Downtime in Budapest with Kent St. John

Teahouses, baths and Baroque

By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor

Street musician in Budapest. Kent E. St. John photo.
Street musician in Budapest. Kent E. St. John photo.

Sultry Budapest is filled with secrets. While it is beautiful to the eye, it is the unexpected that captures the heart. Unmarked doors lead down into busy bars filled with music.

Dilapidated buildings hold elegant turn of the century coffeehouses. Nothing in Budapest should be taken at face value, especially on a snowy late December day. Arm yourself with a good map and a copy of The Budapest Sun and let the city slowly unfold.

Budapest started out as two separate and differing cities, Buda and Pest. What one doesn’t offer the other will. Numerous bridges span the mighty Danube River that once separated the two cities. Majestic Buda with its hilltop National Palace transports travelers back to the Baroque days. Pest is busy, with treasures from the turn of the century. Both have modern touches tucked in.

Pest Can be Best

Black soup (coffee) is king in Pest and served in visual palaces. This is the side of commerce and clubs, shopping and sites. It is also center to several squares and pedestrian streets. The Grand Opera House and Europe’s largest synagogue, 2nd in the world. Its nightlife and casinos are where most activities are centered. It is also your best bet for a bed. It makes for confusing cruising and it’s worth dealing with a good map.

The Belvaros District is the heart of the city and a good place to start. The district borders the brown Danube and its principal street is Vaci utca, utca meaning street. Vaci utca leads from Vorosmarty to the central market. It is Budapest’s most commercial and trendiest street and is more for people watching than actual shopping.

You’ll recognize far too many labels and names to make shopping worthwhile. This area also houses the big chain hotels and chain restaurants. However, it contains some great must see places as well as street vendors, musicians and talented street artists.

It also is home to the Gerbeaud Tea House. For 150 years its has provided an elegant repast for visitors and locals alike. Another great café is the Central kavehaz on utca Karolyi Milhaly 9. Refurbished in 2000 the locals are again finding their way back to the black soup tradition. Done with filling your belly, head to the Szerb templom or church of those who fled Serbia during the Turkish occupation. The Orthodox architecture and iconostatis artwork is sublime.

The church is a great example of the Orthodox practices with its separate men’s and women’s naves. The center of Hungary’s religious heart is the Cathedral of St. Steven. The saint’s mummified arm can be found tucked in a nave. For more upbeat entertainment the State Opera House is the ticket.

The best way to experience this 19th century gem is by attending a performance. Most productions are in Hungarian, a custom introduced by Mahler when he was director of the State opera. The many operettas performed are shorter, cheaper and filled with music, dancing and melodrama…everything Hungary excels at.

A pleasant walk down Andrassy utca (the Broadway of Budapest ) will take you to Hero’s Square and the Fine Arts Museum.The square was built in 1896 to commemorate what was then Hungary’s 1000th year as a country and today is a hangout for all ages.

The Fine Arts Museum has an impressive collection of old masters such as Goya, Valazquez and El Greco as well as fine paintings by the Italian masters. Bordering the back edge of the square is the entrance to Varosliget or City Park. Besides a zoo, fun fair and footpaths, the park is home to Europe’s largest bathing complex. Szechenyi gyogyfurdo has several indoor thermal pools. The large outdoor thermal was exceptional on a cold snowy morning.

The hot waters turning to mist on contact with the cold air add a movie set mystery. If you stay less than three hours ask and you will get a refund of your admission price. After soaking you will be ready to find your own secret corner of Pest.

Baroque in Buda

The hills of Buda offer a step back in time and cobblestone streets to wander. Varhegy, or Castle Hill, is Buda’s most prominent feature. It is a mile long plateau filled with bastions, mansions and palaces. It can also be filled with tourist so try to make at least one pass late evening when you can share the area with residents. My favorite site on the hill is the Matyas Church, with its diamond-patterned roof and toothy spires. The interior is overwhelming with painted leafs and motifs.

