Culture Without the Kitsch

MT
Every tourist knows that the one thing that can really spoil a visit to a city is, perhaps somewhat perversely, other tourists. While Budapest has the reputation of "the new Prague" among travelers, it has thus far largely managed to avoid the hordes of visitors that swarm along the Czech capital's streets, as well as the kitsch culture-for-sale that mass tourism has engendered there.

The first question for visitors to Budapest is which bank of the Danube to stay on -- Pest on the eastern side of the hills, or Buda to the west. Pest is the modern, trendy part of the city, teeming with bars, restaurants and clubs.

Throughout Pest, ever-expanding postcommunist chic coexists with sweeping boulevards, grand squares and majestic buildings that exude an opulent, fin-de-siecle charm. Budapest was, after all, part of the Hapsburg Empire, and comparisons with Vienna are both unavoidable and justified: In the last decade, its caf? society has begun again to rival that of the Austrian capital, as it did during the city's belle ?poque at the start of the 20th century.

On the Pest side, St. Stephen's Basilica is worth a visit for its extravagant neoclassical design and lavish interior. Don't miss the stunning views from the cupola, which can be reached by stairs or an elevator. The parliament buildings on the embankment, imposing neogothic structures which bear an uncanny resemblance to London's Houses of Parliament, are best viewed from across the river.

Buda and Pest are linked by the beautiful Szechenyi Chain Bridge, opened in 1849, whose cast-iron decorations make it one of the most striking industrial monuments in Europe. Istvan Szechenyi, who also gave his name to the renowned thermal baths, was a 19th-century statesman and reformer known to many as "the greatest Hungarian."


Maria Georgiyevskaya / MT
The ancient Buda Castle towers over Pest, making for some spectacular views.
The hills of Buda, reached from the river through winding cobbled streets, rise above the Danube to the west, topped by sprawling Buda Castle. The Church of Our Lady, or Matthias Church as locals call it after the 15th-century king who was married here twice, is immediately recognizable by its tower and colorful tiled roof.

The church's history is closely linked with that of the city: originally built in the 13th century and converted into a mosque during the Ottoman occupation of the 16th and 17th centuries, the current design was completed by the Hungarian architect Frigyes Schulek at the end of the 19th century. The church's architecture is an eclectic mix of gothic and baroque elements, and the intricate and colorful design of the frescoes inside the church is certainly worth the small entrance fee.

Not far from the church is the House of Hungarian Wines, which offers a selection of 50 to 55 different wines from its cellar for tasting, rotated every month. Hungary has been a major wine producer for hundreds of years, and major investment since the fall of the Soviet Union has revitalized the industry. After buying a ticket for the tour, visitors are given a glass and are free to taste the variety of wines available while digesting information on Hungarian wine.

After a few glasses, you'll be ready to relax at the Szechenyi Spa Bath -- one of the largest spa complexes in Europe -- in the City Park on the Pest side. The building as it is today was constructed in 1913, a sprawling neobaroque complex of indoor and outdoor baths and pools at temperatures from 20 to 38 degrees Celsius. Whatever the season, you can sit in the shallow outdoor waters and play a game of chess, or enjoy a neck-and-shoulder massage from the jet showers.

Its spacious architectural planning, relaxed atmosphere and reinvigorating spas make Budapest an ideal place to escape Moscow's hectic pace. Just be careful -- with all that wine and relaxation, you may not want to leave.

Where to Stay



Hotel Gellert, which opened in Buda in 1918, exudes elegance with its high ceilings and art nouveau interior. The famous Gellert Bath is on site, along with a coffeehouse serving homemade cakes, pastries and, in the summer, ice cream. Room prices, which include breakfast and use of the bath, start at 94 euros for a single and 158 euros for a double.
1 Szent Gellert ter., +361 889 5501, www.danubiushotels.com/gellert

Budapest Apartments offers a variety of different apartments for rent, promising prices 40 percent cheaper than the equivalent standard of hotel. Prices start at 30 euros per night.
+361 877 6227, www.budapestapartments.co.uk

What to Eat



Gerloczy Kavehaz is a charming bistro-cafe in Pest which serves excellent pastries for around 400 forint ($2.50) and always has interesting seasonal specials. Mains start at 2,500 forint ($14.50).
1 Gerloczy utca, +361 235 0953, www.gerloczy.hu.

Gundel, which opened in Pest over a century ago, combines an opulent interior with what is widely recognized as the best food in the city. Described by Restaurant Magazine in 2006 as "one of the 50 best restaurants in the world," Gundel offers Hungarian dishes, with starters costing around 4,000 forint ($23) and mains 9,000 forint ($52).
2 Allatkerti utca, +361 468 4040, www.gundel.hu.

The Miro cafe on Buda hill has an interior based on paintings by Joan Miro -- lots of bright colors and strange-shaped chairs. They do a particularly good Hungarian goulash.
30 Uri utca, +361 201 5573

How to Get There



Aeroflot offers roundtrip flights to Budapest from around 12,000 rubles ($500) including taxes, depending on the dates you fly. Malev Hungarian Airlines offers return flights starting at around 180 euros ($270) for a roundtrip before taxes -- the earlier you book, the cheaper the ticket.

Contacts



House of Hungarian Wines, 6 Szentaromsag ter., +361 313 1031, www.magyarborokhaza.hu

Szechenyi Spa Bath, 11 Allakerti korut, +361 363 3210