Autumn’s golden light sets Budapest glowing– leaves in City Park blush scarlet and the white turrets of Fishermen’s Bastion gleam beautifully under the late afternoon light, while the setting sun burnishes the waterfront Parliament building, a kaleidoscope of architectural styles. But the change of seasons brings much more than colour to Hungary’s capital.
A freshness in the air makes you long to linger in warm outdoor baths, wine cellars and gritty ruin bars. The summer crowds have ebbed away, so you’re free to roam parks and museums without fighting for space. From seasonal events and inspiring sights to the city’s quirky side, here’s how to explore the best of Budapest in the autumn.
Experience a whirlwind of culture at CAFe Budapest Festival
Literature and music are the lifeblood of Budapest. A slew of world-changing cultural figures lived here, among them composers Franz Liszt and Béla Bartók, and writer Sándor Márai, perhaps Hungary’s most famous wordsmith. Autumn is the ideal time to feel the pulse of this rich heritage: the city erupts with music, theatre and art for the CAFe Budapest Festival (www.cafebudapestfest.hu), which takes place this year from 2 to 18 October. Forty venues across the city play host to live music, theatre, avant-garde performances, art exhibitions and more.
The programme for CAFe Budapest (previously known as Budapest Autumn Festival) has an eclectic roll call of 110 events. Hungarian greats will be paid tribute, but the thrill of this festival is dipping into the city’s cutting-edge art scene: a raucous medley of jazz, rock, opera, dance and even contemporary circus. The festival’s Art Market showcases thousands of works by nearly 500 artists, a dedicated exhibition of contemporary photography, and the diverse statue exhibition called ‘sCULTURE’, which is installed across the former industrial site of the Millenáris cultural centre.
Performance art figures heavily in the program as well. In Bodyscape, human bodies act as the canvas within sci-fi neon-lit spaces. Meanwhile the Kiskép Gallery will glitter with glass art, and Budapest in 100 Words will tap straight into the city’s subconscious as writers from their teens to their 90s capture Budapest’s character. Music lovers can pick from booming organ recitals, string ensembles and techno-tinged ‘sound sculptures’. Performances are interwoven throughout the city, popping up in unexpected places, weaving passers-by into the spectacle.
Luxuriate in Budapest’s bathhouses
It’s said that 118 hot springs feed Budapest’s spas and pools, and autumn is an especially tempting time to take the plunge – tourist crowds have dissipated but outdoor temperatures remain mild. Bask in the silky waters of Gellért Baths’ eight thermally heated baths. Delicate constitutions beware: some of the pools are for bathing pros only, with the mercury rising as high as 40C. For an even more impressive choice of indoor and outdoor pools, explore Széchenyi Baths. This sprawling complex is as good for people-watching as it is for unknotting your muscles in balmy water; you’ll spot locals playing chess and talking politics in these toasty pools.
Embrace unusual sights and wacky transport
Let the change in seasons inspire a new perspective on this romantic city. See the city by segway, or take a tour by Trabant (rentatrabantbudapest.com), the notoriously inefficient East German vehicle that continues to inspire wry nostalgia. Seek out some of Budapest’s stranger sights, too: the neoclassical Basilica of St Stephen houses the saint’s mummified right hand, draped in jewels and housed in a sparkling monstrance (slip a 100 Forint coin in the slot to illuminate the hand). For an entire treasure chest of curiosities, make your way to the Golden Eagle Pharmacy for an exceedingly odd array of health tonics like ambergris and mummy powder.
Wander and ponder in Budapest’s green spaces
Something about fresh autumn air and shortening days brings out every traveller’s pensive side. Marvel at Memento Park, peopled with statues of Marx, Lenin and other Soviet leaders, now discarded and looking lost in this green space 10km southwest of the city. Consider the passage of time at Budapest’s Timewheel, a gargantuan hourglass installed in 2004. It takes a year for the granules to flow between the chambers of this 60-tonne creation, reset annually by burly-armed workmen using steel cables. Stroll through Kerepesi Cemetery, the city’s oldest Christian cemetery and final resting place for countless Hungarian greats, including painter Mihály Munkácsy. This 56-hectare space has the feel of a sculpture garden with its palatial tombs and remarkable statues.
Feast on seasonal delights
Hungarian dishes fit the cooler months perfectly: cabbage leaves are crammed with spiced meat and rice, grills are hearty, and Egri Bikavér (‘bull’s blood’) wine is wonderfully robust. For a thoroughly filling Hungarian feast, try Kispiac Bisztro; their crackling pork and roasted duck leave little room for the rich cottage cheese cake, but it’s worth the challenge. And Hungarian food isn’t just mountains of carnivorous fare: seek out vegan eatery Édeni Vegán for superfood menus and veggie burgers. For something truly exceptional, Csalogány 26 marries unusual flavours (try the chilli and chocolate tart with coriander ice cream) to dazzling critical acclaim.
Hungarian cuisine is unthinkable without paprika, the spice that gives dishes their crimson stain. Autumn is the season when red pepper pods are harvested and ground into this spice, which adds warmth to dishes from chicken paprikash to pörkölt (meat ragout). Browse central food market Nagycsarnok for all the jars of paprika your suitcase will hold, plus other seasonal produce. Look out for strudels crammed with poppyseed or autumnal fillings like fig and pear.
Drink and be merry
Hungarian’s autumn fruits assume a wickeder incarnation in pálinka (brandy). First distilled in 14th-century Hungary, pálinka was credited with medicinal qualities; many locals emphasise its curative powers to this day. Pear, plum and cherry varieties are all popular, and Budapest’s Pálinka and Sausage Festival (3-5 October 2015) is an excellent excuse to try them. Alternatively, take shelter at wine specialist DiVino or ‘ruin bar’ Instant. Wherever you cavort, somewhere amid the clink of pálinka glasses and the twinkle of lights on the Danube, Budapest will cast an irresistible spell.