Vorosmarty ter ("Square") comes to life at Christmas but, for the rest of the year, it is also a showcase for the new Budapest.
“I don’t know how it happened,” says Nando, a journalist with thick-rimmed glasses and suitably bohemian stubble, as we settle into a quiet corner of a faux-rustic vegan restaurant off Batthyany ter. “Everywhere else in Europe is so affected by the banking crisis. But here... we’re the only ones who seem to have benefited from the recession.”
While the rest of Hungary has gotten poorer, Nando says, Budapest has boomed. New low-cost flights from London and Tel Aviv have brought hordes of tourists attracted by the promise of decadence on the cheap. “Now there are new bars, new restaurants, new places to hang out.”
Indeed, the very existence of a restaurant like this one would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when the concept of vegetarianism was greeted with emotions ranging from blithe incomprehension to outright horror. I ask Nando if he resents the tourists, the crowds, the change. He shakes his head. “There’s so much more to do now,” he says.
Tourism has revitalized the city, allowed it to create itself anew. The former “Paris of the East” is casting itself as an elegant Central European rival to the overpriced boulevards of Vienna, Paris, and Rome. Nowhere is this renewal more evident than on Vorosmarty ter, the quietly elegant piazza at the heart of Belvaros, Budapest’s historic center.
Painfully, almost anesthetically clean, its 19th-century facades washed whipped-cream white, Vorosmarty ter is the postcard ideal of a European city. Food and souvenir stalls in the shape of country cottages sell the expected bounty: paprika; pashminas; bespoke chess sets.
Vaci utca, the city’s pedestrianized shopping street, wends its way towards Vamhaz korut, its chain stores ever familiar. Even Café Gerbeaud, the grand and wood-paneled coffeehouse once favored by members of Pest’s haute bourgeoisie, now populated largely by tourists, feels less decadent than merely picturesque.