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Budapest's downtown (District 5) consists of a long and relatively narrow area that runs north to south along the Danube's bank on the Pest side. In 40 minutes, you can walk from one end to the other at a leisurely pace. Downtown is a melting pot of local residents, office workers, and tourists. Most of the must-see tourist sites—including the Parliament building, the Shoes on the Danube Bank, and the St. Stephen’s Basilica—and the city's best restaurants are also here. Amid thronged streets, however, you can also find charming, uncrowded pockets with low-priced food and drinking joints.
Although officially part of Ferencváros (District 9), start your trip from the Great Market Hall, and work your way up all the way to the Parliament. This ornate, 19th-century building was the city's first indoor market, and today, still, locals and tourists flock here for seasonal fruits, fresh and pickled vegetables, and charcuterie like paprika-laced salami. The upstairs food stalls and souvenir shops can get uncomfortably packed with people. If you don't mind, drop by for a lángos, a traditional Hungarian snack consisting of a disc of fried dough showered in sour cream and cheese.
Across the market is Váci Street, Budapest's most famous pedestrian shopping area. It's lined with overpriced souvenir shops and restaurants that cater to tourists with "goulash menus." Think of it as the La Rambla of Budapest. Although it's worth a visit, I recommend that you not spend much time or money here.
Instead, turn right on Szerb Street, where you'll pass the Saint George Serbian Orthodox Church, which was built in the 18th century for Budapest's once-numerous Serbian community that found refuge here from the Ottomans. Further down the street, the imposing building on Egyetem Square, a handsome plaza, is the city's leading law school that breeds the Hungarian political elite. From here, amble down Henszlmann Imre Street until you reach Magyar Street.
In the late 19th century, most parts of the historic downtown were razed and replaced by bigger, grander buildings that better symbolized the city's elevated status in the Austro Hungarian Empire. Magyar is one of those peaceful side streets that retained an air of small-city charm. Along here ran Pest's medieval city wall, of which bits and pieces have survived—if you catch the concierge at #36 Magyar Street in a good mood, he'll let you take a glimpse at the wall's remains inside the building's staircase.
Back on Magyar Street, the charming park emerging before you is Károlyi-kert, a prescious green area of peace and quiet. Before WWI, it was the private backyard of the aristocratic Károlyi family, as was the estate attached to it, which today is the Petőfi Museum of Literature. The residential apartments overlooking the park are some of the most expensive and sought-after in Pest, and, accordingly, many well-heeled expats live in them. During the outdoor season, stop by Csendes Társ, a laid-back café at the entrance of the park, serving snacks and a range of Hungarian wines.
A side note to bookworms: Múzeum körút, around the block from here, has long been home to antique bookstores. Although specialty coffee shops are starting to replace them at an alarming rate, some still exist. Most of the books are in Hungarian, but you can find small English sections here and there. I'm most taken with Weöres Sándor Antikvárium (#27 Múzeum körút), a hole in the wall, where you have to crane your neck to find the witty shop assistant hiding behind walls of books.
At the end of Ferenczy István Street lies Belvárosi Disznótoros, a standing-only sausage shop that counted the late Anthony Bourdain among its fans. Like a local, go for a sausage (regular, blood, or liver variety) and pair it with a dollop of mustard and a thick slice of bread. There are two old-school bars near each other here that both offer a journey back in time and low-priced drinks: Ibolya and Grinzingi. One of the few remaining coffeehouses from the Austro Hungarian Empire is the elegant Central Cafe—drop by for a Dobos torte and coffee. If specialty coffee is more your speed, try the nearby Madal.
Your dreamy stroll will come to an abrupt end when you reach Kossuth Lajos Street, a crowded, six-lane thoroughfare piercing through downtown. Not far from here is FUGA, an architecture bookstore that doubles as an exhibition venue. They sell books in both Hungarian and English, and often host classical music performances, too. Turn right on Pilvax köz to reach a charming square flanked by pre-war buildings (if you enjoy a comfortably classic ambiance, have a drink or dessert at Gerlóczy Café, especially if their outdoor terrace is open).
