By Bruce Woelfel

Budapest is a bustling, sophisticated city, immense in size and filled with friendly inhabitants. Of course, it is really two cities, Buda and Pest. On the west side of the Danube, is hilly, forested Buda and spread out on the plain across the river is businesslike Pest. (Buda, incidentally, means the "water" that comes hot out of the earth in a number of locations and to which Hungarians attribute many healing qualities. Pest means "limestone", present in many of the impressive buildings which line the Danube's eastern shore).

Being flat, Pest is fine for walking. A half days meander of the city took us past the Neo-Gothic parliament buildings, and its array of pointed spires, courtyards, and flying buttresses, and "Hero's Square," a grouping of Neo-Greco-Roman museums facing a huge plaza. Inside the Square's Museum of Fine Arts one finds the largest collection of Spanish masters works outside of Spain, including, of course, Goya and El Greco. The museum's Modern Gallery has many French greats including Monet, Cezanne and Gauguin. In 1983, seven priceless paintings, including two by Raphael, were stolen. The thieves were later caught and the pictures recovered.

Across the river, on Castle Hill in Buda, is the Matthias Church where the 15th century king, Matthias Corvinus was twice married. The Church's interior has lovely green murals of historic scenes, and boarded-up windows which survived World War II only to be shattered a few months ago by terrorists.

Budapest has become a shopping destination. We found high-quality linens at bargain prices, as well as endless varieties of clothing and leather boots. But one shopping expedition was a failure. We had been told we might find Russian caviar at very cheap prices. Sadly, those days seem to be gone forever. In gourmet food stores on the pedestrian street Vaci we found plenty of German caviar but almost none of the Russian variety.

A Budapest highlight was our hotel, the palatial Gellert on the Buda side, where we stayed in a room which looked far and wide across river and downtown. With popular thermal baths beneath its building, the hotel also serves as the city's community bathing center.

There is an outside entrance for those not staying at the hotel, but we reached the baths by walking a long corridor from our room and riding an old-fashioned cage-like elevator run by an elderly woman attendant. She equipped us with caps and slippers before depositing us in the impressive atrium, a huge temple-like room with incredible vaulted ceilings.

The main pool room, dimly lit by green skylights, was entered through separate cavernous men's and women's dressing rooms. It enclosed a 10 by 30 foot hot bath and a cooler Olympic-sized pool. Outside were various other pools and a dining terrace reserved for warmer times of the year.

We also purchased tickets through the Gellert for a folkloric performance at the Tanne Hotel in suburban Budapest. A 25-minute minibus ride took us to a rustic motel-like building where we were ushered into a gaily decorated dining room facing a small stage with dance floor and Gypsy orchestra.

The show was fun though amateurish. For 30 minutes four smiling, determined youngsters performed acrobatic and traditional Hungarian dance steps. This was followed by a rather strident female singer. The best part of the evening came after the singing and dancing when the Gypsy orchestra strolled among the tables playing requests.

We paid about $11 each with transportation. Dinner was 5050 Fts. ($40).

Hotels

Budapest Hilton

(Editor's Choice)

This beautiful hotel, overlooking Pest and the Danube from Castle Hill on the Buda side, is next to Matthias Church. When completed in 1977 it was the Hilton chains first hotel in Eastern Europe. The contemporary structure is housed in the shell of a 13th century Dominican monastery and the 1688 Baroque façade of a Jesuit College. The result is an elegant, modern building respectful of its ancient neighbors and medieval surroundings. Nearby, the well-maintained wooden cars of a 100-year-old funicular provide quick access to the shopping areas of Pest via a bridge over the Danube.

The hotel's glitzy lobby sparkles with marble and glass. its coffee shop is a pleasant and moderately-priced place to eat (see "Food," page 4).

Guest rooms are furnished in contemporary style and, as would be expected, are large and well equipped. Many have fine views over the river and the city. Among the suites are several on more than one level. Number 420 is a large double with city and river view; Number 431 is a two-room suite with a bedroom loft and panoramic views, and Number 436 is three rooms on three levels with a view of Matthias Church.

Address: Budapest Hilton Hess Andras ter 1-3, H-1014 Budapest
Phone: 360-1/1751000
Fax: 36-1/1560285
Location: Castle Hill, Buda side
Rooms: 323 double
Proprietor: George Namedi, Manager
Prices: Singles 275-360 DM ($196-$257), doubles 360-445 DM ($257-$318), suites 495-700 DM ($353-$500)
Meals: All
Facilities: Bar, espresso bar, two restaurants, coffee shop, casino, wine cellar, ballroom and convention facilities, shops, and travel agencies
Credit Cards: All
Disabled Access: Three specially equipped rooms
Closed: Never
Parking: 40 spaces in building at $20 per night
Rating: Excellent 16/20

Gellert

(Editor's Choice)

This huge building on the banks of the Danube is a Budapest institution, best known for its natural hot water pools and baths. Everything is on a grand scale. The lobby and public rooms, including the hotel's restaurants and meeting spaces, are huge. Halls and stairwells are equally large.

