At a Time of Transition Budapest Is as Vital and Elegant as Ever
Jérôme Galland

At a Time of Transition, Budapest Is as Vital and Elegant as Ever

More than a decade ago, Lina Mounzer fell for Budapest, with its monuments to 19th-century imperial glory and 20th-century political turmoil. In the city's complicated current moment, she returns to discover it anew

I fell in love with Budapest on my first evening there. It was late August 2011, and I was starting a three-month literary residency with the József Attila Kör association. As I traveled in a taxi toward Veres Pálné Street, the light fell in a rich afternoon dazzle, and the trees bowed over the grand boulevards under the emerald weight of their foliage. Cyclists whizzed along paths, and people crammed onto bright yellow trams. Aside from the incongruous graffiti, the setting resembled a 19th-century period film.

Mod interiors at Ibolya Espresso bar

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Szimpla Kert, which kickstarted the “ruin bar” trend in the city’s Jewish quarter when it opened in 2002

Jérôme Galland

That night, I wandered through cobbled streets where sidewalk cafés buzzed with conversation, crowds danced around street musicians, and couples sought privacy in the shadows beneath lush trees. A building pockmarked with holes from World War II mortar fire was a reminder of the miracle of this city—that so many of its old-world treasures remain intact. The Danube was astonishingly broad, the light-flecked hills of Buda towering on the other side, the blazing dome of Buda Castle perched at the very top. I flowed with the crowd across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, past its massive lion statues. Standing on the Buda side of the river, I took in the fantastical double view of the House of Parliament and its reflection. The building's neo-Gothic domes and spires were lit up against the indigo night, creating Impressionist dapples on the river. I hadn't expected the elegance and splendor of the grand Art Nouveau buildings, both imposing and delicate, casually arrayed along streets and boulevards in various states of decline, as if they weren't architectural marvels. I'm ashamed to say I'd imagined Budapest to be blockier, dulled by Soviet brutalist design. As someone born and raised in Beirut, I thought I was above making easy assumptions about a place. After all, my city, too, surprises visitors with its vibrancy.

The city rewarded me for my attentiveness: exquisitely carved moldings above entrances; wondrous courtyards hidden behind nondescript doors. The nightlife was raucous, with revelers dancing among the ruins of their painful past. The Seventh District, with its underground nightclubs and eclectic ruin bars that started cropping up about two decades ago in abandoned homes and dilapidated stores, was one of Europe's largest Jewish ghettos before the Holocaust. After that came the Soviet occupation, and though the Hungarians bravely resisted, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was violently put down, and the country's outsize creative talents—from the writers László Krasznahorkai, Péter Nádas, and Magda Szabó to the filmmaker Béla Tarr—were exiled or labored discreetly through the era of Goulash Communism to compose masterworks of symbolism and metaphor.

Déryné Bistro, where breakfast is served on weekends until 4 p.m.

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Széchenyi Thermal Bath, one of Europe’s largest bath complexes

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When I first arrived, every Hungarian I met assured me that all Hungarians were dour and unfriendly—usually as they were insisting on paying for a drink or patiently explaining the finer points of Hungarian grammar or history. New friends described the same kinds of upheavals I'd experienced in Beirut. In the years following the revolution, life was narrow and difficult but full of the communal closeness and the small joys of hard times. And then, in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there came a giddy sense of a wide-open future. Budapest was electric with life and tender with romance. But two decades later, the dream had soured, beset by economic uncertainty and fears of mass immigration. During my visit, I witnessed enormous demonstrations against the new Hungarian constitution put forth by the right-wing Fidesz party, which would subsequently allow Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to consolidate control of the state. After my own experience living through the Lebanese Civil War, I identified with the people's passion for the fight ahead.

Unforeseen events led to the writers association funding an extra month's stay for me. One night I biked to a poetry reading at a café in Buda. I didn't understand a word, but I loved the music of the language. I knew then that I would live here. That night I met the man who would become my partner. I ended up staying with him in Budapest for two years.

Nearly 12 years after that first trip, I returned one late September night. The trees were still full and green, but it was colder than I expected. On the drive into the city, neon signs flashed words in the night—words which, after a few seconds, I miraculously remembered and understood. Élelmiszer áruház: “supermarket.” Gyógyszertár: “pharmacy.” That beautiful language, with its lilting consonants and arpeggios of vowels. During the time I lived here, I got good enough to navigate the cafés and metros in halting Hungarian. In the decade since, I'd forgotten nearly everything.

