The Hungarian capital has entered its most profound period of transformation since its imperial zenith. Stephen Heyman explores a city that is both proud of its rich heritage and enthralled by the possibilities of the future.

Built in 1897, the Great Market Hall is Budapest's largest indoor market and a showcase for Hungary's culinary bounty.
| Credit: © Simon Watson

If you want to understand Budapest, buy a subway ticket. The oldest electrified metro line in continental Europe lies below the Hungarian capital, running parallel to one of the youngest.

When Line 1 opened, in 1896, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s second city was in its Belle Époque glory days, complete with opulent cafés, immaculately shaved gentlemen, and parasol-toting young ladies given to hysteria. The new subway typified the prosperity of Europe’s fastest-growing city. Secession-style entrances of wrought iron led down to stations lined with glazed mosaic tiles. The electric-powered cars were clad in polished wood. “Exceedingly handsome,” wrote a correspondent for a London railroad review. “More like the saloon of a yacht than a tram car.” The two-mile line and its 11 stations took only 20 months to construct. Christened as the Millennium Underground Railway, the system opened in time for a massive celebration announcing the city on the Danube as a hypermodern metropolis of fin de siècle Europe. The original trains were replaced in the 1970s with vaguely antiqued modern cars, but Line 1, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, remains fully functional, a nostalgic thread connecting many of the city’s most lavish imperial sights.

By contrast, Line 4, completed in 2014, was considered a failure before construction even began. The plan to link the medieval village of Buda to the chaotic commercial district Pest, across the Danube, was approved in the 1970s but languished in political deadlock for more than 30 years. After construction began, in 2006, it quickly became an emblem of the corruption and mismanagement that, while less common than in the days of “goulash Communism,” still affect Hungary. Unexplained delays caused the budget to balloon to $2 billion. Residents griped that the line connected parts of the city that didn’t need connecting, while doing nothing to solve the city’s chronic traffic jams. Fisherman's Bastion, a scenic overlook on Castle Hill, on the Buda side of the Danube. © Simon Watson

But the young architects who were charged with designing the subway’s look refused to let these problems compromise their principles. The stations they created—among the few examples of serious contemporary architecture in Budapest since the fall of Communism—are raw concrete voids, warmed by natural light and supported by huge, crisscrossing horizontal beams. Some have soaring escalators, others complex mosaics. Subtle visual clues like LEDs of alternating colors mark different directions, part of an intuitive navigation system city planners call “way-finding.” The trains are driverless. When you ride Line 4, you see a bright vision of the city’s future. That it works and also doesn’t, that it’s sort of sublime but sort of screwed up, makes the subway line an apt metaphor for modern Budapest itself.

The ambition that rescued Line 4 from itself is also in evidence aboveground, where a controversial $700 million plan may soon reshape Budapest’s beloved City Park into a new cultural quarter. If completed as planned, the project will add three museums by 2019, including a National Gallery designed by the Japanese architectural firm SANAA. Fővám Tér Station, one of the architecturally arresting new stops on the new Metro Line 4. © Simon Watson

I came to Budapest in summer, when the city was aglow, the heat almost Mediterranean in its capacity to induce languor. At times like these, there’s only one thing to do: find a kert, an outdoor garden café, and order a fröccs, which is white or rosé wine mixed with soda water in precise deciliter ratios, each with a nickname; the half-liter is called házmester (“caretaker”), the full-liter maflás (“silly”). Get your measurements right, and you can drink them all day without getting a headache. The first kert I visited spilled out of a kiosk in Szabadság Tér, or Liberty Square, near Parliament. This, I thought after my second házmester, must be one of the most arresting plazas in Central Europe. It’s an immense gallery of Neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture, including a palatial 19th-century building that now houses, behind a forbiddingly high fence, the American Embassy. The Millennium Monument in Heroes' Square. © Simon Watson

Across from a fountain, where naked children were dodging jets of water, is a deeply unpopular new memorial, erected by the government “to the victims of the German occupation.” Hungary is represented as the innocent Archangel Gabriel, preyed upon by a swooping German imperial eagle. Critics dismiss it as an attempt to whitewash the country’s complicity in the Holocaust. Opposite the statue, citizens have created a protest memorial, arranging evidence of Hungarian involvement: little shoes, strands of barbed wire, laminated photos and handwritten accounts of Jewish, Roma, or gay residents who were sent to Auschwitz or shot here on the banks of the Danube.