Guest rooms vary in size with the larger doubles facing the river being the most desirable. There are also a number of generously proportioned single rooms. Baths have been recently renovated and include sparkling modern fixtures. We were delighted with our spacious, high-ceilinged corner room whose French doors opened onto a small balcony.

With our Entertainment Europe card - membership cost $48, phone 800-445-4137 - the room was $99 per night.

The large bath included a stretch-out sized tub and a bidet.

An ample buffet breakfast was served in a mezzanine room whose 40' x 120' measurements were in keeping with everything else in this grand old building.

Address: Danubius Hotel Gellert Gellert ter 1, H-1111 Budapest
Phone: 36-1/1852200
Fax: 36-1/1666631
Location: 10 minutes walk from city center, along the Danube
Rooms: 108 singles, 103 doubles
Proprietor: Matyas Radich
Prices: Singles 85-146 DM ($61-$104), doubles 192-226 DM ($137-$161), suites 280 DM ($200). Prices include use of thermal baths
Meals: All available
Facilities: Restaurant, coffee shop, hairdresser
Credit Cards: All
Disabled Access: No special facilities
Closed: Never
Parking: 90 guarded outside spaces, free
Rating: Above Average 14/20

Hotel Opera

This conveniently located city-center hotel is operated by K+K, the same management group as the excellent Hotel Moran in Prague (Gemütlichkeit, January, 1995). Although lacking the views enjoyed by the Gellert and Hilton, the bright colors and freshness of its interior makes one less aware of the hotel's rather crowded city location.

Rooms, furnished in light birch with white walls and green accents, are modern and convenient, though not luxurious. Baths include generously sized tubs and are bright and modern. Room Numbers 203 and 204 are connecting doubles each with bath. Numbers 601 and 605 are two-level suites each with a bath and a half and very large windows.

Address: K+K Hotel Opera Revay utca 24, H-1065 Budapest
Phone: 36-1/2690222
Fax: 36-1/2690230
Location: Center of Pest, next to the Opera House
Rooms: 115 doubles
Proprietor: Andrea Sacnyanne
Prices: Singles 159-172 DM ($114-$123), doubles 208-226 DM ($149-$161)
Meals: All available
Facilities: Restaurant, bar, conference rooms
Credit Cards: All
Disabled Access: No special facilities
Closed: Never
Parking: 80 spaces under building at 13 DM ($10) per night
Rating: Above Average 13/20

Hotel Tanne

The half-timber architecture of this suburban inn, located 20 miles west of Budapest and convenient for automobile travelers, is reminiscent of the Alpine hotels of Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Rooms are small, rustic and rather plain. But at about $71, the simply furnished doubles are an excellent bargain. A two-room apartment suitable for three people is only 140 DM ($100) including breakfast.

The Tanne is also the site of the previously described folkloric evening shows.

Address: Hotel Tanne, Esze Tamas u. 6, 2092 Budakezi
Phone: 36-1/1766144
Fax: 36-1/1766955
Location: 20 miles west of Budapest
Rooms: 50 doubles, 10 apartments.
Proprietor: Szollosy Mihaly
Prices: Singles 80 DM ($57), doubles 100 DM ($71), apartments for three persons 140 DM ($100)
Meals: All available
Facilities: Outdoor terrace
Credit Cards: All
Disabled Access: No special facilities
Closed: Never
Parking: Free
Rating: Average 12/20 $

Food

Arany Barany

(Editor's Choice)

This cave-like restaurant with vaulted ceilings, sheepskin-covered seats and walls, has atmosphere to burn, an imaginative menu and is centrally located, near the popular Café Gerbeaud.

A creamy mushroom soup was marvelous and a chicken stew with homemade noodles satisfying. Also successful were mixed salad of cucumber, tomato and mild cheese, and lamb in paprika sauce with rice and boiled potatoes. Yogurt-filled lemon crêpes with custard and powdered sugar wrapped up a fine repast. With the meal we drank a strong and very tasty Hungarian beer (5.8 % alcohol). The bill for two came to $38 including service.

Arany Barany Restaurant Csardas Harmincad U. 4, Budapest. Phone 1172703. Moderate.
Rating: Above Average 14/20 $

Kispipa Vendeglo

This busy, bistro-style restaurant with its extensive menu remains a Gemütlichkeit favorite. A typical meal of venison or paprika veal stew, including pre-dinner cocktails, appetizers, wine and dessert, costs less than $40 for two persons. The clientèle is a nice mix of local and foreign diners.

