Doug Linton reports on hotels and restaurants in Budapest and gives us a lesson on using the city's ancient but still popular thermal baths.
By Doug Linton
Some years ago I wrote that a day at a Budapest spa and dinner at a Hungarian restaurant is the closest thing to Nirvana one will ever find in Eastern Europe. It's still true today, only more so. The baths are the same - some haven't changed that much in centuries. What is different is that Budapest now has a few restaurants that are finally doing justice to the fabled Hungarian cuisine. In addition, it also has a number of small hotels that offer more affordable and personable lodging, so you will have a nice night once the day, and dinner, is done.
The Baths of Budapest
I have to admit I was a bit intimidated my first time in the public baths of the famed Gellert Hotel and only visited the outdoor pool and the main pool indoors. Recently, however, I opted for the full treatment.
With the possible exception of a few brusque staffers, a day at the baths is such a pleasure it is almost addicting. And the whole procedure is quite simple if you have an idea of what to expect.
On entering, you must purchase a ticket (13$/$17) from a slightly cantankerous woman at the ticket office. Here you can also get tickets for extras such as a massage (9$/$12), mud bath or a radioactive drink (not recommended). If you're not sure what you want you'll have opportunities buy these extras later.
The changing area is in a two-storied room with a gallery running around the second floor. Hand your ticket to the man at the desk and he will give you a token for the extras (on one visit it was an aluminum disc; another time it was a strip of linoleum) and a small apron, which consists of about a square foot of rough cotton fabric attached to a string. If you want do it like the locals, this will be all you will wear. The string is tied around the waist so that the square covers up the front, while the back remains open, sort of like a very small hospital gown. You can also bring your own bathing suit and on any given day at the Gellert, there are always five or six people with bathing suits, so you won't stand out.
After getting your apron, head upstairs to the changing room where a taciturn locker attendant directs bathers to a curtained changing booth. There, bathing suits or aprons are donned, and belongings stored. Before leaving, the attendant will lock your locker, and give you a bracelet with a number on it. He will also write this number on the small slate disk over the changing booth. You will have to remember where your booth is, as they are not in any logical order, although this only becomes a problem after the third or fourth massage.
Now you are ready to wash off and head for the baths. In front of the entrance to the pools is a heated rack stacked with folded sheets. These are what you will use as a towel once you are finished.
The Gellert has two pools: one at 38° C (100° F.) the other at 41° C. (106° F.). Start at the cooler one and prepare your body for the warmer one. The prime spot for both is under the fountain next to the wall, letting the warm water pour over your head and shoulders. After you have gotten your body temperature up and are ready for the next stage, head for the steam room. Stay in the foggy heat for as long as you can (about 5 minutes) and then dive into the cold plunge pool nearby. Readjust in one of the thermal pools and then wander over to the massage room for your first massage. Usually, there is a short wait, so take a seat on the long white bench. Massage quality varies according to who you get, although most seem a bit perfunctory. Still at $9 or $12 it's hard to complain. After a 15-minute massage, you are on your own to repeat whatever stage you liked best or to head home.
Men and women are segregated at the Gellert but I have it from a good source that the women's side follows a similar procedure to that described above.
Kelenhegyi utca 4, tel. (36-1) 466-6166. web: www.gellertbath.com, Open Monday-Friday 6am-7pm and Saturday-Sunday 6am-5pm (between April 30th and September 30th).
Located near Margaret Bridge, this 400-year old bath was originally built for the Ottoman ruler of Buda. The most impressive view of the baths can be seen under an octagonal cupola, pierced with small windows that dramatically illuminate the steam rising from the pool.
Fo utca 84, tel.(36-1) 202-3688. Open for men on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday 9am-7pm; open to women on Monday, Wednesday, Friday 7am-6pm
Another one of Budapest's atmospheric Turkish baths.
Döbrentei tér 9, tel. (36-1) 375-8373. Open for men on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 6am-8pm, Saturday -Sunday 8am-5pm; for women Tuesday 6am-8pm and Saturday-Sunday 8am-5pm.
