Review by Fiona Duncan, published 7th March 2011.
Though plumb in the centre of Europe, Budapest, for me, always casts a hypnotic east-meets-west spell, thanks to its years under Ottoman rule. Dramatically divided by the Danube and reconnected by a series of elegant bridges, hilly Buda and flat Pest are distinctly different, rapid expansion in the 19th century having been followed by harsh years of warfare and repression in the 20th. Now, though, Budapest makes a highly diverting city to visit, rejuvenated, spruced up and full of unexpected treats. By turns gritty and romantic, tranquil and majestic, it also represents, in my view, the best value for money in Europe.
First off, I always head for the vast riverside Parliament, its square still peppered with bullet holes from the 1956 uprising, and then continue via St Stephen's Basilica to Andrássy, the great boulevard that sweeps up to Hero Square, best negotiated via the delightful old metro stations along its path.
Here I show friends the Postal Museum (No 3), set in a lavish, unchanged 1886 apartment (the interesting bit) and then spend much longer in the House of Terror (No 60; www.terrorhaza.hu), which recalls the Fascist and Communist regimes and acts as a memorial to those who were tortured or killed in the building.
"Look up," I order, as we stroll along, for the streets of Pest are lined with a magnificent jumble of Neoclassical, Historicist and Art Nouveau buildings (seek out the creations of Ödön Lechner, "Budapest's Gaudí").
But it's the favourite pastime of the Ottomans that provides the most unexpected fun for first-timers: wallowing like a pasha in one of the city's Turkish baths.
My favourites are palace-like Szechenyi, with its steaming outdoor pools, complete with chessboards, or – on Saturdays when mixed bathing is allowed – Rudas, the most intimate of the Ottoman baths. Along with coffee houses, they define Budapest.
In 1948 the Communists closed every coffee house in the city, but a few originals still exist, such Gerbeaud, New York, Central, Muvész (all in Pest) and Ruzwurm (Buda). Eat the cakes, it's the law: Esterházy and Dobos are my favourites. For a taste of Goulash Communism (as the era was known in Hungary), I love going to Jégbüffé (Ice Buffet) serving wonderful pastries, waffles (göfri) and ices with no-nonsense bossiness (queue here, pay there). It's part of an exuberant early (1911) shopping arcade, Párizsi udvar, worthwhile, despite its current neglected state.
Explore Pest one day, Buda the next. Cross by the Chain Bridge, take the funicular, and wander the museums, historic buildings and pretty streets of Castle Hill before taking the path down and nipping into Rudas for a hot plunge.
Back in Pest, the evenings draw me to the evocative Jewish Quarter, and the mornings to the exuberant Central Market for those all-important bags of paprika, bottles of Tokaji and bargain Hungarian foie gras that I can never resist taking home.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) and Malev (0844 482 2360; www.malev.com) fly to Budapest. Once there, it’s cheapest for single travellers to take the shared ride AirportShuttle-Minibus for 2,900 huf (£7.50) direct to their door, while taxis cost around 5,000 huf (£15.50) to the centre.
The most readable and practical cultural guidebook is Visible Cities Budapest (Blue Guides, £9.95).
Eastern Europe specialists Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283;www.kirkerholidays.com) offers packages to Budapest. Three nights at the Hotel Palazzo Zichy cost from £646 per person, including flights, transfers and the services of the Kirker concierge for tickets, table reservations and private guides.
Fine Art Travel (020 7437 8553; www.finearttravel.co.uk) has a four-night guided tour of Budapest, including private collections, in May from £2,275 per person.
The inside track
Budapest’s Opera House (0036 1 332 7914; www.opera.hu) is the most ravishing in Europe and its tickets are a quarter of the price of Vienna’s (around £50), so catch a performance if you can; otherwise take the daily hour-long tour.
Budapest is not noted for shopping, but the varied antique shops of Falk Miksa utcá, where you can still find a bargain, are an exception.
Communist-era statues have been rounded up and are displayed inMemento Park.
A happier Communist legacy is the Children’s Railway(www.gyermekvasut.hu), staffed by 10 to 14 year-olds, that winds through the Buda Hills.
Two good lunch spots are the popular Seventies throwback Menza(Liszt Ferenc tér 2; 413 1482) when exploring Andrássy; and 21(Fortuny utcá 21; 202 2113) when on Buda’s Castle Hill.
The best hotels
Brody House £
Terrific guest house-cum-private club: high ceilings, parquet floors, great art, cool customers, fabulous bedrooms, all for a good price (0036 70 931 1402; www.brodyhouse.com; doubles from £50).
Hotel Palazzo Zichy £
Former private mansion that has been turned into a slick and great-value contemporary hotel; highly recommended (235 4000; www.hotel-palazzo-zichy.hu; doubles from £57).
Four Seasons Gresham Palace £££
Even if you aren’t staying, don’t miss this wonderful Art Nouveau landmark facing Chain Bridge. If you are, you’re in for a treat (268 6000;www.fourseasons.com/budapest; doubles from £215, including breakfast).
The best restaurants
Café Kör £
A lively favourite serving Hungarian food aimed at international tastes (Sas utca 7; 311 0053; www.cafekor.com).
Animated bistro decorated in florals, with good food and superb wines; owned by the Hungarian wine society (Andrássy út 41; no reservations).
Hungarian dishes under silver domes, virtuoso gipsy music – Budapest at its pre-war grandest. Take Sunday brunch upstairs in fabulous private rooms (889 8100; www.gundel.hu).