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Often overlooked in favor of some of the more traditional central and western European capitals, Budapest is a surprisingly gracious destination with exceptional museums, historic architecture, festive events, world-class shopping and delicious restaurants. It can also be considerably less expensive and crowded than its western counterparts and makes for a wonderful urban getaway and cultural discovery vacation.

Really two cities united (Buda on one side of the Danube and Pest on the other), it is also a spa center and bath house mecca with an abundance of thermal springs flowing freely under the city. Summer brings a renewed vigor to the city as squares and plazas are transformed into popular outdoor gathering spaces, restaurants' outdoor patios and gardens are overflowing with al fresco diners and sunny days make walking the streets or along the Danube River bank an absolute pleasure. Summer is also not considered peak tourism season, so many hotels have reduced rates (except during the week of the Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix, this year August 2 to 5).

Once the bastion of traditional old-world hotels decked out in chandeliers and heavy velvet, Budapest is now home to nouveau boutique properties rivaling Paris and Berlin. The Boutique Hotel Zara Budapest (www.zarahotels.com) is located in the heart of the pedestrian shopping area of Vaci Street and footsteps from the Danube. The hotel has 74 rooms, LCD televisions, high speed Internet access and a feature I personally like -- a variety of pillows. Double room rates during July are $168 per night including buffet breakfast and taxes. During Formula One (August 2-6, 2007), the room rates go up to $272 per night.

The four-star Atrium Hotel (tel. +36/1-299-0777; www.atriumhotelbudapest.com) is the most recent addition to the Budapest boutique line-up. The centrally located, 57-room property opened in March 2007 and has a chic, bright interior with tasteful furnishings, slick contemporary design, and a light-filled central courtyard. Double room rates start from $163 per night with discounts for longer stays. Single rooms start from $136 per night.

When you go to the Art'otel Budapest website (tel. 888/201-1803; www.artotel.hu/budapest/budapest.html) it advertises room rates starting at $269 per night, but the trick is to search using the parent company's (Park Plaza Hotels) Special Offer tab on the left hand sided of the home page. A quick search for mid-week rates in July came up with a double room for $118 per night (even though the specials page did indicate that even special rates stared at $145 per night), with similar prices available at other times during the summer. The hotel itself is a gallery housing some 600 pieces of art by American artist Donald Sultan and Sultan has overseen the overall design concept of the property -- a blend of Baroque and contemporary architecture. Art'otel is part of a group of five hotels located in Germany and Hungary. The Budapest hotel is located in the city center, on the banks of the River Danube.

Of course going traditional is not necessarily a bad thing. The four-star Danubius Gellert Hotel (www.danubiushotels.com/gellert) is one of the best-known landmarks of Budapest and is located at the foot of the Gellert Hill, on the banks of the Danube River just across the Liberty Bridge from the city center. The famed Gellert Thermal Bath house is on the property and its facilities -- including thermal pools, saunas and steam baths -- can be used free of charge by hotel guests. The Baths and hotel date back to 1918 and the wave pool and 'champagne' bubble pool were added slightly later. There are women-only sunbathing terraces and areas for mixed 'naturist' bathing that are open from April to late September. The outdoor pools are open until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. The Danubius Value Rate Gellert Supersaver for midweek stays until October 31 is priced from $322 per person for three-nights (based on a July stay) including all taxes, breakfast and use of the Bathhouse facilities.

Also run by Danubius, the four-star Astoria Hotel (www.danubiushotels.com/astoria) is another of the city's older style hotels and is built on the medieval town walls. It features turn-of-the-century (the 20th, that is) atmosphere, Empire style interior decor and an impressive art collection. A three-night package here including buffet breakfast for two, two main meals at the hotel's Restaurant Empire, round-trip airport transfers and taxes is priced from $538 for two people. Some blackout periods apply.

For an authentic and traditional spa experience while in Budapest, visit the historic Király Bath house built in the 16th century (tramway 19, bus no. 60 and 86) and the16th century Rudas Bath house (bus no. 5, 7, 8 and 86 and tramway 18 and 19.) or the visually spectacular early 20th century Széchenyi (trolleybus 72 and the millennium underground train) -- one of the largest bath complexes in Europe. They are open year round and rates are extremely cheap as they are priced in Hungarian Forint rather than Euro, for example:

  • A 30-minute massage at Széchenyi -- $19
  • Use of a change cabin and pool area for the day at Széchenyi -- $15 (less $2 if you leave within two hours)
  • Use of a change cabin and thermal bath area for the day at Rudas -- $12 (less $2 if you leave within two hours)
  • A 30-minute aromatherapy and relaxation massage at Rudas - $19
  • A thermal medical bath at Király - $7
  • A 30-minute powder massage at Király - $21

For more information about Budapest visit www.budapestinfo.hu/en and www.frommers.com/destinations/budapest.

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