One of the largest cities in Europe, Budapest is a regional powerhouse in terms of art, design and cuisine, home to a dynamic fashion scene and more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the former Eastern Bloc. Of course, the Hungarian capital boasts a rich and lengthy history, starting with early Celtic settlements and the later Roman city of Aquincum, before hitting a high point during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But fans of contemporary pleasures will also find far more than a weekend’s worth of new attractions here. Most of the action lies in Pest, east of the Danube, with scores of compelling new bars, restaurants and boutiques in neighborhoods like the Inner City, the Jewish Quarter and the Palace District. Across the river, stately Buda Castle and renewed, Turkish-era thermal baths reward travelers in hilly Buda.
For years, Hungary’s art scene was known for being relatively unknown, though several new galleries are working to improve things. One of the best is the 2014 arrival Art + Text, housed in an Art Nouveau building whose ornate 1903 architectural details contrast stunningly against the contemporary artworks on display. Exhibitions focusing on emerging artists and modernist works of the post-World War II era change roughly every month. Get here early: Like many other Budapest galleries, Art + Text is not open on weekends, and only welcomes visitors on Fridays until 6 p.m.
Relax over a glass and a bite at Tasting Table, a cool, casual wine shop and bar that became one of the city’s favorite destinations soon after it opened in an atmospheric Palace Quarter cellar in late 2014. Owned by the American food writer Carolyn Banfalvi and her Hungarian husband, Gabor, Tasting Table stocks over 200 wines, which you can compare in flights of three glasses (3,900 forints, or about $15.40), while you sample local cheeses, charcuterie and other snacks. Placemat-size maps illustrate the geography and varietals of the country’s main wine regions, making it easy to justify another round in the name of your ongoing oenological education.
Years ago, Budapest led the way for cocktails in Central Europe, with favorites like Boutiq’ Bar appearing on several global “best bars” lists. The new hotness: Good Spirit Bar, which opened last year in the Inner City with more than 350 kinds of whiskey and some 700 spirits overall, including takes on the domestic distillate palinka, made with beet, celery root and carrot. Relax at the spacious, L-shaped corner bar over a relatively obscure Japanese whiskey like the 12-year-old Togouchi (3,700 forints for a dram of 4 centiliters, or about 1.35 ounces), or make your way through the cocktail list, which bounds from classics like the Sazerac (2,400 forints) to such custom creations as Fig in Japan (Nikka All Malt whiskey, fig syrup, sherry vinegar and a dash of espresso, tobacco and bacon bitters; 2,400 forints). The list also includes creative, nonalcoholic drinks like the Sage Stage (sage, cardamom, lime, pear and tonic; 1,100 forints).
Thanks in part to European Union development funds, many of Budapest’s once-rundown parks, sidewalks and squares have been spruced up in recent years. The riverside Nehru Part south of the Inner City reopened in late 2016 with new running tracks, basketball courts, workout equipment, playgrounds and a new skate park hidden under Petofi Bridge, offering great views of the Danube. Afterward, head north to check out the Bálna (or “Whale”) Building, a modern shopping mall partially composed of restored, 19th-century warehouses.
The Jewish Quarter offers historic sites, trendy shops, amazing night life and an array of excellent (and cheap) ethnic restaurants. Prepare for your tear through the neighborhood with a hearty bowl of noodles at Ramenka, a minimalist, Japanese-style ramen bar. The house special (1,690 forints) pairs fresh noodles with a savory, pork-based broth adorned with tender slices of braised pork belly, boiled egg, sprouts, chives, carrot matchsticks and wood-ear mushrooms, while those following the neighborhood’s more traditional dietary strictures might prefer the pork-free, miso-based version (1,690 forints).
Take a snapshot of the ornate facade of the Rumbach Synagogue, a stunning Moorish Revival building from 1872, originally designed by the great Otto Wagner and currently undergoing a much-needed reconstruction. Then head across the street to shop for handmade souvenirs at Printa, a “zero-waste” print shop, cafe and boutique where you’ll find unusual T-shirts (4,500 forints) and posters (8,000 forints) bearing an illustration of the city’s various bridges over the Danube, as well as “Printa’s Jewish Quarter” (2,800 forints), a frame-worthy map of the neighborhood.
