a more genteel era and whose healing waters date from the 13th century.

A sense of history is also engendered by the historic Café Gerbeaud coffee house, on the doorstep of the final station on Metro line 1, Vorosmarty ter.

Developed by pioneering confectioner Emil Gerbeaud, its timeless furnishings and chandeliers are the perfect backdrop to a leisurely hot drink and yummy cake. In my case it was Emil Gerbeaud's Legacy, a chocolate dessert flavoured with cognac cherries and served with vanilla ice cream.

You can walk off some of the calories while visiting the nearby Vaci Street shopping district, where you will find some familiar names, although we found the best bargains in the Hungarian chain stores or independent shops. Given that Budapest prides itself as the spa capital of Europe, you might also want to test the waters in one of the thermal baths.

If you have time for some serious culture, it may be worth purchasing a Budapest Card - available in 24, 48 and 72-hour versions. These cover public transport, entrance to 10 museums and two guided walking tours, as well as discounts of up to 50 per cent on other attractions.

The city is big on photographic museums, reflecting the many world renowned snappers who hail from Hungary, such as Robert Capa and Brassaï. Or, for the more offbeat, there is an open-air railway museum in a former depot, ideal for those with kids.

The highlight of the Jewish quarter is the imposing Great Synagogue, constructed in Byzantine-Moorish style in the 1850s, whose galleries can accommodate 3,000 worshippers.

There are additionally monuments to the 1944 ghetto and the thousands of Jews transported to the death camps by the Nazis. The area also offers some heimishe dining possibilities, among them the well-regarded Macesz Bistro, whose menu mixes kosher-style and Hungarian culinary traditions.

As for the aforementioned ruin pubs, which have given new life to old buildings, we spent a (partially) memorable alcoholic evening in Szimpla Kert, reckoned to be the daddy of them all.

The mazy, darkened, Addams Family-like interior houses a plethora of drinking dens - among them a surprisingly high quality wine bar - and there is also the option of some post-alcohol comfort food.

Close by is a square, Gozsdu Udvar, filled with bars and restaurants where you can drink and dine al fresco and is as good a place as any to spend a Saturday evening, joining the throngs of locals and tourists.

Following a recommendation from our hotel, we went to one of the busiest, Spiler's, for some late-night drinks and a pleasantly low bar tab. Every little saved counts, particularly when my better half had her sights set on a morning shopping spree at the massive and reassuringly named WestEnd City Centre mall. Here, sadly, your Hungarian Forint goes less far.

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