This weathered Art Nouveau masterpiece could be the most prestigious hotel in Budapest, but lack of financing keeps it looking a bit like a Hungarian Angkor Wat minus the vines. Unlike Budapest's top hotels such as the Kempinski or new Le Meridian, however, the Gellert still hovers in the affordable range, although steady price increases with no comparable quality upgrades make this less true every year. Still, there are reasons to make this your home in Budapest.
The first is the thrill of driving or walking up to this still-impressive hotel with its dramatic location on the Danube at the mouth of the Szabadsag ("Liberty") Bridge and just under jagged Gellert Hill. The second is the hotel's expansive and lavishly decorated turn-of-the-last-century baths, which are also free to hotel guests. Inside, the bubble pool sparkles under a captivating two-story, yellowed glass atrium supported by rows of columns and lined with galleries. Seraphim fountains gush thick pool water from walls of glazed blue tiles. In two separate halls on either side of the main bath are the thermal pools for men and women, complete with sauna, steam bath and massage facilities.
Outside, the grounds are lined with long pools and sculptured gardens for lounging in the summer sun. The overall effect is quite captivating; the air of opulent decay serves only to enhance the splendor of the experience. The Gellert's baths alone are enough reason to visit Budapest. (When the border guard asked us why we were going to Hungary, we simply told him we were going to the Gellert, an answer he found more than satisfactory.)
That said, there are certain flaws anyone contemplating booking a room here should be aware of. The first concerns the rooms. All but about 30 haven't seen major refurbishment since the 1950s, when the hotel was rebuilt from war damage. Since then, only the fabrics and carpets have been changed though not that recently and some of the 50s-era furnishings are beginning to make the transition from dated to collectable, thus adding to the hotel's charm. Still, at these rates, the rooms are a disappointment as they are neither Art Nouveau nor Art Modern. The 30-odd premium rooms are attractively decorated in a traditional style with quality materials worthy of the hotel, though at a higher price, of course.
The Gellert's second flaw is breakfast. It seems to be a throwback to the communist days. There are lines for everything, and where there is no line, it's because the item is gone. On our last visit, the staff and kitchen couldn't seem to cope with the crowds and most guests stood in long lines, hoping what they wanted wouldn't be gone before they got to the buffet. The other option was to try to assemble a decent breakfast from remainders nobody else seemed interested in. A very Darwinian experience at the beginning the day.
However, the baths certainly provide enough of a counterbalance, at least for a short stay. And while they are open to the public, you need to be a hotel guest to enjoy the full effect. You will find a thick bath robe hanging in your room (but not any slippers, so bring your own). Then, robed and with a towel thrown jauntily over your shoulder, you will pad your way down the hall to the antique wrought-iron elevator at the end of the hallway. There, you will ring for the elevator attendant, a slightly grumpy woman in a white apron, who will transport you down to a small private room next to the main entrance of the baths. After you have finished with the baths, she will carry you back, robed and refreshed, with all the tensions of the day and of breakfast erased and forgotten.
Daily Rates: N/A
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 11/20
This compact, colorful hotel is located in a narrow web of old streets inside the inner ring road. its pink façade and decorative tin roof distinguish it from its equally decorative but more dilapidated neighbors. Having visited a number of so-called Art hotels in Europe, I am generally leery of this category: usually it means a mishmash of bright colors and sterile modern furniture. This one, however, is tastefully decorated and well-run.
The small two-story lobby is hidden behind a stand of marbleized pillars studded with porcelain knobs, with a string of diamond-shaped lamps hanging overhead. On one side is a small traditional reception desk and on the other is a modern lounge area (or pause area, as it is much too small for lounging).
Spacious guestrooms are pleasantly decorated in commercial furnishings with laminated desks, half paneled walls, gray tones and a black, bentwood-style table and chair set made of aluminum. They also have small TVs and minibars. A few have high ceilings, most have showers only, and all are quiet as the hotel is away from busy streets. A sauna and three-machine fitness room are included free of charge.
