a short stay in...: Budapest

Alongside neighbours Prague and Vienna, Budapest dominates central Europe with its riverside setting beside the Danube, its thermal waters and its rich architectural splendours. From mud baths to vineyards to classical concerts, Gareth Lloyd couldn't get enough

WHY GO THERE?

For bone-shaking trams trundling through cobbled streets, and classical music wafting from grand concert halls. You can also admire the cityscape from a boat on the Danube, explore the synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter, and lose yourself in the labyrinth beneath Castle Hill; or take a picnic on Margaret Island before heading for a mud bath and massage at the Gellert.

GETTING THERE

Air: Malev Hungarian Airlines (tel. 0171 439 0577) have daily flights from London Heathrow to Budapest from pounds 224 including taxes.

Bus: Eurolines (tel. 01582 404 511) have four coaches per week shuttling between the two capitals for just pounds 119 return.

Train: Sadly, it is something of a nightmare trying to get times and prices for international train journeys. The best places to try are the British Rail Shop (tel. 0990 300 003) and Telephone Information Masters (tel. 0891 600 700; calls cost 56p per minute at all times). The journey takes about 21 hours and costs around pounds 290 return.

GETTING AROUND

The best way of travelling between the airport and the city centre is either with an airport minibus or a taxi. The minibus costs around pounds 3.60 per person and will drop you off wherever you want to go. Taxis charge about pounds 0.50 per kilometre. The city is served by a comprehensive network of trams (villanos), trains (HV and metro) and buses (busz) 24 hours a day. All run every 5-10 minutes up until around 11.30pm when the nightbuses begin. The uninitiated will find the ticketing system complex and confusing. Your best bet is to invest in the excellent Budapest Card. At around pounds 6 for two days and pounds 7 for three days (a child under 14 can accompany one adult card-holder for free), you get unlimited free travel on city transport, free entry to 55 museums and sights, along with discounts in a whole host of shops, baths, tours etc. You can buy the card at the airport mini-bus counter or any of the city tourist offices (see information).

WHAT TO SEE & DO

The Budapest Card gives free or discounted access to most of the sights below. See above for details.

n Budvri Labrintus (daily 9.30am-7pm; free with Budapest Card) is a 1200 metre complex of caves inside Castle Hill. Prehistoric man first used the caves as a refuge around half a million years ago but more recently they served as a secret military installation during the Cold War. Today the place has been turned into a weird tourist attraction with a fountain that gushes with real wine (that tastes vile), "Shaman passages" and some pseudo-caveman paintings - all of which can be enjoyed to the sound of classical music and pounding primitive drums that are guaranteed to scare your pants off.

n Fine Arts Museum (Tues-Sun 10am-5.30pm; free with Budapest Card) a hulking neo-Classical edifice dominating the north side of Heroes' Square, is one of the major art galleries of Central Europe. Apart from the Greek and Roman ceramics, and the Egyptian funerary relics, there are paintings and drawings by European masters from the 13th to the 20th centuries, including works by Durer, Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya, Van Dyck and Leonardo da Vinci.

n Matthias Church (free entry), set high on Castle Hill, dates from the 13th century but is a riotous mix of all ages and styles since then. When the Turks overran the city in 1541 they converted the church to a mosque. After being recaptured in 1686 the church was redecorated in rich baroque designs, although the exotically patterned interior columns retain an eastern flavour. The view of Pest from the nearby Fisherman's Bastion is stunning.

n Gellert Baths (Mon-Fri 6am-7pm, Sat & Sun 6am-5pm, tel. 166 61 66) first opened as an upmarket thermal bathing health centre back in 1918 and retains a definite air of grandeur today. The treatments on offer range from traction cures to ultrasonic treatment, but most people are satisfied with a cosy two-person tub bath, a refreshing splash around in the sex segregated steam pool, and a good workout on the massage table. Phone, call in or speak to the tourist office to find out the opening hours of the bubble, wave, tub and mud baths, which vary from those for the main pool.

