The hashtag I decided upon for my trip (finally jumped on the millennial bandwagon) was #MyWinterSojourn. Oxford defines sojourn as a temporary stay, but it can mean so much more than that. It is the ineffable joy every traveller gets when waking up in a new city. It is the wondrous thrill in making sense of new surroundings. It is the bittersweet sorrow of leaving a new home for a familiar one. I decided to brave the cold weather of Europe and take my first midwinter journey to the Hungarian capital, Budapest.
I could not have picked a better place for my maiden winter adventure, as Budapest turned out to be one of the most evocative and visually stunning cities I have ever visited. There is mesmerising beauty in every corner and there are almost no bad angles in the Hungarian capital.
Architecturally, the modern metropolis is a treasure trove with an abundance of Baroque, Neoclassical, and Art Nouveau buildings, enough to leave any person in awe at every turn of the street. Not one to shy away from its past, Budapest wears its history proudly and gallantly. Take a walk down its streets and take note of the bullet holes and pockmarked buildings from World War II and the 1956 Uprising.
The alluring Central European city has come a long way since its tumultuous list of occupations. Recent years saw a global rise in tourism in the country from 6% to 9%, a testament to the enduring charm of the city showing up in fresh guises as travellers embrace both its poignant history and its steely resilience.
Where to Stay
There are boutique hotels, and then, there’s Pest-Buda Hotel. It is the first hotel in Budapest, established way back in 1696, and stands accordingly as the pioneer of hospitality in the friendly city. Almost three-and-a-half centuries later, they have not lost their je ne sais quoi.
Located on the historical streets of Buda in the Castle District, the stylish Pest-Buda Hotel is a stone’s throw away from historical monuments such as the Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias Church, and the Royal Palace. Firmly rooted in its heritage, the family-owned hotel has preserved the original baroque roof, in spite of a recent renovation in 2016. Attention to detail is evident here: the complementary colour tones of their logo (warm neutrals with a pop of signature red) are reflected in the hotel’s reception, room décor (accented by an adorable fire-engine red SMEG fridge), and personalised labels on their wine glasses and coffee cups.
The Atelier Suite is the pièce de résistance of the 10 rooms at Pest-Buda, and for good reason. The journey to the suite includes a private terrace overlooking the spires of Matthias Church. The spacious, attic-designed room boasts sturdy wooden beams with slanted floor-to-ceiling windows, ingeniously fitted with automated blinds. I circled the room to find a sumptuous king-sized bed with down comforters, a European-style bathroom with limestone walls, a rainforest shower by Hansgrohe, and organic L’Occitane toiletries, and in the centre of the room, the most glorious bathtub. Truly the stuff dreams are made of.
The next morning, breakfast comprised warm croissants, a knob of cold butter, homemade strawberry jam and marmalade, peppermint tea, freshly squeezed orange juice, a perfect start to the day, enjoyed while people-watching from the cosy warmth of the Pest-Buda Bistro. As I tore a piece of the perfectly flaky croissant, I was reminded of the joy that comes from the simple things in life.
There is a lot to love about Pest-Buda and checking out from it might have been one of the most difficult things on my trip!
Pest-Buda Bistro & Hotel
Address: Budapest, Fortuna u. 3, 1014 Hungary
Tel: +36 1 225 0377
Room rates start from €199 per night.
What to Eat
Among my circle of friends, I am well-known for planning my vacations around food experiences. I do my homework by spending an inordinate amount of time combing through the Internet to ensure I get an authentic taste of wherever I am travelling. My research led me to believe that Budapest is a regional powerhouse when it comes to gastronomic excellence, and it most certainly did not disappoint.
In the 15th century, invading Ottoman Turks introduced a new spice to the country, paprika. While the rest of Europe remained lukewarm towards this flavourful red chilli pepper from the New World, Hungary quickly embraced it and paprika has since been a defining element of Hungarian cuisine. To say my palate was immensely pleased would be an understatement.
Nothing tempers the sting of the cold winter weather better than a steaming bowl of paprika-packed goulash (gulyás). Rich and hearty, the stew-like dish consists of beef, a medley of veggies, and cubes of potatoes served piping hot, the only way to do its flavours justice. Try the national dish of Hungary at one of the plentiful bare-knuckled, home-style joints. Kék Rózsa (Blue Rose) is such a place. It is terrific cooking and a local hangout spot, with great value-for-money food.
