Divided by the Danube River, the Hungarian capital of Budapest -- known as the "Pearl of the Danube"-- is a city of two distinct halves.
The hilly Buda side is topped by the impressive Royal Palace, now home to several museums and charming cobbled streets lined with shops and houses that date back to medieval times. On the busier Pest bank, there are grand sights like the parliament building, opera house and statue-lined Heroes' Square, plus fantastic shopping streets, such as Andrassy Avenue, Budapest's grand central boulevard.
Several bridges cross the river, but the best one to use is the historic Chain Bridge, which is the oldest. The great thing about Budapest is that it's very compact, so you can pack plenty into a short break. The majority of sights are within walking distance or easily reached on the efficient tram and underground network.
Coffee shops are a big thing. At one time, there were more than 400 in Budapest, so take time out to join locals for a caffeine boost and a slice of yummy cream cake. Budapest is also the world's only capital city to boast more than 80 active thermal springs and wells; soaking in the warm, mineral-rich waters is an authentic experience. Szechenyi is the largest, with indoor and outdoor pools, and Gellert is famous for its opulent architecture. Many river cruise operators offer trips to the baths as an excursion option.
Budapest's history dates back to the third century, when Celtic warriors occupied the area. Study the place a bit, and you'll find yourself wondering: Who didn't invade the city? The Romans, Magyars, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Austrians, Germans and Soviets have all played starring roles in Budapest's longstanding municipal drama. The city has been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries -- part of the reason for its eclectic architecture. Its current skyline reflects the building programs and styles of the turn of the 20th century. As Claudio Magris wrote in his travel memoir, "Danube," "Budapest is the loveliest city on the Danube. It has a crafty way of being its own stage-set."
A good many of Budapest's highlights are walkable from the riverbanks. If you're moored on the Buda side, you are closest to the Castle District, and you can follow a zig-zag path up to the top or take the funicular, which is the fun (and easy) way to get there. Fares cost around $4 (£.2.50) one way or $6 (£4) return. Or stroll along the bank to the ornate Gellert Baths, one of the city's thermal spas, which are open to the public. From moorings on the Buda bank, you need to walk across the nearest bridge -- usually the Chain Bridge -- to reach the attractions of Pest.
The Pest side is closest to the upscale shops of Andrassy Avenue, the parliament and St Stephen's Basilica, and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants with outside terraces lining the waterfront. Also nearby is the Tourist Information Center in Deak Square.
The Castle District: A maze of cobbled streets and medieval courtyards, the Castle District is Budapest's crowning achievement -- literally. It hangs grandly above the city, and the lovely Matthias Church that is its centerpiece is known locally as "the coronation church." Austria's Franz Josef was crowned king of Hungary there in 1867 to the strains of Franz Liszt's coronation mass, composed especially for the occasion. Today, as it has for centuries, the rampart next to the 700-year-old church offers incomparable views of the Danube and Pest. There's also a tourism office next to the church. (Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
The scene of battles and wars since the 13th century, the district also is home to the former Royal Palace, one of Hungary's most important national symbols. There are shops and restaurants in the complex in addition to a number of museums that include, notably, the Budapest History Museum and the House of Hungarian Wines. The wine museum houses more than 700 wines from the country's 22 growing regions. For a few forints, samples are available. (Szentharomsag Ter 6; + 36 1 900 9071; open daily, noon to 8 p.m.)
Andrassay Avenue: Almost two miles long, Andrassy Utca is the city's grandest boulevard, considered so special that the street was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2002. There, you'll find the stunning State Opera House, opened in 1884 (guided tours at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. daily); chic boutiques and grand villas with gardens; Franz Liszt Square with its open-air cafes; and, at the very end farthest from Danube, Heroes' Square. No visit to Budapest would be complete without a walk around the magnificent square, dominated by the 118-foot high Millenary Monument. The cenotaph is topped by the Archangel Gabriel, credited with converting the pagan Magyars to Christianity. At the base of the column are seven figures on horseback, representing the Magyar tribes. (Note: The Museum of Fine Arts on Heroes' Square is closed for renovation until the end of 2017. During this period, highlights from the collection are on display in the Hungarian National Gallery in the Castle District.)
Jewish Quarter: In the late 1930s, the Jewish Quarter was a thriving community with about 200,000 Jews. Most perished in the Holocaust. Today, the Great Synagogue, the world's second-largest after Temple Emanu-El in New York City, dominates the neighborhood. Built between 1854 and 1859 by a Viennese architect, the synagogue, with its onion-shaped domes, looks Moorish. The synagogue, closed Saturdays, seats 3,000 people. The complex also includes a Hall of Heroes, where the Monument of Hungarian-Jewish Martyrs was erected in 1991; a Jewish Museum; and a Holocaust memorial room.
