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."
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.