48 Hours in: Budapest

Music, culture and innovative nightlife combine to create the perfect autumn break in the Hungarian capital.

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Day one

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), a feast of contemporary culture. 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 properties) and restaurants attracting international acclaim.

Touch down

Budapest airport is served by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow, and by a Malev (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.

Taxis are available from the Fotaxi kiosks outside the terminal (00 36 1 222 2222; fotaxi.eu; from 5100 forint /£15); or catch the Airport Shuttle bus (00 36 1 296 8555; airport shuttle.hu) which will drop you at your address from 2990Ft (£10).

Alternatively, catch the train from the station next to Terminal 1, where no-frills airlines arrive, to Nyugati Station (1), a couple of metro stops from the city centre. You can buy tickets (365Ft/£1.20) at the Tourinform desks in the terminals. If your flight arrives at Terminal 2B (BA, Malev) you'll need to catch bus 200E (320Ft/£1.10) to reach it.

Get your bearings

The main axis of the city is the River Danube, flowing south towards the Black Sea, which is crossed by a series of bridges. On the western side is hilly Buda, the former seat of government with the Royal Palace (2) and the old Castle District, which has a more sedate pace. Pest, on the eastern side, is the flat, bustling commercial centre. Radiating out from the Belvaros, the touristy inner city, are grand boulevards such as Andrássy út that proclaim the confidence of the city in its late 19th-century golden age.

The tourist office (3) is at Suto utca 2, off Deak ter (square), where the three metro lines converge at Deak Ferenc ter station. You can buy single tickets (320Ft/£1.10) for public transport or in books of 10 (2,800Ft/£9.30) from metro stations. Remember to validate each one. Alternatively, buy a Budapest Card (6,900Ft/£23 for 48hrs), which covers public transport (but not the Siklo funicular), entrance to museums and restaurant discounts.

Check in

The Continental Hotel Zara (4) at Dohany utca 42-44 (00 36 1 815 1070; continentalhotelzara.com) offers four-star comfort and a rooftop pool. Note its glorious Art Nouveau façade preserved from the former Hungaria baths. Doubles start at €130, including breakfast. The Star Inn Hotel Budapest Centrum (5), Dessewffy utca 36 (00 36 1 472 2020; starinnhotels.com) is good value at €59, room only. By far the best budget option is Homemade (6) at Terez korut 22 (00 36 1 302 2103; homemadehostel.com – original, quirky and brilliantly run; doubles from 11,000Ft (£33), room only.

Take a ride

Hop aboard the number 2 tram at the northern end of its run, Jászai Mari tér (7), by the Margit hid (bridge), and enjoy the perfect introduction to the city as you ride down the Pest side of the river.

On Kossuth ter, you pass the imposing neo-Gothic Parliament (8) and the grand Museum of Ethnography (9) (neprajz.hu; 1000Ft/£3.40; 10am-6pm daily except Monday), which has a fascinating display on 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 (10) (also known as the Szechenyi Chain Bridge), the first bridge to be built between Buda and Pest, you head on down to Fovam ter, the stop for the Central Market Hall (11) (Nagycsarnok). Further south, the tram passes "the whale" (12) – the local name for the glass-roofed development that has indeed been beached by contractual bickering – and goes on to the Palace of Arts (13) (00 36 1 555 3300; mupa.hu), the cultural centre down the river that 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 (11) (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 (14) at Csarnok ter 5 (00 36 1 219 0902; borbirosag.com), serves delicious Hungarian-style tapas and fuller meals: the fresh duck salad (1,600Ft/£5.10) is the pick of the salads. The "Wine Court" also serves excellent Hungarian wines – it is worth exploring the country's lesser known indigenous wine varieties such as the white Furmint or red Kadarka.

Cultural afternoon

The Applied Arts Museum (15) (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.

One of the exotic turn-of-the-century designs by the Hungarian architect Odon Lechner, it blends Hungarian and Turkic ornamentation outside, while the pure white interior looks like something out of a Mogul palace. The permanent display includes such delights as a wonderful Art Nouveau wooden and gold clock.

An aperitif

The city is endowed with grand coffee houses, such as the sophisticated Central (16) at Karolyi Mihaly utca 9. Stop for a coffee as you watch locals continue the tradition of writers and artists of the late 19th century.

As the evening draws on, you will discover the vibrant nightlife of Budapest in the "ruin garden" bars. Kazinczy utca has several, the most stable venue in this fluid scene being the Szimplakert (17) 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/75p).

Dining withthe locals

One of Budapest's best restaurants is the Bock bisztro (18) 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, such as chicken paprikas with cottage cheese dumplings (3,700Ft/£12.50); the wine here is just as important as the food.

Standards are equally high at the elegant Var: a Speiz (19) 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 2,600Ft (£8.50) – wiener schnitzel will never taste the same again.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The neo-gothic style Matyas Church (20) in the Castle District has a flamboyantly painted interior – you can avoid the 990Ft (£3.30) entry fee by attending Sunday mass at 8.30am or the grander 10am service with a choir and which is celebrated in Latin.

Take a view

In the shadow of Matyas Church's spire, the Fishermen's Bastion (21) (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 (20), head west to Ruszwurm (22), 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 (23) at Tarnok utca 18 (10.30am–5.30pm daily except Monday; semmelweis.museum.hu; 500Ft/£1.70), which has a wonderful collection of questionable medical tools and cures.

Walking south, you come to the Royal Palace (2), which houses the Hungarian National Gallery (mng.hu; 10am–6pm daily except Monday; 1,000Ft/ £3.40). This parades some of Hungary's finest artists, such as Csontvary, the 19th-century visionary whom Picasso admired, and Rippl-Rónai with his masterly Art Nouveau canvasses.

From here, take the Siklo funicular (840Ft/£2.80) down to the river bank and cross the Lanchid (10) to the superbly restored Art Nouveau Gresham Palace on Szechenyi ter for a coffee in the glass-roofed lobby of the Four Seasons hotel (24) (00 36 1 268 6000; fourseasons.com/Budapest).

Out to brunch

Continue along the riverside to Peppers restaurant (25) 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) per person; children under six go free and can enjoy craft activities in a supervised playroom.

A walk in the park

Catch the yellow metro line 1 from Vorosmarty ter close to the Marriott and get off at Hosok ter for the verdant expanses of Varosliget (26), the City Park, which is studded with museums and playgrounds. Behind Hosok tere and its parade of great Hungarian leaders is a rowing lake that turns into an ice rink in winter, with its backdrop of the fairy-tale Vajdahunyad Castle.

The icing on the cake

The Szechenyi thermal bath (27) (00 36 1 363 3210; szechenyibath.com; entry from 3,200Ft/£10.60; daily 6am-10pm, steam rooms close at 7pm) is also located in the park. This is that unmissable Budapest spa moment. Besides its open-air pool with chess players, it also has an outdoor whirlpool plus steam rooms and cold plunges inside – 16 pools in all. You'll need to hire a swimming cap to swim in the big outdoor pool.

Charles Hebbert is the co-author of the forthcoming Rough Guide to Budapest

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