n Dohany utca Synagogue is not only the largest in Europe, but is the second largest in the world (after Temple Emmanuel in New York). Dating from the mid-19th century, it is one of Budapest's most striking buildings. One wing of the synagogue contains the National Jewish museum (Mon-Fri 10am-3pm, Sat closed, Sun 10am-1pm, free with Budapest Card) which exhibits items from Jewish history in Hungary and photographs from the ghetto and war years.

n Cog Railway (Fogaskereku) - free with Budapest Card - which starts just opposite the Hotel Budapest on Castle Hill, is usually a big hit with the children. Regular trains have been winding their way through the pleasant wooded suburbs and up into the Buda Hills since 1874. Near the Szechenyihegy upper terminus on Rege utca is the narrow gauge Children's Railway (Gyermekvast). Trains leave hourly for the scenic 12km tour.

n The Parliament (Orszghaz), a grand neo-Gothic structure completed in 1902 on the Pest side of the Danube, bears more than a passing resemblance to our own Houses of Parliament. To simply say that, with almost 700 rooms and 18 courtyards, this is the largest building in Hungary, would not be doing the building's dazzling mass of statues, gold tracery and baroque murals, real justice. To get a real taste of the building's history and drama, take one of the many tours on offer for around pounds 4.

n Basilica of St Stephen (free entry), a huge neo-Classical building, was started in 1851 but wasn't completed until 1906. Much of the interruption was due to the collapse of the main dome in 1868. To be honest the gloomy interior isn't that inspiring. The main reason for coming here is to ogle at the mummified right hand of St Stephen (King Stephen I) - an object of great devotion. To view it you have to follow the signs for "Szent Jobb", then put a coin in the little machine to light the glass casket up. Not a pretty sight.

n Margaret Island, lying in the middle of the River Danube, is the place to head for when you're suffering from museumfatigue. It was called the Island of Rabbits before the Turks arrived, but - appropriately enough - they turned the place into a harem. These days the attractive gardens and shaded walkways make it one of the city's most popular parks, and a great place to enjoy a sausage, bread and beer picnic.

OUT OF TOWN

A cruise up the Danube to Visegrd (adults pounds 2.70, children pounds 1.80) makes for a great day trip from Budapest. The journey takes you through an idyllic rural landscape of hamlets, orchards, vineyards and wheat fields; past the artist town of Szentendre and on to the Royal Palace high on the Danube Bend. Mahart boats leave Budapest's Belgrd rakpart at 10am and arrive in Visegrd some three hours later. Regular buses leave Visegrd for the one-hour journey back to Budapest.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel prices in Budapest compare very favourably with the UK. Although some places advertise room rates in German marks, all will accept payment in local currency.

n Citadella Hotel-Hostel (Citadella; tel. 0036 1 166 5794) is probably as near as most of us will get to living in a castle overlooking the Danube. The 15 twin rooms start at around pounds 22 per night, while one of the 58 dorm beds will set you back a mere pounds 4.

n Dominik Panzio (1146 Chzr Andrs utca 3; tel. 0036 l 343 7655) is a large but welcoming budget pension close to the city park. Clean and simple singles/ doubles/triples cost pounds 12/pounds 14/pounds 18 per night with buffet breakfast. Five person apartments go for pounds 30 per night.

n Hotel Medosz (Jokai ter 9; tel.0036 l 531 700) is a modern(ish) hotel near the centre of Pest with a curious Eastern European feel. The best rooms are the front facing ones overlooking the sleepy tree-filled square. Bright and breezy singles/ doubles/ triples cost pounds 20/pounds 28/pounds 33 with en suite bathrooms and breakfast.

n Hotel Victoria (Bem rakpart 11; tel. 0036 1 457 8080) is a friendly four-star family run hotel on the Buda embankment of the Danube. Singles/doubles/extra beds cost pounds 60/pounds 67/pounds 27 per night with ensuite bathroom and breakfast. Highly recommended.

n Budapest Hilton (Hess Andrs ter, tel. 0036 1 214 3000) has the edge over its five-star rivals, due to the views from the Danube facing rooms and its prime location in the medieval heart of Buda. With special weekend rates, luxury rooms start at pounds 102 per night with breakfast.

