Many of the world’s historical treasures have been sanitized and Starbucksified until there’s little personality left: Moscow’s Red Square has tchotchke-hawking souvenir carts, the leaning tower of Pisa has more handrails than a nursing home, and the Great Pyramids have a freakin’ laser light show. But somehow Hungary’s magical capital city of Budapest has retained its historical charm, even five years after the country became part of the European Union.
Much of that charm comes from the Gothic Revival and Roman architecture that dots the hills of Buda and the Inner City of Pest. The sprawling Parliament Building on the banks of the Danube is not to be missed. Also visit Castle Hill, home to the Buda Castle and its underground labyrinth of caves that feature prehistoric cave paintings.
Thermal springs, which formed the caves thousands of years ago, are also responsible for Budapest’s famous baths, many of which are open year-round. Check out the Szechenyi Baths, a marble complex of indoor swimming pools, 13 thermal baths, a gymnasium, and treatment rooms.
After your soak and maybe a vigorous Hungarian massage, head to one of the city’s coffeehouses. In the early part of the 20th century, these restaurant-bakery-cafés were where many of the city’s writers and artists gathered. Today, the coffeehouses still have espresso and kifli (crescent-shaped pastries), but glitzier spots like the Gerbeaud also have restaurants where you can find refined dishes like filet of venison with onion jam and pumpkinseed noodles.
Don’t miss the House of Terror Museum. It’s a startling reminder that less than 20 years ago, Budapest was under the control of a terrorizing secret police. In the 1940s, the building that houses the museum was the headquarters of the Nazi-affiliated hate group Arrow Cross. Later, it was taken over by the Communist secret police, who tortured and imprisoned many innocent people within its walls until 1989.
When you’re ready to leave the past behind at the end of the day, enter the 21st Century at the Lánchíd 19. With a glass façade that emits an always-changing array of colored lights and sleek chrome-and-glass decor, the contemporary hotel is a nice counterpoint to the Gothic glamour and amazing history the rest of the city has to offer.