Friday, 23 December 2011


How to get there
We flew with a combination of Malev and BA and they were standard national-carrier, short-haul flights – hand luggage, quick snack, brusque air hostesses! Nothing special, but equally nothing awful.
Where to sleep
We booked a package on Expedia and got the most amazing deal with two nights at the Bohem Art Hotel and flights for a touch over £200 per person. By my reckoning, that’s a hundred quid on the flights, so only £50 a night, which in my mind was a complete bargain.
The hotel has free Wifi, iPads on reception, a little hot drinks stand in the reception area from midday until 2am, funky bedrooms (including twins, doubles and suites), each with a different design (check each room’s art work out on the website – we took over rooms 509, 507 and 304 I think), a welcoming reception area and, the best bit, a champagne buffet breakfast included in the price, that stayed open until 11am. How incredibly civilised!
The hotel also arranged our transfers to and from the airport for a reasonable charge, but note that this is payable in Euros, not Forints.
It’s in central Pest (but walking distance to Buda) and walking distance to the main sights, the Danube, a metro station, shopping areas, a large square (where the Christmas market was located) and a number of restaurants and bars.
sign language
champagne brekkie
sweet dreams
I would 100% recommend you stay at the Bohem Art Hotel!
Where to eat
After arriving, checking in and allowing ourselves 15 minutes of unpacking time we set off to explore. First stop a little eaterie called Europa Café on one of the main shopping streets to grab some spiced wine, hot lemonade (a new discovery!), goulash and traditional Hungarian chocolate and orange cake. It wasn’t anything special but it was tasty, cheap, and full of young (amorous) couples sharing cakes and festive-looking drinks!
The second restaurant we went to was Fatal. It was recommended by all the guidebooks for serving traditional Hungarian food (GREAT! I hear you cry) in an unpretentious setting (think Wagamamas in the middle ages). We booked in advance en route back to the hotel (it was virtually opposite) and returned a few hours later for a our table. It's rustic and modern all at the same time. The menu is full of humour, the waiters were great for some banter and the portions were HUGE. Seriously, they were the largest portions I've ever seen… and I've seen some ginormous portions in my time. As an example, the soup my mum chose for a starter was served in a full-sized saucepan and was full to the brim. My aunt chose a "lighter" option of a camembert and apple starter for her main course and ended up with four, yes FOUR, whole rounds of cheese and a whole apple sliced and deep fried on a big wooden platter, on top of a mountain of rice. This is not an option for those looking for "pretty" food in small portions and with delicate flavours in a refined setting requiring your best frock and high heels. But if you are hungry, looking for something low cost and casual then drop in! I felt a bit like Henry VIII with my giant portion of Viking Fish but we had a great night, and there definitely no need for midnight snacks!
a pan of soup to start

a light camembert starter

fish, Viking style (apparently)

The next day we upgraded our dining experiences somewhat, and popped in to the Gresham Hotel (a Four Seasons venue) for a coffee and ended up staying for lunch. This was everything you'd imagine from a Four Seasons dining experience and it was nice to treat ourselves to a little bit of opulence, and warmth, after a hard day of intensive sightseeing. We sampled the local sparkling wine and a local red and they were both incredibly good, and shockingly cheap. The bubbly came in at less than one of the artisan hot chocolates and a set three course menu, with wine, also totalled less than a few of the main courses. Overall the lunch was lovely but had a more international edge, than a traditional Hungarian flavour. Some lovely touches included complimentary miniature macaroons, so for that alone they score top marks.

baby macaroons at the Gresham
Apparently, no trip to Budapest would be complete without a visit to Gerbaud, a famous, and I think, the oldest coffee house and confectioners in the city. We stopped by for some hot chocolate and sticky cakes and desserts. It was a complete tourist trap, charging top dollar for the same thing we paid pence for in a normal side-street cafe but the interior is lovely to look at, and with the festive vibe and great view of the main square and the Christmas market it was a lovely experience.

First weekend of advent in front of Gerbaud
That same night, in keeping with our "slightly more refined" food theme, we went to Cyrano Restaurant for dinner (again, book in advance). This was a cool, funky venue with a mezzanine floor (where we dined) and a central wall removed so that first floor diners looked like they were eating in a pod on the wall. The decor was cool with the central focus being a giant feather boa chandelier, the service was attentive and helpful and the staff couldn’t have been cuter! The food was delicious and inventive. My starter was an innovative combination of warmed goat’s cheese on a baked crouton topped with an icy-cold lavender sorbet and sprinkled with thin slices of chilled grapes and chopped lavender. It sounds hideous, but tasted divine! The rest of the menu was equally interesting and even when we went “off menu” they were more than accommodating. I’d definitely recommend a visit to this place!

Cyrano's pretty frontage

funky decor inside Cyrano
What to see
On the first afternoon we spent some time exploring the main square, the Christmas markets and the surrounding cocktail bars. Had we been there out of festive season I think we would have spent this afternoon visiting one of the spas. The most well known is the Gellert Spa and Bath, but I have it on good authority that the smaller baths are less touristy and a much better experience.

We spent the second day on a walking tour of the city, taking in the war memorial, or Hero Monument, a walk along the Danube, which was sadly shrouded in mist and fog so we couldn’t see across to the picturesque  Buda cityscape, with its impressive Castle Hill (which we did walk up, but saw very little from, due to the fog), St Stephen’s Cathedral, the Széchenyi baths, the famous Chain Bridge and the Budapest Opera House. The tickets here were so reasonable that we purchased some for the Nutcracker and went back the next day for some Hungarian ballet. Well – it’s not Christmas for me if I haven’t seen the Nutcracker at least once! The ballet itself was ok, it’s not the best interpretation I’ve seen and the production wasn’t amazing. But it was a lovely way to end our time in the City. If you go and find a pair of red leather driving gloves, please drop me a line!

a real-life Disney Castle

the "perfect" bridge (with only one minor fault - the lions have no tongues. Whoops!)

What we should have been able to see on the opposite river bank

An adorable statue that the Prince and Princess of Wales had copied

the opera house

one of our tickets was in a box!
My thoughts on the City
Hungary has an interesting story to tell and has played a pivotal role in Europe’s rich history, but, to me, its recent history is full of sadness. Walking around the City with a local guide only enhanced that view. Most of the stories she told us were tinged with apology (for picking the “wrong side” in the war – we were a group of Brits, Aussies and Canadians!) rather than the national pride I like to see from local tour guides. Telling heartbreaking accounts of the loss, suffering, fear and cruelty in her dour manner I felt it a little difficult to bond with Budapest, as I have done with so many other cities. It’s not unusal to walk around a European city and have someone point out the scars of history. Yet, I was taken aback by the sense of gloom associated with these scars on the face of Budapest, in direct contrast with the energy you find in an equally scarred city such as Berlin.

Maybe in recent times I’ve seen it more as a stag weekend destination due to the low costs and abundance of good food and drink or just another European Christmas market destination, rather than what it really has to offer, and I only wish I knew more about its history, both ancient and recent, before I visited so I could truly appreciate its place in Europe's story.
I think this is most definitely one to go back to, and according to my cousin, it’s fabulous in the summer time so maybe I’ll be returning to the Bohem Art Hotel in the not too distant future.
Watch this space for some better photos!

The other Lady Liberty
P.S. check out my other travel reviews below

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