Breakfast is served in a V-shaped bar on the front corner of the mezzanine floor. The staff is friendly and efficient, giving the hotel a warm personal touch that independent travelers will appreciate.
Daily Rates: Singles 65$-125$ ($86-$166), doubles 90$-170$ ($120-$226).
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 16/20
A major goal of this Budapest visit was to find at least one small, affordable hotel in an attractive historical building. Based on previous experience, this seemed a lot to ask; most mid-priced Budapest hotels are in functional modern buildings.
The Anna, however, achieves our goal. It is in a small two-story baroque building painted clean white and jolting Hapsburg yellow. Large oak doors open to a spacious lobby with a large reception desk, gleaming tiled floors, and yellow-hued walls. An arched doorway leads to a long lounge area with a small bar at the back. The hotel consists of two older structures connected by a long modern one, all painted bright yellow. The apartments are in the older buildings, while the standard rooms line the modern part. Alongside is a tree-shaded courtyard that also has a few parking spaces offered free of charge. At the far back is a spacious two-story breakfast room crowned by a large chandelier.
The hotel's three apartments consist of a cluster of rooms with high ceilings, parquet floors, Persian rugs and good quality traditional furniture. The standard rooms are uniformly square with simple, spare furniture, green carpets and brightly colored floral fabrics. Tubs are reserved for the apartments, while guests in the standard rooms make do with showers. All have small TVs and direct dial telephones. One room has a special bath equipped for disabled guests. The staff was a bit reserved at first, but soon warmed up. The hotel is located on an obscure side street just off Rakoczi Utica between the Astoria and Blaha Lujaz ter M2 underground stations, but it is certainly worth the effort trying to find.
Daily Rates: Singles 52$ to 108$ ($70-$145), doubles 65$ to 126$ ($88-$170)
Contact: Hotel Anna, Gyulai Pal utca 14, tel +36/20/ 460 2134, fax +36/01/288 7061.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 14/20
If the name sounds familiar, this is because we reviewed the Starlight's sister hotels in Vienna in a recent issue. The interior is pretty much, no, exactly the same as the hotels in Vienna: bright, modern, and stylish. The only difference is the location, near the Chain Link Bridge and within walking distance to Vaci Utca and the steps and cogwheel up to the Castle District.
Daily Rates: Singles 153$ ($206), doubles 183$ ($246).
Contact: Starlight Suiten, tel +36/01/484 3700, fax +36/01/484 3711.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 12/20
K+K Hotel Opera Budapest
What makes the K+K so impressive is its blend of solid service, modern facilities and perfect setting.
As the name implies, the hotel is located on a side street just across from the Opera. The neighborhood is charming with spacious tree-lined streets, imposing façades, the architectural gem of the Opera house, and one of the city's best coffeehouses a few steps away.
Part of a small Austrian chain, the K+K shares a number of trademark features; the most noticeable being the hyper-Habsburg yellow that fills the interiors. Once adjusted, you will find the décor to be quite pleasing. Leather and chrome couches set on bright Persian rugs fill the palm-fronded lobby and a large slab of decoratively cracked marble backs a walnut-veneered reception desk.
Hallways and rooms sport contemporary paintings: some good, some not so. The rooms have a vaguely Asian quality with rattan furniture and an emphasis on clean horizontal lines. Baths are sparkling white and beds comfortably firm.
A long, sunny passageway connecting the front and rear of the buildings serves as the bar. An abundant breakfast is served in a cheery room off the lobby. And even though the hotel was full, guests did not have to struggle for breakfast - a welcome change from the Gellert.
Daily Rates: Singles 194$ ($261), doubles 242$ ($326)
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 12/20
One of the best meals in recent memory was at this Jewish-Hungarian restaurant located on an empty side street near the train stations. With the exception of Switzerland, it is usually a good idea to stay away from restaurants near train stations, but the Rosenstein provides a welcome exception.
Its décor is functional with café chairs of tube metal and the tables are set with inexpensive pressed silverware. Still, the restaurant excels in the areas that count. The food is wonderfully prepared and presented, while the staff is crisply professional and ardently dedicated to the pleasure of food.
