Coffee culture in a city of two halves

Ornate steam baths, fine architecture, languid cafés - Budapest has them all. Peter Moss treated himself

Since the collapse of Communism, Budapest has become one of the cities in central Europe that everyone wants to see. Despite centuries of unrest and upheaval, and still visible scars from the 1956 uprising, it retains the grandeur you would expect of a former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Danube is lined with monuments to the past, while the cafés testify to a lively present.

Since the collapse of Communism, Budapest has become one of the cities in central Europe that everyone wants to see. Despite centuries of unrest and upheaval, and still visible scars from the 1956 uprising, it retains the grandeur you would expect of a former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Danube is lined with monuments to the past, while the cafés testify to a lively present.

And though the Danube is grey, not blue, it still has an undeniable and rare beauty, not least because it is so visible from many of the city's hills and monuments. Watching the sun set behind the hills from the Freedom Monument atop Gellert Hill is one of the great moments for any lover of European cities.

When to goAs I love walking under a hot sun, and July suited me just fine. But my friend Csaba implored me to return in October, when there's minimal tourism and maximum autumn colour on the banks of the Danube. Musically speaking, both September and October are good for catching the quirky and quite brilliant Budapest Klezmer Band in concert twice weekly in the auditorium at the Great Synagogue. Evocative Jewish roots music in a near-perfect setting.

Getting thereBritish Airways (tel: 0345 222111) has late summer/early autumn deals from around £210 (incl tax), booking at least three days ahead, and staying over a Saturday night. Hungary's own airline, Malev (tel: 020-7439 0577) offers similar deals at similar prices. Both fly direct from Heathrow. Budapest airport is about half an hour from the city centre.

Where to stayBuda or Pest, either side of the river is fine. Pest, the busy downtown area, is where most of the hotels are. Buda, hilly and residential, is altogether quieter and more atmospheric. The Astoria Hotel at Kossuth Lajos Street 19/21 (tel: 0036 1 317 3411) is an ideal city centre base. Relaxed, great service, it feels like something of a gentleman's club. Doubles from £75 a night including breakfast.

For five-star luxury, the Inter-Continental (tel: 0036 1 327 6333), facing the Chain Bridge and the Royal Palace, has all the amenities, including health club and pool. Doubles from £165 (or from £180 for a river-view room). Breakfast extra.

The Art Hotel at Kiralyi Pal Street 2 (tel: 0036 1 266 2166) is a real find. Quiet, nicely refurbished, and some nifty Art Deco touches. Just 32 rooms, so get in quick. Doubles from £65 including breakfast.

The Hotel Citadella at Citadella Walk (tel: 0036 1 466 5794) is small (15 rooms) and somewhat basic, but has good views from the top of Gellert Hill. Doubles from £35.

Even smaller, behind Gellert Hill, is the Abel Guest House at Abel Jeno Street 9 (tel: 0036 1 209 2538). Quiet and comfortable, it has 10 rooms, all with private bathroom.

What to see and doMy own heritage drew me to the Great Synagogue, Europe's largest, on Dohany Street. A truly inspiring neo-Byzantine, quasi-Moorish pile, its domes are as glitteringly bulbous as the Holocaust Memorial within the grounds is starkly moving. The Parliament Building (the Orszaghaz), inspired by our own Houses of Parliament, is a glorious expanse of Gothic splendour, while Buda's Royal Palace is awash with columns and porticos, and starting point for the obligatory horse and trap ride around the medieval Castle District. Most beguiling of all the buildings on the Buda side of town is the Halaszbastya (Fisherman's Bastion), an absurdly Disneyesque concrete confection, topped by seven conical towers.

Budapest is rich in old-fashioned thermal baths, of which the most famous are at the Gellert Hotel. You can bathe outdoors or inside, where the floors are mosaic and the ceiling is of glass. Kiraly Gyogyfurdo, on Fo Street, is a slice of 16th-century Turkish architecture, which at first glance looks like a discarded set from Dr Who. Stroll an hour or two across the parklands of Margaret Island, before viewing the Monets, Picassos and El Grecos in the Fine Arts Museum on Hosok Square.

Food and drinkCafés abound in Budapest, and the best is Café New York on Erzsebet Boulevard. With its serpentine pillars, velvet cushions and sweeping staircase, you'll think that you're taking your espresso and flaky brioche in a Moroccan brothel. Cavernous, yet intimate.

On Vorosmarty Square is the equally alluring Gerbeaud Café, much cherished by the locals and perfect for people-watching as you consume a Volvo-sized slab of Black Forest gateau.

For proper eating, Lou Lou at Vigyazo Street 4 (tel: 0036 1 312 4505) is an intriguing mixture of French and Magyar. Main courses from £5. Even cheaper is Iguana Bar & Grill at Zoltan Street 16 (tel: 0036 1 331 4352). Terrific Mexican food, and a lively, and somewhat unlikely, Old Wild West atmosphere. My favourite is Okay Italia at Szent Istvan Boulevard 20 (tel: 0036 1 349 2991). Exquisite pastas and pizzas, and their house special of gnocchi with porcine mushrooms is barely a fiver, wine and espresso included.

NightlifeCasinos are big in Budapest; I lost a fair sum at Casino Vigado on Ybl Miklos Square. For clubbers, Fat Mo's, at Nyari Pal Street 11, combines the prohibition-era feel of Some Like It Hot with extremely loud heavy metal music. Latin lovers can get their fill of salsa and Santana at the Trocadero Café at Szent Istvan Boulevard 15. It has live bands, and they'll even teach you how to samba and rumba. And if all that sounds too energetic for you, just stroll down the pedestrianised Vaci Street,which runs parallel to the river south of Vorosmarty Square, and sip your cappuccino at one of the outdoor cafes - Café Anna is much the liveliest.

Deals and packagesPeter Moss's trip to Budapest was arranged by Travelscene (020-8427 8800), flying with Malev Airlines from London Heathrow and staying at the four-star Astoria Hotel. Two-night weekend Travelscene breaks at this hotel cost from £347 per person, based on two adults sharing (three nights from £390 per person), and include bed and breakfast accommodation and return scheduled flights (including taxes) from Heathrow.

Further informationBudapest's National Tourist Information Centre is at Suto Street 2 (tel: 0036 1 317 9800). In the UK, contact the Hungarian National Tourist Board (tel: 020-7823 1055).

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