FOOD & DRINK

Typical Hungarian food errs more towards the "filling" than the "fantastic" side of the food spectrum. You'll find plenty of solid meat and potato dishes in various guises, which can be washed down with the good, inexpensive local beers and wines - just what you need after a hard day's sight seeing.

n New York Cafe (Ersebet krt 9-l l) is a crumbling neo-Gothic relic from Budapest's turn-of-the-century cafe society heyday. The local literati and transient tourists flock here to enjoy strong coffee and tasty pastries amongst the glittering decor and fancy frescoes. Coffee and cake should cost around pounds 2 per person.

n Marxim Pizzeria (Kisrkus utca 23) is in a cellar of a building along a grimy side street, just five minute walk from Moszkvater. The theme is a take-off of the old Stalinist days with posters, slogans and pizzas (with names like Ciulag, Kulak and Lenin) to match. A large pizza and a couple of beers should cost less than pounds 5.

n Spatan Restaurant (Hess Andrs ter 4, tel. 175 6175) is a wood panel and fresco bedecked eatery on Castle Hill, with some of the best tenderloin steak in town. Expect to pay around pounds 10 for a sumptuous three-course meal with drinks.

n Mzeum Kvehz (Muzeum krt 12; tel. 138 4221), next door to the National Museum, is an elegant tiled restaurant that was formerly an old coffee house. The salmon carpaccio is a speciality. Expect to pay no more than pounds 14 for a three-course meal with drinks.

n Kulacs (Osvt utca 11, tel. 122 3082) is a traditional old Pest Restaurant that was the former haunt of pianist Rezso Seress (1889-1968) famous for the melody Gloomy Sunday. These days you can eat to the beat of the local gypsy bands. Expect to pay around pounds 15 for a three-course meal with drinks.

n Gundel (Allatkerti t 2; tel. 321 3550)is without a doubt Hungary's most famous top class restaurant. First opened back in 1894, its recent diners have included Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth II. A three- course meal with drinks should only set you back around pounds 20, but an even better bargain is the Sunday buffet lunch for only pounds 9.

ENTERTAINMENT

The invaluable monthly booklet, "Budapest Panorama," lists most of the concerts, festivals, operas, ballet, sports events and exhibitions happening in and around the city. Pick up a free copy from one of the tourist information offices.

The big classical events are the Budapest Spring Festival (March) and the Autumn Music Weeks (late September to late October), which attract the cream of national and international performers. Two events you really shouldn't miss, whatever time you visit, are an opera in the grand State Opera House and a classical concert in the grand setting of the Matthias Church. Both are unforgettable experiences that won't break the bank.

If you're after something slightly less high-brow, there are plenty of blues, rock and jazz clubs, along with plenty of discos to choose from. The smoky Jazz Cafe (Balassi Blint) has music from 8pm on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. While Tilos az A (Mikszth Klmn ter 2) is the best venue for live blues or rock-and-roll groups from Thursday to Saturday nights. Dancing kings and queens should head for E-Klub (Nepliget t 2; open 8pm-5am), where a predominantly youthful crowd (some of whom speak English) sweat and gyrate until the early hours. Anywhere that calls itself a "night-club" is probably a striptease bar.

CURRENCY

At present there are around 340 Hungarian forints to the pounds , although the rate goes up almost daily. You can change money in Budapest airport, at large hotels and at numerous exchange bureaux around the centre of Pest. There are a number of number of ATMs around the city. Credit cards are only useful in large hotels, and tourist-oriented shops and restaurants.

PACKAGES/DEALS

Gareth Lloyd travelled to Budapest with Fregata Travel which offers a range of city breaks to Budapest starting from pounds 283 for two nights in a three-star hotel with breakfast, return flights and taxes included. Inn Travel offer a similar deal starting from pounds 308. Thermalia Travel (tel. 0171 483 1898) are offering three nights at a thermal bath hotel over the Spring Bank Holiday (22-25 May) for pounds 430. This price includes return flights, use of the thermal facilities and one free massage.

INFORMATiON

If you need more information, try to contact the Hungarian National Tourist Office (who are at 46 Eaton Place, London SW1X 8AL; tel. 0171 823 1032), or Tourinform ( to be found at Suto utca 2, just off Dek ter; tel. 00 361 117 9578) after you have arrived in Budapest.

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