Budapest: Cultural Continental Capital

High-domed and in 19th-century neoclassical style, Budapest’s Royal Palace dominates high ground on the Buda side of the river. The complex includes the Hungarian National Gallery.

By Tom Bross
Photos courtesy Budapest Tourism

For a memorable trip combining two culturally rich continental capitals, start in Vienna by immersing yourself in music, fine-arts museums and some of that city’s famous Kaffeehäuser coffee houses.

At the Vienna’s Westbahnhof, board an ÖBB Austrian Railways EuroCity train ( headed for Budapest. The journey takes slightly more than three hours, covering 135 miles/217 km. by way of low-level Danube valley terrain. While approaching Hungary’s capital, you’re treated to urban riverbend panoramics meriting their UNESCO World Heritage eminence (as of 2002).

As they cross a high railroad bridge, passengers get wide-angle overviews of the two-part metropolitan layout. Hilly Buda, topped by the Castle District, looms above the river’s west bank. On the opposite side—with the enormous neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament building as a focal point—flat Pest sprawls toward its parks, squares and buzzing commercial areas. (Regarding multinational Danube terminology, what’s called the Donau back in Vienna flows downstream to become the Duna here). Disembarkation at skylit, 19th-century-ornate Keleti station means you’ve arrived at Baross Square in the heart of Pest. Keleti’s completion in 1867 came when the Austro-Hungarian Empire had maximum geopolitical clout. That explains the two cities’ long-time kinship.

Gresham Kulso
On the Pest side of the river, Art Nouveau-style Gresham Palace (now a deluxe Four Seasons Hotel) stands close to the historic Chain Bridge, spanning the Duna since 1849.

Several upscale hotels are in the station’s immediate vicinity such as the five-star Le Meridien, splendidly converted from a limestone police headquarters, with its 218 rooms ( The comparably cosmopolitan Kempinski Corvinius opened in 2005 ( Not as central, but walkably close to colonnaded Heroe’s Square and vast City Park, the Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal dates from Hungary’s 1896 Magyar Millenium and comes complete with deluxe spa amenities ( Less pricey, more intimate and decorated with contemporary panache, the four-star, 57-room Atrium Hotel ( opened recently on a quiet side street located three blocks south of Keleti.

If Buda’s Old World atmospherics are more to your liking, check into the family-run, 27-room Hotel Victoria (, nicely situated for Duna vistas. The newer, four-star Novotel Blue Danube ( is another riverfront “recommendable.” A slick, Americanized Hilton ( was added to Buda’s skyline 30 years ago.

The Chain Bridge, one of the city’s beautiful Art Nouveau landmarks.

If you’re exploring Pest at midday, take a lunch break at Mühesz, providing an international menu and Budapest-brewed Dreher beer. Choose this indoor/outdoor restaurant for its location on sophisticated Andrássy Avenue—another UNESCO World Heritage Site, lined with imposing mansions and public buildings. Among them: 1884’s State Opera House, matching its Viennese counterpart for grandiose architecture and lavish interiors (Bertalan Székely’s murals on the foyer’s vaulted ceiling, for instance, and flamboyant Károly Lotz frescoes above the main hall).

Wrought-iron railings seen on this Parisan-infuenced boulevard frame stairways descending to continental Europe’s earliest subway line, the M-l metro, inaugurated in 1896 to coincide with millennium celebrations. So, sure enough, Andrássy Avenue extends straight ahead toward the Millennium Monument on Heroes’ Square—marble-paved open space.

From there, tree-shaded walkways curve into City Park’s ponds, botanical gardens, Budapest’s zoo and the Széchenyi Spa Baths, Europe’s biggest such complex, fed by thermal springs discovered 150 years ago. Backtracking to the square, make at least a quick tour of the Museum of Fine Arts before closing time at 5 p.m. (Tuesday-Sunday). Collections include Raphael’s The Esterházy Madonna and a Dürer self-portrait, plus paintings by Rembrandt, Tiepolo, El Greco, Picasso and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1556 masterpiece: St. John the Baptist’s Sermon.

Budapest swimmers
In the midst of City Park (Városliget), thermal springs warm the famous Széchenyi Baths, which have functioned as a public spa for the past 150 years.

