Budapest oozes confidence, but not in an ‘in your face’ kind of way; it’s just clearly a city on the up. Not only is it a very beautiful place, but the locals are fiercely proud of how far they’ve come and that visitors are flooding there. Being set alongside a river always helps the aesthetics of a city, but Budapest has everything you could wish for in abundance and it’s extremely reasonably priced compared to other cities in Europe.
Sightseeing essentials: Having recently returned from exploring the urban adventure scene in Berlin for American Express, I was ready to relax in Budapest, a place the locals call ‘Spa City’ due to the 15 public thermal baths scattered around.
The essential stop-offs for the 37 per cent of spa-loving Brits who say access to spa facilities make their holidays extra-special, are the Széchenyi and Gellért baths. The Széchenyi complex (146 Budapest, Állatkerti körút 9-11) is one of the largest in Europe and is said to hold some of the most healing waters due to the mineral composition. By the looks of it, the water isn’t only healing for the bathers, but an elixir of life; some of the people lounging in there looked like they had been around since the bath was first opened in 1913. It was like a scene from Cocoon.
The Gellért baths (H-1118 Budapest, Kelenhegyi út 4) are truly impressive to behold. Built in 1918, the baths contain some of the most sensational examples of Art Nouveau architecture in the city and are a must see for anyone visiting Budapest who loves a bit of pampering. As a tip, the baths are extremely popular with the locals so if you’re looking for some quiet time, best to plan ahead.
Highlights: Budapest is unique in history and architecture, perhaps due to the fact that it was formed from the union of three separate cities Buda, Pest and the neighbouring Obuda. Everywhere I looked, buildings of different architectural styles were thrown together: from the Renaissance Opera House (1061 Budapest, Andrássy Way 22) to the Romantic Vigadó Concert Hall (1051 Budapest, Vigadó tér 2).
For a fantastic mix of the arts and architecture the favourite place I visited was the Urania Cinema (1088 Budapest, Rákóczi Way 21); one of the cultural hubs of the city. Films are particularly important in Hungarian popular culture (and to me) and here you can enjoy numerous film festivals throughout the year whilst sitting back and soaking up the cinema’s intricate Moorish influenced design. It was genuinely like stepping back in time.
The atmosphere in Budapest is cosmopolitan but relaxed, with locals eager to share their personal piece of the city with me.
Lowlights: The only thing I think Budapest is missing a trick on, is connecting all their wonderful spas via a log flume system. With 70m litres of water bubbling up from natural springs of Budapest each day I’ve knocked up some crude designs and think it could really work.
Best places to eat: One thing is true of Hungarians; they love their meat. I had one of the best slabs of beef in a long time at Kispiac Bisztro (1054 Budapest, Hold utca 13) and other fantastic grub at Pesti Disznó (1065 Budapest, Nagymező St 19) which puts a contemporary twist on traditional Hungarian fare. I also enjoyed sampling Pálinka, Hungary’s spirit, there. It’s got quite a kick...We also ate in Café Kör (1051 Budapest, Sas St 17), another traditional establishment, where I found myself sitting at a table next to John Hurt. I can’t promise he’ll be there if you go.
Best places to party: Stalwarts of the Budapest party scene are the city’s unique ruin pubs. These are old, ramshackle buildings which have been kitted out with second-hand furniture and decorated with remnants from old community centres, libraries and family flats giving the bars a really cosy but quirky feel!
Similar to pop-up bars in the UK the ruin pubs often open up, close down and move around but one that has been around for a while, that I personally loved, is Szimlpa Kert (Secret Garden, 1075 Budapest, Kazinczy St 14). Here you can party until the sun rises one night or pop along for an exhibition or film screening the next!
I was lucky enough to meet one of the management team who told me how they had sourced all the furniture and decoration from neighbours who were throwing out old junk and knick-knacks including an old car!
And for a unique take on a spa visit, look out for late night openings at the baths in the city too. Quite a few host party nights catering to the younger residents of Budapest...who doesn’t like a pool party?!
Where to stay: If you want an amazing view of the city, stay at the Hotel President (1054 Budapest, Hold St 3-5) and have a drink on their roof terrace. It’s stunning and you get a fantastic panorama right across the city. They also have an eclectic selection of photos of past visitors in the reception.
In his role as Amex Travel Insider, Alex Zane is taking a sneak peek behind the scenes of some of Europe’s most popular cities. Find out more on Facebook.