Kispipa Vendeglo, Akacfa u. 38, phone 36/1422587. No credit cards. Moderate.
Rating: Above Average 14/20 $

Folkloric Dinner Show - Tanne Hotel

The Tanne is about a half hour's ride outside the central city. its dining room is quite elegant with crystal chandeliers and white table linen in an otherwise rustic, alpine atmosphere. Tables are arranged facing a small stage where a Gypsy band plays. The menu is a combination of nouvelle French cuisine and more traditional game dishes, various soups and fish. Show patrons order from the menu and we found the food surprisingly good. There was a delicious sour stuffed cabbage, onion soup topped with a kind of cheese dumpling, filet mignon with pepper sauce and fresh vegetables.

Dinner for two was 5050 Fts ($40). The show, including transportation from the Gellert Hotel, was about $11 per person.

Tanne Restaurant, 2092 Budakezi, Erze Tamas U. 6. Phone 176/6144. Inexpensive-Moderate.
Rating: Average 11/20 $

Hilton Hotel Coffee Shop

The Budapest Hilton's informal Corvina Coffee Shop is adjacent to the hotel's very formal lobby. Excellent salad bar for 300 Fts. ($2.40). On our visit, specials included maize cream soup 200 Fts ($1.60), beefsteak Rossini 1250 Fts. ($10), and a chocolate sundae 160 Fts. ($1.28). Lamb in rosemary sauce with rice, hollandaise sauce, carrots and broccoli was very good, as was paprika veal stew with housemade noodles. Lunch for the two including salad and mineral water was 3310 Fts. ($26).

Lobby Café & Bar Budapest Hilton, Hess Andras ter 1-3, H-1014 Budapest. Phone 36-1/1751000. Moderate.
Rating: Above Average 13/20 $

The following are unrated cafés suitable for short orders, pastries and beverages.

Anna Café

Under communist rule, Budapest had few places to sit and enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee. Anna is one of four recently privatized and remodeled coffee shops in the central city. Open 8 a.m. to midnight, it serves beer, wine and liquor as well as all varieties of pastry, made-to-order sandwiches and, of course, coffee. Located on Vaci, the main pedestrian shopping street, it is an extremely pleasant place to take a pause from shopping for a few minutes or, if you wish, much longer. It was here we purchased some very good sandwiches for our overnight train ride to Zürich.

Anna Café, Vaci u. 5, Budapest, phone 1182016. Moderate.

Opera Hotel Restaurant

Informal, good for short orders as well as full meals. Wooden tables with paper covers. A club sandwich costs 530 Fts. ($4.24), goulasch 850 ($6.80), chicken paprika 1150 Fts. ($9.20). Desserts range from 208 to 420 Fts ($1.67 to $3.36). K+K Hotel

Opera Restaurant, Revay utca 24, H-1065 Budapest. Phone 36-1/2690222. Inexpensive-Moderate.

Gellert Hotel Coffee Shop

Primarily coffee and pastries, though sandwiches are also available. Open 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Gellert Hotel, Gellert ter 1, H-1111 Budapest. Phone 36-11852200.

Budapest Facts

Population: 2,172,000, two-thirds of that in Pest.

Tourist Office: IBUSZ, formerly state tourist office, now privatized. Head office, Felszabadulas ter 5. Phone 036-1/1179800. IBUSZ offices are also located at Nyugati and Keleti Railroad Stations and other city center locations. Hotel rooms may be obtained through IBUSZ on a 24-hour basis at 036-1/1185707 or in the U.S. at 800-367-7878.

Distances to Other Cities

* Munich 678 km 424 miles

* Vienna 243 km 152 miles

* Prague 533 km 333 miles

Local Currency: Forint, currently approximately 125 = $1. Available in U.S. through Thomas Cook & Son Foreign Currency Exchanges.

Rail Service: Direct service North to Prague (six trains per day), West to Vienna (11 trains per day), and Zurich (four trains including one overnight), Berlin' (one train per day), and also various services to Eastern Europe.

Hydrofoil: Summer service to and from Vienna (three times daily). Time: 4.5 hours. Cost: about $50 one way.

Transportation: Three subway lines, primarily serving Pest side of city. Buses and taxicabs. City maps, not available at hotels, can be purchased from concessionaires in subway stations.

Principal Sights: Matthias Church and Castle District, Parliament Buildings, Dohany Synagogue, Opera House, Museum of Fine Arts, Thermal Baths, Chain Bridge.

Shopping: Good buys include embroidery, lace, china, leather goods, paprika and Hungarian wines.

June 1995