For tonight’s meal, choose Belmondo, virtually next door to the Opera House. Singing waiters entertain in this two-level dining salon, where fish and vegetarian courses are on the menu, augmented by an extensive wine list. Here’s your chance to taste-test classic Hungarian beef goulash, served spicey-hot and traditionally accompanied by tarhonya noodles.

Sidewalk cafés line both sides of Pest’s trendy Andrássy Avenue, one of Budapest’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Make the most of a full day in Pest. No need for a hasty breakfast, because English-language tours of Kossuth Square’s Parliament complex don’t commence until 10 a.m. The crown and coronation regalia of St. Stephen (Hungary’s revered national patron) glimmer in display cases. In nearby St. Stephen’s Basilica, admire jewel-encrusted reliquaries, mosaics and paintings. Then climb to the dome’s 315-ft./96-meter observatory for all-around city-and-river views.

In a museum-going mood? Pest has dozens—ranging from ethnography to agriculture, geology to photography, railroading to contemporary art and natural history. The memorabilia-filled Béla Bartök Memorial House (Csalán Utca 29) was the 20th-century composer’s residence. Bold Art Nouveau design makes the Museum of Applied Arts a visual standout, with aqua and gold Zsolnay ceramics covering the dome and roof in dazzling patterns. Also compelling: north-side Budapest’s Jewish Quarter and its Byzantine-Moorish, twin-turreted Great Synagogue (Dohány Utca 2), consecrated in 1859.

Ponder two lunchtime possibilities. The circa-1897 Central Market Hall (more of those multicolored Zsolnay rooftop zigzags)—jam-packed with stalls purveying produce, breads, meats and cheeses—includes an upstairs niche where drinks, sandwiches and sugar-sprinkled, paprika-seasoned palacsinta pancakes can be ordered. Or, similar vintage but classier ambience: Gerbreaud, the quintessential mid-European pastry shop/coffee house/tea room/casual restaurant, facing Vörösmarty Square’s sculpted stone fountain.

Shopping, people-watching, café-relaxing. Accomplish all three by exploring a popular pedestrian corridor, located two blocks in from Pest’s riverfront. Namely: Váci Utca, hemmed in by neoclassical, Bauhaus and radical new postmodern buildings.

When nightfall approaches, floodlights click on, illuminating the historic Chain Bridge (1849) and Baroque buildings flanking Pest’s riversides. Your cue for a boat ride, therefore time to settle into Spoon, a sociable onboard restaurant. Follow dinner with drinks in the lounge, ideally big-windowed for watching the city lights while cruising the Duna.

Ride a funicular railway up a 48-degree slope to reach the Buda heights, locale of the Royal Palace. Amidst courtyards, gardens and ornamental gateways, attractions inside this neoclassical include the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest History Museum and Hungary’s National Library (containing more than two million books).

A funicular transports passengers up the 48-degree Buda slope.

Beneath the ramparts, rows of Gothic and Baroque housefronts overhang tangles of gaslit streets laid out in the Middle Ages, now loaded with souvenir shops. (You’ll notice pockmarked walls, hit by bullets fired during the 18-day Hungarian Revolution in autumn 1956—Budapest’s heroic populace vs. Soviet troops and tanks). For lunch, find a sidewalk table at Walzer, a chatty little café near Holy Trinity Square. Then stroll upward to the picturesque Fishermen’s Bastion, an arcaded pavilion dating from 1895. A longer walk gets you to Statue Park, hilltop dumping ground for 41 gigantic Communist-era statues, ripped from citywide perches after “comrade” bureaucrats and Russian Red Army soldiers finally departed in 1991.

Guitar-strumming in a 15th-century palm court complements tonight’s candlelit dinner at Alabábardos, within sight of central Buda’s tall-steepled Mátyás Church. Enjoy continental cuisine along with fine Hungarian and Austrian wines.

A Hungarian National Railroad line connects Pest’s Nyugati station (a decade “younger” than Keleti) with domestic and international terminals at Ferihegy Airport (BUD), 10 miles/16 km. southeast of town. The transfer takes merely half an hour.

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