As its many famed green spaces start to reach full bloom, Budapest becomes an irresistible destination in the springtime. And though you might gravitate toward outdoor wonders like the vast City Park, Margaret Island and the Buda Hills, a huge annual draw remains the city’s unique Spring Festival, a two-week, intensive classical music extravaganza.
The festival draws thousands of visitors from all over the world and welcomes performances of orchestral, operatic and chamber performances as well as a variety of jazz, world music, theatre, and cutting-edge dance, theatre and visual arts. It represents one of the best times of year to visit the city, as numerous outdoor attractions, evolving dining spots, and wonderful thermal baths once again invite exploration on foot, by boat and bicycle.
Budapest Spring Festival
The Budapesti Tavaszi Fesztivál is a reflection of Budapest’s long-standing prominence and innovation in the world of classical music, as well as its willingness to embrace contemporary genres. The festival offers cultural pilgrims a good reason to explore the city’s wide range of artistic venues, beginning with its home base at the Palace of Arts, a sprawling structure that’s part of the city’s growing Millennium City Center waterfront project. The Palace of Arts tends to host a variety of the marquee events (recently, everything from the Hungarian National Philharmonic to Sinéad O’Connor), but the festival also stretches its programming across everything from grand concert halls like the neo-Renaissance Hungarian State Opera House to exclusive galleries, jazz clubs and off-beat spots like the floating A38 boat. The latter is a reconstructed Ukranian stone-carrier ship floating on the Danube that’s grown into one of Budapest’s most important clubs since its 2003 opening. It was voted ‘Coolest bar in the world’ by Lonely Planet online readers in 2012.
The festival has hosted some downright revolutionary performances in its esteemed history. The Hungarian Wedding Feast ballet was first performed in March 1990, on the day of the country’s first free parliamentary elections. That landmark production is to be revived this year, its 25th anniversary at the Papp László Sports Arena.
While some of the upcoming highlights of this year’s festival draw on the works of Hungary’s own 19th century virtuoso pianist and composer, Franz Liszt, other much-anticipated performances involve international artists or collaborations. Highlights include work by the Hungarian State Opera and Italian star tenor Fabio Sartori, Dezső Ránki and Concerto Budapest at the Academy of Music, and the Swan Lake premiere at the Hungarian State Opera House.
The packed schedule also includes contemporary projects like Elvis Costello starring in ‘Alice in Wonderland at the Balná Budapest,’ as well as offerings that range from Tunisian Arabic lute, a blend of Norwegian folk music and medieval classical, and international jazz stars.
Budapest’s food revolution
Budapest’s willingness to embrace outside influences while at the same time remaining grounded in tradition has resulted in an exciting, eclectic dining scene. Contemporary restaurants such as Borkonyha, Bock Bisztró, Csalogány 26, and 21 have been reinventing the traditionally meat-heavy Hungarian menu with their creative, playful approach and an emphasis on seasonal produce, such as spring vegetables.
A street food renaissance is also underway, with freshly made burgers at Finomító, authentic Thai and Vietnamese eateries (Kis, Funko Pho) and new sandwich bars (Coffee Cat), with homemade breads and innovative fillings challenging old-style cafeterias. There’s a new trend towards artisan coffee and new-wave coffee bars, such as Espresso Embassy, and My Little Melbourne, with their award-winning baristas, sit alongside the characterful fin-de-siècle coffee houses.
Budapest by tour
The Danube RIver is the scenic dividing line between Buda and Pest, and the traditional method of viewing the city’s many architectural marvels – from the Royal Palace and the Parliament building to the Chain, Elizabeth and Liberty bridges – has traditionally involved riverboat cruises. However, innovative new ways of exploring Budapest include RiverRide, an amphibious bus that takes in Pest’s sights before rolling into the river and crossing over to Buda, and Yellow Zebra cycling tours that take advantage of the recent increase in designated cycle lanes. And if specific aspects of Budapest’s culture pique your interest, Absolute Walking Tours offer excellent themed tours of the city, focusing on anything from its Communist past and Jewish heritage to Hungarian food and wine.
A patchwork of influences
A simple walk around the city reveals a palimpsest of influences that has shaped the city over the centuries and how Budapest combines them all into one unique whole. On the city’s outskirts, the Aquincum ruins testify to Budapest’s Roman origins, while the detritus of the city’s Communist past is gathered together at Memento Park.
In Buda, the UNESCO World Heritage Sight of Castle Hill has been alternatively built and rebuilt by the Magyars, the Turks and then the Hapsburgs. It boasts a variety of narrow, Baroque-house-lined streets, the turreted Fishermen’s Bastion overlooking the Danube, the colourful Neogothic Mathias Church and the former Royal Palace.
On the Pest side, the synagogues and Holocaust memorials are a tribute to six centuries of Jewish contribution to Budapest’s cultural life and its destruction during WWII. The monuments of Heroes’ Square commemorate King Stephen – the first King of Hungary – and the first Magyar chieftains, while the Art Nouveau buildings that line the streets of Inner Pest draw on Jugendstil, the Vienna Secession, French Art Nouveau and even Indian and Syrian architecture for inspiration.
Ruin pubs, wine bars and microbreweries
As the weather warms up, ruin pubs open up. The romkocsma phenomenon has been around since the early 2000s, with abandoned buildings and crumbling courtyards transformed into bohemian drinking venues. While some of the originals, such as the psychedelic, enchanted-forest-like Instant (www.instant.co.hu) and Most (www.mostjelen.hu), no longer lead a transient existence, newcomers in the Seventh and Eighth Districts maintain the offbeat, arty vibe, as do Kuplung and Szimpla kert.
A growing interest in Hungary’s own wines has led to a proliferation of sophisticated wine bars (borozó) such as Dobló, Kadarka and Drop Shop. Equally, the recent appearance of specialist beer bars (söröző) is rapidly changing the formerly humble status of Hungarian beer, with pioneers of the movement - Jonás, Élesztő, Csak a Jó and Lumen serving a staggering array of artisan brews.
Not to be left in the dust, Hungary’s favourite firewater is celebrated during its very own Pálinka Festival that takes place in Városháza Park in late May.
Budapest’s reputation as a spa city is well-deserved, its many thermal-spring-fed baths playing an essential part in the locals’ social life since Roman times. Some baths, such as Gellért and Széchenyi, combine magnificent 19th century settings and steam rooms with a proliferation of indoor and outdoor pools, the latter being particularly appealing in springtime.