Say Cheese, to the Most Photogenic City in Europe – Budapest
What makes a city a haven for a solo traveller? With at least a dozen solo trips under my belt, I’m still not sure I have the answers. But every now and then I feel at ease in a city. At home, even when I can’t read the road signs or walk into a narrow alley without knowing what to expect.
Budapest is high on that list. You already know that it’s one of Europe’s most photogenic cities. You probably know that the city is split into Buda and Pest – the city’s two distinct hearts, by the Danube. Budapest’s Instagram feeds won't tell you how this city of 1,000 faces begins to unravel itself, as you peel one layer at a time. Our 101 might be great place to begin:
Even if you have only one day in the city, don’t leave Budapest without embarking on a river cruise. The sunset cruises are the busiest and not without reason. It’s when the city’s landmarks glow in the dark and are at their most camera-friendly. The Hungarian Parliament building is one of the riverfront’s stars. There’s also the Chain Bridge that features in Katy Perry’s Firework music video – one of the city’s many iconic bridges, that was originally constructed in 1849.
There are multiple vantage points from where you can look down into the city. If you have time for just one, head to Citadella (the local word for Citadel). It’s ironic that this UNESCO heritage fortification that has come to symbolise liberation, was used by the Nazis and the Soviets (during the Hungarian uprising in 1956) to keep the city under their control. You can soak up the history with the small display of exhibits or just head straight to the vista points for 360-degree panoramas of the city.
Any solo traveller will tell you that you only make discoveries when rubber (soles) hits the road. Sign up for one of the city’s myriad free (there is no fee but tips and gratuities for the tour guides are a done thing) walking tours. My walking tour led me through some of the city’s most historic streets and past St Stephens, Budapest’s imposing Neo-classical Catholic church. But my favourite Church in the city is the Mathias Church that is a slightly steep climb up Castle Hill – you can also take a funicular, and covered with local tiles. Castle Hill is home to multiple landmarks including Sandor Palace, the official residence of the President and Fisherman’s Bastion where local fishermen once traded their catch. I met a bunch of Israeli travellers during my walking tour who then walked me to Budapest’s charming Jewish quarter. The Dohány Street Synagogue (built in a revival style with Byzantine and Gothic design influences) is an absolute must stop.
I stumbled upon Kuplung when I needed a quick pit-stop for my weary heels. I was looking for Szimpla Kert, that triggered an underground phenomenon that is no longer Budapest’s best kept secret – the Ruin Bar. This cool trend of abandoned buildings or old workshops morphing into hipster bars and night spots gives Budapest’s nightlife an edge over its European counterparts. They are a magnet for revellers and solo travellers who bond over local beer and conversations that sometimes centre around travel discoveries.
Food and Drink
Budapest’s eclectic dining scene has room for fine restaurants like Caviar and Bull that blend haute cuisine and a community style dining experience, and more pocket-friendly local eateries like Seasons Bistro – you must try the Goulash, the country’s most popular broth while you are here. Seasons also has a good selection of Hungarian Wines (Hungary has 22 wine regions that produce exquisite small batch wines). Stock up on local specialities like Hungarian sausages and paprika at the Central market Hall, a large indoor market that dates back to 1897.
The ruin bars are not the only place where you can recharge your batteries – chill out the way the Romans used to! They discovered the city’s calming waters that were later harnessed by the Ottoman Turks into public baths (hamams) ultimately paving the way for Budapest becoming a spa destination way back in the 19th century. Szechenyi is one of the city’s many public baths that provides the perfect antidote to Budapest’s nightlife.
Getting There and Around
Budapest is connected to all major Middle Eastern or European hubs like Frankfurt or Dubai. You can cover most of the old city by foot or trams. There’s also an efficient underground Metro Line for longer distances.
Check out the Corinthia – the original 19th Century Grand Budapest hotel that has been recently revamped into a contemporary luxury address in the heart of the city. The hotel has one of Budapest’s most beautiful baths.
(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant for a global brand services firm. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)