HELLO, BU­DAPEST

Buda or Pest? They’re both good rea­sons to visit this of­ten over­looked des­ti­na­tion

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS BUDAPEST - AN­DREW FEN­TON

It’s known as the “Paris of the East”, but even the mighty Seine is no match for Bu­dapest’s stun­ning set­ting on a gen­tle curve in the Danube River. A ro­man­tic and cos­mopoli­tan city filled with beau­ti­ful neo-baroque, gothic and art nou­veau build­ings, Bu­dapest blends old world charm with bo­hemian de­lights.

Lit­er­ally a city of two halves – hilly Buda and flat, buzzing Pest – its land­marks date to the 1896 mil­len­nial cel­e­bra­tions when the city was re­made with large squares, mon­u­ments, a mag­nif­i­cent par­lia­ment, state opera, grand mar­ket hall and Europe’s first sub­way.

One of the ma­jor start and fin­ish points for lux­ury cruises along the Danube River, trav­ellers ar­rive here every day from Pas­sau, Vi­enna and Bratislava, or cel­e­brate in the city af­ter a fort­night ex­plor­ing the con­ti­nent on an epic cruise from Am­s­ter­dam. Of­ten over­looked by Aus­tralian trav­ellers, it could well be­come a high­light of your trip.

PARIS OF THE EAST? SOUNDS EX­PEN­SIVE …

It is … for lo­cals. But for the av­er­age Aussie, Bu­dapest of­fers sim­i­lar high end ameni­ties, shop­ping, fine din­ing op­tions and en­ter­tain­ing as western Euro­pean cap­i­tals at sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper prices. The only draw­back is the low, low prices tend to at­tract boozy Brits on stag-dos, who roam the streets in pedal-pow­ered beer bars, chant­ing songs and chain­ing each other to traf­fic lights.

WHERE SHOULD I STAY?

Buda, home to the Cas­tle District and some up­scale res­i­den­tial ar­eas, is qui­eter but more ro­man­tic and it has lovely views. Pest is the live­lier, more com­mer­cial side. With its end­less cool restau­rants and ruin pubs, and re­fresh­ing lack of in­ter­na­tional chain stores, the Jewish Quar­ter in Pest is a pop­u­lar choice with trav­ellers. Ac­com­mo­da­tion in Bu­dapest ranges from the ex­trav­a­gant art nou­veau grandeur of The Four Sea­sons Gre­sham Palace through to cheap party hos­tels. Airbnb of­fers plenty of great deals on en­tire apart­ments in the cen­tre for $30 to $100 a night.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

Most of the city’s high­lights are within walk­ing dis­tance of each other and the cen­tre – though it’s fun to use the charm­ing Metro Line 1, which is a tourist at­trac­tion it­self. The sec­ond un­der­ground elec­tri­fied line in the world to open in 1896 (af­ter Lon­don) it’s also one of the shal­low­est, run­ning just 3.5 me­tres be­low the road. Al­ter­na­tively, you can hire a pub­lic bike and ride all over the city for three days for $5 (sign up on­line at mol­bubi.bkk.hu). And tourists love tram No.2 along the river, which Na­tional Geo­graphic lists as one of the most scenic tram jour­neys in the world (although Melbourne’s Route 96 also makes the list, re­duc­ing its cred­i­bil­ity some­what).

WHERE’S THE BEST PLACE TO EN­JOY THAT FA­MOUS VIEW OVER THE RIVER AND PAR­LIA­MENT?

It’s cer­tainly one of the best views in Europe, and the banks of the Danube are listed as a UNESCO World Her­itage site.

Head up the stairs to the top of Gellert Hill. It’s easy to find: cross the fa­mous Chain Bridge (or its neigh­bour­ing bridges) to Buda and look up for the 14-me­tre high Lib­erty Statue. Built to hon­our the Soviet Army ‘lib­er­a­tors’ in 1947, it now pays trib­ute to those who laid down their lives for ‘Hun­gary’s pros­per­ity’. Many tourists opt for the sim­i­lar but less im­pres­sive view from the Fish­er­man’s Bas­tion on Cas­tle Hill, which has a fu­nic­u­lar.

HAS THE CITY THROWN OFF ITS COM­MU­NIST PAST?

Yes, it’s been al­most three decades since the coun­try be­came a democ­racy and, from the 1960s on­wards, the Hun­gar­i­ans en­joyed the much milder “goulash com­mu­nism” with more free­doms than any other Soviet bloc coun­try. One of the most pop­u­lar at­trac­tions is the House of Ter­ror, which de­tails the Nazi and Soviet abuses that cul­mi­nated in the failed rev­o­lu­tion of 1956. It’s housed in the for­mer head­quar­ters of the se­cret po­lice.

