Budapest may not be as picturesque as other European cities (nearby Vienna and Prague spring to mind), but hidden behind the somewhat more understated exterior of the Hungarian capital is an exciting and fast-paced city with a cool edge that few other destinations can match. Life runs at a lazy pace by day, when you can wander around the local markets and relax at thermal spas, but by night the city comes to life in the ruin bars, pubs and clubs. With a fascinating recent history, exciting restaurants and one of the most interesting nightlife scenes in Europe, this nearby - and cheap - destination should go to the top of your to-visit list.
Budapest Central Market Hall
This cavernous indoor market houses everything from brightly coloured Hungarian lace to traditional foods, knick-knacks, jewellery, vintage fashion and everything in between. You could easily spend hours lost among its meandering alleyways, sampling meats and cheeses and picking up souvenirs. Perfect for a leisurely afternoon, pick up traditional street snacks like langos. Essentially a huge circle of deep-fried dough slathered in toppings such as sour cream and cheese. Delicious.
Hop on a bus up to this whimsical, turreted look-out point that was built on the site of the old medieval fish market. You’ll be treated to spectacular views of the entire city and across the Danube river to the majestic parliament building.
It’s part of the Buda Castle complex, which also houses the Hungarian National Gallery, and the rest of the area is full of quaint cobbled streets, neo-Gothic architecture and several other notable museums to keep you occupied while in the area.
Frici Papa Kifozdéje
Budapest’s creative contemporary food scene might be taking off, but make time to tuck into a hearty plate of goulash. This homey little restaurant is cosy, authentic and exceptional value for money. Order the rich stew with noodles (which are similar to gnocchi) with sides of cucumber salad and pickle. And the whole thing, including a drink, will cost you roughly Fr1,500 (QR20) per person.
House of Terror
Housed in the former headquarters of the Arrow Cross Party and the AVH (the Hungarian Secret Police during German and Soviet occupation), this museum narrates the history of the city and country throughout the Second World War up to the end of the Cold War. The exhibitions are eye-opening and at times disturbing but nonetheless, this remains a not-to-be-missed museum for anyone interested in learning more about Budapest’s turbulent history.
No visit to Budapest is complete without a night out at the city’s ruin bars. Each has grown out of a dilapidated building that has been transformed by quirky furniture, modern art and more. They are also home to some of Budapest’s most exciting restaurants to visit, too.
For a meal, head to Cséndes Letterem for its vintage-tinged setting and contemporary Hungarian cuisine, or to the slightly more refined Costes Restaurant for an upscale tasting menu of local cuisine. When it comes to nightlife, Szimpla Kert remains the most famous watering hole (queues are more than an hour long during peak season unless you get down early) and is worth visiting, though prices are cheaper, and the vibe just as buzzing, in spots like Ankert and Red Ruin.
Round off an evening with a takeaway from one of Budapest’s numerous gyros stands where you can take home mammoth portions of juicy meat wrapped in hot, doughy pitta for basically next to nothing.
A tradition left over from the Ottoman Empire (of which Budapest was part of from 1541 to 1699), the city is full of thermal spas. A part of daily life for the city’s locals, each one houses a complex of heated and chilled thermal pools along with saunas, steam rooms and, in some, massage facilities, cafés and more. Széchenyi is the grandest and most famous, but head here during peak season and you’ll be faced with hoardes of tourists, and struggle to find a sunlounger. Instead, visit the beautiful Gellért Baths which is smaller, but covered in stunning mosaics (www.gellertbath.com). Or, bathe like the locals do at Kiraly Thermal Bath (en.kiralyfurdo.hu). You’re likely to be the only tourist there, even at peak season. You won’t find grand columns or intricate stonework, or an outdoor deck to sunbathe, but the building dates back to 1565 and is without doubt one of the most atmospheric in the city.
Where to stay
This artsy, industrial boutique hotel has a quirky, boho vibe and is more luxurious than you would expect, given the price you will pay.
Contemporary comfort blends with 19th century charm at this four-star hotel near the opera.
If you’d prefer to have all the amenities that big hotel chains afford while staying in Budapest, then the Kempinski is one of the best.
Qatar Airways flies direct to Budapest from QR3,500 return. Flight duration is five hours.
Chilled-out Sziget Festival takes place on an island in the middle of the Danube. 2017’s line-up includes Major Lazer, Kasabian, alt-J, Two Door Cinema Club and Steve Aoki.
Day passes from QR260, seven-day pass with camping QR1,999. Aug 9-16, 2017. www.szigetfestival.com.