Variously described as ‘the Paris of the East’, ‘the Queen of the Danube’ and ‘the birthplace of the European spa’, Budapest enjoys a reputation for romance and relaxation but it is also something of a revelation for the wine lover.
Established in the late 19th century as one of the joint capitals of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Budapest is often assumed to be a combination of two ancient cities, on either side of the River Danube, but it was actually created from three: Pest, Buda and Óbuda. Two World Wars and an Iron Curtain later, the city’s grandeur might be a little faded, some of its inhabitants a touch jaded, but Budapest remains captivating, with a gastronomic dynamism that confounds all the stereotypes of Eastern European fare.
Most famous for its signature sweet Tokaji, Hungary is one of Europe’s oldest wine nations, with evidence of production dating back to the Roman era. The country’s vineyards contain 223 different varieties, across 65,000 hectares, and its indigenous grapes present an enticing voyage of discovery for the uninitiated. Though the majority of the country’s vineyards are several hours away, there’s a small appellation, focused on sparkling, a short hop from its centre and Hungary’s wines are well represented in the city’s bustling wine bars and restaurants.
Things to see and do in Budapest
A relatively compact city, Budapest is well suited to a stroll and the Castle District, located on a rocky plateau with views of the entire city, is the best place to start. Walk the Széchenyi Chain Bridge across the Danube, then ride the funicular railway to enjoy the views from the imposing Fishermen’s Bastion monument, a tribute to the nomadic Magyar tribes who founded the country. Next, take in the sights of its cobbled medieval city, the Hungarian National Gallery and the fantastically florid Matthias Church. Round off across the river, with a tour of the spectacular Hungarian Parliament Building – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – apparently modelled on the Palace of Westminster.
After all that walking, it is time to relax and there is nowhere better than Budapest. Thermal bathing is ingrained in the Hungarian psyche and the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, the largest medicinal waters in Europe, is a cultural experience as well as a place to chill. A labyrinth of baths, all at different temperatures, you can even enjoy a beer as you bathe in one of the enormous outdoor pools.
Where to eat and drink in Budapest
Budapest is a dining destination these days, with Hungary’s wines proudly showcased wherever you go. For a comprehensive introduction to the country’s distinctive native grapes, head to Kadarka, named in honour of the variety – a vibrant, crunchy, raspberry-charged red that’s a personal favourite. There’s tantalising tapas but the comprehensive wine list is the real star of the show.
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Emblematic of the new wave of Budapest restaurants, Tati offers ‘farm to table’ dining that’s more than a slogan because it’s supplied by a smallholding just outside the city. The menu varies weekly, according to what’s growing, while the nation’s signature dish, goulash, has been reinvented with aplomb. There’s a well chosen wine list, with an impressive selection served by the glass.
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For fine dining, take a table at Babel, set inside a former school building, where chef Kornél Kaszás has been awarded a Michelin star for his innovative tasting menus, focused on the cuisine of the Carpathian basin.
For a post-prandial drink, Budapest’s idiosyncratic ‘ruin bars’ are an absolute must. First established in the early naughties, offering a riot of neon, graffiti and delicious cocktails, there is no shabbier chic. Often located in abandoned buildings, the bars come and go, so just head to the Jewish Quarter and you will soon find yourself immersed.
Where to stay in Budapest
For the full ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ experience, the Corinthia (formerly the Grand Hotel Royal) was apparently the inspiration for director Wes Anderson’s epic movie. Painstakingly restored, 20 years ago, the hotel elegantly melds its heritage with modern comforts and a spectacular spa, while its location, close to the Jewish Quarter is perfect for late night assignations in those rustic ruin bars that would likely appall Monsieur Gustave H.
Or try the Four Seasons Gresham Palace, a restored art nouveau masterpiece on the banks of the Danube, that oozes opulence with its ornate green mosaic tiles and sumptuous chandeliers. There’s a decent brasserie but the cocktail bar, Múzsa, is really the place to be seen, while the spa is a discreet destination for pampering.
The ultimate drinking destination in Budapest
Head for the hills, less than 20 miles from the city centre, and you’ll find the small Etyek-Buda wine region, known as ‘the vineyard of Budapest’. Centred on two villages, Tök and Etyek, the climate is cool, so the grapes are high in acidity, hence the region enjoys a growing reputation for the quality of its sparkling wines. Most of the wineries are boutique by size, its custodians more likely to be tending to the vines than selling souvenirs, so it’s best to take an organised tour: Wine Amore offers four-hour guided visits with a sommelier, so take the back seat of a humble Trabant (Eastern Europe’s answer to the Mini) to enjoy a lavish tasting and lunch.