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Why go now?
With influences as diverse as ancient Rome, Austria and Turkey, the city astride the Danube has many absorbing dimensions – from confectionery to communist relics. While Britain cools down, Hungary's capital will prove welcoming and warm well into autumn – ideal for spending a day on either side of the Danube.
Budapest has links from Heathrow and Gatwick on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) and Malev (0870 909 0577; flymalev.co.uk ), and from Luton on easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com ) and Wizz Air (0904 475 9500; wizzair.com ). Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ) flies from Bristol and Prestwick, and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com ) from Manchester.
Ferihegy airport is 10 miles south-east of the city centre, with no direct scheduled rail or bus link. A shared shuttle bus to your hotel costs about €20 – many prices are quoted in euros rather than the local currency, the forint, and euro notes are accepted. A taxi will cost about 6,500 forint (£20). The cheapest way in is to get bus 93 to the nearest terminus of the Metro, Kobanya-Kispest, and travel on from there; this will cost a maximum of a couple of pounds.
Get your bearings
Budapest is a city of two halves: older, hillier and more immediately alluring Buda on the west bank of the Danube, and flatter, newer but fascinating Pest to the east – whose cosmopolitan, commercial hub is Vorosmarty ter (1). The main tourist information office is awkwardly placed at Liszt Ferenc ter 9-11 (2); it opens 10am-6pm from Monday to Friday and 10am-4pm on Saturdays (00 361 322 4098; budapestinfo.hu ).
Trendy new hotels have been arriving thick and fast, but one of the first openings of the 21st century is still top choice: the Art'otel Budapest (3), on the Buda side at Bem rakpart 16-19 (00 36 1 487 9487; arthotel.de ). Booking online, you can sometimes find double rooms for under €100, including an extravagant buffet breakfast. Note that many tourist enterprises quote prices in euros, though you are at liberty to pay in the Hungarian currency.
On the Pest side, an intriguing alternative to all the chain hotels is an apartment in the Jewish quarter, in a complex that also includes a restaurant and a theatre. Spinoza (4) at Dob utca 15 (00 36 1 413 7488; spinoza.hu ) has spacious and comfortable apartments for two, four or six people in the Jewish quarter, starting at about Ft25,000 (£80) for two.
Of Budapest's many hostels, one of the best is the Interflat Hostel (5), very close to Nyugati railway station at Podmanickzy 27 (00 36 1 301 0988; interflat.eu ). It occupies the first floor of an old mansion, and has spacious, high-ceilinged rooms. This is not the most salubrious area, and some rooms face on to one of Budapest's busiest streets. But at around Ft15,000 (£46) for a double room, it is reasonable value and well placed for public transport.
Take a hike
The fastest way to become aware of the multiple influences at work on the Pest side of the Danube is to walk for barely more than a mile along the main thoroughfare. Begin at Roosevelt ter, dedicated to an American president. The Four Seasons hotel (6), overlooking the awkwardly shaped, traffic-filled "square", is one of several multinational chains that have made their mark on the Hungarian capital. Even before the collapse of communism, Budapest was open to foreign firms.
Walk south along Dorottya utca, where much building work is in progress to transform 19th-century elegance to 21st-century opulence (the 20th century was unkind to Budapest).
You quickly arrive in Vorosmarty ter (1), the hub of Pest – named after the 19th-century poet whose statue has pride of place.
Immediately on your left as you enter the square is Gerbeaud, a grand cafe established in 1856 in the best Central European tradition – and the grande dame of the city's many cake shops, or cukraszda. Scurrying waitresses bear trays of cakes that ooze cream, chocolate and calories, in surroundings as rich as the confectionery. Look around the square to see how quickly the old regime is being chased away: a shiny new retail complex fills the west side.
Vaci utca, which runs south from here, is the main tourist precinct of the city, but besides souvenir shops, chain retailers and moneychangers there is some historical interest: St Michael's (7), a beautifully decorated 18th-century church with interesting frescoes. Just beyond here, you have to negotiate a subway to continue south; the retail offerings are replaced by grand mansion buildings.
At the southern end, at Fovam ter (8), you can explore the clearest remains of Roman occupation, in the shape of the exposed foundations of a fortress. Elements of Roman construction were incorporated in the building of St Florian's Church, the oldest in the city, Hungary's leading composer, Franz Liszt, conducted here several times, and his Missa Choralis had its premiere here in 1872.
Across busy Vamhaz korut stands Budapest's central market, Nagy vasarcsarnok (9), a magnificent steel structure built at the close of the 19th century. There are about 200 stalls over two floors, a mix that provides for both locals buying groceries and tourists in search of souvenirs – such as bottles of palinka, the local brandy, or tins of paprika. It opens 6am-5pm from Monday to Friday and 6am-2pm on Saturdays.
