It's been over a month since our pre-Christmas trip to the Hungarian capital for my 27th Birthday and I'm still slightly disappointed to not be waking up everyday in a beautiful European capital city. (York is gorgeous, but alas not quite the scale of London, Paris or Berlin).
Overall we spent four days exploring the best of Budapest in mid-December for my birthday, making the most of a city full of festive cheer and fantastic street food.
After spotting a decent deal on Expedia, we decided on the extremely central Hotel Prestige Budapest which is on the Pest side of the city, minutes away from St Stephen's Basilica.
This location worked perfectly, as we were able to quickly get up and out into the heart of the city each morning. This also enabled us to explore by foot, only using non-pedestrian transport to get to and from the airport and hotel.
The hotel itself was excellent - modern and sparklingly clean. It was a pleasant surprise to be upgraded to a superior room on our arrival and we even found a couple of birthday treats waiting for us in the room, which was spacious and well appointed (though sadly didn't have a bath).
The only small complaint I have about the room itself was that there were no external windows, as we faced out into a covered courtyard. This gave a slightly claustrophobic flavour to what were otherwise extremely luxurious surroundings.
In terms of amenities, the hotel is attached to a Michelin starred restaurant, Costes, which boasts a well stocked bar. Unfortunately we didn't manage to sample the famous baths of Budapest during our stay, but we did make use of the hotel's sauna and jacuzzi - much needed after a day of funding the city streets.
Food and Drink
At the time of booking I didn't realise that breakfast was not included in our room rate. Upon arrival we learnt that this would be an extra £25 per person, per day. (I'm all for treating yourself, but come on). This ensured that we became firmly aquatinted with the numerous bakeries and coffee shops that dotted the surrounding streets.
I was particularly impressed by with the traditional Kürtőskalács (chimney cake), a tower of coiled dough baked over an open fire then doused in sugar. Another morning favourite included ordering a couple of Kifli (crescent breads, kind of like croissants but made with yeasted dough) and a strong black coffee.
We were delighted to learn that the Christmas Markets were right on our doorstep and made a good go of sampling something new each evening from the variety of kiosks.
Having heard many good things about Lángos (fried dough), we decided to give in to gluttony/the Christmas spirit and go all out with spinach and cheese, though the sour cream and cheese version also looked very decadent. If I'm honest, it was slightly too greasy for me to finish, but I thoroughly enjoyed trying.
Alongside Lángos, a popular dish consisted of a deep fried potato pancake (kind of like a latcake), which was also served smothered in various toppings.
Alongside sampling the best of the markets, we also found ourselves nipping in and out of cafes and street food kiosks during the day for regular top ups. One particularly cold afternoon we stumbled upon IGEN, a small take-away pizzeria in the Jewish quarter.
The culinary highlight of the trip had to be lunch at Pierrot, which can be found down a quiet street on Castle Hill, about 10 minutes walk from Buda Castle. We both went slightly overboard, starting with a glass of sparkling Hungarian wine followed by a confit duck leg in puff pastry for me and sea bass for Des.
Hungary is famous for its wines, especially those from Tokaji, a historically renowned wine growing region bordering on Slovakia. I particularly enjoyed anything made from the Furmint grape variety, which can apparently be either very sweet or very dry.
The popular chain Di Vino became our favourite drinking establishment during the trip, as they sell over 120 different Hungarian wines with a distinct focus on young winemakers. The chain also had a number of Christmas themed stalls on the market which supplied mulled red or white wine.
Seeing the sights
As mentioned above, we were luckily staying very close to two of the major Christmas markets, one being right outside St Stephen's basilica. This area really came alive at night, as the crowds flooded in to take in a projected light show on the facade of the cathedral.
The basilica itself was started in the 19th century and now houses the supposedly "incorruptible" hand of Saint Stephen I of Hungary, the first King of Hungary. The building is well worth a look around, as it has an exqisite Cupola alongside a beautiful collection of stained glass.
Despite the gloomy weather, we decided to haul ourselves to the top of dome to take in the slightly misty views of the city. I can imagine that this is absolutely stunning on a clear day, as you get a 360 degree panorama.
Another religious site worth seeing is the Dohány Street Synagogue which is both a place of stunning beauty and extreme sadness.
During WWII the Dohány Street Synagogue was part of the Jewish Ghetto in the city. Over two thousand of those who died in the ghetto from hunger and cold during the winter of1944-1945 are buried in the now peaceful courtyard of the synagogue.
The synagogue also hosts the Jewish Museum which provides a fascinating insight into the lives and history of Hungarian Jews.
Back in Buda we made a pilgrimage (for Des) to the Institute for Musicology which focuses heavily on two of Hungary's most famous composers - Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.
Both composers gathered and transcribed thousands of traditional folk songs and melodies from Eastern Europe and other cultures around the world. This work led to the preservation of musical folk cultures which might otherwise have been trampled upon by 20th century modernisation.
Within the museum there is also a large collection of folk instruments and classical instruments used across Hungary in the 19th and 20th centuries.
After a heavy spell of walking, we decided to take a more sedate path on our second to last day by taking a boat trip down the Danube. This proved to be extremely relaxing and a good way to see the city sights without bringing on sore feet.
Our particular boat tour vendor (on pier 7) allowed time to stop off at Margaret Island which is particularly deserted in the winter. We spent a good hour ambling around in the fresh air before jumping on the next boat back to the city centre. I imagine the island is a wonderful place to escape the heat in the summer, as it has a number of leisure facilities.
As a birthday present, Des booked two tickets to see La bohème as performed by the Hungarian State Opera Company. This was the real highlight of the trip for me, as I have always wanted to see Puccini performed live.
The staging was fantastic and full of detail whilst the performances were very strong from all the principal cast. I also thought the chorus were very good, providing a lively and immersive backdrop to the drama.
The final highlight of our trip was a visit to Buda Castle, which now houses the Hungarian National Art Collection.
The palace as it stands today was reconstructed after sustaining heavy damage during WWII. The site has been home to some form of fortification since at least the 13th century, with the present structure dating from the 19th. The building alone is worth the walk up Castle Hill - as it is a spectacular example of neoclassical design.
The art collection is extremely varied, though my cynical side would suggest that you could miss out the 18th/19th centuries, which are part of the same European hegemony you can see in major art collections worldwide. (Sorry art critics, but how many pictures of noble men and women do you really need to see.)
The real gems are found in the Roman, Medieval and 20th century collections, with the latter offering a strong political discourse which gives you a lasting sense of the fragmented Hungarian identities of the period.