The city’s tram system has been operating since 1866

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The Duchess, a cocktail spot atop the Matild Palace hotel

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On this visit I stayed at the Anantara New York Palace Budapest Hotel. With its plushly refurbished interiors and magnificent five-story atrium, it's a far cry from the hostel where I first bunked. I'd passed by this iconic building, visible from the Buda hills, countless times. I'd once had afternoon tea in its famed New York Café, which first opened in 1894, falling under the spell of its dizzyingly intricate Belle Époque moldings and terrazzo columns, of the pastries arriving on elegant tiered trays. It transported me back to a time when Budapest was a dazzling hub for artists from all over Europe.

Built as headquarters of the New York Life Insurance Company, the building was damaged in the Second World War before being renovated during the Soviet era. In 2006 it was reimagined as a luxury hotel. In 2020, the Anantara brand acquired it and set about redecorating the rooms in rich brown hues with antique gold leaf accents, while preserving the original details—pink and jade green marble, gilded balustrades—so lovingly that the iPad-wielding guests appear almost anachronistic. Nowhere is this truer than in the Deep Water Breakfast Room. Once, the city's aristocrats dined here while the less wealthy writers and artists drank in the space above, occasionally sending poems and sketches fluttering down to compete for sponsorship from the wealthy patrons below.

I woke up to a chilly, sunny dawn and rented a bicycle. Flat Pest is a lazy cyclist's dream. While I coasted along the stately, tree-lined stretch of Andrássy Avenue toward Heroes' Square and City Park, it was easy to imagine Budapest's gentry during the Austro-Hungarian Empire riding along in carriages as they took in these same buildings. Even in hilly Buda, the paths have only the gentlest inclines, and there is a long, level stretch right along the Danube. If the weather had been nicer, I would have been tempted to ride all the way to the little village of Szentendre, 12 miles away, to try the catfish stew at one of the many little restaurants on the green riverbanks.

The Hungarian State Treasury, in a 1901 Art Nouveau building that once housed the Royal Postal Savings Bank

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The Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest

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Instead I returned the bike and wandered the streets, visiting my own personal landmarks: the café overlooking St. Stephen's Basilica, where I celebrated finding an apartment; the bench in Szabadság Square, near the absurd little statue of Ronald Reagan where I used to enjoy reading. I found I remembered the vivid neighborhoods, but I'd forgotten how they connected. Somehow, though, the city worked its old magic, and I found myself the Gerlóczy café—exactly where I wanted to be for lunch. I chose two Hungarian classics from the menu: goose liver as a starter and stuffed peppers as a main. To drink, I ordered a glass of beautifully balanced Hungarian Tokaj wine. The food was just as good as I remembered; hearty but light enough to not leave me groaning with exhaustion.

Another day I biked down Andrássy, which was lined with equipment trucks and catering vans. A movie was shooting nearby. I wondered which stars were in town. When I lived on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Street, I watched Bruce Willis repeatedly pass beneath my window one day. I crossed the Margaret Bridge and explored the lush, verdant paths of Margaret Island. After refueling at Déryné Bistro in Buda, I whizzed through Logodi Street in the Castle District, where stairs rose steeply from a secret, leaf-dappled path up to the centuries-old neighborhoods around the castle. Later the hotel arranged a tour led by the warm Imre Kopasz, a former schoolteacher who drove my group around the city's landmarks in his cherry-red convertible VW Samba van.

The city has changed while I was away, but less than I'd thought it might. Some places have been closed by the pandemic. Certain neighborhoods seem a little more derelict, while others have been gentrified. But Budapest feels as vital as ever, and, despite the best efforts of Hungary's prime minister, it has grown so much more diverse. Immigrants in countless new restaurants serve dishes I struggled to find a decade ago. For Asian street food, I used to take the tram to the big Chinese street market near the Józsefvárosi railway station, and when I was homesick there were only one or two Lebanese-Syrian restaurants to choose from. Now there are offerings from cuisines across the world. Budapest's essential cosmopolitan spirit—diverse and resilient, romantic and vibrant—stands in defiance to the narrow nationalism the Hungarian state has adopted. Irrepressible, the city I love has occupied the banks of the Danube for a thousand years. It is easy, in that timeless place, to imagine it standing for a thousand more.

