A tale of two cities in one

The Hungarian capital of Budapest may not have the glitz and glamour of London or Paris, but it has a charm and elegance that dates back almost 200 years

By Adam Zacharias (Travel)

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Published: Fri 28 Aug 2009, 9:46 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 8:17 AM

While European cities like London, Paris and Madrid may keep the world’s eagle-eyed gaze, others by comparison fly silently, yet gracefully, under the radar.

Unburdened with hype or endless floods of tourists, Budapest’s relative anonymity has in many ways proven to be an unexpected blessing.

Instead, the Hungarian capital boasts the cosmopolitan charm of its counterparts, but without the breakneck pace, clogged pavements or menacing backstreets. Situated in central Europe, the city was formed in 1873 by the unification of Buda and Pest, two mid-size localities that sat on either side of the Danube River.

Given Budapest’s bloody past as the scene of several revolutions and a World War II siege, it retains a surprisingly well-maintained beauty. Both organised and soulful, the city’s bountiful architectural history includes a gothic-style Parliament building — the second largest in Europe — as well as the 750-year-old Buda Castle.

For refined local entertainment and culture, the Museum of Fine Arts in Heroes’ Square houses an eclectic collection of art from centuries past — with more than 100,000 pieces from the likes of Raphael, Goya, Rembrandt and Da Vinci. From now until October 25, the museum (www.mfab.hu) is holding an exhibition dedicated to the Romantic artist JMW Turner. With more than 80 of the Englishman’s landscape works on display, Turner and Italy charts the controversial artist’s career from beginning to end.

Budapest is also known for its numerous public baths — a relic of the Ottoman Empire’s governance in the 17th century. This tradition has remained a popular activity for residents and visitors, spurred by the fact that the city sits on a huge maze of water-filled thermal caves — the largest system of its kind in the world.

While traffic gridlock may not reach Dubai’s levels of madness, nonetheless congestion is common on the city’s streets. However, a comprehensive tram system can provide a cheaper and more fluid way to get around town.

Or, if you fancy treating yourself, try a ride on a rickshaw — slightly more expensive than a taxi, but your driver will pedal furiously around pedestrians to ensure your journey is brief and enjoyable. Depending on your personal tastes, or those of your companion, the city offers a variety of entertainment and night time.

If you’re looking for a romantic dinner overlooking the Danube, the Sophia Restaurant & Piano Music offers a perfect mix of traditional cuisine and modern understatement. If you’re visiting in the warmer months, there is outdoor seating available which offers stunning views of Budapest.

Situated on the Buda side of the city next to the Artotel Hotel, the restaurant offers some robust local beverages and one dish which combines toast, a baked apple, blackcurrant jam, foie gras and an orange into a succulent starter.

Budapest’s rich heritage, unique beauty and progressive culture have seen it named the most livable city in Central or Eastern Europe, based on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2009 quality of life index.

This augmented its status as a rising economic force — after the city was ranked third (and first outside of China) last year in Mastercard’s table for emerging markets, based on factors such as business climate, political environment and commercial connectivity. But regardless your reason for visiting, expect to be wowed by the city’s cobbled streets, busy yet unhurried atmosphere and friendly citizens.

See online for the latest deals — a flight from Dubai to Budapest will involve a stopover.

adam@khaleejtimes.com



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