Even by European standards, past demons are especially present in Hungary. In the last parliamentary elections, more than 20 percent of the vote went to the far-right, neofascist Jobbik party, whose members have said that Hungary’s Jews should be “tallied up” because they pose “a threat to national security.” The country’s premier, Viktor Orban, routinely condemns Jobbik, but his governing party, Fidesz, is hardly progressive. Last summer, Orban emerged as a minor villain in Europe’s refugee drama when he built a razor-wire fence along the Serbian border to stop the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, expressing a desire to “keep Europe Christian.”

While Orban’s mix of populism and nativism has been a winner at the ballot box, it gives liberal-minded Budapesters indigestion. People I met seemed proud of their city, but pained about its politics and the attendant bad press. When I was in town, a crowdfunded billboard campaign told visitors, in English, “Sorry about our prime minister.”

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Most European capitals developed over centuries, but almost all of Budapest’s iconic destinations—Parliament, St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Opera House—were completed in a 30-year sprint beginning around 1875. This is why the city, even more than Vienna, gives off such a unified imperial vibe. “It really has the feeling of a city that was going to be the new twin capital of an empire,” Edwin Heathcote, the half-Hungarian architecture critic for the Financial Times, had told me. “But by the time it was finished, the empire had disappeared. There’s a slight sadness about it almost, that in a way it was a city of unrealized potential.” A trolley runs across Liberty Bridge, one of several spans connecting Buda and Pest across the Danube. © Simon Watson

Line 4 was designed not to measure up to Budapest’s past glories but to break with them. “We didn’t want to be faithful to the historic architecture of Budapest,” explained Zoltán Erő, whose firm, Palatium, supervised the new subway’s overall look. We were descending beneath a geodesic glass canopy into the Bikás Park station, which, though finished, retains a theoretical quality, like being inside a blueprint. “It wasn’t about heritage. It was about making a new world.”

Many of the city’s young entrepreneurs share Erő’s attitude. One is Adam Somlai-Fischer, who studied art in Sweden and exhibited internationally before returning in 2008 to cofound the tech start-up Prezi. Today, the company, which makes cloud-based presentation software used in corporate boardrooms and TED Talks, has 65 million users, a satellite office in San Francisco, and over $70 million in venture-capital funding. “Everything is still forming here,” Somlai-Fischer said. “So there’s a real opportunity to do things on the cutting edge.”

Prezi employs staffers from 26 countries at its office in Merkúr Palace, an ornate, century-old municipal building where the city’s telephone switchboard operators once worked. Recruiting them to Budapest is easy, according to Somlai-Fischer. “People love moving here,” he said. “And it’s not only because they can actually afford to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant. There’s a humble hospitality that you see in Budapest. People don’t brag, but they’re happy about the things that are good about this city, and are excited to share them with you.” The restaurant and bar Mazel Tov is at the forefront of Budapest's newfound enthusiasm for Jewish food. © Simon Watson

Internet companies aren’t the only ones breaking through here. Nanushka, a fashion label begun by the elfin, Londontrained designer Szandra Sándor, opened as a tiny pop-up shop in the Fifth District in 2011. Sándor hired architecture students to build her shop on a budget of less than $3,000. They hoisted canvas sheets, creating a kind of womblike tent, and made a floor out of slices of firewood. She couldn’t make rent, so the landlord just took a percentage of whatever she sold.

The pop-up shop never closed. Sándor’s designs, which take inspiration from Norse mythology, cater to tourists and a sliver of wealthy, plugged-in Budapesters, the kind who drink singleorigin coffee at the nearby Espresso Embassy, a trendy café nooked into a cellarlike space. “Initially, coming from Budapest was a bit of a turnoff for clients because people either didn’t know any other designers from here or they had negative associations from Communist times regarding quality,” Sándor told me. “But once they see the clothes, they fall in love, and then being from Budapest becomes a plus because it’s exotic. Who knows what Hungarian fashion is? That’s exciting because I can play a part in defining our aesthetic.” Heroes Square, one of Budapest's most-visited public places. © Simon Watson

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Another way Budapest is shaping its future is by reinventing its past. The most enduring example of this is the ruin bar. In 2002, a group of young artists negotiated with representatives of Budapest’s Seventh District, the city’s historic Jewish quarter, to take over one of the city’s many heritage buildings that had fallen into disrepair. They made a roof out of tarps, filled the space with found objects—mismatched furniture, a discarded bathtub, an old East German Trabant sedan—and sold cheap beer. Called Szimpla Kert, it gave rise to dozens of copycats, transforming the Seventh into Budapest’s most visited neighborhood.

