Overflowing with architecture, art and heritage, Budapest offers you an array of options – from fancy cafés to psychedelic night clubs and regal cruises
We visited Hungary on a professional commitment, scarcely aware of the dynamism and array that this country has to offer. Rich in diversity, accepting of transformation yet steeped in its rich history – Budapest, particularly, brings you close to lives in this part of the globe that lives in a cloud of merry, joy and exorbitance.
Date with a century-old university
Debrecen University, with a hat-wearing squirrel as its mascot – since squirrels are a million around the campus – is 105 years old, with some 30,000-plus students, of which 6,000 are foreigners and at least 10 per cent of them are from South Asia, half of them being Indians. The University is spread across a large part of the city, giving Debrecen a university-city look like our own Shantiniketan or Manipal, though it has a large forum mall, downtown pubs, and most strikingly, thermal spas. Indian naturopathy and Ayurveda have a pride of place with a dedicated department in the medical school for the same. The huge gothic structures, with names of top 20 people associated across the last 100 years inscribed in the central hall and the water spring with statues around, lend the university a unique look resplendent in history. The nation changed hands from monarchs to dictators to communists to democrats – but the University continued its mission of education unabated.
Night Cruise on the Danube
The highlight was our night cruise on the Danube. The ambiance, breezy air, snacks on the deck, well-lit gothic structures on the banks, the exquisite sight of the profusely lit Hungarian Parliament, multiple bridges across Danube river of variegated makes and designs – which link the hilly Buda with the plains Pest to make the twins legendary Budapest – one can go on and on. The Danube, the second largest river of Europe that connects several historical and capital cities of the continent, is a veritable treasure to know the history of these places and was a major trading route in the past. The multilingual running commentary personalised to each tourist on the cruise makes for a complete Hungarian experience, with drinks, dinner and merry.
An Afternoon @ New York Palace Café
Decidedly the most fabulous café I have ever visited, New York Palace Café, earlier known as Boscolo Budapest and built by New York Life Insurance in 1894 initially as their office with a café, will ever remain etched in our mind. Its ground floor has been a remarkable centre of Hungarian art and literature. The statues, ornaments on the façade of the building and the cafe's 16 imposing devilish fauns are the works of Karoly Senyei. Fauns are Roman mythological half-man-half-goat creatures. There is a 107-room luxury hotel also on the upper-floors. Billed to be among the most beautiful cafés in the world, the place surely plucks a hole in your pocket. We tried the Hungarian coffee with black sour cherry palinka (local alcohol), chilly, brown sugar and cream, which was the cheapest at only Rs 9,000! Nevertheless, this pocket-pinching drink surely rewarded us with energy to take the tour forward to the fashion street, which is Middle-Eastern Europe's most prestigious shopping and lifestyle destination.
Nightlife @ Budapest
So little time and so many 'ruin bars' to cover in the city of Budapest! With only two days, sleep was surely off the agenda. The so-called ruin bars are undoubtedly the most unique attraction for those who enjoy drinking, dancing and the like. These ruin bars are located in historic settings, dilapidated pre-war buildings and old Jewish quarters. Ruin bars have been a rage since the founding of Szimpla Kert, its epicentre. From outside, they look like simple buildings but once you get inside, you might get lost as there would be nearly 18 bars with different parties breaking out across various floors. The psychedelic interiors, retro set-up and hipster crowd that make ruin bars are unforgettable. These bars are no less than art museums – be it the graffiti on the wall, chandeliers hanging from the bathroom ceiling or amazing light installations with the underground structure.
On day one, I visited Fogas Ház, Instant and Lärm, these were not as old-school though surely unique and memorable. On the second day, I was more adventurous as I walked, took a bus and a metro before finally reaching my destination, Dürer Kert. This ruin bar located near the Danube once ran as a gay club and its building is historic. Hopping through the night, I realised, Budapest carries a retro-futuristic approach to fashion – you can swiftly see people wearing hippie pants, tie-dyes, pop and rock-n-roll inspired clothing, vintage goth, and new-wave ravers wearing athleisure, sunglasses and carrying fanny packs. But what was common among them all was a pair of sneakers!
Hop-on hop-off experience
As funky as the name sounds, the 'Hop-On Hop-Off Bus & Boat Tour' has bright coloured double-decker open-top red buses. It includes a 48-hour bus pass valid on the red, purple and yellow routes for sightseeing across Budapest. There is so much to see and do in Budapest! Hop off the bus at strategically located stops and there are buses every 15 minutes for hopping back on. The best part is that you can hop on and off as many times as you wish to enjoy the tour at your own leisurely pace, which makes visiting this gothic city even more enjoyable. We covered 22 spots on the red route of the bus starting from the Heroes Square – a historical spot with art museums on the side – explored the Citadel and Jewish Synagogue, and were astonished by the panoramic views of the imperial city. From the river cruise to walking around from Buda to Pest (the two towns and Óbuda were united in 1873 to form Budapest), we enjoyed a relaxing lunch paired with some Hungarian wine and beer in the afternoon.
The post-lunch visit at the local Hungarian market was a cultural trip! Those wishing to experience the full spectrum of the local food scene and get an intimate, behind-the-scenes look, will find that the Great Market Hall, also known as the Central Market Hall, is the most perfect spot for culinary exploration. Covering three floors, this market is a great place to discover traditional street food specialities, including lángos, the best-known fast-food dish in Hungary. Besides ready-to-eat food, one can enjoy fresh goods and regional delicacies such as Tokaj wines, palinka (traditional fruit brandy in Central Europe with origins in Transylvania), Hungarian paprika, excellent salami, and other knickknacks. I ended up buying 10 bottles of palinka to take back home, deciding to pick different flavours like lavender, peach, grape, etc.
The onset of our last night unravelled with a view of the gothic revival façade of the lit Hungarian Parliament building during the one-hour cruise on the Danube river under a full moon. Just hop-off every time you spot something you would like to explore further and then hop back on!
(Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury and Priyanka Sarkar, from Pearl Academy, visited Hungary for a trip – Prof Chowdhury to present the keynote address at Debrecen Fashion Film Festival and Ms Sarkar to receive an award at the same fest.)