Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 16, 2017

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Statue of Imre Nagy looking at the Parliament building.

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Hungary for more

Fewer crowds, better arts offerings plus four other reasons to love Budapest in the off-season

Budapest is usually viewed as a summer destination. But, having visited in all seasons, I can honestly say that some like it cold. Winter has a special allure. The sun’s low angle lets you see the Hungarian capital in a whole new light. The calendar is full of events — many of them aimed primarily at residents, which ups the authenticity level. Plus off-peak bargains are plentiful: you see, the deals in Budapest (already rated Europe’s most affordable city in TripAdvisor’s 2012 TripIndex survey) get better as the mercury in local thermometres dips. Need further incentives? Here are half a dozen more reasons why you should go this winter.

The Sites

One major benefit of arriving now is that it’s so much easier to appreciate Budapest’s (budapestinfo.hu) premier attractions. Camera-ready Castle Hill is a case in point. During peak periods, the long queue for the old-fashioned Budavári Sikló (a leg-saving form of transport) quickly takes the “fun” out of funicular, especially since the ride itself only lasts about three minutes.

Once you’ve ascended, you then have to fight your way through battalions of foreign tourists. The militarily-minded might think this appropriate given that Castle Hill has suffered through 31 brutal sieges over the course of seven centuries; however, the crowd does little to improve the ambiance otherwise.

The good news is that numbers drop when the temperature goes down, allowing you to stroll the UNESCO-designated district’s cobblestone streets at your leisure. Having been repeatedly rebuilt, they are lined with a colourful mix of Medieval, Baroque, Gothic and neo-Renaissance facades. Admire the architectural eye candy; stop by Matthias Church and Buda Castle (inside, a civic history museum helps put the turbulent past in context); then pause beneath the turrets of Fishermen's Bastion where you can drink in Danube vistas without having to jostle for position.

BONUS: Budapest’s section of the Danube generated a lot of newspaper coverage last February when it froze for the first in almost 30 years (the average daytime high that month is 4° Celsius). In the absence of ice, tour boat and dinner cruise operators — Legenda (legenda.hu) and EUrama (eurama.hu) among them — continue to run, albeit on a limited schedule.

The Sounds

All across Europe, low season for garden-variety tourists is high season for culture vultures because top performing arts groups have returned to the stage after their summer hiatus. In music-mad Budapest that means you can enjoy a true orchestral event rather than settling for a strolling gypsy violinist. Clearly there is a wealth of venues to choose from. In terms of state-of-the-art amenities, your best bet is probably the ultra-modern — and rather overbearing — Palace of Arts (1Komor Marcell utca; mupa.hu/en): home base for the internationally-acclaimed Budapest Festival Orchestra.

Nevertheless the sentimental favourite is the Hungarian State Opera House (22 Andrássy Avenue; opera.hu/en), which plays host to the Budapest Philharmonic. Opened with much fanfare in 1884, the palatial building is a riot of gilt, marble and red velvet. The orchestra, furthermore, has an illustrious pedigree.

Noteworthy natives such as Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály composed specifically for it; and the orchestra premiered works by national idol Ferenc Liszt (Franz to us anglophones) which the maestro personally conducted. Best of all, tickets are democratically priced despite the ornate setting. You can perch high in the balcony for $3 or score a dress circle box seat for $54.

BONUS: Although Lisztomaniacs can’t get inside the eponymous Academy of Music (it is currently closed for renovation), you can still pay homage to him at the memorabilia-filled Liszt Ferenc Memorial Museum (lisztmuseum.hu), which carefully recreates his last apartment. On Sunday mornings, the $4 entry fee includes a brief performance in the adjacent concert hall.

The Hot Baths

Budapest is blessed with a 100-plus hot springs which collectively spew forth 70 million litres of mineral-rich water per day. Knowing a good thing when they saw it, ancient Romans channelled the springs’ therapeutic potential by constructing thermal baths.

Later spa aficionados did the same and, as a result, modern-day travellers can immerse themselves in heritage facilities. Some will be dazzled by the Art Nouveau opulence of the Gellért (4 Kelenhegyi út; gellertbath.com); others by the Király or Rudas (9 Döbrentei tér; budapestgyogyfurdoi.hu), 16th-century Turkish edifices fit for a pasha. Yet it’s the lemon-hued neo-Baroque Szechenyi (11 Állatkerti körút; szechenyibath.com) that draws locals en masse.

Fed by the hottest, deepest spring, this is Budapest’s biggest thermal bath and one of Europe’s largest public bathing complexes. It’s also one of the best values around: after all, you can spend a day lounging in 15 pools of varying sizes and temperatures for the cost of a movie and popcorn at home. The best part is that three are outdoors, which adds genuine “wow factor” in winter. In case you tire of soaking, swirling in artificial currents, being soothed by jets and watching gents play chess on floating boards, steam rooms and spa treatments are available at extra charge.