Several days in and it soon dawned upon me that traditional Hungarian food is splendid sustenance for a wintry climate. The cuisine has plenty of warming paprika-hued goodness and is (almost always) finished off with cake as dessert. Putting my no-carbs diet on hiatus, I tucked into an array of dumplings, potatoes, and pasta, delighted to discover that they were simmered in a meaty stock, adding a savoury depth unlike any other to the simplest of dishes. Some notable mentions:
• Pest-Buda Bistro
One of the oldest restaurants in Budapest, it is a must-visit for classic Magyar favourites and a superb introduction to Hungarian cuisine. The chicken paprikash with buttered noodles was excellent, as was the grilled homemade Tokaj wine sausages. My siren song was the Braised Pork, a plate of juicy pork meat seasoned with paprika and tender potato cubes, which I polished off in a matter of minutes.
Address: Budapest, Fortuna u. 3, 1014 Hungary
Tel: +36 1 225 0377
Opening hours: Daily, 7:30am – 11:00pm
The new addition to the city’s epicurean tapestry is helmed by Chef Gábor Fehér, who spent several years cooking in reputable Hungarian restaurants before graduating from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu. Soon after, he returned to his home country and launched ESCA, a remarkable and intimate studio restaurant in the heart of the city. Come here for fabulously unusual pairings, prepared with culinary finesse. It is a small place, so a table reservation is highly recommended.
Address: Budapest, Dohány u. 29, 1074 Hungary
Tel: +36 30 752 1509
Opening hours: Mon – Fri, 12:00pm – 3:00pm / 6:00pm – 11:00pm
A taste from Budapest’s heyday, Ruszwurm is the oldest bakery in the city, having opened in 1827. Much of it has seemingly not changed since then – the interior of the confectionery is just as rustic and the cakes are still as luscious. Be sure to order their two award-winning sweet treats, the Cream Cake (a Mille Feuille sandwich with the airiest and lightest cream filling with a hint of vanilla) and Dobos Torta (a Hungarian sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream, crowned with a shiny caramel glazed crust).
Address: Budapest, Szentháromság u. 7, 1014 Hungary
Tel: +36 1 375 5284
Opening hours: Daily, 10:00am – 6:00pm
• New York Café
Being acclaimed as “the most beautiful cafe in the world” is a hefty reputation to live up to, but thankfully, this palatial café exceeds all expectations. Budapest is renowned for its grand café culture, and this stunning place once played an important role as a sanctuary for Budapest’s literati community. Today, it remains one of the most striking spots in town to get a caffeine fix with its gilded ceilings, ornate columns, glass chandeliers, and oxblood velvet-upholstered chairs, delivering an instant transport to a bygone era the moment you step inside.
Address: Budapest, Erzsébet krt. 9-11, 1073 Hungary
Tel: +36 1 886 6167
Opening hours: 8:00am – 12:00am
What to Do
• Catch the first light of day at the Fisherman’s Bastion
Our time in Budapest began at the Castle Hill area, which offered impressive panoramic views of the Danube River, particularly from the terrace and the seven turrets (representing the seven Hungarian tribes). Historians believe the bastion served as a vantage point and was originally protected by neighbouring fishermen, hence its name.
We woke up at the crack of dawn, made our way to a surprisingly empty bastion, and explored the fortress. Some 15 minutes later, our view was made even better with the rosy blush of sunrise.
• Treat yourself to a facial at the award-winning Omorovicza Boutique & Spa
It all began as a love story: Stephen, a descendant of the noble Omorovicza family, was in Budapest running his family business when he first met Margaret, the Chief of Staff at the US Embassy. One of their dates was to a thermal bath, and inspired by the profound effects of the waters on their skin, they enlisted the help of a Nobel prize-winning laboratory to harness these healing waters into a pioneering new luxury skincare range. The rest, as they say, is history.
All of the skincare products are powered by a potent blend of Hungary’s mineral-rich healing waters and their signature patented Healing Concentrate. Combined with the finest vitamins, essential oils, and other natural ingredients sourced from across the globe, one doesn’t have to wonder why the brand’s products are well-loved globally.
I visited their only flagship spa and was treated to the Gold Hydralifting Facial, which was, quite possibly, the best and most luxurious facial of my life. The session began with a deep cleanse from the line’s cult favourite Thermal Cleansing Balm, rich in Hungarian Moor mud to draw out any impurities, followed by a relaxing scrub. Afterwards, my therapist, Agnes, brushed on a rejuvenating peel followed by a divine facial massage. As I walked out of the all-white spa, my skin hydrated to within an inch of its life, my travel partner did a double take and commented that I was glowing. All it took was an hour at Omorovicza Boutique & Spa.
