For all who visit the Hungarian capital of Budapest on the Danube, there is intense romance written into the city’s very existence.
For centuries, Buda and Pest faced each other from opposite sides of the river – the first regal, a bit haughty and filled with castles and cathedrals, the other scrappier and more commercial yet bursting with spirit and life. Somehow over the centuries the two cities became one, and they wrote their names as a single name in the marriage registry, without so much as a hyphen.
Few cities on earth can match its graceful buildings and broad boulevards that will surely make you remember Paris, or the fiery passions of the mysterious Hungarian people, or their music or their food. The fact that paprika gives zing and sizzle to virtually every dish within these city limits, and not only to traditional Hungarian goulash, reminds us – or should remind us – that we are all living the next chapter of our love story.
The first thing you have to understand, and indeed forever the most important thing, is something Budapest is NOT. It is NOT part of Eastern Europe, which all these years after the Cold War still makes even Americans think of gray skies, morbid populations and mile after gray mile of apartment blocks and tractor factories. Budapest is part of, and along with Vienna must be considered, the very heart of that Old World Europe that haunts our dreams, a place of kings, queens and castles, of prince who marries princess not just to end a Disney movie but to unite two empires and redraw the map of Western civilization.
Like all the best couples, Buda and Pest formed one unit in their romance but never even considered giving up their personalities or their opinions. Buda remains the side of the river that’s quieter and more elegant, home to not only some of the most impressive historical monuments but to many of the finest restaurants. On a winter night, if you’re lucky, you rise from dinner prepared by one of the city’s most respected chefs and have the tangle of old streets entirely to yourselves. Buildings, especially the towers of castles and the spires of cathedrals, tend to be illuminated in Budapest, as though painted onto your romance’s backdrop with a golden hue.
In this sense, Budapest is a city that’s been wooed more times than it can remember, and violently conquered a few times beyond that. It has lived through its share of bad or even abusive relationships but somehow, miraculously, emerged with a belief in tomorrow that’s stronger than its tireless fascination with yesterday.
The uniqueness of Budapest goes back to Hungary’s origins, even as its flavors go back to its most famous and cruel foreign occupation. Unlike other great Central European capitals like Prague in the Czech Republic, Bratislava in Slovakia or Warsaw in Poland, Hungary doesn’t have a Slavic bone in its body. It was settled centuries upon centuries ago by one of those unrecorded nomadic tribes that crossed the barren steppes from the east, discovering fertile soil and less horrendous weather in this green valley beside a river. They brought a culture unlike all the others, and a language even more impenetrable than any other in Europe except Finnish.
Indeed, one of the more believable theories, there was one large tribe that split in two beyond the mists of time, one going north to Finland, the other heading south into the heart of what would become Europe during its golden age.
Before that golden age, which wrote its signature across the city’s look and feel, it had to survive the Ottoman Turks – 150 years of them, in fact. It was, by all accounts, a terrible relationship, with few exceptions a master dictating all things to his slave. Still, to the delight of those who come here today, the Turks left behind their love of well-spiced foods as surely as the Viennese encouraged the city’s already-established love affair with pastry. Hungarians will proudly tell you they taught the Viennese everything they know.
The result, in terms of menu, is a collection of savory dishes like goulash (pronounced gou-YASH, it turns out) and paprikash, inevitably followed by a thousand sophisticated spins on cakes, pies, tarts and tortes. The “dobash” cake beloved by many along the U.S. Gulf Coast harks back not to Vienna or Paris but to the fabled dobus torte of Budapest.
Lovers of history – personally, I’ve always found it romantic to imagine millions before me sharing the same passions, even as love always insists no one could ever have felt this way before – should start their explorations in Heroes Square. In many countries, founders and other original patriots come off as staid, cold and no doubt boring gazing down from their white marble pedestals. Flowing out of a thousand years of Hungary’s history, these heroes show up on horseback, looking fierce and exotic with their billowing robes and flashing dark eyes.