Along with several of its neighboring countries, Hungary is coming into its own in terms of fashion. Find apparel and accessories at Punch, launched in 2017 by a consortium of several up-and-coming designers just off Andrassy. Inside you’ll find Anna Amélie’s large purses, made of hydrophobic leather in dynamic colors (around 62,000 forints), velvet bodysuits (24,000 forints) by Anna Daubner and funky women’s hats (59,000 forints) from Vecsei. Not far away is the new flagship store of Nanushka, a cult Hungarian brand hashtagged by style-conscious women around the world. Although the brand can be found in boutiques from Paris to Tokyo, this is currently the only stand-alone Nanushka store, stocking the widest selection of items like “Cascade” skirts with the brand’s distinctive knot in faux leather (74,990 forints) and tank tops with a similar motif in silky “technical” satin (59,100 forints).
Craft beer has hit the capital hard in recent years, appearing at stylish new restaurants like Bestia, across from St. Stephen’s Basilica. Inside the spacious dining room you’ll find beer from local producers like Mad Scientist, Hedon and Horizont, paired with excellent modern pub cuisine: massive beef marrow bones topped with bread crumbs and dried horseradish, accompanied by fluffy, focaccia-style toast (3,850 forints); tender, sweet-and-sour barbecue chicken wings (2,050 forints for six); and truffled macaroni and cheese (3,050 forints). Plan to stay a while: The list of draft beers runs 12 deep, and like many places in town, there’ll probably be a club-worthy D.J. playing top-shelf funk and house tunes, or another type of musical performance.
Craft beer gives you plenty of options for the night, with sleek arrivals like 2017’s First backing up established bars like the sprawling Eleszto, a “ruin” pub in a former glass works that opened with more than 20 taps of craft beer in late 2013. Other must-sees for beer fans include the labyrinthine Kandallo, the intimate Lehuto craft beer and tapas bar, and the ten-tap Hopaholic. Almost any of these pubs will provide entertainment. However, if a local offers to get you into a late-night private cocktail club like Her Majesty the Rabbit — which does not list an address — by all means drop your pint and take them up on it immediately.
Soak away the excess at the Rudas Baths, one of the city’s most atmospheric thermal pools, originally built during the Ottoman occupation in the mid-16th century. Though it retains much of its original Turkish architecture, a 2014 reconstruction added modern spa facilities, a Turkish-Hungarian fusion restaurant and a panorama pool on the rooftop terrace. Normally reserved for men, the Rudas Baths welcome both sexes on weekends. Don’t forget your swimsuit, and if you don’t have a spare towel, pay for a sheet (700 forints and a 1,500-forint deposit) along with your ticket (3,700 forints).
The original Costes restaurant earned Hungary’s first Michelin star some eight years ago. But many locals prefer the restaurant’s newer and less stuffy second location, Costes Downtown, which brought a lighter atmosphere when it opened in 2015 — and which quickly picked up its own Michelin star. The top-shelf Continental cuisine highlights many of Hungary’s renowned products, like goose liver, prepared as a buttery terrine and topped with cubes of fresh pear and quince and a honey-ginger sauce (6,000 forints), or Mangalitsa pork medallions (9,100 forints), which are topped with earthy Jerusalem artichoke chips and dense droplets of savory black garlic purée. Leave enough time for a final glass before you rush off to the airport: The wine list features celebrated producers from regions like Badacsony, Eger and Villany, many of which you’re unlikely ever to find anywhere else.
Guests looking for excellent yet affordable views of St. Stephen’s Basilica can book one of three rooftop suites (called “apartments”) at 12 Revay Hotel (Revay utca 12; 12revay.com; doubles start at 92 euros, or about $113), or chose one of the 53 smaller rooms at the hotel, which opened in 2015.
Ten years after the arrival of the posh Callas cafe and restaurant, Callas House (Andrassy ut 20; callashouse.com; off-season doubles start around 82 euros) opened directly upstairs in 2016, offering 25 beautiful rooms and suites on Pest’s most stylish boulevard, next door to the Budapest Opera.
Editors’ Note: March 31, 2018
An earlier version of this article included a reference to the Shoah Cellar Museum. After publication, several readers and experts in Jewish history raised questions about the background of the museum; that reference has now been removed.
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