Ahead of a new wave of budget air travel to Budapest launching from Dubai’s second airport, Alex Schechter immerses himself in the Hungarian capital.
Travellers have been aware of Budapest’s spa appeal for centuries – its bubbling hot springs first attracted the ancient Romans almost 2,000 years ago – but thanks to post-recession hotel rates and low-cost airlines, a newer, younger generation of tourists is slowly catching on to this beguiling Magyar capital, with its Gothic spires, world-class museums, and non-stop nightlife. Demand is particularly strong in the Middle East: this October, Hungarian based WizzAir will begin a non-stop service between new airport Dubai World Central and Budapest four times a week; as if that weren’t enough, a new Hungarian airline, Solyom, launches in August, backed by investors from Oman and the UAE.
I pull up to the InterContinental Budapest, located on the Pest side of the river, around 1am. The lobby is deserted, and I’ve just come off a gruelling six-hour journey, so my first and only thought is sleep. However, upon entering the room, I’m stopped in my tracks by a postcard-ready view looming in the distance. There, on the other side of the glass are unobstructed views of the glittering Danube, its wide opaque surface reflecting the evening lights of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, appropriately named for a pair of illuminated iron cords harnessed on top two massive stone pillars: Hungary’s answer to the Brooklyn Bridge.
When I awake the next morning, the same view is still there and I pinch myself to make double sure I’m not still dreaming. I dress quickly and head downstairs for breakfast and spend a while consulting my map and drawing up a preliminary itinerary.
On my last visit to Budapest, I explored Buda Castle Quarter, the museum-sprinkled hillside that’s home to iconic monuments like Fisherman’s Bastion, the Hungarian National Gallery and the Royal Palace. This time, I’m sticking to hipper, more nightlife-oriented Pest, determined to get a feel for the city’s 21st-century cultural rhythm. (Though, I’m careful not to capitulate to the other extreme: while passing through tree-lined Vörösmarty Square, a historic pedestrian hub that’s now dominated by a glassy shopping centre, a Tropicana casino, and Hard Rock Cafe, I find little worth stopping for.)
From the nearby metro stop (Budapest contains one of Europe’s oldest underground Metro systems), I go to meet my Hungarian friend at the trendy Menza Cafe in Liszt Square – unfortunately, it’s lunchtime on a week day, and the tables are packed with a see-and-be-seen crowd. Eschewing the 45-minute wait, we head instead to Cafe Eklektika, a smaller, jazz-inspired eatery on Nagymez Street, where a non-English-speaking waitress plies us with hearty goulash, split-pea soup and fresh arugula salad.
Later in the day, on my friend’s recommendation, I ride the tram south along the river to the Palace of the Arts for a small but excellent chamber music concert. Passing through the immense lobby, whose lofty ceilings and red-carpeted staircases evoke a fresher, more whimsical Lincoln Center, I end up in a recital hall where contemporary Hungarian composers are showcasing new works.
The audience around me, many of them in their sixties and seventies, applauds politely at the end of each piece, prompting the composers to each bow in turn. Their obvious pride instils in me a deep satisfaction, as though I too have accomplished something great simply by stumbling into this dazzling performance hall on a random Sunday evening. But mostly, I am transfixed – once again, the half-lit Danube, seen through the west-facing windows, gently courses through the city, and I gaze off, contemplating my next move. A visit to one of Király Street’s famous ‘ruin pubs’? Late dinner at the Boscolo Hotel’s New York Café? The night is but young.
Need to know
From October 28, Wizz Air flies to Budapest, from Dhs980 return.
Turkish Airlines flies to Budapest via Istanbul from Dhs2,100 return.