There are cities in Europe that do charming and cute like few others, destinations that are up on every trend, romantic places in which one dreams of spending the perfect honeymoon. Budapest—let’s just get this out of the way—isn’t really any of these things. Not so much. Sure, the rather gritty, often grey Hungarian capital (are we really just two and a half hours from squeaky-clean, civilized Vienna?) has made considerable strides in recent years, but even now, it feels like the best reason to come to Budapest is to revel in its retro-ness. Here’s how I would do that, given a day back in one of Europe’s more memorable cities. Looking for the lowest airfares to Budapest? Start your search at BookingBuddy.
700a One day in town isn’t nearly enough even to brush up on the basics, so I wouldn’t even attempt a race against the clock. Instead, I’d roll out of bed and straight in to the remodeled and dare one say almost luxurious Rudas Baths, dating back to the 1500s and the time of Ottoman rule. I’d waste half the morning between the overheated sauna and steam rooms, followed by a loop through the mineral pools (right), hot to cold, cold to hot (repeat until pruny) while I waited to be summoned for my $12, 20 minute water massage. Upstairs, I’d make sure to grab a bottle of the bad-tasting but sure-to-be-good-for-me mineral water on my way out.
1000a Even though it’s way out of the way, after that invigorating start to the day, I’d practically run along the Buda bank of the Danube to my favorite coffee shop in town, Bambi Ezspresszó. “Time capsule” is the best way to describe this classic but oddly alluring Communist era cafe, with its cheesy curtains, red banquettes, uncomfortable chairs and a monster of an espresso machine that could probably kill someone if it fell over. If you want to start here and do the baths later, Bambi opens nice and early—they do a decent breakfast set (buns, butter, jam and a latte) for about $2.50.
1100a Because you can never get enough of the dirty Danube in your life, I’d walk the river back down to Batthyány tér, hopping on the speedy subway, emerging four stops later on another planet—Blaha Lujza tér (ter=square, btw), a chaotic, less lovely part of town. You’re here, however, for the neighborhoods that surround it; those are anything but off-putting. In European cities, I tend to always go looking for the parts of town where things are just picking up, so I’d probably opt to head south into the back streets of Jószefváros, not too long ago considered a place visitors ought to avoid, after years of neglect—you’ll find that hard to believe walking through the western bit of the district, where the Habsburg-era who’s-who once lived in rather palatial homes that have now been renovated.
100p Eventually, I’d queue up for Hungarian-Jewish lunch at Fülemüle, right here in the neighborhood, trying not to beat myself up for not being more adventurous (this is about as famous a lunchroom as you’ll find in town, but it is very good). Soul-satisfying cholent, chicken paprikash, goulash—take your pick (Kofarago utca 5).
200p Sticking to a theme, I’d walk north and into Erzébetváros, historically the heart of Jewish Budapest, and one of the more likeable central neighborhoods. I’d walk to Klauzal ter, then turn right on Dob utca, making a left on Csengery utca, which would bring me to the rejuvenated Hunyadi ter, where, besides a regular outdoor farmers market, an old covered market hall remains. From here, it’s steps to Andrassy ut, the grand boulevard of Budapest and pleasant for a stroll, if you can block out the traffic noise. This brings us to the brilliant Heroes Square, with its museums and statues, announcing your arrival at City Park.
300p It might seem foolish to give over a second block of time to lying around in a puddle of warm water with just one day in town, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather do before leaving than a soak at the park’s world-famous Széchenyi Baths. You can’t miss it, it’s the one with the big yellow building – on the tinker toy/super cool Line 1, which provided the model for the first New York City subway stations – notice the tile signs and other familiar details. Indoor thermal, outdoor regular pools, just about any uncomfortable medical treatment you can think of, it’s all great, this shouldn’t be missed. Afterwards, I’d burrow further into the park for a cold beverage at Kertem, a go-to beer garden that recently relocated to the grounds of a long-neglected 1800s mansion. On a summer afternoon, this is pretty much the place to be.
600p All that sweating out the toxins will no doubt have me hungry, so I’d take the little metro back to wherever I was staying (somewhere near the river, ideally—in a perfect world, the Four Seasons) to get ready for dinner. An increasingly scrubbed up Szent István ter—the shadow of the mighty Basilica—is where I’d head. There are a few good options right around here, but the Michelin-starred Borkonyha WineKitchen, pairing surprisingly buoyant, modern cooking with good Hungarian wines, would be high on my list and should be on yours—be sure to make reservations. (If you don’t want any fuss or want to stay faithful to the retro theme of your day, head north of the square to Café Kor, for decent Hungarian dishes and cozy atmosphere.)
800p It might seem blasphemous to pass over the fabled Opera on a short visit, but I am far more intrigued by the relatively intimate atmosphere of the Franz Liszt Academy, located at the southern tip of the eponymous square. The era of this corner of the city being the hub of Budapest cool is long over; there was, for a time, a Hooters franchise just a few doors up—mercifully, that seems to have failed. Still, this historic music school was there long before all that got started, and is the perfect place for music and architecture all at once—elbow your way through the heavy doors and into the ornate lobby of the recently-renovated Art Nouveau building and you’ll be hooked too. Even if I don’t go to a show (though seems like there’s something on here almost every day, so I can’t imagine I wouldn’t), I’d make sure to stroll by nonchalantly during intermission, when half of Hungary appears to be smoking cigarettes in the foyer and glad-handing each other just inside—an unforgettable scene. Schedule and tickets at zeneakademia.hu.
1000p A fun Budapest-themed drinking game you can play these days is to take a swig every time someone mentions the ruin pubs. Basically, these are disused buildings (Budapest has a lot of these) that have been converted to often sprawling bars/hangouts that invite serious lingering. These exist in lots of cities, but Budapest has a lot of them. At their best, these places are super cool—Mazel Tov, a short walk from the Academy in a long-abandoned apartment building, is right at the top of the ruin pub food chain. There’s Hungarian wine, good cocktails, and decent food (Israeli/Eclectic), in case one is hungry. No rush—they’re open until 2am.