weekend away - Budapest
Written by William Lower
Budapest is a city of contrasts and intrigues, both seductive and beguiling. She will capture you with her stunning beauty, yet is never shy to show you her scars. She is an intriguing gem.
Approaching the end of the 19th century, Budapest was the fifth largest capital market in Europe. In preparation for the millennium celebrations of 1900, the city saw a construction boom unprecedented in Europe. Palaces, museums, and cultural institutions of all kinds sprang up throughout the inner city, and it quickly became known as the ‘Paris of the East’. Within just a few decades, however, Budapest’s fortunes were reversed. Two world wars (including WWII’s second-longest siege, after Stalingrad), an unsuccessful revolution in 1956, and 40 years of a communist regime took their toll.
Budapest’s aging neoclassical buildings were neglected, but they were not demolished; they were run down but not torn down. It has been said that Hungary is a nation of rebuilders, and to see the restoration and renovation of this architectural masterpiece called Budapest gives credence to that observation. But Budapest also knows that one should never forget. The House of Terror, a museum established in the former headquarters and interrogation centre of both the Nazis and then the Soviets, is a stark reminder of the horrors of the past, as is Statue Park where many of the Soviet statues that used to overrun the city have been amassed. In Budapest, history feels alive.
While it offers old-world ambience it also exudes a new-world vibrancy. Commingling with the classical arts is a plethora of prolific and talented young designers, artists, musicians, and performers whose work can be found in a multitude of small boutiques, galleries, festivals, and theatres. The culinary arts are also reflected everywhere, with century-old buildings containing everything from contemporary restaurants to ‘ruin’ pubs. The net result is a unique and vibrant urban landscape. Come prepared to fall in love.
The world is a more beautiful place for this city standing where the edge of the Steppes meets the shores of the Danube.
Budapest Opera House. Whether or not you are an opera fan, the Budapest Opera House is not to be missed. Completed in 1884, it is still recognised as an architectural and acoustical masterpiece. It is also an excellent example of Hungarian ingenuity. Under Hapsburg rule, Vienna’s permission was required for approval to build. The only stipulation? The proposed opera house in Budapest could not be larger than the existing opera house in Vienna. With typical Hungarian resourcefulness, the planners agreed, left, and remarked among themselves: “But no-one said it cannot be more beautiful.” Consequently, ‘beautiful’ is a word you will find yourself using often during your Budapest visit.
French name. No French food. Comme Chez Soi is a must-visit restaurant in Budapest. It is small, intimate, and sensational. In true Hungarian fashion (and with a dash of humour), you will find a French-named restaurant serving a hybrid Italian/Hungarian cuisine.
Due to its limited seating, you would be wise to make reservations. Cash only. The restaurant provides both 5-star service and 5-star dining.