For a decade or so — between the time Communism’s Iron Curtain went down and Capitalism’s velvet ropes went up — budget travelers in Budapest had a veritable all-access pass. Those days may be gone. But with a little planning, thrifty souls can still savor the city’s quintessential experiences and have money left over for souvenirs.
Soak Up Some History
The circa 1885 Royal Spa in the Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal has been drawing “oohs” and “ahhs” from foreign guests thanks to its newly restored facilities and trendy luxe treatments (mud baths, seaweed baths — you get the idea). However, anyone looking for a long, hot soak in one of Budapest’s legendary thermal pools will be satisfied with the Gellért Baths, where you can splash in naturally heated, mineral-rich water surrounded by Art Nouveau opulence. The gallery ringing the main marble pool boasts delicate mosaics, sensuous statuary, and richly decorated columns, all capped by a vaulted glass roof. Taking the plunge costs a meager $15.50 per day.
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Just Around the River Bend
Taking a sightseeing cruise on the Danube, which separates Buda in the east from Pest in the west, can be a holiday highlight, especially at night when city lights twinkle and passengers can pretend the river that Strauss immortalized really is still “blue.” Trouble is, most of them don’t take you very far. Mahart Tours’ $16.50 excursion between Margaret Bridge and Hotel Gellért is typical. Mahart’s regular ferry service, on the other hand, carries you around the Danube Bend and back for less. By skipping the canned commentary, do-it-yourselfers can make a daytrip to Visegrád (site of a 13th-century hilltop fortress) for $12.50 and Esztergom (Hungary’s original capital) for $14.
Making the traditional Hungarian toast — “Egészségedre” or “to your health” — is hard, but sampling Hungary’s celebrated wines isn’t. Artisans of Leisure offers a comprehensive oenophile’s itinerary that includes private tastings and vineyard tours in places like Eger (famous for its “Bull’s Blood” red) and Tokaj (home to the sweet white “Wine of Kings”). Of course, if you don’t have seven days and $6,600 to spend on a vintage vacation, you can always opt for a two-hour tasting session at the House of Hungarian Wines on Castle Hill. Within its labyrinthine cellar, guests may help themselves to representative wines from each of Hungary’s 22 viticultural regions for only $20.
Budapest is known for atmospheric old restaurants where you can fill up on traditional fare while listening to haunting gypsy violins. And none is more famous — or more expensive — than Gundel, which opened in City Park in 1894. If you can’t justify breaking the bank for goulash and goose liver, consider arriving at lunch. (A three-course “Chef’s Table” menu with a glass of wine costs $18, roughly what you’d pay for a lower-tier appetizer at dinner). As an alternative, walk next door to Bagolyvár. Like Gundel, it is operated by restaurateur George Lang and occupies an Art Nouveau building. Yet it serves down-home Hungarian cooking at lower prices and with fewer pretensions.
Boutique hotels provide a welcome change from Budapest’s over-the-top palace-style lodgings. The design-conscious Art’otel, for example, packs in travelers who are tired of Nouveau and simply want something new. Located on the Buda riverfront, it features stunning, stripped down rooms inspired by American artist Donald Sultan starting at around $270. If you want minimalist style on a minimal budget, though, Hotel Zara (from $130) and Atrium Hotel (from $135) are better bets. Having opened in August 2006 and March 2007, respectively, in downtown Pest, they are suitably funky alternatives. Another contender in the four-star contemporary category is ultra-mod Lanchid 19 (from $155), slated to open this summer.
Native-born Ferenc Liszt (familiar to most of us as Franz) is a certified Hungarian Idol, and the best place to hear his works is at the glorious Liszt Ferenc Zeneakadémia founded by the maestro himself in 1875. In addition to being the city’s premier concert hall and the country’s most prestigious music conservatory, Zeneakadémia is also one of the world’s best values because ticket prices there range from $4.50 to around $30. Over at the National Concert Hall, the internationally acclaimed Budapest Festival Orchestra also strikes an egalitarian chord by opening afternoon dress rehearsals to the cash-strapped. They also schedule $10 Cocoa Concerts for kids. See Jegymester’s ticket site for booking info.
Photo credits: (1) courtesy of spasbudapest.com; (2) courtesy of Artisans of Leisure; (3) courtesy of Atrium Hotel.