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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.
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Museum of Fine Arts (Szépmüvészeti Múzeum), Hungary
Budapest 1146, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 469 7100
This large museum, located right where Andrássy hits City Park (Városliget), picks up where the Hungarian National Gallery leaves off. It houses collections of pan-European (rather than mostly domestic) fine art, as well as an Egyptian wing and rooms dedicated to ancient Greek and Roman works. In addition to the outstanding permanent collection, top-shelf visiting exhibitions of world greats like Titian make the Museum of Fine Arts a must for culture vultures. Even sweeter, volunteer docents offer free English-language guided tours of collection highlights Tuesday through Saturday at 11 a.m. Don't leave without seeing the stunning Gerard Dou and The Dream of St. Joseph by Rembrandt.
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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
Franz Liszt Academy (Liszt Ferenc Zenemüvészeti Egyetem), Hungary
Budapest 1061, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 462 4600
Fronted by a vast statue of Liszt overlooking a pedestrian street filled with café tables, this remarkable Art Nouveau building anchors Liszt Ferenc tér to Király Street and serves as the venue for numerous evening classical-music concerts (purchase tickets at the box office). There are free afternoon performances by the academy's students about three times a week, but they're sporadic and the schedule is not announced online. The stately marble and ceramic interior is worth a look on its own for its Central European fin de siècle decorative elements, such as vinelike carved columns and gilded statues. And the in-house music shop still sells classical CDs from the old Hungaroton record label at bargain prices.
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Ecseri Flea Market, Hungary
Budapest 1194, Hungary
This great example of the genre, not too picked over by eBay sellers and filled with buckets of Communist memorabilia, is the largest flea market in Europe (although smaller Petofi Csarnok is considered the city's main market). The problem is, the Friday market is way out of town between districts XIX and XX and is almost impossible to find, but there is a public bus (#54) from Boráros tér in southern Pest, which takes about 30 minutes.
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
Budapest History Museum (Budapesti Történeti Múzeum), Hungary
Budapest 1014, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 487 8800
This somewhat dingy museum at the top of Castle Hill dedicated to the history of Budapest in all its manifestations, sounds like a boring slog, but it's actually interesting, and afterward, everything about the city will start to make a whole lot more sense. The evidence list starts with chipped Paleolithic stone tools (ca. 50,000 B.C.) and includes pottery and glasses from the Roman town of Aquincum. Later arrivals—the fifth-century Hun and seventh-century Avars—also had settlements in the area before the Magyars arrived in the tenth century to found the modern Hungarian nation. Each era is extensively documented with archaeological artifacts, and signs explain the collection in both Hungarian and English.
Budapest 1061, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 413 1482
Menza is partly a gag, taking its name and decor from the Communist-era cafeterias that once dotted the city. But it also serves excellent simple cooking at moderate prices: Main courses, like tender roast baby chicken with timbale of baby spinach or hearty paprika-inflected fisherman's soup of pike, perch, zander, and trout, hover around $10. The retro vibe, value-for-money ratio, and first-rate people-watching have made Menza the destination on busy Liszt Ferenc tér for artsy scenesters and business types loosening their neckties after-hours. If you can't reserve a table in advance, come by around 5:30 or 6 and grab a drink before dinner: You won't get kicked off your table when you finally decide to eat, and you'll have even more time watching the scene. Prices are low enough in the evening, but weekday lunch specials dip even more: two filling courses for about $5.
Lunch and dinner daily.
Budapest 1072, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 321 3622
Only open for lunch, this mom-and-pop shop is run by a Marlon Brando look-alike whose recommendations are not to be taken lightly—not so much because you're thinking of The Godfather, but because everything is excellent and filling. Favorites include tender stewed pork with house-made noodles, and peppers stuffed with a mix of pork, rice, and spices in a savory tomato sauce. Echoing an earlier era, photos of Hungarian celebrities from the 1970s adorn the wood-paneled walls, and self-serve seltzer bottles sit on the tables (which are covered in red-and-white checked cloths, of course), but be careful, or you'll pull a Marx Brothers on your lunchmates. Prices are similarly old-fashioned: Even with appetizers, drinks, and a dessert, like the wonderful shredded-apple cake, it would be hard for most couples to cross $30. The experience of being served Hungarian home cooking by what appears to be Don Corleone, however, is priceless.
Closed Sundays and Mondays. Lunch only.
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 Kör, Hungary
Budapest 1051, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 311 0053
Kör is one of the perennial best in town, thanks to chef Ádám Répás, who uses seasonal ingredients and bases his menus on Hungarian comfort food, then twists and lightens for the modish palate. Accordingly, the antique tables in the ocher-walled bistro next to the basilica—and, in summer, the terrace tables—are always full of a cross section of Budapesters: the arts crowd, dressed-up ladies, and (a lot of) expatriates. A list of daily specials augments the likes of roast salmon with lemon balm sauce and potato croquettes—also available (as is everything) in a smaller portion at a smaller price. This is the place to acquire your Hungarian sweet tooth: The expert pastry chef turning out cheese dumplings with hot fruits-of-the-forest sauce and gâteau Gerbeaud is Répás's grandma. It's also open for breakfast.
Closed Sundays; cash only.
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.
Pest, District VI
Budapest 1063, Hungary
Tel: 36 1 483 1355
Widely considered to be one of the best kitchens anywhere east of the old Iron Curtain, Baraka has only gotten better since moving in spring 2006 from a beloved downtown location to a slicker, bigger, and less-crowded spot inside the Andrássy Hotel, at the far end of the city's favorite boulevard. Tables in the space-age banquet hall (long and dark, with black and purple walls and silver trim) are separated by pewter vases filled with tall, fresh lilies. The staff is very helpful and knowledgeable about all kinds of Hungarian wines—a region where most of us need guidance. Prices aren't cheap—main courses start at $25—but are always worth it: A wing of pan-seared red snapper, drizzled with porcini butter, arrives on a fragrant cloud of ginger mashed potatoes, and seared goose liver is served on toasted brioche in a port–red currant sauce. Bargain hunters should make a weekday lunch reservation and order two courses of the same creative cooking for around $15.