For distinctly hipster vibes, proceed on Vitkovics Mihály Street to the Röser interior courtyard, where bearded-and-tattoed baristas serve pricey cups of specialty coffee at Kontakt with a strict no-milk and no-sugar policy. Across it is Szimply, a similarly trendy breakfast-all-day joint run by the same owners.
From here, head to Szervita Square for an interesting melange of architecture. The Madonna statue is ringed by a Baroque (#6; built in 1732), a pre-modern (#5; 1911), a Renaissance Revival (#4; 1875), a Hungarian art nouveau (#3; 1906), a Viennese Art Nouveau (#2; 1908), and a Neoclassicist (#1; built in 1820) building. Also note the enormous mosaic atop the art nouveau building, whose ground floor is occupied by the hopping À la Maison Grand breakfast restaurant.
The epicenter of downtown is Deák and Elizabeth Square, a common meeting place for locals. The odd-looking hole in the ground is where Budapest's National Theater was supposed to stand before politics interfered; the area is now home to the Akvárium Klub concert venue. During the summer months, the park fills with young people who stay out here until the wee hours. The tastefully understated, polished limestone building of the Ritz Carlton used to be the headquarters of the Adriatic Insurance Company during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, back when Hungary had sea access.
Váci Street terminates in Café Gerbeaud, an iconic café and pastry dating back to 1858. Pop in for a pricey cake to appreciate the gilded interior complete with crystal chandeliers, marble-topped tables, and cherrywood paneling. In the side of the building is the two Michelin-starred Onyx restaurant, run by the same owners. Right outside Gerbeaud is a subway stop of the Millennium Underground, the first subway line on the European continent and currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site (it's still operational).
Another expensive but iconic venue is Kollázs Brasserie & Bar, the café and bar of the Four Seasons Hotel. This monumental art nouveau building was built for the London-based Gresham Life Assurance Company. Get your camera ready before you enter the ornate lobby, featuring a glass roof and glazed ceramic wall paneling. From here, walk down Zrínyi Street to the St. Stephen's Basilica, the biggest church in Budapest with a cupola that offers sweeping views of the city. For comparable views from a more relaxed setting with a drink in hand, visit High Note Skybar, a rooftop bar atop the nearby Aria Hotel.
Not surprisingly, Budapest’s fine dining restaurants cluster around the center of downtown. The highlights are Michelin-starred Costes Downtown and Borkonyha, and also here is MAK Bistro, which brings a Hungarian locavore approach to fine dining with a fish and vegetable-heavy menu. My favorite sit-down restaurant for traditional Hungarian food is Café Kör. There do exist cheaper restaurants, too. Your best bet is the nearby Hold Street Market Hall, where leading Hungarian chefs operare wallet-friendly fast casual restaurants. My favorites are Séf utcája, Stand25 Bistro, and Buja Disznó(k). Downtown's specialty coffee mecca is Espresso Embassy, a hipster wonderland.
Before you go there, take a detour for a glance at the main building of the Central European University on Nádor Street, an architectural eye candy that delicately blends old and new. Around the corner from it is Börze, an Instragram-friendly restaurant with above-average food and views onto Liberty Square, which is known for its dramatic buildings and a controversial WWII memorial.
This part of downtown, between Liberty Square and the Parliament building, is a government and financial district. Politicians, bankers, and tourists run around these stately streets during the day; come night-time, they get eerily deserted. The Parliament is partially open to visitors, and you can see some of its 691 lavish rooms, including the former Upper Chamber, as part of their 50-minute guided tour.
Near the Parliament sets off Budapest's "antique row," dotted with art galleries and high-end antique stores along Falk Miksa Street. Keep a special eye out for Pintér (#12), Artcore (#12), Antikvitás (#12), Pethő (#24), and Virág Judit Galéria (#30).
Downtown ends at the end of Falk Miksa Street, but Újlipótváros, a lively residential neigborhood located just on the other side of the Grand Boulevard, is also worth discovering.
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