Budapest: Splendour in the dark

Historic Budapest has something for all comers, writes Miranda Freeman, be it baroque beauty, baths, bikes, bagels or bars built in ruins.

Need a break from the selfie sticks obstructing your views throughout Western Europe? Just head east, and where better to start than Hungary’s capital, Budapest. Combining baroque opulence with a roaring nightlife and affordable eats, Budapest makes an exciting city trip for all travelling budgets.

Despite its popularity as a destination for stag and hen parties, peel back the party layer and you’ll discover Budapest’s rich history. A true tale of east meets west, up until 1873 Budapest was two distinct cities – hilly, wealthy Buda on the western bank and flat, bourgeois Pest on the opposite bank – separated by the River Danube. Today they are connected by a bridge, but you can still feel echoes of difference between them with Buda’s sleepy streets and, once the sun goes down, the vibrant hum of Pest.

Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda

With that in mind, start the day on the Buda side by hiring one of the city bikes and riding around the hills. A worthwhile pit stop is the Citadella atop Gellért Hill, which offers beautiful views of the river and Pest’s cityscape. It’s a bit of a climb, so best to leave the bikes tethered down the hill. A short 15-minute cycle north you’ll find the Fisherman’s Bastion, a beautiful neo-gothic structure of seven towers and a terrace that looks like something out of a Walt Disney film. The structure was built in the 19th century to serve as a lookout tower, but today it’s a cafe where tourists can relax and take in the views.

Budapest has a deeply ingrained bathing culture and some of the best bathhouses are in Buda. Not far from Fisherman’s Bastion on the banks you’ll find Rudas. In this quiet, 16th century spa you can sink into a giant bath while gazing at a domed, stained-glass ceiling. Further uphill, Gellert is slightly busier but also good, with 10 thermal baths and three outdoor pools. Day passes to the bathhouses are around 30 Australian dollars including towels and locker, so you won’t feel guilty spending several days soaking in scented tubs.

Interior view of a bathhouse at the Gellert Thermal Baths

A good way to finish an afternoon cycling Buda’s streets is with a drink at Bambi Presszó jazz cafe. With its lingering air of 70s Hungarian socialism, it’s an ideal hole-in-the-wall to enjoy a brew (tip: ‘Cheers’ in Hungarian is Egészségére, pronounced a little something like ‘I guess she can drive’).

As night falls, it’s time to cross the river to Pest. Hungary’s most famous dish, goulash, is a great dinner option for two reasons: it is cheap and it is delicious. A traditional meat soup with generous amounts of paprika, it is served on nearly every street corner. Jedermann Cafe, a popular jazz joint, offers tasty bowls of goulash for five Australian dollars that you can enjoy alongside live bands, or you might prefer to try the trendy Gettó Gulyás in the Jewish quarter. For something less traditional, Budapest Bagel near the National Museum is a popular spot for a quick bite.

Szimpla Kert, one of Pest’s famous ruin bars

The best way to experience Pest’s thriving nightlife is inside one of its famous ‘ruin’ bars. Szimpla Kert is the most popular – an enormous club inside an abandoned factory with precarious lighting and flea market furniture strewn throughout. If the queue is too long try Instant or Fogasház. Each boasting its own personality, the ruin bars are a truly unique experience where hours can tick over in seconds.

With plenty to see and plenty to eat, and all achievable on a shoestring budget, forego Vienna or Prague on your next European jaunt for the ‘Paris of the East’. In Budapest, there’s no selfie stick required for a truly memorable experience (and you don’t want to be that guy anyway).

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