Address: Budapest, Andrássy út 2, 1061 Hungary
Tel: +36 1 302 4604
Opening hours: Mon – Fri, 9:00am – 8:00pm / Saturday, 10:00am – 6:00pm
Book your treatment at www.omorovicza.com/in/spa/book-treatment.html
• Stroll and shop at Andrássy Út
Andrássy Út is Budapest’s very own Champs-Élysées, where renowned brands such as Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci are located. Beyond these names, there are also several local designer brands making their mark in the famed avenue. Nanushka is one of them. The modern and versatile Hungarian brand delivers impeccable day-to-night apparel, effortlessly combining function with flair. From there, head on over to District VII, in the Jewish Quarter, where there is a cool collection of boutiques to explore; one of them being Szputnyik, a gallery-style space with white walls and wooden floors, which sells vintage fashion.
• Experience the wonder of St. Stephen’s Basilica
The biggest church in Budapest was opened in 1906 after taking a full 50 years to complete. I paid a visit to the church on Christmas morning and stayed on longer than I expected, enamoured by every inch. While I was there, the immense pipe organ was played, echoing through the sheer magnificence of the church.
The basilica is so resplendent and ornate, that religious or not, you are going to want to believe heaven exists the minute you step into this marvellous place of worship.
• Sink in a leather chair and read a book at Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library
One of the greatest joys during my travels is the opportunity to soak up time in exquisite libraries. The discovery of this gem was one for the books (pun totally intended). It is a 19th century aristocrat’s mansion, which was converted into a public library, hidden within the façade of a modern library. I would have spent every waking hour studying here and gotten top marks in every class if we had a public library like this back home.
• Get Hungarian souvenirs at the Great Market Hall
Built in the 19thcentury, this three-floor covered market has shops upon shops selling everything from grocery produce and souvenirs to paprika, Zsolnay porcelain, Palinka (a potent, locally-produced fruit spirit with a minimum of 50% ABV), fruits, and even canned foie gras. This is a market hall that’s worth exploring!
• Soak in the healing thermal waters at Gellért Baths
Since the early 20th century, Budapest has been known as the world’s Spa Capital for its bountiful 118 natural thermal springs, delivering 70 million litres of curative waters each day. Rife with thermal bath houses all over the city, a trip here should not be counted as complete without visiting one of them. My favourite is the striking Gellért Baths, resplendent with embellished columns framing a massive indoor pool. Marvel at the painted domed ceilings, mosaic floors, and acres of stained-glass windows, but stay on for their hot and cold baths, steam rooms and saunas, and of course a range of massages and mud treatments.
• Explore the Eight Bridges
The city of Budapest is made up of two sides (Buda and Pest), which span across the Danube River and are connected by eight suspension bridges. The oldest and most photographed is the Chain Bridge (Lánc Híd), which was opened for public traffic in 1849. It is a particularly lovely sight to behold come nightfall when the whole bridge is illuminated, sparkling with thousands of tiny lights.
• Catch the sun setting over the Hungarian Parliament
Taking 17 years to build and completed in 1902, this Neo-Gothic structure is the archetype of Hungarian architectural beauty and elegance. British politician-turned-broadcaster Michael Portillo memorably described it as “one of the most beautiful legislatures in the world, a cathedral of democracy.” Head to Kossuth Lajos Square (in front of the building), or stand across the Danube river (Parliament is right on the Pest embankment) for the best view of this gorgeous building.
• Have supper at Gozsdu Udvar, then dance the night away at Szimpla Kert
A friend at the Hungarian Embassy recommended this trendy place and I am infinitely grateful to him for it. Gozsdu Udvar has a thriving night scene with sensational bars and terrific vibes, ideal for grabbing a bite (or two) before a night of partying.
Once your hunger pangs are satiated, simply walk over to Szimpla Kert (a mere five minutes away) and have the time of your life at Budapest’s most famous ruins bar. Mismatched furniture and garish lighting have never looked more interesting.
While en route to Budapest, my seat mate (a Swiss guy) and I began conversing, comparing passport stamps and sharing our travel itineraries, when he nonchalantly remarked, “You know, a traveller is someone who is at home everywhere,” an off-the-cuff comment which turned out to be sage advice for someone who is in a perpetual state of wanderlust. His words lingered on a week later as I watched the captivating city gently disappear beneath the clouds after take-off and realised following my memorable winter sojourn that my heart had found a home in Budapest, a magical city to which I plan to return soon.