Global Gayborhoods: Budapest
Despite being connected by nine bridges and -- since the late 19th century -- a single name, Buda and Pest are distinct and sprawling cities. The former's giant, gentle green hills, ensnared by concrete highways, hide challenging hikes, a picturesque medieval village around Várhegy Castle Hill, the best views of Pest's eclectic, spired skyline, and the priceless, eerie Szobor Park where statues of old Soviet and Communist leaders have been unceremoniously deposited (XXII Szabadkai ú;t, Buda; 227-7446; 1500 Ft; 10 a.m.-dusk daily).
Across the Danube river, Pest bustles with the Hungarian State Opera, heartily spiced goulash stews, Europe's oldest metro, and beautifully faded Art Deco architecture. By night, this half pours itself outside -- weather permitting -- to drink local microbrews in the open-air beer gardens it claims to have invented. Together, Budapest is considered one of the continent's most beautiful cities and many will attest that it is currently undergoing a lively renaissance.
While constant controversy and violence have plagued Budapest Prides for the last few years, the city remains among the most liberal, safe places in Eastern and Central Europe -- matched by Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Prague. In an important step in 2008, police were praised for physically protecting marchers as protesters threw eggs, paint, cobblestones, and petrol bombs.
Resilience is key in Budapest, as much for capitol culture in general as for the queer scene. The city's unique cosmopolitanism has withstood Romans, Magyars, Mongols, Turks, Habsburgs, and Soviets and will withstand recent homophobia as well.
The city's LGBT bar and club scene, while small compared to Paris or London's, remains active, drawing queer folks from neighboring Central and Eastern European countries, and a form of civil unions has been legal since 1996. Effective in 2009, new legislation will guarantee these unions the same rights as married spouses except for joint adoption.
Tips: Hotels Owned and operated by an openly gay Hungarian chef and former 5-star hotel executive, the Kapital Inn (1062 Budapest, 30 Aradi ú;tca, Pest; 36-30-931-10-23; 79+ Euro) bed and breakfast is the top choice for LGBT accommodations in Budapest. The 19th-century building offers wireless Internet, a terrace, complimentary drinks and snacks whenever you feel peckish, fresh baked breakfasts, and priceless advice on current queer nightlife.
Perhaps the first -- it opened in 1896 -- word in Budapest luxury, the Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal (H-1073 Budapest, Erzsébet krt. 43-49, Pest; 36-1-479-40-00; 150+ EUR) consistently ranks among the top hotels in the world. Amenities include a hi-tech spa that pre-dates the hotel, two cocktail lounges, two restaurants, two streetside cafés, and regular wine-tastings.
Tips: Budapest Bathhouses Roughly 100 natural thermal springs erupt in Budapest, accounting for the city's historical association with healing baths. One of the oldest is the Géllert Fürdo (H-1118 Budapest, Kelenhegyi ú;t 4, Buda; 36-1-466-61-66; 3100+ Ft; 6 a.m.-7 p.m. M-F, 6 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends), which opened in 1914 and remains a top international choice today.
The old tradition of separating women's and men's sections is still in effect, but a range of á la carte spa services have been added, from manicures and mud packs to acid baths and "healing gymnastics."
Tying Géllert Fürdo for top Budapest bath is the neo-Baroque-style Széchenyi Fürdo (XIV Állatkerti ú;t 11, Pest; 36-3-32-10; 2000+ Ft; 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily), which opened in 1913. Nestled in Pest's City Park, its massive open-air thermal pool -- by some counts the largest medicinal bath in Europe -- draws crowds of local families on the weekends who spend all day soaking in its warm, "healing" waters.
Where Géllert Fürdo excels at luxury amenities, Széchenyi Fürdo is unique for its extreme temperatures. A small cavern-like room just off the moderately hot outdoor bath holds perhaps the hottest sauna in the world, next to which lie an ice-water pool and a utilitarian metal chute shooting out sheets of actual ice.
Rubbing ice on yourself, retreating to the sauna, and then repeating the process every 15 minutes for an hour is supposedly very healthy, but many Hungarian men seem to treat it like a fun, masculine endurance course.
Tricks: Queer Beer An 'authentic' beer garden, in which the establishment's signature brew is pumped directly from containers underground into the garden's outdoor garden taps, can be hard to find these days. If possible, ask locals, concierges, and especially students if they have recommendations.
Queer nightlife has taken a bit of a hit in the last two years, with favorites like Angyal Bár and Bohemian Alibi closing up shop. Coxx Bar (1072 Budapest, Dohány utca 32, Pest; 36-1-344-48-84; cover varies; 9 p.m.-4 a.m. M-Th., 9 p.m.-5 a.m. F-Sa.) remains open, its cruising backrooms attracting a mixed leather/bear/muscle crowd. Also part Internet café, sex shop, and art gallery, visiting Coxx by daylight can be a useful way to pick up news of other LGBT goings on.
Most advice will probably point to Capella Café (1056 Budapest, Belgrád rakpart 23; 06-30-629-79-71; 10 p.m.-4 a.m. daily, closed Tu.), which offers standard to above-average quality gay clubbing and good drag shows to House-inflected diva-stomping beats.
Lesbian-owned Eklektika Restolounge (VI ker. Nagymezö, Pest; 06-1-266-12-26; 590+ Ft; 12 p.m.-12 a.m. daily) is another old-school hold-out, offering tasty eats and solid cocktails for appetites of all sizes and sexualities. Try their vegetarian-friendly all-you-can-eat buffet from noon-3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Semi-monthly LGBT parties have taken up the nightlife slack to some extent, with the Candy parties leading the way. Venues and cover charges may vary, so check their website ahead of time.