Szimpla is still going strong—it now hosts a popular farmers’ market and a film series—but many of the other makeshift ruin pubs have been replaced by more polished bar-restaurants that maintain the open-air, found-furniture aesthetic but have added upscale elements like exposed-filament lightbulbs and professional kitchens. Mazel Tov, one of the newest, is a kind of alfresco Israeli cafeteria with hanging vines and a beachy floor of white rocks. When I visited, it was buzzing with a crowd of short-haul tourists from Paris and Moscow who were sipping fruit-garlanded cocktails or sampling their first shakshuka. Jewish food—whether descended from the Mediterranean or the shtetl—is hugely popular right now in the Seventh District. Food trucks serve knishes stuffed, oddly, with lamb, and serious restaurants, like Macesz Bistro, have become famous for things like latkes and “Jewish egg” (chopped hard-boiled egg with duck fat and stewed onions). This interest in Jewish culture, however superficial, is a welcome development in Budapest, where anti Semitism has long been an unfortunate reality. Riverboats pass along the Danube in front of Parliament, one of Budapest's most recognizable buildings. © Simon Watson

A taste for traif—nonkosher pleasures—runs deeper. Mangalica, the furry indigenous pig beloved for its marbled, almost beefy flesh, seems to be on every menu. Pesti Disznó, a stylish gastropub near the Opera House, serves it in a delicious rib-sticking stew or, less authentically, in a burger. Pinczi, a butcher shop near the Nyugati train station, offers a more straightforward lesson in Hungarian carnivorism. The servers don’t speak English and the diners may glower at you, but $3 will buy you one of the city’s best meals: gamey, garlicky local kielbasas, schnitzel served with great pools of spicy mustard, devilish pickled peppers, giant disks of white bread, and cold Soproni beer. A satirical billboard mocks Budapest's bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. © Simon Watson

Worshipping comfort food is an old tradition in Budapest. The local historian András Török traces it back to one man: the fin de siècle novelist Gyula Krúdy, who wrote passionately about the country’s gastronomic pleasures. “It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that today’s Hungarian cooking is his interpretation of the peasant cooking during his time,” Török declared in his surprisingly funny Budapest: A Critical Guide. More than a hundred Hungarian recipes are said to be named after Krúdy, who concerned himself with the simplest of foodstuffs: marrowbones, matzo balls, and especially cabbage. Consider a story from his collection Life Is a Dream, in which he compares the sound of cabbage being cored to that of cutting reeds. He then imagines men fishing in those reeds, catching little black loaches under the ice, tiny fishes that, he advises home cooks, “add a matchless flavor to cabbage soup.”

I wanted a bowl of something just as soulful, so I got back on the metro at Kalvin Tér—which, of all Line 4’s stops, most resembles a space station—and crossed the Danube to the Buda side. This felt a bit like going back in time. The Castle District, the medieval heart of Buda, is grand and monumental, but it overlooks neighborhoods that are leafier and lovelier than most you’ll find in Pest. My destination was Fióka, a kind of neo-peasant restaurant that looks like an overgrown birdhouse, where I planned to indulge in Hungary’s greatest culinary hit. 360 Bar, a rooftop hangout atop the Paris Department Store, has some of the best views in Budapest. © Simon Watson

Goulash gets around. The dish has been a staple of Continental chefs since Escoffier. But Hungarian cuisine is about more than goulash, and at Fióka its minor and major notes merge into music. I began with broiled marrowbones—served upright with toast, freshly shaved horseradish, and a spoon. Next came pörkölt. This hearty meat stew, generously rouged with paprika, is what most non-Hungarians think of when they think of goulash (which, here, is actually more like a soup).

