Budapest may be the grand old dame of the Hapsburg Empire, but her most exquisite jewels are often hidden from sight.
Cheap flights to Budapest might well be popular with raucous stag parties, but Budapest has long been a destination for more discerning travellers. The elegant cafés and wide boulevards of Buda effortlessly transport you back to the golden age of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire - while across the Danube you can get a taste of the edgier side of town in lively, sometimes seedy, Pest.
But explore a little further and those sharp contrasts start to blur a little around the edges. On both sides of the river you can experience the city’s unique public baths. Discover the lovely hangovers from the Ottoman occupation, ranging from the gorgeous baroque Szechenyi Baths, the biggest and boldest on the continent, to hidden back-alley dives. While Rudas is the only establishment to offer a bacchanalian all-night party, all the baths have their own unique feel – from the family-friendly to the cruisey. Pay extra to get pummelled by a masseur, or else get pummelled on the chess board for free, as the steam rises up around you.
Suitably refreshed, head to the islands, another of the city’s hidden pleasures. While the annual Sziget festival takes place on Obuda island, it’s Margit where the hipsters opt to chill. Not only are there shady parks and cult beer garden Holdudvar, but now also newcomer WNDRLND, an eye-popping medley of art gallery, fairground and open-air party.
This creative, anarchic approach to space isn’t just confined to the islands. In recent years kerts - ‘ruin’ bars - have popped up all over Budapest. Often starting as a beer-stall in an abandoned courtyard, the city’s kerts now boast cinema screenings, live music and goulash cooked over an open fire. Challenge the locals to a foosball fight or just admire the artfully junky decor – chairs made out of bathtubs, bicycles on the ceiling and graffiti murals that reach up to where the ceiling should be.
Book a flight to Budapest; the kind of city best explored with your eyes and mind wide open. That way, you’ll experience the grit as well as the glamour.