The pursuit of history’s romance in Budapest invariably takes you deep into the Castle District, the area that forever drags visitors staying on the Pest side across the Chain Bridge. There is indeed a castle here, a royal palace that commands the grandest vistas of the Danube below, also the colorfully porcelain-tiled Matthias Church. The entire district seems to hang out over the winding river at the magnificent Fisherman’s Bastion, the perfect antidote in its openness to the green (yes, even in winter) Castle Garden Bazaar, closed after being badly damaged in World War II and not reopened until 2014.
From the Castle District you get an incredible view of the Hungarian Parliament, but that distant view is not enough. You need to make this domed and turreted postcard a stop all its own, easily reached on foot from most places and certainly by the click-clacking trolleys that connect any district in Budapest to any other. Built in 1896, the Parliament had to reflect the majesty of one of the world’s grandest capitals, and indeed one of the world’s most powerful empires. You can visit in detail with an official during the day, but you also are destined to see it many times from the Chain Bridge at night, every spire shimmering in golden light reflected in the Danube’s black waters.
If your couple, like many or even most other people’s, includes at least one member who loves to shop, you need to make your way to Andrassy Avenue. Yes, Budapest is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but here on Andrassy the emphasis in on the latest European fashion, not on history. All the most famous (and expensive) designers have boutiques along the avenue, underlining once again the age-old concept that commerce equals power. Shopping here seems unlikely to land you on a horse at Heroes Square. But it might well help you share those ancient heroes’ penchant for really cool clothes.
As day turns to night and then into day again, Budapest reveals itself to you and your love one century at a time, one corner and one alley at a time. The place is Paris-Meets-Vienna, yet in so many ways having to do with its exotic and mysterious roots, it out-romances either or both of them.
You visit the Basilica of St. Stephen, who (true to these parts) is remembered not as a humble minister to the poor but as the military leader who founded the modern Hungarian state. You visit the soaring Opera House and also the Academy of Music, its every breath celebrating the memory of local-boy-made-good Franz (or Ferenc in Hungarian) Liszt, who also gets his name on the international airport. You indulge in an afternoon at the Szecheny Baths, feeling truly Hungarian in your love of hot, cool and icy mineral waters from deep underground that bring life and comfort and healing.
Perhaps best of all, you take a sunset champagne cruise on the Danube by motor launch, bundled against the cold and sharing a blanket, letting all the majesty of the ages flow around you, beside you and through you. You pass beneath the Chain Bridge just as its lights awaken for another shimmering night.
WHERE TO STAY As an old city wise in the ways of the tourism world, Budapest offers accommodations at all levels, from luxury service-crazed hotels to simple guest houses. Our favorite is the Hotel Aria, a newer, more fanciful creation in the heart of Pest that has four wings devoted to different genres of music. We like the Nat King Cole Suite in the Jazz wing. Another wonderful choice is the Kempenski Hotel Corvinus, not least for its Nobu restaurant and its ultra-comfortable Es Bisztro with tables inside and outside on Fashion Avenue..
WHERE TO EAT In addition to his recent opening of a restaurant inside the Opera House, Budapest hospitality impresario Roy Zsidai can always be counted on for something flavorful and first-rate. He has a couple outposts on the Pest side, but most are on the quieter, more charming Buda side, including Baltazar, Pierrot, 21 and Pest-Buda. Other more traditional choices include Old World fine dining Gundel and pastries and chocolates at Gerbeaud coffeehouse.
PORCELAIN PALACE As the shopping orgy goes on along Andrassy Avenue, you might also consider a road trip to the legendary Herend porcelain factory. Given special affection by the Emperor Franz Joseph and beloved by European heads of state since its founding in 1826, Herend is considerably more than a retail opportunity to buy porcelain dishes, tureens and coffee cups in many styles, colors and sizes. It’s a tour that visits the how-to of a process so Old World that you’ll need to check the modern need-for-speed at the front door.
WINE EXCURSION Almost every region of Hungary produces wine, including some regions that didn’t until recently. Still, with an eye for the classics, you can travel about two and a half hours by car and reach Tokaj. There are wineries that use this basic name around the world, turning out things they sell as “Tokay” or “Tokai”; but spelled in Hungarian with the i-sounding j, tokaj is nothing short of magical. Innumerable small producers, especially around the town of Mod, will welcome you into their tasting rooms and/or homes to taste one of the world’s most famous sweet wines. Honey-golden Tokaj is romance in a bottle.