WHAT ABOUT A SHORT CRUISE?

There are so many op­er­a­tors you can es­sen­tially turn up and ride any­time dur­ing the day and night. Op­tions range from a two-hour din­ner cruise with live mu­sic, or you can see the ex­act same sights while munch­ing on a sand­wich for al­most noth­ing by catch­ing one of the reg­u­lar BKK pub­lic trans­port fer­ries.

WHAT’S A RUIN PUB?

A pe­cu­liarly Bu­dapest in­ven­tion, ruin pubs have been around since 2001 when the orig­i­nal and some say the best, Sz­im­pla Kert took over a

WITH ITS END­LESS COOL RESTAU­RANTS AND RUIN PUBS, THE JEWISH QUAR­TER IN PEST IS A POP­U­LAR CHOICE WITH TRAV­ELLERS

derelict build­ing, filled it with flea mar­ket fur­ni­ture and cre­ated a cool cross be­tween a Ber­lin squat and a funky, bo­hemian art bar. There are now 21 of th­ese un­der­ground pubs, of­fer­ing live mu­sic, DJs, film nights and art ex­hi­bi­tions, along with drinks and food in re­claimed court­yards, old carparks and aban­doned ware­houses. They of­ten close down with­out warn­ing, so check out what’s cur­rent at: ru­in­pubs.com.

WHAT ABOUT DIN­ING?

There’s an as­ton­ish­ing va­ri­ety of cuisines on of­fer, from Thai to Turk­ish and ev­ery­thing in be­tween – along with more gourmet burger bars than hip­sters to eat in them. The fine din­ing is very fine, with four Michelin star restau­rants: Costes, Costes Down­town, Borkonyha and Onyx (which of­fers a three-course lunch spe­cial for $90). If you’re eat­ing lo­cal, head to the Cen­tral Mar­ket Hall to try some goulash. In Hun­gary, it’s ac­tu­ally a soup, while the thick stew we call goulash is known as porkolt. The street food is great too: try some chim­ney cakes: pas­try cylin­ders coated in but­ter and sugar that trans­forms into a caramelised crust be­fore your eyes as it cooks on a spit.

WHEN SHOULD I VISIT?

Bu­dapest av­er­ages around 2200 hours of sun­shine each year – one of the high­est lev­els in Europe – and has mod­est rain­fall so it’s a good op­tion most months. It’s prob­a­bly best to avoid win­ter’s freez­ing tem­per­a­tures and bear in mind there are days over 35 de­grees dur­ing the hottest months. May to Sept is high sea­son.

WHAT’S WITH ALL THE SPAS?

Bu­dapest is fa­mous for its ther­mal baths dat­ing back to Ro­man times, fed by the 125 min­eral wa­ter hot springs in the area. The in­door pool at Gellert Spa, with its Ro­man col­umns is pop­u­lar with lo­cals, but the most im­pres­sive is the or­nate neo-Baroque Szechenyi Baths built in 1913. It has 21 in­door and out­door medic­i­nal and swim­ming pools, in­clud­ing a cir­cu­lar rapid that whizzes you around and around. In cooler weather, steam floats evoca­tively off the sur­face of the out­door pools like some­thing out of an ’80s video clip. Re­mem­ber to re­search the ex­tremely con­fus­ing ticket/wrist band/locker/pri­vate chang­e­room sys­tem be­fore you ar­rive. Af­ter dark on week­ends, they hold dance pool par­ties here.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

Qan­tas flies to Bu­dapest via Dubai from the main­land cap­i­tals – the sec­ond leg is op­er­ated by Emi­rates. You can also fly the en­tire way on Emi­rates, or on Qatar Air­ways via Doha (ex­cept from Bris­bane). If you’re com­ing over­land, note the refugee cri­sis has spurred a bor­der crack­down. Aus­tralians don’t need a visa but if you’re ar­riv­ing from nonEU coun­tries be pre­pared for a thor­ough grilling.

PIC­TURES: ISTOCK, SUP­PLIED

The city of two halves, Buda and Pest, is the per­fect blend of ro­mance, old world charm and din­ing op­tions that range from four Michelin star restau­rants to gourmet burger bars.

THE HUN­GAR­IAN PAR­LIA­MENT

TRAMS ON MAR­GARET BRIDGE

FOUR SEA­SONS HO­TEL GRE­SHAM PALACE

SZECHENYI THER­MAL BATH

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