Shoes on the Danube: It's not in the Jewish Quarter, but the memorial -- on the riverbank, just south of the parliament building -- is especially moving. The simple memorial, installed in 2005, features 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes, representing thousands of Jews who were shot on that spot by soldiers in World War II. Many fell or were pushed into the icy Danube and died.
Tip: Pick up a Budapest Card from the Tourist Information Office. Available for 24 hours (approximately $18/£12) to 72 hours ($36/£23), they provide free public transport; a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing tour; and discounted admission to selected museums and attractions.
Stylish fast food: Said to be one of the most beautiful McDonald's restaurants on the planet, the fast food outlet at Nyugati Railway Terminal was built between 1874 and 1877 by the same company that constructed the Eiffel Tower. It is the largest McDonald's in Hungary, featuring a two-story Baroque interior. Next door is the WestEnd City Center, which offers the best shopping mall in Budapest.
Szechenyi Baths: Located in a sumptuous yellow building in City Park next to Heroes' Square, Szechenyi is the largest thermal bath complex in Budapest and one of the biggest in Europe. It's where friends come to meet, gossip and relax in healing waters that are fed by the 120 thermal springs that feed the Danube. There are indoor and outdoor pools of different temperatures, and it's not unusual to see bathers playing chess on floating game boards. Massages are also available. Prices start from $17 (£11) for entry and locker rental. Individual changing rooms can also be rented, along with towels, robes and other items. It's worth bringing flip-flops if you have them, as they're not available. Tickets can be purchased online in advance, from authorised outlets in the city (see Watch Out For) and at the baths. Note: You can pay by credit card at the cashier's desk at the entrance to the baths, but once inside, only local currency is accepted at the booths if you want to buy treatments or rent additional items. (Allatkerti 9-11; +36 1 363 3210; open daily 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Hospital in the Rock: A lesser-known but fascinating attraction is the underground hospital hewn into caves beneath Castle Hill. The subterranean hospital was used during the World War II siege of Budapest and 1956 revolution. Wards and rooms contain original equipment and are brought to life by waxwork figures (some of them rather creepy). The $13 (£8.50) entry fee includes a short introductory film and guided one-hour tour. It can get chilly in the tunnels, so bring a jacket. Alternatively, visitors can borrow nurses' capes at the entrance for free. (Lovas Utca 4/c; +36 70 707 0101; open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
On Foot: One of the best things about Budapest is that is very walkable, with a compact city center. Many of the main sights are within a 20-minute walk of the docking area.
By Metro: The Budapest underground system is a tourist attraction in its own right. Built between 1894 and 1896, the M1 or yellow line was the second in the world after London and still has some original tile work. The MI line is very near ground level, and there are no elevators -- just a short flight of stairs to each station. There are now three lines in total, which serve all the major tourist destinations. The Metro is clean, safe and fast, with regular services running every two to 10 minutes. Individual tickets or books of tickets are available from manned booths at each station (denoted by large M signs). Tickets are also valid for use on trams and buses (although the latter is more complicated to work out and not advised when the Metro and tram system are much easier). Be sure to validate your ticket in the orange boxes at Metro entrances before travel, as inspectors carry out spot checks and fine passengers who do not have correctly stamped tickets. Maps of the lines are available from tourist offices and hotels. Signs above the track show the direction of travel, but if you go wrong, simply get out at the next stop and cross over to the other side.
By Tram: If you have a map, it's also relatively easy to get around on the city's extensive tram network and enjoy a spot of sightseeing as the trams rattle through the streets. Tickets are available from coin-operated machines next to the stops and must be purchased before travel. The machines don't dispense change. Again, they must be validated on another machine when you board by inserting the ticket in the direction shown by an arrow on the ticket. One of the most scenic routes is number 2, which runs along the side of the Danube. Routes 47 and 49 are the two main lines connecting Buda with Pest.
By Taxi: Budapest's licensed taxis are bright yellow and easy to spot. They have a set tariff, and fares are show on the sides of the doors. It's worth noting down the telephone number, as ordering a cab by phone is cheaper than hailing one in the street, albeit fares are still relatively inexpensive in comparison to those in other European cities. Firms include Fototaxi, which is also the official transport partner of Budapest Airport. (+36 1 222 2222)
Influenced by neighboring and former occupying nations such as Turkey, Austria and Serbia, Hungary has tasty national cuisine, much of it seasoned with paprika, which appears on restaurant tables beside the salt and pepper. There are many kinds of paprika, varying in color, aroma and, most importantly, taste -- ranging from sweet to extremely hot. Among the country's signature dishes are goulash, a thick beef soup cooked with onions and potatoes; fisherman's soup, a mixture of boiled fish, tomatoes, green peppers and paprika; chicken paprika; grilled freshwater fish; and fried or grilled goose liver.
