Why go to Budapest?
For a dose of culture
If you’re a culture vulture then you’ll find much to feast on in Budapest. There’s a host of museums and galleries, from the mammoth Hungarian National Museum and the rich Museum of Fine Arts to smaller exhibitions showcasing the personal effects of Liszt or items once used by medieval medical men.
For a spot of pampering
There are many places to enjoy a warming soak. Hungarians swear by the power of thermal water, and Budapest has more spas than any other world capital. You can choose from evocative, domed bathhouses that survived the Turkish occupation, opulent complexes dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, or contemporary hotels with cutting-edge facilities. Many of these are fed by natural, mineral-rich springs; some people take to the waters in the hope of alleviating specific ailments, but most do so simply to relax tired bodies after a long day of sightseeing.
For a bowl of goulash
Hungarians are proud of their cuisine. In fairness, you probably wouldn’t put it up there with that of France or Italy, but the traditional fare is hearty, distinctive and often very, very tasty. You’re likely to have heard of goulash - which is actually a soup rather than a stew - but other dishes to try are meat-filled Hortobágy pancakes and some delicious pastries. Hungary’s also a wine-producing country and the quality has improved significantly since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Order a decent Tokaji Aszú and you’ll be drinking arguably the best dessert wine in the world.
For something easy on the ear
Hungary is the homeland of Ferenc Liszt, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, and - whatever the day of the week or the season of the year - you’re sure to find a classical concert going on somewhere in Budapest. There are some wonderful venues, ranging from the extravagant Budapest Opera House to the Dominican summer courtyard at the Hilton Budapest. If you want to get the most from the city’s cultural output, visit during the spring or autumn festivals, when performances of music and dance are held all over the city. Alternatively, visit during the Sziget Festival in August - Hungary’s answer to Glastonbury.
For a romantic encounter
There are broad boulevards, leafy parks and a fairytale palace. There’s an al fresco ice rink, a Christmas market and hot pools where you can bathe outside in winter as the snow falls on the surface. You can cycle in the hills, ride narrow-gauge railway engines or take sunset River cruises. There’s song and dance, good food and wine. The Danube runs through the middle and it’s been called the ‘Paris of the East’. So, yes, Budapest has romance in bucket loads.
For some leafiness
Budapest is a green city and nature is always at hand. The marked trails of the Buda Hills are no more than a few minutes from the city centre, while several handsome parks offer pleasant walks, manicured gardens and quiet retreats where you can read a book or soak up some sun.
For the four seasons
Hungary has proper seasons. Temperatures frequently pass 30°C in summer, while during winter months there’s often snow on the ground and you’ll certainly appreciate a warming mug of mulled wine. Spring and autumn aren’t bad either, the changing colours are beautiful and the weather more bearable for those who prefer gentler conditions.
For family fun
Don’t worry, the kids won’t get bored. Pack a picnic and head for the hills - there are some great cycling trails, and the children will love a ride on the Cogwheel Railway or the chairlift. You can go boating on the lake in City Park - or ice-skating if it’s winter time - and then visit the nearby Budapest Zoo, amusement park and circus. There are exciting interactive exhibits at the Transport Museum and the Palace of Wonders, there’s a puppet theatre, a subterranean labyrinth to explore beneath the Castle District, and several outdoor swimming-pool complexes.
For beautiful buildings
Budapest is a grand city with its fair share of wide avenues and imposing mansion houses. However, it’s a place that has seen much conflict and there’s a roughness to its edges that - for me - makes it more characterful than cities like Vienna. A devastating flood levelled much of Pest in 1838, and so the layout of the city as we see it today properly dates to that period. You’ll see Baroque and neo-Classical buildings, neo-Gothic arches and patterned roofs adorned with stunning coloured tiles. Keep a special eye out for architectural flourishes featuring folk motifs and oriental features - the typical signs of Hungary’s version of Art Nouveau.
For a shopping spree
Váci utca and the Great Boulevard have their fair share of designer boutiques, but you can get international brands in Western cities. Instead hunt down some solidly Hungarian products: bags of paprika, bottles of fiery fruit brandy or syrupy Tokaki wine, tins of goose liver, pieces of Herend porcelain. The Great Market Hall, with its arching girders and beautiful roof tiles, offers a wonderfully atmospheric shopping experience. Pick up a Communist-era badge from a flea market, visit Falk Miksa utca for a genuine Magyar antique, and choose from charming wooden toys at the stalls of the Christmas market in Vörösmarty tér.