Lunch on the run
As with any self-respecting market, you can find plenty to graze on at Nagy vasarcsarnok (9). For more sophistication, seek out the nearby Sercli (10) at the corner of Nyary Pal utca and Veres Palne utca (00 36 1 235 0293), where you can sample exotic dishes such as wild boar soup (Ft890/£2.75) and garlic catfish (Ft2,490/£7.80) in a bright and breezy location.
The best locally produced bargains are, strangely, maps. Even under communism, Hungarian cartographers were world-class, and at Cartographia (11) at Bajcsy-Zsilinszky utca 37 (00 36 1 312 6001, 10am-6pm from Monday to Friday) you can buy excellent charts of almost anywhere in the world cheaply. Indeed, the weak forint means that prices for all sorts of goods are favourable. Normal shopping hours are 10am-6pm daily except Sunday, but stores in the tourist areas tend to open on the Sabbath as well.
Take a ride
Budapest can claim to have the best-preserved historic metro line in the world. The city boasts the oldest underground railway in continental Europe, opened in 1896 and comfortably beating Paris. Step down to one of the stations, such as the western terminus at Vorosmarty ter (1), and you enter a film set of tiles and tunnels where nothing seems to have changed in more than a century (except that most ticket offices have closed down, replaced by confusing and often out-of-order machines).
Take a clanking old train to Hosok ter (12) ("Heroes' Square", with monuments to match), and you can walk back on the surface along Andrassy utca – flanked with fine shops, cafes and theatres. At number 60, the forbidding House of Terror (12) (00 361 374 2600; terrorhaza.hu ) was an interrogation centre for the AVH secret police – who took over premises previously used by the Nazis. Black-and-white images of some who died at their hands are arrayed outside. The ghastly story is revealed between 10am and 6pm daily except Monday, admission Ft1,500 (£4.50).
"When I am drinking wine", wrote Petofi Sandor, Hungary's national poet, "I am happy and I don't care who is in power". Drink some of the excellent local wines in 1920s ambiance in the Jewish quarter at Spinoza (4) at Dob utca 15 (00 36 1 413 7488; spinoza.hu ); ask for a peek at the theatre at the back.
Dining with the locals
You could stay on at Spinoza (4) for some Kosher dishes, or go for a full-on Hungarian feast at Muzeum (13) at Muzeum korut 12 (00 36 1 267 0375) where, once again, you may suspect you have wandered into a film set: the décor is as extravagant as the dishes, which are impeccably served and heavy on meat, starch and sauces. Note that, when tipping, you should discreetly indicate how much you want to add; leaving money on the table is considered vulgar or daft.
Sunday morning: go to church
You may enjoy the panorama from Fisherman's Bastion (14), the flamboyant structure projecting from Buda's Castle Hill, more than the city's principal church, St Matthias (15), which is adjacent; a restoration project has obscured the outside and restricted movement inside. You should still, however, be able to appreciate most of the superb stained-glass windows. Mass is said four times every Sunday morning, at 7am, 8am, 10.30am and noon; admission is Ft700 (£2.20) if you are a tourist.
Out to Brunch
Down by the Danube, the Dunaparti Matroz Kocsma ("Sailors' Inn")(16) is a cheerful, tourist-friendly place at Halász utca 1 (00 36 1 212 3817; matrozkocsma.hu ) that serves good-value fare on the terrace 10am-midnight daily.
Work off some of the excess by clambering back to the top of Castle Hill, the limestone spur that rises 550 feet above the river. Its geology means it is riddled with caves – some of which were put to good use by successive governments, as you discover at the fascinating Hospital in the Rock (17) (00 36 1 689 8775), whose entrance is somewhat concealed beneath the ramparts on the west side of the hill. Try to arrive on the hour (it opens 10am-6pm daily except Monday) so you can take the one-hour tour (Ft3,000/£9) of the Second World War hospital – and the bunker that was created in the Cold War to administer whatever remained of the city in the event of nuclear war.
The rest of Castle Hill has plenty of monuments and museums, but you may feel content to wander slowly south, taking a short-cut through the entrance of the Royal Palace (18) (open 10am-8pm daily except Monday) to descend to river level.
Icing on the cake
Continue south to the most iconic of Budapest's many spas: the Gellert (19) at Szent Gellert ter 1 (00 361 466 6166; gellertbath.com ). Before you go in, sip some (surprisingly normal) water from the circular spring outside, and take a look at the stained glass in the hotel that shares the premises. The basic opening hours are 6am-6pm at weekends, to 7pm on other days. A steam and a swim costs Ft3,100 (£9.50), with a modest refund of Ft400 if you leave within two hours.