It seems fitting that Budapest is the birthplace of legendary illusionist, Harry Houdini. The city on the Danube has pulled off its own magic trick to emerge reborn following decades of communist misrule and a past littered with conflict and disaster, to become Central Europe’s most dynamic cultural centre. Even if national politics leave a lot to be desired, Budapest is a welcoming and open place to spend a few days exploring while indulging in its excellent food scene.
The city has an extensive metro and tram system, but the central districts of Pest can easily be explored on foot, which allows you to better admire its late-19th century architecture. During daylight, getting lost in the streets of the Jewish Quarter and the districts to the north and east of the centre, or walking along the banks of the Danube with views to Pest or Buda, is a real pleasure. At night, the area along the river is even more beautiful, and visits to Ruin Bars are (almost) compulsory.
On the final day of our trip, we decided to take the long way around on a walk to the Városliget city park, which is home to the late-19th century Vajdahunyad Castle. Built as part of the celebrations for the millennium of Hungary’s founding in 896 AD, the castle stands in one of the largest green spaces in the city. It would be a good place for a picnic in summer. The legendary Széchenyi Thermal Baths are also found in the park, but that’s a treat for our next visit to Budapest.
Near here is the Millennium Monument, another memorial to Hungary’s foundation standing in the middle of the vast expanse of Heroes’ Square. We’d seen few tourists on our stroll, but Heroes’ Square is a major stopping point for tour groups. It was a bit of a jolt to the system, and seemed at odds with the austere square in which we stood. The monument itself celebrates the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, the leaders of the tribes credited with founding Hungary.
This was the last stop on our walk, and that meant only one thing: we could take the exciting M1 metro back to the centre and a visit to the Szimpla ruin bar. The M1 is legendary, the oldest metro line on Continental Europe’s oldest underground system. It has tiny train carriages that really do belong to a different era of travel. It was also built to celebrate Hungary’s Millennium, and should be compulsory for anyone visiting the city.
Earlier we’d walked along the Buda side of the Danube, with views of the Hungarian Parliament, crossing the Chain Bridge beneath Budapest Castle into Pest. Here we passed ancient buildings coexisting with trendy restaurants and dive bars catering to stag parties. We planned to have a snack in the beautiful and historic New York Cafe, but it was packed with people. In the Jewish Quarter though, we struck foodie gold.
We found ourselves passing a bakery selling flódni. A not to be missed treat, flódni is a traditional Hungarian-Jewish cake with plum jam, walnut, apple and poppyseed layers separated by thin pastry. On a chilly autumn day it was a perfect way to remember the district’s history and refuel for the rest of our walk. This though was no ordinary cake shop, but Rachel Raj’s bakery. A famous Hungarian chef, the Flódni we ate is based on a family recipe – we were in good company, the late Anthony Bourdain was also a fan.