One of Europe's best-value-for-money cities, Budapest is a brilliant place to visit in summer, when the temperatures are balmy and the sun is shining high above the eminently cruisable River Danube. But the Hungarian capital is just as rewarding in the winter – thanks, in part, to five things at which it excels (and which can help you thwart the, at times, teeth-chattering chill).
Budapest boasts an array of alluring caffeine dens. Many date back to the late 19th century, when the city was a thriving cog of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the smoky kavehaz (coffeehouse) was the place to see and be seen, attracting a cross-section of Budapestian society, from struggling writers and artists to well-fed politicians and tycoons.
All sorts of characters – including wide-eyed tourists – still frequent Central Kavehaz, which is infused with antique furniture, the heady scent of coffee and a raft of people-watching opportunities. A more opulent alternative is New York Cafe, whose palatial interior is riddled with flamboyant frescoes and gilded stucco columns. At Muvesz Kavehaz, customers are captivated by the glittering chandeliers and red-lamp glow of its cosy interior, though if you can brave the cold – staff will give you blankets – the cafe's front terrace is a wonderful spot for perusing the action on leafy Andrassy Avenue (the 'Budapestian Champs-Elysees').
Whichever coffeehouse you choose – and there are dozens of options – you must try Dobos torte. Where Vienna is famed for the richly chocolate Sacher torte, Budapest's scrumptiously sticky staple is this moist, multi-layered melange of sponge cake, buttercream chocolate and caramel. Locals call it Dobosh.
If you find classic coffeehouses a little too stuffy or formal, Budapest's quirky ruin bars might be more up your street. Creative, arty entrepreneurs have bought – or rented – downtrodden downtown properties and turned them into funky venues in which to eat, drink and be merry.
The old stager of Budapest's ever-evolving ruin bar scene is Szimpla Kert (Simple Garden), which caters to a lively crowd of bohemian locals, expats and tourists. You'll find cheap drinks ($2.50 for a half-litre of lager), eclectic decor (like old Trabant cars), live music (including Hungarian folk bands) and a Sunday farmers' market. Across the street, Kek Lo (Blue Horse) has been dubbed a 'fashion pub' and offers liquid refreshment, alongside clothes and accessories from the collection of Hungarian fashion designer Virag Toth. Purchasable items are laid out in wardrobes, cupboards and on mannequins with horse heads.
Other popular haunts are Instant, a labyrinth-like spectacle set over three storeys, with 23 rooms, six bars, three dance floors and two gardens, and Fogas, which occupies a former dental practice, and hosts art exhibitions, theatre, concerts and film screenings. Many – but not all – of Budapest's ruin bars are situated in the backstreets fanning off from the Great Synagogue, Europe's largest Jewish house of worship.
Live Escape Games
The glut of derelict basements and buildings in central Budapest was the catalyst behind another craze to hit the city: live escape games, which see contestants (willingly) incarcerated in locked rooms, then having to crack clues and solve puzzles in order to win their freedom.
Hidden beneath the Gondozo ruin pub, ParaPark was Budapest's first live escape game, launched in 2011 by former social worker Attila Gyurkovics. It immerses teams of two to five people in a brain-teasing race against the clock (tasks usually last an hour).
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Having mushroomed in the past few years, the live escape genre has generated mental conundrums across the city, with Claustrophilia, TRAP and Mind Quest among the most highly rated and visually striking; their challenges flavoured with medieval, horror, Voodoo and ancient Egyptian themes.
Mind-twisting games have long been a forte of Hungary. Forty years ago (in 1974), Budapestian sculptor Erno Rubik invented the Rubik's Cube.
Perched on a network of more than 100 natural springs, Budapest is known as 'The City of Baths', with its thermal waters feeding scores of public bath-houses and medicinal spas.
Set in City Park, a stone's throw from Heroes' Square (the scene of many a concert, festival and demonstration), the postcard-perfect Szechenyi Baths is a favourite with locals and tourists. Its grand central building houses more than a dozen indoor pools, and offers a plethora of pampering treatments, but most visitors can't resist a dip in one of the outdoor pools. They're at their most magnificent in winter when it's simply bliss to escape the freezing air outside and plunge into 38C water. While most patrons are happy to wallow and frolic in the pool, it's not uncommon to see visitors – mainly old Hungarian men – playing chess while bathing.
Another much-photographed spa in Budapest is the elegant Gellert Baths, which was built, in striking Art Nouveau style, between 1912 and 1918, and is tucked inside the Hotel Gollert next to the Danube.
Some of Budapest's wellness baths date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when Hungary was under Ottoman Turkish occupation. The Rudas and Kiraly Baths, with their dome-covered, dimly lit octagonal pools, flaunt eye-catching Turkish influences. Incidentally, it's believed the Turks first brought coffee to Hungary.
Unique Cultural Attractions
Budapest has its fair share of art galleries and museums in which to shelter from the cold. The Museum of Fine Arts by City Park, for example, has some good revolving exhibitions to support its permanent collection.
However, while these spots are unlikely to get your heart pumping too much, the House of Terror might just do that. Set on Andrassy Avenue in the former headquarters of both the Hungarian Nazi party and Soviet secret police, it's a slick, high-tech, but chilling monument to the memory of the political prisoners held captive, tortured and killed here under the two totalitarian regimes that dominated 20th Century Hungary.
On Budapest's outskirts, Szobor Park promises a peek behind the old Iron Curtain. Strewn across the grassy pastures of this open-air museum are statues and monuments that graced the capital's streets during the Soviet era. Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx are just two of the Communist luminaries on show. Also called Memento Park, this is an incredibly atmospheric place, especially on a foggy, snowy winter's day. Just wrap up well.