As much as Hungarians love to eat, their salaries put many restaurants out of reach. What everyone can afford is whiling away the evening with friends over drinks. I suggest taking a taxi to Fellini Római Kultúrbisztró, a gypsy-caravan-themed riverside bar 20 minutes south of the city center, where you can sit by the Danube in a faded candy-striped beach chair, drink a fröccs, and listen to a cabaret singer as the sun sets. Sinking your hands into the pebbly riverbank, you may feel as if you were nostalgic for this place before ever setting foot here.

Perhaps more than in the other post-Soviet capitals, nostalgia is a currency in Budapest, and Laszlo Vidak could be called its chief financier. After the Iron Curtain fell, he began importing shoes to the city, and was struck by the intense demand for Western goods. “In the nineties, everyone wanted new things, foreign things,” he told me. “And as the borders opened up, many of our Hungarian traditions disappeared. Don’t ask me how, but I knew that this wouldn’t last.” A battlement below Fisherman's Bastion offers stunning views of Buda, the Danube, and Pest beyond. © Simon Watson

In 2003, Vidak revived the sneaker company Tisza Cipő, once the country’s largest footwear brand, whose trademark “T” and geometric designs were instantly recognizable to any Hungarian over the age of 15. That same year, he also opened Menza, a restaurant in a tourist quarter off Pest’s grand, central boulevard, Andrássy Utca. The restaurant’s name and design referenced a kind of Socialist-era office canteen, while the menu was based on the type of food your Hungarian grandma might serve during a traditional Sunday lunch. In this swank, retro-chic space, I watched smartly dressed locals tuck into the peasant classics of their childhood. Following their lead, I kept it simple, ordering dishes like boiled beef and dumplings served alongside a white teapot of hot bouillon and a plate of sliced pickles. How ironic, I thought, to see the dreary rations of one generation become the leisurely indulgences of the next. Pita and sauces at the Jewish-themed restaurant Mazel Tov. © Simon Watson

“The concept was risky, but I think the reason it worked is that people didn’t want to lose what they grew up with,” Vidak said. As Budapest reinvents itself, he believes it’s only natural for it to keep looking to its rich past for inspiration. “Everything comes back. The only question for us is, What form will it take?”

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The Details: What to Do in Budapest


Aria Hotel: The rooms at the glitzy five-star hotel showcase depictions of famous musicians, and the floors are dedicated to genres like jazz and opera.; doubles from $334.

Brody House: A bohemian hideaway with 11 rooms in a beautifully crumbling apartment building that also hosts artists’ salons.; doubles from $78.

Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace: This glorious Art Nouveau property just opened a posh brasserie called Kollázs.; doubles from $446. The historic Art Nouveau interior of the Paris Department Store. © Simon Watson

Restaurants & Cafés

Csendes Társ: One of Budapest’s loveliest kertek (garden cafés) also runs a neighboring general store selling artisanal honey, jams, and handicrafts.; small plates $2–$5.

Espresso Embassy: A chic coffee shop designed by one of the young architects who worked on Budapest’s new metro line.

Fellini Római Kultúrbisztró: This gypsy-caravan-themed beach bar on the Danube is an amazing place to end a summer evening with a fröccs (wine spritzer).

Fióka: Enjoy classics like chicken paprikash, goulash, and marrow bones at this sweet little restaurant on the leafy Buda side of the Danube.; entrées $8–$20.

Macesz Bistro: Hungarian-Jewish cuisine, like pickled herring and latkes with duck breast, is extremely popular here.; entrées $9–$21.

Mazel Tov: A popular bar in the old Jewish district. You’ll find Tel Aviv’s beachy vibe on the casual patio, which serves Levantine comfort food like falafel and shakshuka.; entrées $7–$16.

Menza: The restaurant’s name, meaning “canteen,” isn’t the only nod to the city’s past. It reimagines classics like grilled duck liver.; entrées $7–$17.

Pesti Disznó: This gastropub sits next to the Opera and offers a rib-sticking stew made from mangalica, a pig indigenous to Hungary.; entrées $9–$25.

Pinczi: The pickled peppers and gamey local sausages are served on paper plates with giant pools of mustard at this scruffy butcher shop.

Szimpla Kert: The “ruin bar” trend started here when a group began selling cheap beer in a decrepit heritage building. Now the place—filled with found furniture and Communist-era artifacts—is always packed.