Aria Hotel Budapest, near St. Stephen’s Basilica

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Window-shopping along Falk Miksa Street’s antique row

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Where to stay

After a costly two-year renovation, Anantara New York Palace Budapest Hotel's ornate 1894 building has been reborn as Budapest's most opulent luxury hotel. Much of architect Alajos Hauszmann's original work remains intact, including the marble façade, the period flourishes, and, most important, the legendary New York Café—but the 185 guest rooms and suites have received a contemporary makeover, and there's now a world-class spa. 

Movie stars still stay at the classic Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest in the stunning Art Nouveau Gresham Palace overlooking the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. For all its oversized grandeur, it feels contemporary rather than fusty, with poppy art offsetting the stained glass domes and peacock feathers in spots like the Kollázs brasserie and bar, which has views across the river to Castle Hill. Locals celebrated the 2021 opening of the Kozmo Hotel Suites & Spa, in a slightly unloved corner of Pest. It's a cool renovation of a striking concrete building that was once the largest telephone exchange in Central Europe. Architectural largesse meets crisp modernity in the minimal rooms, Zen-geometric spa, and the Oyster Bar, reached via a grand staircase. 

At the 40-room boutique Hotel Rum in the southern part of the downtown area, owned by a family of restaurateurs, the food is the calling card. The indoor-outdoor rooftop wine bar Solid spotlights locavorism and natural bottles, while chef Szilárd Tóth serves rarefied dishes at the ground floor restaurant SALT. The Aria Hotel Budapest occupies a terrific building, a restored 19th-century bank, with one of the city's great rooftops, in an unbeatable location a stone's throw from St. Stephen's Basilica. Its Café Liszt serves hearty, upscale twists on Hungarian classics. These selling points can help you overlook its slightly kitschy “music-inspired” decor, which includes a giant ribbon of piano keys threaded through the lobby. 

Szaletly, a lunch-and-dinner spot that riffs on Hungarian classics

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The Sou Fujimoto–designed House of Hungarian Music cultural center, which opened last year in City Park

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Where to eat

Owned by chefs Szabina Szulló and Tamás Széll, Stand25 is the slightly more casual Buda sister restaurant to the Michelin-starred Stand in Pest. The couple has been instrumental in changing perceptions around Hungarian staples with their smart updates of goulash soup and túrógombóc cottage cheese dumplings with sour cherry. Szaletly is a newer restaurant in a high-ceilinged space up near City Park (itself worth a visit for the Museum of Ethnography and the spaceship-like House of Hungarian Music, by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto). Like the decor, the food is modern-trad, with head chef Dániel Bernát turning out great dishes like a fisherman's soup with carp and “matchstick noodles.” 

Mazel Tov's menu, with dishes like quinoa tabbouleh salad and crispy falafel pita sandwiches, is solid, but the space is the real standout: a cavernous but singularly elegant take on the popular Jewish-quarter ruin bars with green walls, double-height skylights, and semi-industrial decor. Upscale bistro Déryné Bistro is a short stroll from Buda Castle is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but those in the know come for the brunch—especially on Sundays when a DJ spins as diners put away eggs Benedict and truffle fries.

Where to drink

Hungarian wine has been having a moment. Frenchman Jean-Julien Ricard opened one of Budapest's first natural wine bars, Marlou Wine Bar & Store, a few years ago in a handsome space behind the opera house. He showcases bottles from areas like the famed Tokaj region. Roof bars have become as popular as ruin bars, and few are better than the gem atop the Matild Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Budapest, housed in a Belle Époque classic steps from the river. Reached via the first elevator ever installed in Hungary, it offers panoramic views, bites by Wolfgang Puck, and an extensive list of cocktails. 

Zoltán Nagy, the co-owner of the dark, unassuming Boutiq'Bar, has been the driving force in Budapest's craft-cocktail scene. He likes to focus on Hungarian spirits, making drinks with pálinka fruit brandy or the herbal digestif Unicum. Of all the ruin bars that became famous for filling abandoned Jewish-quarter buildings with worn furniture and disco balls, the 2002 original Szimpla Kert is still the best. It's not just a cavernous bar and club—it's also a community center of sorts, with farmers' markets and flea markets. The owners haven't jacked up the prices, and it still retains its original spirit. 

This article appeared in the April 2023 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.