It’s not difficult to see why the so-called Paris of the East draws favourable comparisons with more famous capital cities. It has the majestic architecture, such as the stately parliament buildings and Buda Castle, skirting a suitably imposing river, but also a faded grandeur bestowed by its array of elegantly decayed public baths and the more deliberately ramshackle ruin bars. All add up to a charming place to explore on foot.
There can be few more welcoming former police headquarters in which to lay your head than Budapest’s Ritz Carlton, which is enjoying a new life as a five-star hotel and underwent an elegant refit earlier this year. Rooms are chic, modern and spacious, the bar and two very good restaurants would not look out of place in Manhattan, and there’s a spa on the way. Perhaps best of all, the service is peerless. It’s worth considering a room with access to the club lounge, where unlimited drinks and snacks are on hand all day.
The hearty fare – goulash, pork in its myriad forms – that Hungary is known for abounds, to varying degrees of sophistication, but there’s more to Budapest’s culinary offering. Highlights from the Ritz Carlton’s superb Deak Street Kitchen include a luxurious foie gras mousse, a succulent roast duck breast with citrus cabbage and redcurrants, a satisfyingly bovine rump steak and a velvety home-grown cabernet sauvignon. Macesz Bistro, meanwhile, is a homely and seemingly well-loved Jewish-Hungarian venture, where the hungry of Hungary flock for the stuffed goose neck with pearl barley, venison and the ubiquitous goulash.
Paprika soup isn’t the only lash it’s hard to avoid in Budapest; the city has a burgeoning and distinctive nightlife that revolves around its ruin bars – popular drinking dens that started out as pop-ups in derelict buildings but have now morphed into decidedly more commercial beacons of kooky bohemian furnishings and revelry. Szimpla Kert, which boasts a spacious courtyard, is the most famous, but Instant was a more intriguing warren of bars and dancefloors – and a potent array of palinka, the fruity local tipple. Most are within staggering distance of each other in the seventh district.
If a late night at a ruin bar is obligatory, then so is a trip to one of the many public baths to make you feel human again. Szechenyi baths, in the north east of the city, is the most magnificent of all: a palatial network of pools which run the gamut of temperatures from chilly to lukewarm to positively broth-like. There are steam rooms and saunas too, as well as a vast outdoor bath that lends it a decadent pool-party-at-the-ambassador’s-residence vibe. If that all sounds too lazy, then a) you’re wrong, and b) take a hike up the hill to Buda Castle – worth it for the views across the Danube to the Pest side of the city – or visit the central market to spy local produce and wolf a quick lunch.