And it’s a combination of this that’s sweeping through Budapest. For example, just next door is Szimpla Kert, a legendary bar that began the fashion of Budapest’s famous “ruin pubs” – taking over abandoned buildings, decorating with tatty flea-market furniture and creating a unique, anarchic space. Now, every Sunday morning, it’s transformed into an organic farmers’ market, with dozens of stalls selling healthy, creative dishes.
It’s the same story when we visit one of the city’s new food trucks, The Legenda, parked outside Gozsdu Passage, a labyrinth of fashionable restaurants that’s filled with thousands of partygoers every night. Trying a vegetarian burger filled with crunchy, grilled red peppers and delicious melted gomolya cheese, another young restaurateur, Kósa Kolos, insists, “there is a gastronomic revolution going on. It has taken us a long time to break out of the communist food system, when all restaurants simply offered the same old menu of stodgy dishes. Now, young chefs are travelling abroad, learning new cooking technology, then returning here to open restaurants that are reinventing Hungary’s great culinary heritage.” And all this is proved true as we move on for lunch at Borkonyha – the hottest reservation in town, as it’s just won a Michelin star. With a friendly, unpretentious bistro ambience, Borkonyha serves modern Hungarian cuisine like duck foie gras seared with cinnamon and sour cherries, juicy roasted rabbit, rosemary and savoy cabbage or salmon trout served on a bed of fava beans and raisins. As we make a series of gourmet pit-stops, it just gets better. First Strudel House takes the Habsburg speciality to new levels, filling delicate, wafer-thin strudels with asparagus, spinach and creamy leeks, spicy chicken or curd cheese. Next door to the bustling Hold Street market, Kispiac has a menu that changes daily depending on what its chefs find in the market, cooking up a hearty tripe goulash, salmon tartare and a simple but intense beef consommé. The city is definitely on its way to becoming a foodie capital.
Budapest does have a lot more to offer than food, and to burn off all the calories, the next day I set off on some serious sightseeing. Many visitors head straight for the Buda side of the Danube, the ancient birthplace of this city, where you can spend the whole day in the maze-like museums of the Royal Palace perched atop Castle Hill, follow the crowds to Fisherman’s Bastion for the ultimate city views and imagine how the ornate Matthias Church must have been when the Turks ruled Buda back in the 16th century and converted it into a mosque.
I prefer to stay in Pest, kicking off with a leisurely stroll along Andrássy Avenue, known as the Champs-Élysées of Budapest. Every building oozes belle-époque opulence, from the imposing Opera House and the intricate mosaics decorating the facade of the Fotógaléria museum and the Liszt Academy of Music, with its lavish, art-nouveau interiors that attract as many visitors as its reasonably priced concerts. Up on the first floor of the Alexandra bookshop, in what was once the Párizsi Nagyáruház (opened in 1910 as Budapest’s first luxury department store), is one of Andrássy’s hidden secrets, the Lotz Hall, a lustrous literary cafe with glittering chandeliers and flamboyant ceiling frescoes, perfect for hot chocolate and sachertorte.
While Budapest is a great city for walking, it also has excellent public transport, and everyone should take the historic Metro Line 1, one of the world’s oldest undergrounds, unchanged since it opened in 1896 and classed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. I jump on at the Oktogon Station and follow a crowd of local schoolkids out at Hosök Tere (Heroes’ Square). Hungarians are patriotic and they always outnumber tourists at this awesome monument, erected in 1896 to celebrate the Magyar Millennium, honouring every significant king, saint and national hero – a mix of Trafalgar Square and the Arc de Triomphe. On either side of the square is the Museum of Fine Arts, filled with work by old masters from Breughel to Da Vinci, and the Palace of Arts, devoted to avant-garde exhibitions and installations. A narrow bridge leads straight into Városliget Park, where you can go cycling on the city’s new free rent-a-bikes, boating on the lake or, in winter, ice skating. Looming over the park are the immense towers and battlements of the medieval-looking Vajdahunyad Castle. Although it looks like a tacky Disneyland, this is actually a faithful reproduction of parts of Hungary’s most famous castles and churches, yet another remnant of the Magyar Millennium.