A Budapest style passport: inside the city’s stunning Belle-Époque heritage
In looks, Budapest resembles an amalgam of Prague and Paris: it has the gorgeous medieval ambiance of the former, alongside the elegant boulevards of the latter. But crowning it all is an accent of the Belle–Époque. From the sprawling Széchenyi Baths to the grandiose façades lining Andrássy Avenue, to the staggeringly opulent Hungarian State Opera House, this is a city with a profound dedication to the aesthetic. Embark on a gilded tour of this distinctly Budapest style, and feel like a 19th century bohemian as you wander. Now, who fancies some absinthe?
Tucked away within the former Paris Department Store – itself an icon of Belle-Époque Budapest style – the Alexandra Book Café has lost none of its 19th century splendour. Though its extensive menu of cakes and tortes makes it a must among the city’s grand café set, that stunning ceiling – painted by Hungarian artist Károly Lotz – will likely win your attention.
Called “the Champs-Élysées of Budapest” and ranked as a World Heritage Site, Andrássy Avenue is rightly considered one of Budapest’s most scenic ambles. It’s also one of the best places to do some Belle-Époque-spotting: lined with grandiose mansions, embassies, museums, and other cultural institutes, it’s an architecture lover’s dream.
Reopened after a period of renovation in 2013, the Franz Liszt Academy of Music has remained the city’s most prestigious music academy since its founding by the eponymous composer in 1875. Located on Andrássy Avenue, it’s also an architectural gem: with a giant organ, suspended chandeliers and gilded moulding aplenty, the concert hall is quite the looker.
If you’re feeling brave, venture beneath Buda Castle to its eerie labyrinth and discover the legends that continue to haunt the castle caves. Take a guided tour to explore the deep cellars and hear all the ghostly stories of the labyrinth’s past. Test your nerves by stepping inside the legendary Dracula’s Chamber, where King Matthias was imprisoned in the 15th century.
Opened in 1913 – at the very end of the Belle-Époque period – Budapest’s Széchenyi Baths make going for a thermal dip a proper occasion. Unlike a number of other Budapest baths that have medieval, Ottoman origins, this more recent construction is a highly decorative affair. The best views can be enjoyed from the outdoor pools, which look onto the building’s sunny yellow façade.
Designed by Hungarian architect Ödön Lechner – who’s also been dubbed “the Hungarian Gaudí”, thanks to his creative and decorative approach – the Geological Museum of Hungary is one of the finest expressions of his vision. From the outside, look for a blue tiled roof, curvilinear forms and decorations affixed to the façade. And if you want even more sparkle, a visit indoors for its collection of minerals should suffice.
Lipótváros – also known as Leopold Town – is an ideal destination for the Belle-Époque-seeking Budapest flâneur. In the centre of the city, and adjacent to the Danube, the district is rich in landmarks and historic buildings from all eras, though the turn of the century is well represented – look out in particular for the Royal Postal Savings Bank, constructed in 1901 and considered a masterpiece of the style.
From the outside, capped with its green and yellow tiled roof and a sizeable dome, the Museum of Applied Arts is an instantly recognisable Belle-Époque marvel. Indoors, this haven of Budapest style continues to impress. Just try not to gawp at the soaring atrium (not to mention the collection of furnishings, carpets, ceramics, and accessories made from precious metals).
Enfolded into the broader Belle-Époque period, the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries flourished particularly in Hungary – wander Budapest’s streets and everywhere you’ll find the curving lines, the pastel hues, the ornate décor and the floral motifs of the era. You’ll also find some worthy examples at the House of Hungarian Art Nouveau, a gallery devoted entirely to the style.