Go Hungary: Craving culture? Head to Budapest, the Hungarian capital

When it comes to true panoramic beauty, few of the world’s cities can hope to compete with Budapest. With its prime location on the banks of the Danube, one of the world’s most picturesque rivers, Hungary’s capital is blessed with magnificent architecture, much of it stunningly well-preserved. Beyond its surface appeal, though, this venerable metropolis has so much more to offer – unique heritage sites, health spas, impressive retail resources and an enviable nightlife.

However, modern-day Budapest is a fairly recent construct. Until 1873, it was not one, but two cities –  Buda and Pest. Buda (now the western district of the co-joined city) straddled rolling hills and was the traditional capital of the Hungarian empire. Pest, meanwhile, lay to the east with many of the capital’s shopping, business and nightlife districts falling within its former precincts.

Although the area was originally settled as long ago as 500,000 BC, Budapest first began to emerge as an urban entity from around 35 BC. Since then, through many millennia, the city was fought and annexed by a variety of regional powers, from the ancient Romans and the Mongols to the Nazis and the Soviet Union.

Today, though, those dark days seem long ago indeed. Modern-day Budapest, the capital of an independent republic since 1989, has an air of vibrant optimism and is home to one of Europe’s fastest-growing urban economies. In 2017 alone, it welcomed some four million tourists – an impressive statistic for a city with a resident population of just 1.75 million.

Undoubtedly one of the major lures for this ever-burgeoning number of visitors is the majestic Buda Castle. Cresting Castle Hill on the left bank of the Danube, this venerable fortress was built in 1265 by King Bela IV (1206-1270) and subsequently served as the Hungarian monarchy’s seat of power.

Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987, the entire complex spans a staggering 4.8sq.km, making exploring its various sights all but impossible for the time-pressed. But even if you have only very limited time, though, you should still ensure you visit both the the 10th-century Mattias Church and the Hungarian National Gallery, home to an amazing array of the country’s greatest artworks.

Should time permit, taking in the nearby Széchenyi Chain Bridge is also highly recommended. Completed in 1849, it was the first permanent bridge to straddle the Danube within Hungary’s borders, while also presaging the ultimate unification of Buda and Pest some 24 years later.

Aside from these unmissable historic highlights, no visit to Budapest would be complete without stopping by at least one of its many spa facilities. With the city boasting a network of more than one hundred thermal springs, ‘taking the waters’ was part of local life even before the Ancient Romans looked for a little R&R after a hard day’s conquering, Today, the city is well-served by a substantial number of high-end wellness facilities, all ably taking advantage of the city’s unique geological benefits and ensuring visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to massages, spa treatments and other wellness services.

Culturally replete, a swift meander in search of a memento or two is probably next on your itinerary. If so, skip the obvious allure of the city’s many malls and head off to one of the few traditional purveyors of fine porcelain that still linger in the city’s less conspicuously commercial districts. The most high-end of these is Herend Porcelain, which maintains two flagship outlets in the former Pest portion of the city. Founded in 1826, its hand-painted ceramics have previously found favour among many of Europe’s most distinguished families so, chances are, they’ll have something that will more than grace your sideboard.

Finally, why not reward yourself for a job well done and a city comprehensively-explored by kicking back and relaxing on a delightful sunset cruise along the Danube, arguably an opportunity to take in Budapest at its most stunning? Should you prefer to stay on dry land, then a post-tour tipple or two is probably called for. Your best bet here is to head off to one of the city’s many sophisticated rooftop bars or one of its less salubrious ruin bars. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you could even treat yourself to a little Zwack –  a heady herbal liqueur with a knock-out 40-percent alcohol content said to be much loved by the locals. Not recommended for those with early flights the following morning, mind.

Text: Tenzing Thondup