At the heart of the continent, little Paris of middle Europe, the capital of Hungary is the very epitome of the world of yesterday.
At one point the fastest growing city in the world, second only to Chicago, Budapest is metropolitan in a manner that succeeds in being modern, yet a frozen witness of an old world at the same time.
One of the first and lasting impressions of the capital is the sense of lofty aspirations. Ceilings are tall and generous, both in public and in private homes. Opulent coffee houses embody cathedral-like proportions. See for example, the salon at Alexandra bookstore in Andrássy Ut for gob-smacking interiors and a reminder that Budapest was once the imperial twin of Vienna.
The lofty is found equally in the grand sweep of the hills on the Buda side of the river, the view from Gellért Hill offers unforgettable views. And of course, there is the majesty of the Danube herself.
Among other impressions is that of solid construction and pride in workmanship. Art deco furniture of high quality can still be found at reasonable prices in the area around Szabadság ter; and this is but one example of the deference to good design and old techniques.
The city, at the same time, embodies the internationalism of the second half of the 19th century and pre-war period. The facades and boulevards, most notably Andrássy Ut, are mainly French in inspiration; bridges and tunnels are often the work of British engineering. The Gresham palace, one of the most striking pieces of secession architecture in town, was originally home to a London-based assurance company. It is now a Four Seasons Hotel. Nip into the restaurant for a sense of old world grandeur and a sample of traditional Hungarian fare, such as the meaty Paprikás.
Budapest was never one to turn her back on modernism either. The title to the first underground metro line on the continent is hers. As of recent, modern buildings have also found their place in the heart of the city, though in a thoughtfully subordinate role.
However, the Hungarian capital also has its idiosyncratic sides. Budapest is not Budapest without its spas, and though the backdrop of these structures may seem ludicrously grand, it is not considered an exclusive past time. In fact, The Széchenyi baths in Városliget Park manages somehow to pull it off as a folksy affair. Sunday brunch at nearby Gundel tops off a day of extreme relaxation, as does the aimless wander through the market stalls of the Central market hall.
Meanwhile, within the palace grounds in Buda, there is a Pálinka festival. The traditional fruit brandy is sampled from a myriad of makeshift stalls and along with the drink goes traditional fare such as sausage, sauerkraut or Hungarian strudel. If you are enjoying all this in surroundings that would satisfy Louis the 14th, then you know you are in Budapest.