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“Budapest is knocking on heaven’s door” by Padraic Gilligan

When the long haired buskers in the underpass are playing complex counterpoints by Bartok and Bernstein rather than “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan then you know you’re in Budapest. This is a city with a profound intellectual and cultural DNA which it carries naturally, effortlessly but not imposingly. It’s a city with easy appeal for all meeting and event planners because it’s a very serious city that never takes itself too seriously.

The Budapest that we visit today is largely paid forward by gifted town planners from as far back as the early 1800s who valued their own architectural past and had a clear vision for its future. Their meticulous planning has created a magnificent imperial city with stunningly beautiful public edifices set around wide avenues, leafy squares and fine urban parks.

Only a quarter of the buildings in Budapest remained unscathed during the 2nd World War when, for 2 full months, the city itself was a battlefield. This, followed by almost 45 years of Communist rule, brought monochromatic banality to a once vibrant and colourful city and left huge work to be done from 1990 onwards when Hungary, along with many neighbouring Eastern European countries, emerged from a long winter of discontent.

The Castle district on the Buda Hills is magnificently restored and offers an unparalleled perspective across the Danube to the more sprawling Pest with the richly ornate Parliament Buildings, reminiscent of Westminister without Big Ben, the main focus of your gaze. The Castle district dates from the 13th and 16th centuries but today its buildings host Hungary’s National Library and Gallery and Budapest’s History Museum. The Hospital in the Rock, only recently re-discovered, offers a fascinating insight into how the courageous Hungarian Resistance took care of the sick and the infirm during the war years, all under the watchful but ultimately unseeing gaze of the occupying Nazis.

The Hilton Hotel there, one of two Hiltons in the city, is built around some fascinating archaeology allowing guests the chance to access the area’s rich historical legacy over champagne and canapés! Higher up on the Buda Hills, meanwhile, Restaurant Búsuló Juhász affords outstanding views of the residential, and almost bucolic Buda district from its terraced patios and serves contemporary Hungarian cuisine with creativity and panache.

The contemporary Renaissance of the city, however, radiates with systematic determination eastwards from Roosevelt Square and presents meeting and event planners with ever more convincing reasons to place business in Budapest. The Four Seasons Budapest, located in the stunning Gresham Palace with direct views of the Chain Bridge and the Castle District, has set the bar for 5 star standards and service in the city.

Nearby, flanking the east bank of the Danube there’s a total of 1200 rooms courtesy of Marriott, Intercontinental and Accor. Fashion Steet adds an impressive Kempinski with superlative meeting space and a compact but beautiful Le Meridien. The buildings and the streetscapes in this downtown area are meticulously restored and convey a sense of upscale chic and bourgeois bounty.

This urban regeneration is evident too along Andrassy Ut the central Champs-Elysees-style spine which joins the riverfront to Heroes Square. Here magnificent public buildings built for banks and insurance companies at a time of great economic expansion in the late 1800s have been re-purposed as retail outlets for Armani, Gucci and D&G. The Italian stuccadores and craftsmen whose artistry is immortalised in the beauty of these buildings must be smiling wryly at this ironic twist of history.

They will also be extremely proud of the New York Palace, one of the city’s newest and most opulent 5 star hotels. Built in 1894 for the New York Insurance Company, the Boscolo family has transformed this building into an amazing hotel and conference centre. There are 185 sleeping rooms ranging in size from 28 and 35 square metres. Ceilings are elegantly high, as expected in such period buildings and decor is predominantly beige with seamless silk wallpapers. The New York Cafe is an extraordinary dining facility in the elaborate belle epoch style with 2 wonderful private function areas.

A recent additional development to the New York Palace has added a double height 440sqm conference and banqueting facility with 2 additional breakout spaces of 60sqm each. The style here is unapologetically contemporary but it all connects back beautifully and seamlessly into the original period building.

Very close to Heroes Square, Gundel Restaurant offers over 100 years of uninterrupted service to diners in search of traditional “haute cuisine” served with precision, pomp and ceremony. Combining the strong, robust flavours of Hungary with the light refinement of France Gundel is deservedly known as Hungary’s best restaurant and, allegedly, did more for Hungarian tourism at the 1939 World Fair in New York than “a shipload of tourist brochures”. And so say all of us!

Outside of these areas, however, there are lots of opportunities to access a city in transition and tap into what Budapest was like during the lost years. The rising economic tide has not lifted all boats equally as evidenced by the pervasive vagrancy in the city’s underpasses and sidewalks. Likewise Gucci and Armani are replaced by stores selling fabrics and sewing machines and fancy restaurants are replaced by breadshops and liquor stores. But there’s authenticity and credibility in this urban edginess and, in some way, it intrinsic to its appeal.

So, you’re away from the Riverfront, lost on side streets that are grimy and grey. But just when you start to see a marked increase in body builder types with buzz cuts and tattoos, the soothing sounds of Liszt hits your ears and you notice the violinist dressed simply in jeans and tee shirt, playing amidst the rush, lost in the beauty of the music. Welcome to Budapest.

Padraic Gilligan, Managing Director, Ovation Global DMC.

Padraic was in Budapest on the occasion of the excellent MCI Academy and would like to offer sincere thanks to all those who helped make our week there so memorable. In particular Eszter and Dori from the Hungarian Convention Bureau provided great support and introduced the MCI team to their excellent new on-line tool for meetings planners – www.budapestmeetings.com. It would be remiss of me not to single out Agnes and Dori of the Microcosmos, Hungary’s BEST DMC with whom I first encountered this magnificent city over 5 years ago.

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One thought on “Budapest is knocking on heaven’s door

  1. lee ann marano says:

    Awesome article. Loved the flow and found myself there on the streets with you. I was telling my daughter who is an up and coming writer with a Public Relations background that we can never source well written up to date information on the amazing destinations we sell to our clients. Even most tourist boards and convention bureaus do not have well written pieces on their own cities or hotels.

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