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Destination guide: Budapest

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Budapest - or Buda and Pest - is by equal parts gritty and grey, majestic, beautiful and romantic. Over the years, Budapest, which is split down the middle by the mighty Danube, has suffered horribly, both in WWII and as a result of communism. The city, which was founded in 1873, spent years under Ottoman rule, and as a result, has a real East-meets-West feel. It's also got a fascinating history, more museums, palaces and opera houses than you can shake a stick at, and some seriously delicious cuisine.

Where to stay

The Corinthia Hotel has rooms from £103 per night

Budapest has something for everyone when it comes to accommodation, and some of the city's finest hotels are surprisingly cheap. Rooms at the five-star Corinthia Hotel Budapest on Erzsébet körút start from just £103 per night. The hotel's spa is enormous, with what must surely rank as one of the world's most spectacular indoor swimming pools. There are two restaurants: the Brasserie specialises in more traditional cuisine (and delicious breakfasts) while Rickshaw serves up tasty Asian fare. For those on a budget, the colourful Bohem Art Hotel, on Molnár utca, is filled with art and has an onsite gallery. Guests choose their room according to the art within it, and prices start from around £60 per night.

Food and drink

Goulash: the archetypal Hungarian treat

Budapest caters for all appetites. Costes, on Ráday utca, earned Budapest its first Michelin star in 2010, while Onyx restaurant, on Vörösmarty Square, is regarded as one of Hungary's best restaurants and also boasts a Michelin star. The food is spectacular and the menu includes traditional Hungarian dishes such as goulash soup alongside a wide range of international cuisine. Equally tempting but less formal - and easier on the purse strings - are the city's many smaller eateries, like Kor on Sas utca. This small, friendly cafe specialises in traditional Hungarian food - the cold cherry soup is one of their best-selling dishes.

Gerbeaud is the go-to destination for those with a sweet tooth

Those with a sweet tooth should head to Gerbeaud on Vörösmarty Square. The interior of this 150-year-old cafe is an explosion of rare woods, velvet curtains and bronze, and both locals and tourists flock here for the handmade chocolates and cakes. When night falls, nothing beats a drink in one of Budapest's famous ruin bars. These watering holes first appeared in the early 1990s, when locals took it upon themselves to convert the city's derelict buildings into quirky watering holes. The bars are incredibly cheap and filled with an eclectic mix second-hand furniture and bric brac. One of the most famous ruin bars is Szimpla Kert on Kazinczy utca - keep an eye out for the old dentist chair and the bathtub-turned sofa on the second floor.

Szimpla Kert: one of Budapest's famed ruin bars

Budapest's best buildings

  • The Great Synagogue on Dohány Street is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world - it can accommodate 3000 people. It's also home to the fascinating Jewish Museum.
  • Budapest Academy of Music was built in 1873 and the famous Hungarian-born composer Franz Liszt was once the president of the academy. There's an enormous statue of the composer outside.
  • The Central Market Hall is a great place to sample some local cuisine, but if you do pay a visit, take time to check out the roof. It's covered with beautiful Zsolnay tiles. These colourful, frost-resistant tiles are named after ceramicist Miklós Zsolnay who started making them in the mid-19th century.

The beautiful buildings of Budapest

  • The Matthias Roman Catholic Church, is located on Szentháromság, and with its spires and colourful tiling, it's one of Budapest's prettiest buildings. One of the most beautiful parts is the Béla Tower, which is covered in multi-coloured tiles and which was named after King Béla IV, the founder of the original church.
  • Budapest's Parliament building is a gothic masterpiece, comprising two enormous halls beneath a huge dome. Statues of Hungarian rulers and military leaders peer down from the building's roof - there are 242 in total.

Things to see and do

A night out in one of Budapest's many bars

First things first - when it comes to Budapest, there's a lot to take in, so kit yourself out with a good guide. Some of the best are employed by Underguide - a company specialising in tours which cover everything from food to art, history and everything in between. Once you book a tour, your guide will contact you to find out what aspects of the city you're especially interested in, and the traditional chocolate bars doled out by the guides are an added perk.

In Pest, on the eastern side of the Danube, you'll find the riverside parliament building. It's one of city's grandest structures and is located on a square peppered with bullet holes which act as a grim reminder of the 1956 uprising. From here, it's just a short walk to Andrássy Út, Budapest's grandest avenue. Highlights include the Hungarian State Opera House, with its enormous statues and beautifully decorated interior. If you don't have time to take in a performance opt for one of the daily tours instead. Heroes' Square, at the end of Andrássy Út, is also worth a visit. The square, which is bordered by the Museum of Fine Arts and Kunsthalle (Hall of Art), was designed in 1896 to mark the 1000th anniversary of Hungary.

Heroes' Square in Budapest

An equally fascinating but somewhat harrowing point of interest is the House of Terror at Andrássy út 60. This large museum contains exhibits relating to the fascist and communist dictatorial regimes which wreaked havoc on 20th century Hungary, and although it makes for a harrowing visit - the videos of survivors recalling their time in prison camps makes for particularly tough viewing - it's also an excellent place to learn about the country's history.

Buda, on the western side of the River, is where you'll find the 100-year-old Fisherman's Bastion. The seven turrets represent Hungarian tribes, and the structure was built as a tribute to the city's fishermen. The Royal Palace is located atop Castle Hill on the site where the original castle once stood. The palace towers above the city's castle district, famous for its baroque architecture and cafe-lined narrow streets, many of which follow medieval paths constructed in the 13th century. When Buda was liberated from the Turks, the castle was completely destroyed but in the 18th century, a smaller baroque palace was constructed, and it's this which forms the core structure of the present-day palace. Today, it houses the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum and the National Library. The Chain bridge which connects Buda with Pest was the first to connect the two halves of the city. It was built in 1849 by Scotsman Adam Clark, and financed by Count István Széchenyi. In 1820, the count crossed the river on a pontoon bridge, but the weather changed and it was a week before he could return home, hence his decision to fund a more permanent method of travelling between Buda and Pest.

Budapest: fast facts

Budapest is divided into 22 districts

  • Budapest was created in 1873 through the joining of Buda, Pest and Old Buda
  • Budapest has a population of 1.7 million
  • The currency is the Forint (HUF)
  • Budapest is on Central European Time (GMT+1, EST+6)
  • The city is divided into 22 districts
  • Budapest has Europe's oldest underground Metro system
  • In the summer, the temperature ranges between 90-100F (32-35°C). Winters are cold, and the temperature can plummet to -10°C

Getting there and away

Easyjet flies to Budapest from London Gatwick and Luton airports. There are daily flights from London Gatwick to Budapest, with return fares starting from £68.48. Flights from Luton to Budapest run up to four times per week, with return fares starting from £51.48.

Words: Tamara Hinson, Photos: Tamara Hinson and Hungarian Tourism

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