48 hours in... Budapest

The Hungarian capital has all the ingredients for a perfect autumn break.
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Day 1

Take a ride

Hop aboard the number 2 tram at the northern end of its run, Jaszai Mari ter, by the Margit bridge, and enjoy the perfect introduction to the city as you ride down the Pest side of the river. On Kossuth ter (Lajos Kossuth Square), you pass the imposing neo-Gothic Parliament and the grand Museum of Ethnography (neprajz.hu; 10am-6pm daily except Monday), which has fascinating displays of Hungarian folk art. You are then swept along the embankment with a grandstand view of the Castle District on the Buda side. Passing under the Lanchid (also known as the Szechenyi Chain Bridge), the first bridge built between Buda and Pest, you head down to Fovam ter, the stop for the Central Market Hall (Nagycsarnok). Further south, the tram passes "the whale" – the local name for the glass-roofed development that has indeed been beached by contractual bickering – and goes on to the Palace of Arts (00 36 1 555 3300; mupa.hu), which boasts one of the finest concert halls in Europe.

Window shopping

The smells of paprika, salami and fresh vegetables fill the air in the magnificent wrought-iron turn-of-the-century Central Market Hall (open Saturday 6am-2pm; Monday 6am-4pm, Tuesday-Friday 6am-6pm). The stalls set up down the right-hand side are aimed at tourists, so avoid them if you want to shop with the locals.

Lunch on the run

Behind the market, the friendly Borbirosag restaurant at Csarnok ter 5 (00 36 1 219 0902; borbirosag.com), serves delicious Hungarian-style tapas and fuller meals: the fresh duck salad (1600Ft/£5.10) is the pick of the salads. The "Wine Court" also serves excellent Hungarian wines – explore the lesser-known indigenous varieties such as the white Furmint or red Kadarka.

Cultural afternoon

The Applied Arts Museum (www.imm.hu; 10am–6pm daily except Monday; 1,000Ft/£3) by the Corvin negyed station in southern Pest is a flamboyant concoction in a style that typifies Hungarian Art Nouveau. Designed by Hungarian architect Odon Lechner, it blends Hungarian and Turkic ornamentation outside, while the pure white interior looks like something out of a Mogul palace.

An aperitif

The city is endowed with grand coffee houses, such as the sophisticated Central at Karolyi Mihaly utca 9. As the evening draws on, you will discover the vibrant nightlife of Budapest in the "ruin garden" bars. Kazinczy utca, in downtown Pest, has several of these, the most stable venue in this fluid scene being the Szimplakert at number 14. This former stove factory now accommodates a colourful jumble of outdoor and indoor bars. Spritzers are the in-drink – ask for a froccs (pronounced frurch – 250Ft/£0.75)

Dining with the locals

One of Budapest's best restaurants is the Bock bisztro at Erzsebet korut 43-49 (00 36 1 321 0340; bockbisztro.hu; closed Sunday), a small restaurant that serves traditional Hungarian dishes with a modern spin, uch as chicken paprikas with cottage cheese dumplings 3,700Ft/£12.50). Standards are equally high at the elegant Var: a Speiz, at Hess Andras ter 6 (00 36 1 488 7416; varaspeiz.hu) in the Castle District. The menu includes a "breadcrumb parade", where dishes are priced from 2600Ft (£8.50) – Wiener schnitzel will never taste the same again.

Day 2

Sunday morning: go to church

The neo-gothic style Matyas Church in the Castle District has a flamboyantly painted interior – you can avoid the 990Ft (£3.30) entry fee by attending Mass at 8.30am or the grander 10am Mass, which is celebrated in Latin.

Take a view

In the shadow of Matyas Church's spire, the Fishermen's Bastion (Halaszbastya) is a mock rampart whose seven turrets symbolise the Hungarian tribes that came to Europe. It offers a sweeping view of the Danube and Pest.

Take a hike

From Matyas Church, head west to Ruszwurm, a touristy but delightful coffee house that has been at Szentharomsag utca 7 for almost 200 years. Of the many museums in the district, you could choose the Golden Eagle Pharmacy museum at Tarnók utca 18 (10.30am–5.30pm daily except Monday; semmelweis.museum.hu; 500Ft/£1.70), which has a wonderful collection of medical tools and cures.

Walking south, you come to the Royal Palace, which houses the Hungarian National Gallery (www.mng.hu; 10am–6pm daily except Monday; 1,000Ft/ £3.40). This includes some of Hungary's finest artists, such as Csontvary, the 19th-century visionary admired by Picasso, and Rippl-Ronai with his masterly Art Nouveau canvases. From here, take the Siklo funicular (840Ft/£2.80) down to the river bank and cross the Lanchid to the superbly restored Art Nouveau Gresham Palace on Szechenyi ter for a coffee in the glass-roofed lobby of the Four Seasons hotel (00 36 1 268 6000; fourseasons.com/Budapest).

Out to brunch

Continue along the riverside to Peppers restaurant at the Marriott Hotel at Apaczai Csere Janos utca 4 (00 36 1 737 7377; peppers.hu) in Pest. It has a superb buffet (noon-3pm on Sunday) of Hungarian classics and international dishes: all you can drink and eat for 8,100Ft (£26).

The icing on the cake

The Szechenyi thermal baths (00 36 1 363 3210; szechenyibath.com; entry from 3200Ft/£10.60; daily 6am-10pm, steam rooms close at 7pm) provide an unmissable Budapest spa moment. You'll need to hire a swimming cap to swim in the big outdoor pool.

Travel essentials

Why go now?

Music is always near the surface in the vibrant capital of Hungary and bubbles up during the Budapest Autumn Festival (bof.hu; 7-16 October). October also sees the culmination of celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Hungarian composer Ferenc (Franz) Liszt with exhibitions and concerts (mupa.hu). The city is also enjoying a renaissance of cool, with its "ruin garden" bars (pop-up establishments in abandoned or condemned properties) and restaurants attracting international acclaim.

Touch down

Budapest airport is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow, and by a Malév (0844 482 2360; malev.com) code-share flight from Gatwick and Manchester. Wizzair (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) fly from Luton, and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Edinburgh and Manchester.

The easiest way into town is by taxi: go to the Fotaxi kiosks outside the terminal buildings (from 5100 forint /£15) or catch the Airport Shuttle bus which will drop you at your address from 2990Ft/£10.

Get your bearings

The main axis of the city is the River Danube, which is crossed by a series of graceful bridges. On the western side is hilly Buda, the former seat of government with the Royal Palace and the old Castle District. Pest, on the eastern side, is the flat, bustling commercial centre. The main tourist office is at Suto utca 2, off Deak ter (square), where the three metro lines meet. You can buy single tickets (320Ft/£1.10) for public transport or in books of 10 (2,800Ft/£9.30) from metro stations or tabak (newspaper) stalls.

Check in

The Continental Hotel Zara at Dohany utca 42-44 (00 36 1 815 1070;continentalhotelzara.com) offers four-star comfort in downtown Pest. Doubles start at €130, including breakfast. The Star Inn Hotel Budapest Centrum at Dessewffy utca 36 (00 36 1 472 2020; starinnhotels.com) is functional but modern and good value at €59, room only. By far the best budget offering is the Homemade at Terez korut 22 (00 36 1 302 103;homemadehostel.com – it offers doubles from 11,000Ft (£33), room only.