Budapest’s Zeller Bistro uses local ingredients fresh from the owner’s farm. // © 2015 Zeller Bistro
Feature image (above): Guests visiting the city can stay at Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest, situated at the end of a chain bridge. // © 2015 Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
Budapest is the new Berlin, and everyone from guests sailing with Viking River Cruises to hipster craft-beer fanatics are heading east. While the Buda side of the city holds the iconic castle on the hill, it’s the Pest side that has all the action. For night owls and food lovers, Budapest offers artsy “ruin pubs” in reclaimed spaces, as well as molecular Hungarian cuisine. Locavore dining is exemplified at quaint neighborhood haunts, where chefs bring in food and wine from nearby vineyards and farms, while pop-up food stalls in center Pest fly in fresh salmon daily from Norway.
Budapest offers everything from spas and museums to river dining and nightclubs, and visitors need at least three days to really see the Heart of Europe. Here’s our guide to taking it all in.
Arrive in Budapest ready to peruse the charming streets and take advantage of the photo-ready architecture. Whether its design, relaxation or old-school charm you’re looking for, there are plenty of hotels for all tastes.
Sophisticated travelers and architecture buffs should stay at Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest. This elegant art nouveau landmark is situated at the base of the iconic Szechenyi Chain Bridge on the Pest side. Enjoy promenade views from the rooms, plus the hotel’s brand-new Kollazs Brasserie & Bar.
Budapest baths are an attraction all their own. For the spa-obsessed, book at Danubius Hotel Gellert. The Gellert Bath swimming pool has graced many a guidebook cover; the art nouveau exterior carries the same style into the indoor pool area, with an arched glass ceiling and ornate colonnades.
Design and modern-art aficionados will be thrilled with boutique hotel Lanchid 19, just off the Danube River on the Buda side. Take in views of the illuminated parliament at night, which is spellbinding. Lanchid 19 shines as well, with louvered glass windows that burst a spectrum of colors and rooms that each have a unique creative concept. While the hotel’s look focuses on cool modernity, the staff focuses on welcoming guests like old friends.
After checking into your hotel of choice, head to Gerbeaud for coffee, cake and people-watching. Established in 1858, this confectionary cafe has seen many a government come and go. The cornerstone of Vorosmarty Square, Gerbeaud hosts numerous dignitaries, as well as tourists. The menu has great meal options but a chocolate dessert is a must.
Once nourished and caffeinated, stroll the Danube promenade and take in the sights. Elizabeth Bridge and Chain Bridge are the perfect distance for a brisk walk. The view across the water is dominated by Buda Castle, which houses Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church. Meander north along the water’s edge, and take notice of the many sculptures along the way, including the Little Princess jester statue and Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial to the Jews who were killed there in WWII. Keep wandering until the majestic Hungarian Parliament comes into view. It is the third largest parliament in the world, but some say it’s the most impressive. Join an organized tour of the building to take in its full beauty.
Cafe Kor beckons for lunch. This authentic destination for local foodies is an excellent place to try goulash or roasted chicken breast with apricots in caramel sauce. Of note: Cafe Kor only accepts cash or American Express.
St. Stephen’s Basilica is nearby, with its two tall bell towers presiding over the church square. Climb stairs or take an elevator partway to the cupola with panoramic views of Budapest. After enjoying the stained-glass windows and intricately carved pews, exit the church and walk across the courtyard to DiVino Bazilika, a great place to taste and savor Hungarian wine. The chalkboard features a hand-drawn vinicultural map for guidance, and the well-trained staff will help select the perfect glass. To really experience Hungarian vino, check out the website in advance and sign up for a class at its wine school.
After wine tasting, it is always a good idea to do a little shopping. Start at Uveg Haz, where local jewelry designers and artists have their wares for sale, along with souvenir bottles of wine. Early evening brings the locals out to socialize in the last of the day’s sun. Follow them back to the Danube and sit outside at Kiosk, the perfect spot to sip a cocktail and watch the lights go up across the water. End the night with a walk across Elizabeth Bridge to Zona. This chic spot fuses traditional Hungarian food with whimsical, molecular gastronomic accents.
The next morning, make a beeline for lovely District IX and its tree-lined streets filled with galleries and exhibits. Central Kavehaz wins most photogenic in a city teeming with beautiful coffee shops. And, as a bonus, it serves the best breakfast.
Jump on the convenient Budapest Metro and head for Andrassy Avenue, a grand boulevard in the Parisian style that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The perhaps confusingly named House of Terror has nothing to do with sensationalism and everything to do with history. To understand the roots of modern Hungary, it is a mandatory visit. The building itself housed the secret police of both the fascist Arrow Cross, aligned with the Nazis, and the Soviet-allied communists that followed. Expertly curated, House of Terror ranks with the best small museums of the world.
Following this cultural lesson, turn the corner to lovely Lizst Ferenc (Franz Lizst) Square and grab a table at Menza. Its tasteful midcentury design soothes, and the menu serves Hungarian comfort food with a twist.
The afternoon should be spent visiting Budapest’s opera house and then getting lost in city streets. When the dinner bell rings, a visit to Zeller Bistro calls. From the complimentary elderflower champagne to the truffle soup, dishes feature ingredients that arrive fresh from the owners’ farm. Zeller gets every detail right, and each guest is made to feel like a VIP. Given its immense and deserved popularity, reservations are a good idea.
For urban adventurers, take a late-night “ruin-bar crawl.” By installing pubs and clubs into abandoned spaces, Budapest has become the epicenter of nightlife cool. Kiraly and Kazinczy streets house much of the action in District VII. Stop into Szimpla Kert (Simple Garden) to visit the bar that started them all, or 400 Bar for an example of the latest and greatest.
After last night, wellness is on the agenda. Luckily, Budapest is world-renowned for its spas. For luxury, hit the healing waters of Danubius Hotel Gellert. For a true local experience, take a dip with the chess grandmasters at Szechenyi Baths.
For a coffee and sweets fix, iconic New York Cafe is a decadent snapshot of Budapest’s opulent past.
Finally, immerse in Hungary’s Magyar roots by attending an authentic dance show at RaM Colosseum or enjoying Gypsy music at Karpatia Restaurant. Either will be a wonderful ending to three days in the coolest city in Europe.