Sparkling wine, bubbling spas and a scenic riverside tram ride. Andrew Eames discovers Budapest, the best value city in Europe, report express.co.uk.
I am a sucker for “all-you-can-eat” restaurants, especially when they throw in unlimited free wine and beer. So my eyes lit up at the Trofea Grill in Old Buda. Three aisles of starters, main dishes and desserts as well as a whole section of marinating meats and fish you assemble yourself and hand to the grill chef. On my table a carafe of red, followed by a beer chaser and topped off with a delicate sparkling white. I confess I didn’t hold back and it wasn’t pretty. An hour-and-a-half later I staggered out into the quiet cobbled streets, lined with baroque buildings, feeling decidedly tiddly, having tried all manner of completely unpronounceable Hungarian specialities I would never have ordered from an à la carte menu… and I had only spent £13.
It was a cracking start to a weekend investigating the “best-value city in Europe” (according to a Travel Money survey by the Post Office). I had consumed so much yet spent so little at the Trofea, it felt like the gastronomic equivalent of shopping in Primark.
Budapest is really a very handsome place. The best European cities are all on rivers and this one straddles Europe’s second longest, the Danube, with a castle-filled skyline on the hills of Buda on one side and the art nouveau mansions and spiky, crablike Houses of Parliament lining the shore of Pest on the other.
I explored the latter on a guided tour with smiley Laszlo, a tour that was free because I had a Budapest Card (£24 for three days) to cover transport, several museums and a couple of other city tours. In a three-hour adventure Laszlo showed us history, told anecdotes, and even had us practising Hungarian dances on the Freedom Square grass. After all that, it was time for some refreshment.
Budapest has a new phenomenon of impromptu Ruinpubs, trendy drinking places springing up in disused old buildings, mostly in the seventh district, the bar and restaurant zone. They are usually furnished with recycled materials, many from the communist era, with an old Trabant car somewhere in the mix.
The best-known is Szimpla, the bottom two floors of a distressed mansion so highly decorated and graffitied it feels like some kind of art installation. I sipped my palinka, plum-based firewater, in a room of recycled computer screens glowing with images and hung in a fishing net, while just across the passage in another room, a live band went through their set.
By complete contrast, next morning I started my day in the fabulous New York Café, surrounded by frescoes, marble and gilded stucco and serenaded by a jazz pianist. The coffee, which cost me the same as a Starbucks, came on a silver tray with a couple of homemade biscuits and contained enough caffeine to more than tinkle my chandeliers.
Now I was ready to luxuriate in one of Budapest’s most famous baths, the Szechenyi, a collection of 15 pools set in a palatial neo-baroque building.
The water bubbles up from one of the city’s many mineral water springs and is delivered into the pools at a delicious temperature, slightly sulphurous and heavily mineralised. Wallowing is good.
I also enjoyed a 30-minute deep tissue massage in a scented candlelit room for just £16.
To finish I took what is regarded by National Geographic as one of the best tram rides in Europe. The route along the Danube promenade is a visual treat which runs right up the Pest side of the river, past iconic landmarks such as Parliament building and the impressive Buda Castle with its dome rising above the rooftops.
I rode it back and forth as the sun set and river lights came up and with my Budapest Card, it cost me nothing.