BONUS: Eastern European spas focus on health not hedonism. Moreover, language issues and convoluted entry policies can put a wrinkle in relaxing. As an alternative, opt for problem-free pampering at the five-star Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal (43-49 Erzsébet körút; corinthia.com). Its spa lists both luxurious Western-style treatments and traditional thermal bathing in a restored 1903 pool.

The Cold War

On a cold day, it’s fitting to revisit the Cold War. Memento Park (Balatoni út and Szabadkai utca; mementopark.hu), on Budapest’s west edge, offers one spin on the era as it’s the final resting place for 42 Communist statutes that were dismantled when the Iron Curtain rose in 1989. Lenin, Marx: the gang’s all here. Stripped of their prominent pedestals and seen up-close, the gigantic pieces of public art seem absurdly bombastic. Campy photo ops and a kitschy gift shop confirm that this is history lite. Want to pose beside a Trabant or buy a hammer-and-sickle magnet? This is your chance.

If, on the other hand, you’re ready to grapple with dark reality, remain downtown and head instead for Terror House (60 Andrássy út; www.terrorhaza.hu). The museum’s location in a 1880s townhome on stylish Andrássy Avenue belies the fact that it headquartered both the Nazi-run Arrow Cross Party and the Communist regime’s secret police.

From the Soviet tank dominating the atrium to the restored interrogation room (read torture chamber) in the basement to the propaganda films playing on video installations in between, the exhibits pack a punch and are chilling at any time of year. To grasp the full story, rent an audio guide. It costs $5.75 on top of the $9 ticket.

BONUS: The Hospital in the Rock (4/c I. Lovas út; sziklakorhaz.eu/en) lies beneath cave-riddled Castle Hill. First aid was administered and surgeries were performed at this secret facility during the Nazi Siege of 1944-45; then again during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. During the Cold War period, it also acted as a nuclear bunker. An hour-long English tour is included in the $16 admission fee.

The Drinks

When the Ottoman Turks invaded Hungary back in 1579 they brought a copious supply of coffee with them and Budapesters have been addicted to the stuff ever since. Coffee drinking is, quite simply, part of the fabric of daily life in the capital. Just don’t expect to order a double/double at the drive-through: lingering is virtually mandatory.

In warm weather, folks are inclined to settle down at an outdoor table — and that’s a shame considering the interiors of the most renowned coffeehouses are elegant affairs that, like their Habsburg cousins in Vienna, evoke a gilded age.

Exhibit A: Gerbeaud (7-8 Vörösmarty tér; gerbeaud.hu/en), which has been in continuous operation for over 150 years. Ornamental plasterwork, heavy drapery and glittering chandeliers make it look more akin to a ballroom than a café. Other vintage choices in convenient locations include Művész Kávéház (29 Andrássy út; muveszkavehaz.hu) opposite the Opera House and Ruszwurm (7 Szentháromság utca; www.ruszwurm.hu) on Castle Hill.

Each offers an extensive coffee menu (espresso qualifies as standard kávé) along with an assortment of sweet treats. If your conscience lets you sample only two, go for the flaky fruit-filled rétes(strudel) or a five-layer slice of chocolate-y dobos torta.

BONUS: Looking for a stronger beverage? In winter wine bars serve forralt bor or "boiled wine." It’s typically made from Bull's Blood (the country’s most famous red) and often laced with brandy. Added spices can mask its potency, so it may be wise to practice saying the tongue-twisting Hungarian toast — “egészségedre!” or “to your health” — before imbibing too much.

The Dining

Time for the cold hard truth: comfort food here is notoriously heavy. So gobbling it during the dog days of summer can actually leave you feeling pretty uncomfortable. In the depths of winter, though, it’s a different story because hearty dishes — like bécsi szelet (a variation on the schnitzel theme) or csirkepaprikás (a saucy chicken dish) — are ideally suited for cooler weather. Down-home cooking can be tasted at atmospheric, unpretentious eateries city-wide. For an upscale meal try Onyx (7-8 Vörösmarty tér; onyxrestaurant.hu/en), one of Budapest’s two Michelin-starred restaurants.

Housed in the same building at Gerbeaud, Onyx re-interprets the classics presenting traditional fare with contemporary flair. Prices are impressive, too: particularly if you take advantage of its midday deals. A three-course lunch is available Tuesday through Friday for $20: that’s less than you’d pay at night for a goose liver appetizer alone.

If you’re hankering for that whole trapped-in-amber experience, Gundel (4 Károly út; gundel.hu) — arguably the city’s best known restaurant — is the place. Opened in City Park in 1894, this landmark spot counters with its own three-course “Chef’s Table” lunch menu Monday to Saturday and the $17 price even includes a glass of wine.

BONUS: City Park, created as the centerpiece of Hungary’s 1896 millennial celebrations, is an all-season destination with a rowing pond that doubles as a supersized skating rink (Dózsa György út; mujegpalya.hu) in winter. Hence you can do a few laps or figure eights to work off the calories after lunching at Gundel. Admission is $4.50 and skates can be rented onsite for $2.75 an hour.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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