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May 5, 2009

Hungary: Bathing is best in Budapest

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Filed under : General Green
With its hot springs and cultural treasures, the Hungarian capital offers a wealth of sensory treats, says Adrian Bridge.

With its grand Austro-Hungarian boulevards, Art Nouveau architecture and fin-de-siècle air, Budapest is one of the great showcases of central European culture. It is beautifully defined by the Danube, which runs through its heart, neatly dividing urban Pest from the more rarefied hills of Buda. Its old-world coffee houses serve rich cakes and pastries. And its residents have been enjoying the natural hot-water springs and culture of bathing and spas since Roman times. A bonus in these lean times is that it is cheap: a recent survey conducted by the Post Office found that of all the central and eastern European cities outside the Eurozone, Budapest represented the best value of all.

Travel with…

The Hungarian national airline Malev (, 0870 909 0577), which flies twice a day from Gatwick and has three daily code-share flights operated by British Airways from Heathrow. Fares start at £110 return including taxes and charges.

Stay at…

The Four Seasons’ Gresham Palace (, 0036 1 268 6000), one of the great hotels of Europe, which is offering rooms at €195 (£175) a night (though those with views of the Danube cost considerably more, and breakfast is €30 extra). The centrally located Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest (, 0036 1 429 3375), a plush five-star hotel with an Asian-style spa and the best brunch in Budapest, has doubles from €139 (£125) per night, including breakfast.

Tucked away in a highly atmospheric part of the VIII district, the newly opened Palazzo Zichy (, 0036 1 235 4000) is a beautiful fusion of 19th-century elegance and 21st-century designer style. Doubles from as little as €59 (£53) per night, including breakfast.

Spend the morning…

In the castle district on the Buda side. It’s a bit twee up there, and very different from the more gritty reality of downtown Pest, but it does enable you to get a good sense of the geography of the city, and to enjoy bird’s eye views of the Danube and the splendid gothic parliament (loosely modelled on the Palace of Westminster). The Royal Palace itself houses the Hungarian National Gallery containing the best collection of Hungarian art in the country. Nearby, the Matthias Church is a colourful mix of gothic, baroque and Ottoman influences (Hungary was occupied by the Turks for more than 150 years). Finish at the Ruszwurm café (, 0036 1 375 5284), a city institution famed for its coffee and kremes (vanilla cream cake).

Have lunch at…

The Kávéház at the Gresham. A rather finer establishment than its coffee-house name suggests, it serves a “Trio of Foie Gras” for which the word sensational could have been invented. There are lighter fish dishes to redress the balance, and some fine Hungarian wines. Ask for a table with a view on to the Chain Bridge.

Spend the afternoon…

Bathing. With its vast number of natural thermal springs, Budapest must be the world’s greatest spa city. For most visitors, that usually means a trip to the Gellért, a striking Art Nouveau building housing a hotel on the Buda side of the Liberty Bridge. It has a beautiful pool and spa area (segregated for men and women) with artistic mosaics, stained-glass windows and some serious masseurs and masseuses. Wonderful though the Gellért is, there are so many other gems. My favourites include the Széchenyi (famed for its chess boards in the outdoor swimming pool), the Lucas (popular with actors and an arty set) and the Rudas (a fantastically atmospheric Turkish bath).

Shop for…

Tokay wines and goose liver. You can pick up both, and lots more, at the Great Market Hall on the Pest side of Liberty Bridge. This covered market, the largest in town, is a great place to stroll and see Budapesters buying their paprikas and huge slabs of salami. And if you want something more souvenir-like, on the upper floor there is a wide selection of embroidered tablecloths and hand-painted porcelain.

Dine out at…

Baraka (, 0036 1 483 1355), a new breed of gourmet-style restaurant whose chef, Norbert Biro, prides himself on creative fusions of Asian, French and Hungarian cuisines. Try his seared goose liver with hazelnuts and port wine-poached pear, his black tiger prawn tempura, his wasabi and sesame crusted rack of lamb with lentils and ratatouille. Take a pause. Drink more wine (Sauvignon Blanc from Pécs; Bikaver from Eger). This is a meal over which you should linger.

At all costs avoid…

The dubious taxi firms, particularly around the major hotels, that specialise in fleecing unsuspecting tourists.

Further information…

Hungarian National Tourist Office ( Budapest: A Cultural and Literary History by Bob Dent (Signal Books, £12).

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