Often classical concerts are performed in the main chapel. The impressive Fisherman’s Bastion, a bright white rampart, studded with cloisters and turrets make it a great place to view Pest across the Danube. For a unique site head to the Labyrinth of Buda Castle. Caves formed by hot springs provided shelter for 10,000 people during the battle of Budapest in WWII.

It is now an experience of New Age shamanism and history. Entrance is at Uri utca 9. If your interest runs to vines, the Magyarorszag borvidekei is one of the best wine stops anywhere east of Napa. Region by region is covered completely. Tasting is expensive so ask to browse to buy instead. You will soon realize that Bull’s Blood is a small part of Hungary’s wine tradition.

Speaking of tradition the Buda side is filled with thermal bathing spots, but check out your choice. To reward my nephew Drew for flying over to meet me, I took him to the Kiraly Baths. To our surprise the Muslim bathhouse dating from 1597 was more of a same sex pickup joint than relaxing soak.

He far preferred the free Chinese Buffet at the casino attached to the Hyatt.

Still some options like the Gellert Hotel maintain true to tradition. There are some 15 million gallons of hot spring water bubbling out in Budapest every day. Bath places stand at the time of this writing like this;

$ Gellert- formal
$ Rudas- serious and sports minded
$ Szechenyi- families
$ Kiraly- Gay

Checking ahead of time is very advisable and can save the experience!

As I sat at our hotel room at the Artotel on the Buda side of the Danube, and gazed at the Parliament building on the Pest side it was very clear to me…Budapest is an intriguing city and one that holds its secrets tight, the pleasure is in finding your own Buda or Pest. Better yet scour Budapest for a trip that fits you. It’s there.
Where is That?

I have been to Budapest once before two years ago and some of the places I found then are still open and better than visited on my earlier trip. Others were recommended to me by other writers.
Budapest is growing and its vital signs are strong; make your own list. Explore and savor one of Central Europe’s booming urban centers. This city requires a nomad’s mind set, exploration and a sense of adventure.


The Artotel is a ultramodern oasis just across the Danube from the Parliament on the Buda bank. It is funky and chic, yet reasonable. It has features that will beguile and comfort. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable. The sauna and fitness room are a big plus. Artotel is located at 1, Bem rakpart 16.

Located a short walk from the legendary New York Café is the Nemzeti. This hotel dating from 1902 has a stunning blue facade and 76 rooms. Trams, busses and metro all pass by the hotel and that offers a lot to the first time visitor. It’s a 3 star at VIII, Jozsef korut 4 or on the metro line Blaha Lujza. If backpacking go online to for low cost sleeping arrangements.

Fueling Up

In general Hungarian food is hearty, filling and reasonably priced. New inroads to healthier choices are becoming a trend. Don’t, however, pass up trying the local levesk (soups) and of course gulbaleves (goulash). Pork is plentiful as is fogus (a local fish of the pike/perch family).
For some authentic dishes at very reasonable prices head to:

Tabani Kakas ( Buda I, Attilla ut 27) for its version of Hungary’s goose liver or chicken porkolt ( chicken stew with paprika over egg noodles).

Alfoli ( Pest V Kecskemeti utca 4) is the place to try pogacsa, a type of scone covered with bits of pork and paprika.

Claudia Etterem (Pest V, Bastya ucta 27-29) is a game lovers delight. Both the leg of boar or hare in Hungarian game sauce is wonderful.

For some lighter fare:

Marquis De Salade ( Pest VI, Hajos utca 43) is a good place to get some meatless entrees. It’s not vegetarian but it is possible to get great meatless dishes.

Govinda ( Pest V, Belgrad rakpart 18) is veggie and tasty. It overlooks the Danube and has complete meals.

There are two great versions of fast food now found all over Budapest, the etkezde and gyros bufe. The etkezde are places that serve set home-cooked meals at shared tables

Hungary has always shared good relations with Viet Nam and China and the gyros bufe is a product of that relationship. They serve great stand-up Asian fare, at prices that are unbelievable.

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