Is this Europe's most interesting zoo?

Is this Europe's most interesting zoo?

You've seen elephants, hippos and bears, but never in a setting like the Budapest Zoo
Polar opposites: barefaced encounter at Budapest Zoo.

A zoo doesn’t sound like the obvious place to start an architecture tour.

Yet by a happy quirk of fate, when Budapest Zoo was given a makeover in 1910, some of the best architects in town were hired for the job.

That’s why it has some of the most striking buildings in a city already renowned for its architecture. 

So one of the finest collections of animals in the region is held in a setting with few rivals anywhere in Europe -- two good reasons to visit.

Another reason is that the zoo, just off Heroes Square behind the Museum of Fine Arts, is a haven of calm in the city.

Stepping through its monumental gateway, with great stone elephants supporting an archway topped with a ring of polar bears, you’re immediately surrounded by a curtain of tall trees offering enticing glimpses of what lies beyond.

Mosque-see building

Animal house ... Ottoman style.Rising above the trees to the right is the breathtaking Elephant House.

With its shiny blue domes and minaret-like spire, the building resembles an Ottoman mosque.

Glazed heads of hippos, rhino and elephants overlook the entrance; art nouveau plant and animal motifs cover the walls inside.

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Visitors clearly aren’t the only ones having a good time here.

Wallowing in their warm pool attached to the Elephant House, the hippos look pretty content.

The pools are fed directly from underground hot springs -- a natural supply of hot water that saved the hippos during the bitter winter of 1944, when Soviet troops besieged the city for three months.

"God, this thing's heavy!"A constant warm water supply also explains Budapest’s long success in breeding hippos -- little do the bathers in the nearby Szechenyi Thermal Baths know who’s sharing their water!

The hot springs that serve the hippos are used to heat all the zoo's larger buildings. The carbon emission savings are equivalent in weight to 100 baby elephants.

Beyond the Elephant House extends the large Savannah Zone.

Living alongside marabou and white storks, Nile geese, rare Rothschild giraffes and aardvarks are the zoo’s southern white rhinos -- another Budapest success story.

In 2007, the world’s first rhino conceived by artificial insemination was born here.

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Lions, spiders and bears

Zoo coup: conservation-worthy and cute. Budapest scored with its Siberian tiger cubs. Rising above the Savannah Zone is the 32-meter-high Magic Mountain, another rarity in the zoo world.

While gorillas, Barbary sheep, red panda and dhole (Asian wild dogs) climb on the mountain’s outer slopes, inside is a vast interactive exhibition exploring the history of man and nature, where visitors can see more than 100 species of living animals: hatching chickens, naked mole rats, bats, leafcutter ants and giant spiders.

Budapest has one of the richest zoo collections of insects in the world -- more than 200 species -- plus 30 types of arachnids.

At the foot of the nearby Small Rock the antics of the sea lions at feeding time always attract crowds.

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What’s special here is the chance to see the polar bears having a swim -- watching through the glass wall of the pool, you realize the awesome power of these huge creatures.

On the other side of the Small Rock, penguins go about their busy, comical-looking routines.

“We had one very crafty penguin, Fulop, who managed to hop out of his enclosure and walk out of the main entrance,” says Agnes, one of the penguins' keepers.

“Luckily he was caught as he tried to get on the No. 72 trolley bus.”

Australia House -- Transylvanian style

Australian species in a Transylvanian enclosure -- naturally.Even the smaller animal houses, all designed during the 1910 rebuild, have a special character.

The Giraffe House has African influences, the Crocodile House draws on Indian styles, and Hungarian folk architecture inspires other designs.

One of the finest of the latter is Australia House, which used to be the Bird House and was modeled on an old folk church in Transylvania, now in neighboring Romania.

The old door handles, frescoes and stained glass have all been beautifully preserved.

But the zoo -- buildings and animals both -- isn’t just there to be stared at.

It houses projects such as saving the Hungarian meadow viper, imperial eagle and griffon vulture in the wild.

The zoo’s animal hospital received 7,000 injured or orphaned protected birds, mammals and reptiles between 2010 and 2013.

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“With up to 30% of the world’s mammal, bird, and amphibian species threatened with extinction, zoos play a vital role in conservation,” says Miklos Persanyi, the zoo’s director.

“Amazingly, in the middle of this crowded city we’ve just been given more space, which means more room for the animals.”

Hairy pigs and scruffy sheepdogs

There’s a strong Hungarian flavor in the Peasant Yard, at the far end of the zoo.

Here are rare Hungarian breeds such as the corkscrew-horned sheep, hairy mangalica pigs -- increasingly featuring on Hungarian restaurant menus -- and the mudi, a wonderfully scruffy Hungarian sheepdog.

"Who's lookin' at you, kid?"You might laugh at the idea of including the nearby camels as old Hungarian breeds, but in fact they traveled over the Carpathians Mountains from the east with the wandering Magyar tribes in the 9th century.

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Their one-humped cousins, the dromedary, came with the Ottomans in the 16th century.

Once you’ve also been through the Madagascar Zone, with its brightly colored birds and the ring-tailed lemurs moving around visitors freely, your head will be spinning with all the bits of the Earth you’ve covered (albeit in miniature) in a day.

Budapest Zoo (+36 1 273 4900) is open year round but hours vary month by month; adult $11, child $8, family $33.

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