Scenic Budapest is a deceptive backdrop for the country’s internal turmoil

(Sept 16): On my first night in Budapest, I walked across the iconic Heroes’ Square and encountered riot police. Lined up facing the sculptures of the archangel Gabriel and the Magyar chieftains were men carrying shields and batons. A Google search later, I realised I might have picked a bad weekend for a getaway. Hungarians were planning to protest a new labour law. I soon fell down a reading rabbit hole.

Budapest, the capital of Hungary, was formed only in 1873, with the unification of the cities of Buda, Pest and Óbuda. But the area has been a seat of government for centuries, which explains the architectural marvels that have put Budapest on the World Heritage List: the Gothic castle of Buda, the Baroque style of the surrounding Buda Castle Quarter and the neo-Gothic Parliament building, to name a few. Unesco describes it as an urban panorama displaying the continuity of history.

All this cultural capital, however, has done little for contemporary Hungarian society. Decades of socialist rule have branded the country as unstable and left it on the periphery of European power and visibility. This situation is only just beginning to change, thanks to the politics of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. His brand of conservative populism — urging fiscal responsibility, keeping immigrants out and pursuing a nationalist agenda — is making the European Parliament nervous. It is also making Orbán unpopular with a segment of the Hungarian population. Such are the contradictions that Hungary faces — contradictions that are borne out in the capital’s identity.

The next day, I emerged from the House of Terror on Andrássy Avenue to a full-blown march. The thousands of placard-waving, drum-beating, protest-chanting Hungarians juxtaposed against one of the city’s most elegant streets spoke to how uncomfortable the city has become in its own skin. Its inhabitants have more than one story to tell the world. Even its tourist attractions are conflicted. The House of Terror, for instance, was opened in 2002 to memorialise two bloody periods in the country’s history: the Nazi occupation beginning in 1944 and the following Soviet occupation that ended only in 1991. At the same time, the city’s tourism office is trying to shed this unattractive Iron Curtain association with images of sparkling river landscapes and urban-cultural imagery.

Protestors along Andrassy Avenue, one of Budapest’s most elegant streets

Beautiful views are distracting, and Budapest has many. Walking past monuments, fir trees and Renaissance architecture covered in snow, I could not shake the feeling that I was in an intricate snow globe. From the top of Castle Hill, the Danube River challenged my eye to seek the horizon. Even the local metro system is a treat, with its white-tiled walls and wooden park benches. The Budapest Metro is the oldest electric underground railway on the continent. In Europe, it is predated only by the London Underground. The latter is larger and faster, but not even one-tenth as charming. This is the Budapest I am sure the local tourism board wants me to see.

If I want a full English at a hip London café, I must wait in line. But when I dropped by the chic Café Gerbeaud for a Hungarian breakfast — featuring a giant crescent-shaped bread called kifli and a slice of mangalica sausage — it was empty. For a tourist, this is great. For a business owner, not so. My suspicions were confirmed by an encounter with a part-time tour guide studying at the Central European University. There are not enough jobs, he told me, so few students stay after they graduate. Most of them do not see a career selling tour tickets. Budapest’s population has fallen more than 10% over the last three decades.

The city still has much to offer tourists. Its historic centre is cleaner and quieter than Prague, but just as picturesque. The food is cheaper than in most European capitals. And its cuisine is underappreciated. At Múzeum Kávéház és Étterem, a restaurant that has been in operation since 1885, I gained a new understanding of how to use paprika. I will venture to say now that you have not eaten beef goulash — really eaten it — until you have eaten it in Hungary.

Beef goulash at Múzeum Kávéház és Étterem

Then there are the spas. No one goes to Budapest without visiting a thermal bath. Having luxuriated in many of Japan’s hot springs, I found this experience slightly underwhelming. The baths are crowded, and the water not as hot as I would like. Nevertheless, a warm soak after a day traipsing around in -5°C weather is an enjoyable thing.

In fact, the spas are one thing that tourists and locals alike can enjoy. Spa culture has been part of Budapest’s identity since the Turkish occupation of the 16th and 17th centuries. In the cathedral-like halls of Gellért Baths, I found the opportunity to see another side of local life. Many of the bathers were obviously dropping by after work, dressed in suits or heels. Some were retired couples who walked from their nearby homes carrying a plastic bag and slippers. Széchenyi Baths even has a separate entrance for residents with season passes.

On my final night in Budapest, I paid a visit to the Western Railway Station. Built by the Eiffel Co of Paris, it is touted as home to the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world. The story goes that a restaurant owner, wanting to get out of the business, sold the space to a McDonald’s operator on the condition that it would remain a fancy dining setting for a fixed amount of time. I could not help but think of how much it represented the city’s identity. Iron poles with lampshades hanging from them, large arched windows running up to the ceiling and the smell of fast food: a study in contradictions.

Joan Ng was previously the executive editor at The Edge Singapore