A whirlwind tour of Budapest (with ample time to absorb the cafe culture)
Kempinski Hotel Corvinus, Hungary
Budapest 1051, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 429 3777
Overlooking Pest's most pleasant square, Erzsébet tér, the Corvinus is a significant stone in the Kempinski crown. The 366 rooms give a nod to historical styles (the TV cabinet resembles a 19th-century armoire), but while German businessmen, Austrian pilots, and Swiss doctors don't seem to mind all the black woods, the look could be a bit too heavy for American tastes. Request an upper-floor room on the north side of the building for views of St. Stephen's Basilica and grassy, tree-shaded Erzsébet tér, where office workers eat lunch, students flirt, and older folks chat on benches. András, the concierge, displays a never-say-die attitude when it comes to making reservations for guests at the city's most popular restaurants, such as Menza. The 30-euro breakfast usually isn't included in the room rate, but guests are invited to visit the spa's sauna, steam room, tepidarium, pool, and aromatherapy rooms free of charge, and there's live afternoon chamber music in the lobby, free broadband in the rooms, and Wi-Fi in the public areas. Special Internet offers that discount room rates by about $100 even in high season make a stay here something of a bargain among high-end rooms, at least occasionally.
See + Do
Széchenyi Lánchíd (Chain Bridge), Hungary
The first permanent bridge across the Danube, unveiled in 1849, this city icon was designed by Englishman William Tierney Clark and Scottish engineer Adam Clark and funded by influential aristocrat Count István Széchenyi. Despite founding the Academy of Sciences and doing much else to reform the bad old feudal ways of his land—including introducing domestic gaslight and flush toilets—Széchenyi ended up committing suicide in the suburbs of Vienna. Long story.
See + Do
Statue Park (Szobor Park), Hungary
Budapest 1223, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 424 7500
Just after the fall of communism, some genius rounded up all the giant-scale (and we do mean large) statues of Lenin, Marx, and Engels and set them up as a memorial to totalitarianism and bad taste. It's like a direct time machine back to the days of Stalinist grandiosity, and gives you a sense of what it was like to live under a Communist dictatorship. The park is slightly hard to get to, but the immense forms of Soviet soldiers, proletariat workers (united, naturally), and Communist martyrs are worth the effort. Plus, it's a trip to return afterward to your room at the Four Seasons and order up an Oriental massage and a $200 bottle of wine. There's a one-hour express bus to the park from Deák Ferenc tér in Pest.
Open 10 a.m. to dusk.
See + Do
Hungarian National Gallery (Magyar Nemzeti Galéria), Hungary
Budapest 1014, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 356 0049
This art collection is the raison d'être for several sections of the Royal Palace located at the top of Castle Hill. Beginning with domestic sculptures and carvings from the 11th century, the collection swerves out through Prague and Viennese Mannerist works, late-18th-century German masters, and 19th-century expatriate Hungarian Impressionists before returning to domestic Abstract Expressionism, Structuralism, and Postmodernism. Despite the forays abroad, encompassing works by foreign artists who lived and painted in Hungary, this truly is a national gallery, dedicated to the greatest works by Magyar artists from the past ten centuries. (Among them, Mihály Munkácsy and László Paál, two 19th-century Romantic realists who lived and worked in Paris). There's also a gorgeous collection of illustrated altars from the Gothic era; don't miss The Altar of the Virgin Mary From the Church of St. Andrew from 1483, a gilt triptych with ornate carved figures of the Madonna and Child surrounded by icons and inlays. In high season, it's best to visit before lunch—castle visitors crowd in during the afternoon to escape the sun.
See + Do
House of Terror Museum (Terror Háza Múzeum), Hungary
Budapest 1062, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 374 2600
By no means appreciated by all when it opened, partly due to the word "TERROR" writ huge on the building's facade, this museum sets out to expose the ways and means of two 20th-century systems of oppression that held sway here—right here. From 1937 to 1956, this 1880s neo-Renaissance town house harbored first the ultra-right Arrow Cross Party's HQ, then the offices and interrogation rooms of the Communist secret police. Creepiness has been amplified to the max with re-creations of torture chambers, screenings of propaganda films and survivor interviews, and walls full of coerced "confessions." It's part chamber of horrors, part memorial.
