by Emma Cooke, The Telegraph, October 30, 2019
Shortly after the birth of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1867, Pest, Obuda and Buda were unified into the city we know today: Budapest. An explosion of culture followed during the opulent last decades of the 19th century – dubbed the Belle Époque – when Budapest developed a deeply decadent aesthetic. Vienna and Paris exerted a huge influence on the newly-formed city, and structures were built and rebuilt to emulate their splendour.
Even after two wars and years of Communism, many remain, and a wave of new bars and restaurants in these ornate buildings means the best way to enjoy the “Paris of the East” is to eat and drink your way through it. From historic cafés to eclectic bars in deserted apartments, here are the spots that will fill your eyes as well as your stomach.
A four-year renovation has brought this Belle Époque arcade back to its sparkling former glory. It was worth the wait. Nothing feels quite like stepping through the entrance and looking up, past the ornate gold and bronze walls to the domed glass ceiling.
The restored courtyard reopened as part of The Unbound Collection by Hyatt in June 2019, and the hotel’s café and brasserie now fills the hall with the quiet hum of voices and clinking cutlery. While coffee and cake is the order of the day, at night the restaurant transforms into a softly lit bar. Book a room for the full 19th-century socialite experience, rolling into one of the airy, Kroki Stúdió-designed rooms after cocktails, then emerging to breakfast on sparkling wine and paprika-spiced sausages in the morning.
Contact: 00 36 1 576 1600; hyatt.com
Opening hours: Daily, 6:30am-12am
Petőfi Sándor u. 2-4, Budapest, 1052
Felix Kitchen & Bar
While Felix may be new on Budapest’s food scene, the building it’s in certainly isn’t. Várkert Kiosk is a water pump house designed by renowned Hungarian architect, Miklós Ybl (of Opera House fame) in the late 1800s, to stand alongside neo-Renaissance Várkert Bazár. The forward-thinking architect cleverly hid the pumping systems with a café out front which has now been renovated and reopened as a restaurant named Felix, after the architect’s only son. The rooms which housed the pump system have been similarly done up, and filled with a (free) contemporary art gallery.
Wines are selected by top sommelier Máté Horváth and chef Árpád Kovács comes from Michelin-starred Babel, while service is warm and welcoming, and the mix of Hungarian and Asian dishes start at a mere 1700HUF (£4.45). Try the duck and waffle – a take on the London version – on the new brunch menu, or splash out on ponzo-soaked foie gras (4900HUF / £12.82).
Contact: 00 36 30 735 5041; felixbudapest.com
Opening Hours: Mon-Fri, 7:30am–12am; Sat-Sun, 9:30am–12am
Ybl Miklós tér 9, Budapest, 1013
New York Café
The “most beautiful café in the world” started life as a coffee house in 1894, swiftly luring the great and the good through its doors. The building fell into disrepair after its turn-of-the-century heydey, but was restored to full gilded form in 2006 by the Boscolo Group, to start a new life as the exquisite New York Palace hotel. The New York Café now sits as part of this, serving delicate cakes and hearty Hungarian dishes to wide-eyed visitors.
Be sure to book a table in advance, or you may end up in a long queue, and ask to be seated above the main café in one of the alcoves that put you above the bustle without compromising your views of the frescoed ceiling.
Contact: 00 36 18 86 6167; newyorkcafe.hu
Opening hours: Daily, 8am-12am
Erzsébet krt. 9-11, Budapest, 1073
High Note Skybar
The rooftop bar at the music-themed Aria hotel offers unbelievable views – including a close up of the top of St. Stephen’s Basilica. Open all year round, there’s two glass-walled areas to retreat to should it get a bit chilly, but even in winter the views are good enough to brave the cold (and heaters do the rest). Cocktails are innovative, with combinations like mezcal and “watermelon tomato water” on the menu.
Prices aren’t ridiculous, given that this is both a five-star hotel, and a rooftop bar – drinks start from a little as 3000HUF (£7.86), a far cry from London prices. Bar snacks are similarly enticing, with satisfyingly crunchy shrimp tempura and garlic-y, moreish lángos to feast on. Book a table for sunset, when the skies turn fiery, then fade into a champagne and violet-toned afterglow as the bar’s countless fairy lights flicker on.