Most meals begin with soup, including a surprisingly good sour cherry soup served in summer months. Always leave room for dessert, often pancakes served with a delicious chocolate rum sauce. Hungary's grape-growing tradition goes back hundreds of years, so don't miss the chance to try some robust red Bull's Blood or the lighter, sweeter white Tokaji. Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants. As for tipping, it's customary to tip your waiter 10 percent, but be sure to check the bill first, as sometimes the tip is included. It's OK to tip in U.S. dollars or euros.
Ruszwurm: Technically a cake shop, this quaint and atmospheric cafe opened in in Buda's Castle District in 1827 and is one of the oldest in the city. As it's so small, it can be hard to get a table, but the wait is really worthwhile, and it's a lovely place to stop off for a light(ish!) lunchtime snack. The cakes and pastries are sublime; the hardest part is deciding which one to have. (Szentharomsag Utca 7; +36 1 375 5284; open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
Gerbeaud: Long the centerpiece of Budapest's cafe society, Gerbeaud is more than a sweet shop -- it's a Hungarian cultural institution. Known for its coffee and torte cakes, the cafe has classic high ceilings with crystal chandeliers, polished wood and marble, and thick curtains. Little has changed since it opened 150 years ago. Situated on Pest's Vorosmarty Square, the neoclassical building also houses the Onyx, a microbrewery and gourmet restaurant. (Vorosmarty Ter 7-8; +36 1 429 9000; open daily, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m)
Gundel: For elegant dining, Gundel lives up to its reputation. The award-winning restaurant, open under its current name since 1910, is located in a late 19th-century palace in City Park, just a two-minute walk from Heroes' Square. Gundel, with its innovative menu, is known -- and deservedly so -- for creating new spins on traditional classics. It can be a little formal, as in the evening men must wear jackets, but the Sunday lunch buffet is less so. (Gundel Karoly Utca 4; +36 1 889 8111; open daily from noon to 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to midnight; open from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays)
Karpatia Etterem: A local favorite for special outings, Karpatia Etterem, with its medieval interiors, will remind visitors of Matthias Church. Situated in the courtyard of a former monastery, the restaurant specializes in traditional Hungarian cuisine, accompanied by traditional gypsy music. It also offers Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American fare. The restaurant is more formal and romantic, while the casual brasserie near the Pest side of Elizabeth Bridge offers lunch and snacks in addition to a dinner menu.(Ferenciek Ter 7-8; +36 1 317 3596; open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
Ships dock on both sides of the Danube, right in the center of town.
Budapest is generally safe, particularly in the main tourist areas, but as you would in any large city, beware of pickpockets, and always keep your belongings safe. Avoid unmarked taxis or those with only a taxi sign on the roof, as these will be unlicensed, and drivers can rip off tourists. Do not buy vouchers for Szechenyi thermal baths from street hawkers; they will be fake.
Hungary joined the European Union in 2004 but has not adopted the euro. The currency is the Hungarian forint, denominated in both coins and notes. Visit www.oanda.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates. Oanda also has a nice "cheat sheet" conversion chart that fits neatly into a wallet.
ATMs, readily available throughout the city, tend to be the least expensive way to obtain local currency. Generally, banks are open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. As in any city, there are currency exchange offices that charge a commission. Many souvenir shops and street stalls do accept euros and U.S. dollars, but check first, and expect to get any change in forints. All major credit cards are accepted.
The official language Hungarian. It's a tough language to master, and it has more links with Finnish than the languages spoken in the countries that surround it. But a few basic words go a long way: "Hi" is szia (si-ah). "Excuse me" is bocsanat (bo-chaa-naht). "Good morning" is jo reggelt (yoh regh-ghelt). English is widely spoken in hotels, shops, restaurants and all the major tourist attractions.
Vaci Utca is a wonderful pedestrian shopping street filled with gift shops, galleries, jewelers and boutiques. Also not to miss is the Great Market Hall, or Nagycsarnok, a covered market near Liberty Bridge on Vamhaz Korut, on the riverside end of Vaci Utca. It's in an unmistakable building that looks like a railroad station with a distinctive yellow, green and red tiled roof.
The first floor, selling inexpensive embroidery, folk art, dolls and other souvenirs, has become a magnet for tourists, but to savor the real atmosphere, spend time on the ground floor. Hungarians love salami, and the meat counters are draped with every conceivable variety in all shapes and sizes. For something sweeter, you can buy local honey at a fraction of the price you'd pay at home. Another excellent souvenir or gift is dried paprika in a pretty pottery jar. It's extensively used in Hungarian cooking.
During the holiday season, some riverboat operators offer special festive market cruises, and you'll find an outdoor Christmas market in Vorosmarty Square, just off Vaci Utca.