See + Do
Castle Hill, Hungary
The funicular from Clark Ádam tér is the nicest way to approach the romantic, scenic, and egregiously misnamed Castle Hill. There is no castle. However, there is a Royal Palace, which dates from the 13th century—not that you'd know it. Having been destroyed 31 (yes, 31) times, its latest, Communist-built incarnation is remarkably dull, though it does house the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. Also up here is the residence of the president of the republic, Sándor Palace, and, in Szentháromság tér (Trinity Square), the church Mátyás Templon, where King Matthias was married and Franz Liszt's Coronation Mass had its 1867 world premiere when Emperor Franz Joseph was crowned king of Hungary (www.matyas-templom.hu). The Fishermen's Bastion—the part of the medieval ramparts that once protected the fisherman's market—is another landmark up here, as is Ruszwurm, which catered to the sweet tooth of Queen Erzsébet (a.k.a. Sisi) in 1827 and is still serving cakes today (7 Szentháromság; 36-1-375-5284; www.ruszwurm.hu). Altogether, it's pleasant to stroll the cobblestone streets, admire the views, and maybe succumb to the touristy boutiques.
See + Do
Bolholpiac Petofi Csarnok Flea Market, Hungary
Budapest 1146, Hungary
Despite being smaller than the Ecseri, Petofi Csarnok is still considered the city's main flea market, due to its central location and a long track record of great finds: kitschy Communist memorabilia, oddball philately, numismatics, possibly valuable oil paintings, antique vases, and plenty of old junk. Get there early: Many vendors pack up before lunch. Since PeCsa is in the verdant Városliget (City Park) near Heroes' Square and the Museum of Fine Arts, you'll be well positioned for a full day of touring the sights.
Open Saturdays and Sundays, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Budapest 1146, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 468 4040
Maybe you're embarrassed to obey your swanky hotel's concierge and heed the advice of every guidebook ever written, but in the case of Gundel: Get over it. Just dress in finery, order up your chariot, sweep into the park, and allow yourself to be ushered to your table in the Art Nouveau palace that first opened in 1894 (and is now owned by restaurateur George Lang and cosmetics tycoon Ronald Lauder). As the waiter, just this side of obsequious, snaps your virgin napkin, and you spear your goose liver with Tokaji and Hungarian truffles with your sterling-silver fork…just yield. Oh, and consider a second mortgage.
Café Central, Hungary
Budapest 1053, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 266 2110
Originally opened in 1887, Café Central quickly became the center of the city's intellectual life, spawning important periodicals and literary movements, maintaining a library of reference books, and subscribing to over 200 newspapers for its reading poles, only to be shuttered in 1949. Rescued and reopened by a local businessman in 2006, it may no longer be a breeding ground for Nobel laureates, but for a fix of Austro-Hungarian café culture, this legendary kávéház on the Pest side of the Elisabeth Bridge remains a standout. A renovation in late 2010 brought in a new manager (sourced from one of the city's toniest restaurants) and cocktail bar, plus an updated dinner menu of such Continental classics as grilled chicken suprême, Vienna-style schnitzel with creamy potato salad, and slow-roasted veal cutlets with spicy vegetable lecsó. Once again, the Central can be highly recommended for far more than just coffee and cakes.—Updated by Evan Rail
Open daily 8 am to midnight.
Buena Vista Café, Hungary
Budapest 1064, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 344 6303
A mover and shaker in the Liszt Ferenc tér scene, this three-level place, with a huge terrace of canvas chairs in summer, has a fabulous Danish Modern–meets-dungeon decor and an extensive menu ranging all the way from maté to exotic teas in the first-floor café to veal tournedos with goose liver and fogás (a fish from Lake Balaton) in the upstairs restaurant. The hip factor is raised by the fact that the owners also stage the annual Sziget festival—the Hungarian Lollapalooza.
Bahnhof Music Club
A38 Ship (A38 Hajó), Hungary
Budapest 1117, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 464 3940
Right on the Buda side of the Petöfi bridge, this beloved club, restaurant, and bar, occupying a Ukrainian ship anchored in the Danube, attracts everyone from club kids (for the DJ shows) to couples in their mid-50s (for dinner and torch songs). On a given night, you might find France's ska-salsa sensation Sergent Garcia, England's electronic stars E-Z Rollers, or the Russian-English turntablist DJ Vadim. Unsurprisingly, the views over the river and embankments can't be beat; much more unexpected are the great jazz combos that add a relaxed vibe to what is ostensibly a party barge.
Open 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.