You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myStatesman.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myStatesman.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myStatesman.com.

Buzzing Budapest

Come for hip bars, coffeehouse culture and Michelin-starred cuisine.


Two girls nestle inside a rusting bathtub, each languidly puffing on a hookah like the louche, heavy-lidded caterpillar from “Alice in Wonderland.” A 6-foot-tall green rabbit squats at the entrance of their ramshackle den, a figment of a fever dream conjured into concrete form, while a child’s rocking horse dangles upside down from the ceiling, impassively surveying the scene through black button eyes. Deeper in the heart of this graffiti-splattered cavern, half a dozen hipsters crowd into a defunct car retrofitted with wooden benches, “Beverly Hillbillies”-style, and a young woman dances with an inflatable doll beneath the rainbow glow of Christmas lights. Gradually, the tangle of tattooed limbs blurs into a mind-bending illusion — that of a multitentacled, beer-clutching Kraken grooving to a pervasive, persuasive techno beat.

Whatever I might have expected from Budapest, I couldn’t have imagined the dystopian utopia of Szimpla Kert. It’s a surreal standout among a warren of “ruin pubs” that transform the Hungarian capital’s Jewish Quarter into a party-hearty hub after dark. These lively bars — some little more than open-air courtyards strung with hammocks and furnished with old barrels, park benches and even a “shipwrecked” boat — line the roads and fill the courtyards of buildings that lay neglected long after World War II. Now, the neighborhood is a haven for street artists, students and backpackers basking in the hedonistic vibe that pervades former Eastern Bloc cities like Budapest and Prague, which are still reveling in their freedom after casting off the Communist yoke toward the end of the 20th century.

Some visitors come to Budapest seeking a better understanding of its turbulent history, including its World War II Axis alliance and postwar Soviet rule. Others arrive to admire the architecture, from St. Stephen’s Basilica, Parliament and Vajdahunyad Castle in Pest, east of the Danube River that divides the city, to the Gothic-style Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion and Royal Palace crowning the hills of Buda to the west. But more and more, Budapest is reeling ’em in with its booming bar and restaurant scene, which extends far beyond the Jewish Quarter.

“It used to be mostly Hungarian favorites like goulash, but recently there’s been an influx of international restaurants,” observes Corinne Pruden, a British native who invested in Budapest property 10 years ago with her husband, David. The couple moved here full-time last year, leaving their software sales and marketing careers behind to open the Goat Herder, a modern espresso bar in Pest. While Budapest is renowned for its Old World coffeehouse culture, characterized by crystal chandeliers and liveried waiters, the Prudens have built a loyal following by serving lightly roasted flat whites, lattes and cappuccinos in a bright, casual atmosphere, which is a testament to the city’s changing tastes.

While you’ll still find plenty of goulash (vegetable-laden broth filled with chunks of beef), schnitzel, sausage and traditional paprika-spiced, cream-drenched chicken around Budapest, a quartet of Michelin-starred restaurants have opened here in the past five years. What’s more, they’re a bargain. Tanti in Buda serves a three-course lunchtime menu, with exotic-sounding dishes, ranging from veal tongue to cod satay, for around $14 — and the chef will even accommodate vegetarian and gluten-free diets. For a contemporary take on Hungarian fare with a French bistro flair, try Borkonyha in Pest, where entrees average $16.

Should you work up a thirst while tasting and touring, boozer beware. Unicum, an herb-laden liqueur that tastes a bit like burned grass clippings, and palenka, an inexplicably popular throat-searing spirit, are the domain of iron-livered adventurers, but Hungarian brews like Dreher and Borsodi should satisfy lager lovers. Oenophiles are the big winners, as Hungary produces a diverse array of wines, including the well-known sweet white Tokaji Aszu and red Egri Bikaver (“Bull’s Blood”). DiVino serves more than 100 different types of wine — many by the glass — at two locations around the city.

For a high-altitude tipple, head to 360 Bar, an al fresco venue that opens in the summer high above Andrassy utca, the chichi shop-lined “Champs-Elysées of Budapest.” But you’ll soak up the most spectacular vistas atop the new Aria Hotel Budapest, situated in an elegantly renovated 19th-century bank next to St. Stephen’s Basilica. The Aria’s High Note Sky Bar, open to the public year-round, offers panoramic views across the city, from the basilica to the gleaming white Parliament, the sprawling palace and the illuminated Ferris wheel in nearby Erzsebet ter. On balmy nights, Erzsebet Square is filled with folks picnicking on the grass and relaxing on a table-lined terrace leading to the underground Akvarium nightclub.

While English is widely spoken, the surest way to win a heartfelt smile is by attempting a handful of Hungarian phrases. “SEE-yaw” (hello and goodbye), “KAY-rem” (please) and “KUR-sur-nurm” (thank you) will take you far, but don’t forget “EH-gehs-shay-geh-dreh” (to your health). In buzzy Budapest, this traditional toast might be most useful of all.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Travel

Family Travel: under the spell of sunny Puerto Rico

You know things are going pretty well when the big family argument is over whether to splash in the rain forest waterfall or loll around on the white-sand beach.  You know things are even better when you realize you can do both in a single day and not tax the patience or interest of three children.   From our weeklong base at a rental...
Travel talk: How to cruise Alaska, navigate California

Q: We finally have a consensus month for perhaps a last big family vacation (parents mid-60s and two mid 20s-daughters). Unfortunately because of everyone's job issues, it's has to be soon - preferably June. I know. That's already in the high cost season. 1) Do you have any recommendations for cruise-lines and/or specific ships for a family trip to...
Security lines and flight delays? This kid’s in paradise
Security lines and flight delays? This kid’s in paradise

I used to think there were two types of people in this world: those who are so nervous about making their flight that they are only truly happy if they get to the airport four hours early, and those who are so blasé about making their flight that they are only truly happy if they get to the airport just minutes before takeoff.  Often these...
Encountering true luxury in St. Moritz
Encountering true luxury in St. Moritz

You are always alone atop a mountain, even in a crowd. At a beach — any beach — a solitary figure standing at the edge of your vision can make you feel intruded upon. On the summit of an Alpine mountain, a chairlift dumping out bystanders six at a time will offer you no companionship. I stand next to my wife at nearly 11,000 feet of altitude...
U.S. travel industry fears a 'lost decade' under Trump

Like many Washington lobby groups, the U.S. Travel Association was quick to congratulate the new president on his victory last November.  "We are encouraged that Mr. Trump's extensive business and hospitality background … will make him a ready and receptive ear," the trade organization said. Upon the Republican's inauguration...
More Stories