If you have been lucky enough to visit Hungary’s capital, you’ve almost definitely experienced that moment, as you wander through the winding streets – the sun setting over the Danube River – where you think to yourself “this could be the most beautiful place on earth.”
In the grand scheme of things, Budapest only became the capital of the country quite recently, after Buda, Óbuda and Pest came together in 1873. Fast-forward to today and the city’s popularity has skyrocketed, attracting around 12 million tourists every year its now acclaimed as a cultural hotspot. Within hours of arriving, it’s easy to see why.
Not just in Europe, few places in the world strike quite as instantly as such a fascinating location.
It’s a beauty that in many ways, is vastly bittersweet. Budapest has suffered a long and complicated past. The city is littered with constant and often brutal reminders of the atrocities of war, Soviet rule and a desire to break free.
One thing that has remained throughout the years, a kind of beacon of hope in even the most difficult times, is Hungary’s infatuation with the arts – and the way it embraces those from the creative industries. Filmmakers, musicians and writers still flock to Budapest to find inspiration, to live and work in a city that has always recognised the importance of expression.
That leaves Budapest with an endless list of incredible galleries, museums and beauty spots that not only pay homage to years gone by – but ensure the city is still leading the way in breeding the best up and coming artistic minds in Europe, keeping the city at the forefront of anything that is happening culturally across the continent.
Budapest’s relationship with the arts is perhaps best summarised by the history of its iconic New York Cafe. Labelled a must-visit in any travel guide, the renaissance style cafe was once upon a time a key meeting spot for creatives in the city, a place to share and discuss ideas, a place to inspire.
In fact, to ensure this remained the case, employees of the cafe would apparently invite writers and artists to work there, regardless of whether they could afford to spend any money on food or drink. This wasn’t a decision based on business, it was about the reputation of the cafe, which wanted to ensure it attracted a certain clientele to come and work beneath the unmistakable setting of its towering marble columns and chandeliers.
While things may not be quite as generous these days, it’s a sentiment that has shaped so many of the city’s spaces and even now, it can still be felt particularly in younger generations.
Whenever anyone talks about Budapest, the conversation will inevitably flow towards its mismatched but mind bendingly beautiful architecture. It feels very much like the embracing of artistic license has also applied to the eclectic mixture of era-defining buildings that line the streets and squares.
A mesmerising mix of over-the-top structures, grand palaces and stunning public parks make it dangerously easy to waste hours simply coming to terms with the sheer magnificence of the surroundings.
Dramatic pointed towers of Baroque churches, Art Nouveau museums radiating charm, entire streets lined with striking Bauhaus style houses, the unforgiving block structures of Stalinist architecture, Turkish-style baths left behind by the Ottomans. They all serve as separate reminders of the many eras that have shaped Hungary for better or worse down the years.
A legislation by the city actually ensures that most buildings are kept low, in order to preserve the stunning cityscape and its World Heritage Site status. While some would like to see these rules relaxed in order to erect modern high-rise buildings, the powers that be in Budapest have always been reluctant to give way and we can’t help but be grateful for that stubbornness.
All of this variation is tied together magnificently by the mighty Danube River, the dividing point of Buda and Pest, the two very different sides of the city. It acts as a gathering point for tourists and locals alike and is a spectacular sight whatever time of the day you visit. It is however in the evening, as lights from the Széchenyi Chain Bridge bounce off the water, when the Danube dazzles the most.
The river bank provides arguably the greatest meeting point imaginable, as hundreds flock to begin their evenings with a beer by the waterside while talented buskers offer the perfect soundtrack under the shadows of the breathtaking Buda Castle and parliament buildings. It’s here where Budapest feels at its most genuine, even despite the influx of tourists there’s something magical about the tradition that sparks life into the evenings.
This of course paves way to another of the city’s great modern selling points. We talk of course, about its nightlife. For a country that has fallen on financially hard times, the eccentric clubs and bars offer an escapism for locals and ensure that anyone venturing to the capital simply for a good time, won’t have to look very far.
Ruin bars carved into abandoned buildings of the old Jewish Quarter, that were left to rot in the aftermath of the World War breathe life into the underground bar scene. Littered with flea market furniture, crumbling walls and lashings of art, these spots should be on the checklist of anyone visiting and while not so underground anymore, still provide an authentic experience.
It would seem wrong to not highlight the influence of Jewish culture on the city. The Great Synagogue a prime example of yet another style of intimidatingly glorious architecture and is one of three synagogues that feature in the bustling Jewish Quarter, an area that has become the go-to for younger locals who from personal experience, offer some of the warmest welcomes imaginable.
From boutique coffee shops and outdoor markets to a collection of authentic delicious kosher restaurants and cafes. It’s a neighbourhood that is constantly evolving, keeping up with current trends while refusing to forget its history. It’s a combination that makes the area one of the most exciting and unpredictable parts of the city.
Of course though, the Jewish community have also faced unspeakable terrors in Hungary. The Shoes Along the Danube is just one of the monuments that captures the horrors endured by so many. The exhibition, created by film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer, honours the Jews who were killed in World War 2, where they were ordered to remove their shoes on the river bank and shot so their bodies fell into the water.
It seems quite fitting then, that The Jewish Quarter, still sometimes referred to as the Ghetto, has become this hub for expressionism, for socialising and meeting up with loved ones. It’s constantly lively, whether it’s groups of friends laughing outside a bar, or someone creating a new piece of street art, it’s one of the many beating hearts of Budapest and that in itself feels like the ultimate act of defiance.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a much more laid back side to Budapest. Hungary has more than 1000 natural springs and several of those are located in the capital. The most famous being the ones that fuel Széchenyi Medicinal Baths, the largest of its kind in Europe, boasting more than 20 pools that range from mineral baths to ice cold plunder rooms.
Despite becoming another tourist hotspot, locals still flock to the baths every single day, which is always a good indication that something is worth doing in a place that is unfamiliar. Whether it’s relaxing before a big night out, or recovering from a long day at work, the thermal baths remain a staple part of Hungarian routine and anyone visiting should make time to sample it for themselves.
A glance through the country’s history and it’s impossible to not be inspired by the Hungarian resilience. Against all odds and in the most unlikely of circumstances, stands a city which offers an incredibly unique kind of allure. To try and create a concise summary of what makes Budapest and its people so special, wouldn’t come close to doing it justice. This is a place you simply have to experience yourself, only then could you begin to understand why it’s so special.
Inspiration, relaxation, socialising, great food, history. Whatever you’re looking for Budapest has it, only here it’s on a grander and far more intense scale than anywhere else, all set to a backdrop that is absurdly gorgeous in ways you could never imagine.
UP NEXT: Champagne sets its roots into the UK