Travel Black Book Ambassadors Series

Budapest: City of cafes and music

The best of home: Ambassadors to Singapore provide an insider's guide to their favourite destinations

Who: Mr Istvan Szerdahelyi, 57, Ambassador of Hungary to Singapore

Favourite destination in Hungary: Budapest, one of the most beautiful places in Europe. It has a unique geographical layout - hills to the west, flat plains to the east and it is divided by the Danube River, which is 230m wide at its narrowest point as it flows through the city.

Historically, Budapest was actually three cities - Buda and Obuda are on the west bank of the Danube and Pest on the east. They were united to form one capital city in 1873.

Budapest has a vibrant cafe culture and an interesting mix of historic architecture, with buildings from the Roman, Renaissance and Ottoman eras to the modern day.

SEE

My favourite museum is the Museum of Fine Arts (www.szepmuveszeti.hu/main), which has collections of classical antiquities, Egyptian art, portraits and paintings by the old masters such as Titian, El Greco and Constable. It is closed for renovation till the end of the year, though.

It is located in Varosliget (City Park), a beautiful 122ha park in the centre of the city, which is also home to other museums and attractions, including the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden (www.zoobudapest.com/en), a 19th-century outdoor skating rink, Vajdahunyad Castle and Szechenyi Baths (szechenyispabaths.com).

  • Getting there

  • Several airlines provide daily service between Singapore and Budapest. The quickest routes are via Doha on Qatar, Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, Zurich on Swiss Air and Munich on Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa - all of which take less than 16 hours.

    Tips

    • Take at least three days to explore the city.

    • Website gotohungary.com is a good resource to help you plan a trip to Budapest and Hungary.

    • Enjoy and explore the city on foot. Budapest is safer compared with other big European cities, though you should still watch your belongings and be aware of your surroundings.

Built in 1913, the Szechenyi Baths are the oldest and largest baths in Budapest and one of the largest public baths in Europe. Locals and tourists come here to bathe in the 15 natural hot spring pools and three large outdoor swimming pools, relax in the sauna and steam cabins, and for massages and medicinal treatments.

More than 100 natural hot springs flow below Budapest, so there are numerous baths to choose from, but Szechenyi, housed in an expansive neo-Baroque palace, is the most popular.

There is a stalactite cave called Palvolgyi (http://bit.ly/1QXfi2N)near the city centre in the Buda hills. It is more than 7,200m long in a protected national preservation area. This hidden gem is open to the public and 30 minutes away by public transport, but is not known to many tourists.

Afterwards, head to Buda Castle (budacastlebudapest.com) for the best views of the city. Explore its museums and churches before taking the funicular to the Chain Bridge and into the city centre.

EAT

There are many great restaurants in the city's 7th District, on the Pest side of the Danube. My favourite is Bock Bistro (www.bockbisztro.hu). It serves traditional Hungarian dishes with a modern gastropub approach - I highly recommend the paprika chicken - and the best wines. A full meal with wine costs $70 to $100.

Breakfast is best at any of the old Hungarian coffee houses such as Gerbeaud (www.gerbeaud.hu), which serves some of the most delicious pastries and coffee.

I also recommend Cafe New York (www.newyorkcafe.hu). Built at the turn of the 20th century with elegant rooms and high, ornately gilded ceilings, it is where writers, artists and editors would meet.

It is still a great place to people-watch while enjoying classic Austro-Hungarian cuisine such as chicken paprikash, wiener schnitzel (fried breaded veal) and grilled foie gras.

It also serves desserts such as the Dobos torte (sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and caramel), Sacher torte chocolate cake and Esterhazy cake (layers of cognac or vanilla spiced buttercream sandwiched between layers of almond sponge), which was invented in Budapest and is one of the most famous cakes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

One must try the goulash soup, a traditional stew of meat and vegetables and spices, including paprika, Hungary's national spice, which was originally created as a meal for shepherds in the fields. It can be found all over Budapest and costs $20 to $50, depending on the restaurant.

A uniquely Hungarian dish is pig's brain, called rantott velo, rantott sertesvelo or Velorozsa rantva, which has been breaded and deep-fried. It can be found in some traditional Hungarian restaurants.

Also try Hungary's famous tokaji (pronounced toe-kai), a sweet wine native to north-eastern Hungary, where wine has been produced since at least the 12th century.

You can find tokaji wines on menus throughout the city or you can visit the Tokaj region, about a three-hour drive from Budapest.

At the wineries, taste the different tokaji varieties, which are ideally served at the start of a meal alongside an appetiser with foie gras or at the end of a meal with dessert.

Istvan Szepsy Tokaj (www.szepsy.hu) is my favourite. A bottle costs $48 to $145.

SHOP

The Central Market Hall (Kozponti Vasarcsarnok) is the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest. Built at the end of the 19th century, the building has a neo-Gothic facade and decorative tiled roofs. Inside, visitors will find an open, three-storey steel structure and 10,000 sq m of market space.

The basement level houses most of the butchers, fishmongers and stalls selling a variety of pickles. On the ground floor, one will find cured meats, sausages, cheese, fruit and vegetables, spices and wine. Stands selling food, traditional handicrafts, clothing, embroidery and other souvenirs are on the top floor.

PLAY

Sziget (szigetfestival.com) is one of the largest music festivals in Europe. Held every August on a 108ha island in the Danube River, the eight-day festival hosts more than 1,000 performances from rock, indie and electronic musicians.

Acts such as Alt-J, Major Lazer, George Ezra and PJ Harvey will be performing this year.

Another popular festival is the Budapest Spring Festival (www.btf.hu/events) in April, which features almost a month of classical music, opera, jazz, dance, contemporary circus and theatre events.

Music is a great way to experience the local culture and many music events are held throughout the year. One can enjoy concerts at venues such as the Franz Liszt Academy of Music (lfze.hu/en/home) and Hungarian State Opera House (www.opera.hu/programme).

There are also many clubs for folk and jazz music, especially in the vicinity of St Stephen Basilica and Liszt Ferenc Square. Favourites include Budapest Jazz Club (www.bjc.hu/home/) and Fogas haz (www.fogashaz.hu).

One of my favourite places for a relaxing afternoon is the spa town Heviz (www.heviz.hu/en), a two- hour drive from Budapest. It is near Lake Heviz, the world's second- largest thermal lake, which is fed by underground springs and maintains a constant 38 deg C. The 4ha lake is surrounded by a 60ha nature conservation area.

STAY

The Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest (www.fourseasons.com/budapest) has the best location in the city - on the banks of the Danube and at the foot of the famous Chain Bridge.

A unique Art Nouveau building built at the turn of the 20th century, it was turned into a luxury hotel in 2004. Facilities include a 12m infinity lap pool. One can also get perfect views of Buda Castle there.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'City of cafes and music'. Print Edition | Subscribe