A double dose of history and indulgence in Budapest

The Danube divides Hungary's capital into two fascinating parts. Charles Hebbert is your guide

The stones of Budapest have an indisputable magnificence; the setting, straddling the Danube, isn't bad either. The river divides the city into Buda on the west bank, and Pest on the east. Yet Hungary's capital isn't just about history or beauty: there is a buzz about the place that turns even the old buildings earmarked for demolition into trendy bars.

Dominating the southern end of Buda's Castle District is the vast Royal Palace, home to Hungary's rulers for hundreds of years. The 1944 siege of Budapest brought that to an end when the Soviet army blitzed the whole district. From the ashes rose the present, rather bland version of the palace, but the outlook improves inside.

The Budapest History Museum (00 36 1 250 1650; btm.hu; closed Tues) has good new displays on how the city developed, and you can explore the depths of the old medieval palace. The Hungarian National Gallery (00 36 1 356 0049; mng.hu; closed Mon) has the largest collection of works by Hungarian painters in the country. Look out for Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary, the 19th-century visionary whom Picasso admired, the brooding canvasses of Mihaly Munkacsy and the delightful Art Nouveau works by Jozsef Rippl-Ronai.

Next door stands the upper station of the funicular – the Siklo – that whisks you down in its replica wooden carriages to Clark Adam ter (square) at the Buda end of the Chain Bridge (Buda and Pest were united in 1873). Adam Clark was a Scottish engineer brought to Hungary to work on the bridge. When it was completed in 1849 it was the first permanent bridge between Buda and Pest. At Lanchid utca 5, 100m south, the Bortarsasag shop offers a good introduction to the range of Hungarian wine (see Fresh Cuts below).

Crossing the bridge to Szechenyi Istvan ter, at the Pest end, you come to one of the best preserved Art Nouveau buildings in the city: built in 1911, the Gresham Palace today houses the Four Seasons hotel (00 36 1 268 6000; fourseasons.com). Step through the wrought iron peacock gates to enjoy a coffee as you admire the glass roof and the tiles of the foyer.

Turn right out of the hotel and right again. As you walk along Zrinyi utca the impressive bulk of St Stephen's basilica (00 36 1 311 0839; basilica.hu) looms ahead of you. Walk through the grand interior to the chapel at the far left corner that houses Hungary's holiest relic, the Szent Jobb. This is the mummified right hand of St Stephen, the country's founder and patron saint.

At the office by the entrance of the basilica you can buy tickets for the Panorama Tower (500 forint/£1.40): a lift takes you most of the way up and you get fine views over the city.

One hundred metres to your right from the Basilica at Sas utca 17 is one of Budapest's best-loved restaurants, Café Kor (00 36 1 311 0053; cafekor.com; closed Sun). It's a small, buzzy place popular with locals and visitors alike.

Five minutes' walk down Sas utca and left at the end brings you to the beginning of Andrassy ut, one of the grand boulevards laid out during Pest's golden age. Upstairs at No3, the Postal Museum (00 36 1 268 1997; posta muzeum.hu) has a fine display of postal memorabilia and postal vehicles set in a fabulous pre-war apartment.

You pass another imposing 19th-century edifice 400m up Andrassy: the Opera House at No22, where Gustav Mahler was director for a short while. Daily tours at 3pm and 4pm take you round the gilded interior (00 36 1 332 8197; operavisit.hu; 2,900f/£7.90).

Crossing over the road, you'll find the faded grandeur of the Muvesz café at No29 (00 36 1 343 3544; muveszkavehaz.hu), which transports you back to that venerable Central European institution, the coffee house (open daily till 10pm).

Around the corner in the magnificent green-tiled building at Nagymezo utca 20 you come to the Hungarian House of Photography. The first-floor shop displays the depth of Hungary's photographic tradition (think of Kertesz, Brassai and Moholy-Nagy) and the temporary exhibitions are usually worth a look. Before the Second World War, the building housed the Arizona Club, which wowed Patrick Leigh Fermor when he visited. But in 1944 The Arizona's owners were killed in the Holocaust – a reminder that the wartime ghetto was not far away on the other side of Andrassy ut.

There are more architectural treats back on Andrassy ut at No 39. The Art Nouveau facade of the Alexandra bookshop (00 36 1 461 5830) soars up five floors, while the café on the first floor has a sumptuous fin de siècle interior decorated with frescos (open daily to 10pm).

Finish your walk with a modern counterpoint to Budapest's rich history in one of the city's popular "ruin pubs" – bohemian bars occupying buildings that are often slated for demolition. Turn right off Andrassy ut onto Nagymezo ut to find The Instant (00 36 1 311 0704; instant.co.hu), where six bars are dotted around the building's 20 rooms.

Charles Hebbert is the author of the 'Rough Guide to Budapest'

Fresh cuts

Hungarians are finally getting better at shouting about their wine.

One of the best distributors is the Bortarsasag (00 36 1 225 1702; bortarsasag.hu) and its new wine shop at Lanchid utca 5 is staffed by a helpful and informed team.

A recent arrival on the restaurant scene is the slick Borkonyha Wine Kitchen (00 36 1 266 0835; borkonyha.hu, closed Sunday) at Sas utca 3. The menu is a clear indication of how Hungarian cuisine has moved up a gear in the past year or two.

Several new smart wine bars are now vying to show off the local produce, but the pick of the bunch is Doblo, at Dob utca 20 (00 36 20 398 8863; budapestwine.com; closed Sun): a classy but far-from-pretentious bar that also does wine-tasting sessions.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Budapest is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Luton; Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) flies from Luton; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Manchester, Edinburgh and Leeds/Bradford; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol.

Staying there

Lanchid 19 (00 36 1 419 1900; lanchid19hotel.hu) is a boutique hotel with a local flourish of design. Doubles start at €70 (£55), room only. Home-Made Hostel (00 36 1 302 2103; homemadehostel.com) is a homely place in Pest with dorm beds starting at3,300f (£9).

Go guided

Absolute tours (absolutetours.com) offers a variety of walks through the city.

More information

budapestinfo.hu

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