A quick glance around the room confirmed that the Rosenstein attracts a clientèle which values good food, from a table of powerfully dressed French businessmen to a Hungarian family celebrating a birthday or anniversary.
What the waiter suggested sounded so good, that I left my meal choice entirely in his hands. I started with a delicious goose consommé brimming with rough slices of feather-soft carrots and tender goose chunks. A little plate of sliced Hungarian peppers and pepper paste accompanied for that extra kick. Next came piping-hot slivers of fried pike-perch dredged in crushed almonds and accompanied by a fresh salad of butter lettuce, ruby tomatoes and sweet sliced cucumbers. Based on a second visit I can also recommend the spicy fish soup and the wild boar in red wine. Portions are large but not unreasonably so.
The house white wine was a nice chardonnay from the Vylyan winery in the southern Siklosi region of Hungary.
Afterward, to accompany an espresso, the waiter convinced me to order kindli, a small pastry stuffed with walnuts. It was a simple but perfect finish. Even the espresso was good, which is not true of all Hungarian coffee.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 18/20
A local favorite serving good Hungarian dishes in a frumpy traditional setting, the "Little Pipe" specializes in good value four- and five-course menus, all for a low 1720FT ($6). For instance, the Hunters Choice starts with pheasant soup, then game croquettes, game stew in red wine, and finishes with sweet cheese-curd dumplings for dessert.
Recently we tried the "Gourmet Menu" that starts with creamy celery root soup followed by slightly pasty liver croquettes with rice. The main course was tangy wild boar ragout in red wine and mushroom sauce, served with potato croquettes almandine (the owner is obviously partial to croquettes). Dessert was chilled rice pudding with canned fruit and whipped cream.
As the use of canned instead of fresh fruit indicates, the meal was hardly haute cuisine, but it was good enough and certainly a good value. One very Hungarian side dish I recommend is marrowbone; a large bone is served with a long thin fork to fish out the glistening marrow which is spread on triangles of dry toast. It's an excellent starter especially with a glass of red Hungarian wine.
Contact: Kispipa, Akacfa str. 38, tel: 36/1/342 2587, fax: 36/1/322 7652, open daily noon-1am. Reservations recommended.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 16/20
Schuch & Schuch Csarnok Etterem
Using a rule that has served us well if you don't know where to eat choose a restaurant near the main market we made our first visit here in 1992. At the time the menus were only in Hungarian and we had to rely on a tiny German-Hungarian dictionary. We batted .500: I ordered deliciously memorable carp fillets in a paprika sauce with curd noodles, while my wife ordered tripe goulash fine if you like that sort of thing. Nearly 10 years later, the food is still good and inexpensive and English menus have taken some of the mystery out of ordering, though the paprika carp doesn't seem to have survived the translation.
Recommended first courses include the cabbage soup with sausage, paprika and sour cream and fish soup served with sliced Hungarian peppers. Be sure you get the small bowl, the large is really a main course with curd noodles and a large chunk of carp. The Schnitzels are good but the Cordon Bleu's thick slab of smoked ham was a bit heavy handed. Also good are the fried carp with oven potatoes and stuffed cabbage.
Contact: Schuch & Schuch, Pipa utca 2b, tel/fax +36/01/217 67 79, open Monday-Saturday 8am-11pm.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 17/20
Though it's popular with friends who visit Budapest frequently, Fatál failed to inspire. Only the size of the portions was impressive. The Fatál Platter for two is a gigantic mountain of grilled meats that will easily feed four. Our meals were modest in comparison, but fairly bland and consisted mostly of potato slices either piled on or hidden under a thin slice of meat. Although Hungary doesn't have much of a beer tradition, the Fatál should know better than to serve the French Stella Artois.
The Fatál is a dud.
Contact: Fatál Restaurant, Vaci utca 67 (entrance on Pinter utca), tel/fax +36/01/266 2607, open daily 11:30am-2 am.
Rating: Quality 3/20, Value 9/20