Contact: +36 1 445 4055; highnoteskybar.hu
Opening hours: Daily, 12pm-12am
Hercegprímás u. 5, Budapest, 1051
Lotz Hall lived as the Art Nouveau Paris Department Store, one of the most elegant shopping destinations in Budapest, for decades. The bold letters of the ‘Párisi Nagy Áruház’ [Paris Department Store] above the entrance are an echo of this. Now, after a closure of two years, this glorious, gold-encrusted building has opened again as the Café Párisi. Visit to eat cakes served on Zsolnay porcelain plates under glistening fin de siècle chandeliers, and to gaze at frescoes by renowned Hungarian painter Károly Lotz.
Contact: +36 70 947 7894; cafeparisi.hu
Opening hours: Daily, 10am-8pm
Andrássy út 39, Budapest, 1061
Meaning ‘Fisherman’s Bastion Restaurant’, this fine-dining establishment is set up within the stone walls of the popular Budapest attraction. Despite looking like a castle from the imagination of Walt Disney, the structure was actually built in the 19th century as a lookout point with panoramic views across the Danube, something the restaurant capitalises on. Request a table on the left-hand side of the dining hall to have the golden-hued Parliament building peeking through the windows all night – or a table in the niches upstairs to feel like you’re in a private dining room.
Inside, it’s equally fairytale-esque, with winking chandeliers and a live band serenading tables. Pricing-wise, the set menus are expensive but not unreasonable, starting from €38.50 for three courses, or €87 for four courses with a wine pairing. At times, it can veer a little towards the touristy, but it’s quickly forgotten as you tuck into a delicious ribeye steak with truffled potato.
Contact: 00 36 1 201 6935; halaszbastya.eu
Opening hours: Daily, 12pm-11:30pm
1-2 Hess András tér, I. kerület Budapest, 1014
One of Budapest’s best-known cafés, there’s 150 years of history sitting alongside the cakes in this rose-tinted building. Established in 1858 as a coffee house, it was then sold in the 1880s to Swiss patissier Emile Gerbeaud, who filled it with Parisian crèmes and cognac cherry bonbons. The café still features Gerbeaud’s favourite flavours – walnut, apricot and chocolate – in their selection of sugary concoctions, and the interior’s chandeliers, creamy wallpaper and pink-veined marble floors have not changed since 1910 either.
Contact: 00 36 1 429 9000; gerbeaud.hu
Opening hours: Daily, 9am-9pm
Vörösmarty tér 7-8, Budapest, 1051
The father of all Budapest’s so-called “ruin bars”, Szimpla Kert opened in an abandoned residential block in 2002, and dozens of others followed. There’s myriad little rooms to uncover here, housing a variety of different bars serving everything from vanilla beer to blue-cheese burgers.
Its fame means it’s crowded – but the mix of travellers and locals are, mercifully, more interested in chatting over glasses of Hungarian wine than snapping selfies. For mellower vibes, the newer bars of Mazel Tov and Csendes Vintage Bar & Café are charming options, but Szimpla, with its mismatched furniture, jumbled wall decor and house party feel, will always be the most breathtaking.
Contact: 00 36 20 261 8669; szimpla.eu
Opening hours: Mon-Sat, 12pm-4am; Sun, 9am-4am
Kazinczy u. 14, Budapest, 1075
Széchenyi Thermal Bath
The Neo-Baroque Széchenyi baths were built in 1913 as the swan song of Belle Époque-era Budapest. Sprawling across almost 6,500 square meters, it’s Europe’s largest, and most visually striking, medicinal baths. While the primary goal here is to soak in hot mineral-heavy thermal water for as long as you can, the café and bar overlooking the outdoor pools and sunshine-coloured architecture makes for an enjoyable beer break between dips. There are also ‘Sparties’ – which are exactly what you think they are – on weekends, should you wish to experience a club/thermal bath hybrid.
Contact: 00 36 1 363 3210; szechenyispabaths.com
Opening Hours: Daily, 6am-10pm
Állatkerti krt. 9-11, Budapest, 1146
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