As many of the world's airlines slowed or ceased operations as the coronavirus and travel restrictions limited flight demand, Wizz Air moved in the opposite direction.
The low-cost Hungarian airline announced on Sunday, May 3, that it will begin flying direct to Abu Dhabi from five cities across Central and Eastern Europe. Two of the new routes, Budapest and Bucharest, will launch next month, if the UAE has lifted its flight suspension. Another three routes to cities in Bulgaria, Poland and Romania will be available from September, depending on travel restrictions.
One-way fares to these destinations start from Dh244, giving UAE residents five new picks for an affordable holiday. But what is there to see in each city and which one should you visit when? Here's our guide to what to expect from a trip to each of Abu Dhabi's newest direct connections.
Bucharest, Romania: Go for a history-steeped bargain getaway
Flights to Romania’s capital are set to launch on Wednesday, June 3 when they will whisk travellers from Abu Dhabi to Bucharest in just five hours and 30 minutes.
This post-Communist city has a lot to offer travellers. Bucharest is a place of contrast, where rows of Communist buildings cluster around pretty blue fountains next to delicate French architecture and there's history to be found around every corner. Wander the cobbled streets and little laneways in the Old Town and visit the world’s second largest parliament buildings, ranking behind the Pentagon in the United States.
History aside, Bucharest is also known for its nightlife. From countless bars and clubs to an evening spent at the Bucharest National Opera House, the evenings here are to be enjoyed. One good option is to take in a play at the National Theatre, followed by refreshments on its famed rooftop terrace.
For a hint of old-world glamour, Calea Victoriei is the city’s oldest street and harks back to an era when French-inspired Bucharest was given the moniker Little Paris. The city even has its own Arc de Triomphe – the Triumphal Arch was built in 1935 to commemorate the country's reunification.
Before the pandemic, Bucharest was a city on the up, with quirky cafes, street-side dining and flourishing cultural quarters. One big draw that this city offers over many others in Europe is its affordability. A meal for two costs around Dh50 and rooms in a centrally located five-star hotel start from around Dh400. Coupled with return flight prices from Dh548, it’s an ideal pick for a bargain weekend escape.
Budapest, Hungary: Go for the outdoor lifestyle
On Wednesday, June 3, Wizz Air plans to launch flights from Budapest to Abu Dhabi, making the city within easy reach for a European holiday. The six hour-flight will transport travellers to the Danube-bisected Hungarian capital.
Visitors might fall in love with Buda’s hilltops, castles and relaxed pace of life or perhaps prefer Pest, with its bustling nightlife and myriad tourist attractions, but both are sure to enchant.
A must-do is a trip to Budapest’s outdoor spas. Here, "taking the waters" is as ingrained in Hungarian culture as goulash, and travellers could spend days sampling the city’s numerous spas. Try a relaxing dip under the art nouveau architecture of Gellert Baths or head to Szechenyi, the largest spa complex in all of Europe.
The Buda Hills are also within city limits and offer hiking or biking trails coupled with panoramic views and some decent local eateries which offer traditional Hungarian cuisine. Janos Hill is the highest point in the city; hike up to it or take the cable car. The Children's Railway – a pleasant remnant of the city's Socialist roots – is another good way to see the hillside scenery.
At the moment, Budapest is a city of silence with travel restrictions preventing tourists from entering the country. The city's festival and tourism centre has produced a seemingly ethereal video of an empty Budapest, featuring sweeping views of what's waiting for people when travel can recommence.
Katowice, Poland: Go for something different
While its industrial past traditionally ranks Katowice low in the beauty ratings, the city is worthy of a visit for its excellent arts scene and growing foodie clamour. Wizz Air plans to commence direct flights from the city in the south of Poland to Abu Dhabi from Tuesday, September 15 and the flight time is an easy six hours. This will be the first direct flight from Abu Dhabi to Katowice, so it’s a good pick if you like to be among the first in your group to travel somewhere new.
Waiting for you in the capital of the Silesian province of Poland is a blossoming food scene, a thriving cultural district and plenty of greenery backed by the Beskidy mountains.
If it's parks you seek, Katowice has them in droves. Kosciuszko Park was built in 1888 and has evolved from a tiny central plot to 72 hectares right in the heart of the city. Wander the rose gardens and tree-lined paths and look out for sculptures from local artists.
Silesia Park is another must-visit. At about 620 hectares – it's almost double the size of New York's Central Park – it has a zoological garden, planetarium, fairground, swimming pool, hotel and kids will love a visit to Legendia, Poland's largest theme park.
Foodies will enjoy the city’s blossoming culinary scene where ethnic cuisines, Polish influences and Silesian dishes vie for attention. One of the more famous restaurants is Tatiana, where diners can try a fusion of Polish and European dishes. Located in Katowice’s old market square, it is a good pick for history-seeking visitors that want a taste of the local cuisine as they are out exploring the city.
Sofia, Bulgaria: Go for a cut-price winter escape
Arriving in Sofia on the five-and-a-half-hour flight from Abu Dhabi, it’s likely the first thing travellers will spot is the soaring peak of Mount Vitosha.
This is Sofia’s very own mountain playground and it comes alive in winter when skiers flock to take on the country’s oldest slopes. While it's a little underdeveloped, ski pass prices are considerably lower here than at some of the other slopes in this part of the world, and it's probably the only city in Europe that has a run so close to its capital.
At the foothills of Vitosha is the affluent suburb of Boyana. Home to the National History Museum and the Unesco-listed Boyana church, it is a good attraction when you've had enough of your skis for one day. A winter visit to Sofia must also include a trip to the festive market, which takes place downtown in the City Garden each year.
Visiting in any other season also makes sense. Sofia has a surprisingly laid-back vibe for a capital city and spring to autumn offers open-air markets, ancient ruins, golden-dome topped churches and Ottoman mosques.
Known for its abundance of natural mineral springs, travellers to Sofia often head to the most popular sites, such as Centralna Banya, Knyazhevo and Gorna Banya.
At these basins, people are encouraged to drink the waters, which are rumoured to have numerous wellness benefits. Find out more about the city’s watery history at the former Central bathhouse, which is now home to the Museum of Sofia’s History. If you want to actually dip in the waters, head 12 kilometres outside of Sofia to the mineral village of Pancharevo.
Cluj-Napoca, Romania: Go for summer festivals
Romania’s Cluj-Napoca, or Cluj as the locals call it, is one of the country’s most-visited cities and is regarded as the unofficial capital of Transylvania. This lively student city has more than its fair share of bars, boho cafes, thrift stores and decent nightlife.
Visit in the summer when a lot of the students will have cleared out, leaving room for travellers to enjoy the balmy summer temperatures of around 27°C. Another perk of visiting in summer is the city's roster of events, many of which have carved a name for themselves on the international stage. From Untold – Romania's largest electronic music festival – to the Transilvania International Film Festival, Electric Castle or Jazz in the Park, there is something for everyone.
Cluj is also set up for city walks and the Botanical Gardens are a good place to while away a few hours on a summer afternoon. Cycle or stroll along the banks of the Somesul Mic or head to the open-air Ethnographic Park and Museum where you can watch recreations of rural Romanian life.
Visiting Transylvania without tasting the local cuisine would be a blunder, especially when prices err on the lower side of reasonable – approximately Dh100 for dinner for two in a nice restaurant.
If combining history with local cuisine appeals, Rhedey Cafe serves Transylvanian dishes alongside a black-and-white photography exhibit inside a 16th-century palace where Queen Elizabeth’s great, great grandmother was born. Caffeine seekers will also be at home in Cluj – the city is one of Europe's best-kept secrets when it comes to coffee culture.