Architecturally stunning Budapest is a tour de force of Hapsburg splendor, best appreciated over rich cream cakes in a chandelier-lit Gerbeaud coffee house or a sumptuous steam in a Gellért thermal bath. Beyond the grandeur of the Royal Palace and the Hungarian State Opera House, the city has its head very much in the progressive, party-loving present. Free of its communist shackles, a dynamic cultural undercurrent once again flows freely down the Danube and across the city's grandly designed boulevards.
Things to Do
The key landmarks of hilly Buda center in the imperious Castle District, home to the gothic Matthias Church and the gracefully domed Royal Palace. The lake-dotted greenery of City Park sweeps up to monumental Heroes Square, renowned for its Old Master paintings and frescoes. When sightseeing gets tiring, you can revive in the steamy confines of Budapest's thermal baths -- from Art Nouveau Széchenyi to the Turkish delight of the Rudás and the grandiose Gellért.
Just off exclusive Váci utca boulevard lie courtyards studded with boutiques and shops selling handmade leather gloves, intricate Halas lace and Herend porcelain. Pricey antique shops and galleries cluster along Falk Miksa utca near the neo-Gothic Parliament and just steps from Katti Zoób, Hungary's leading design diva. Graze the Great Market Hall for fresh fruit and paprika, foie gras and salami, and taste Hungary's finest wines at laid-back Bortarsaság near the Castle District.
Nightlife and Entertainment
Live to party is the ethos of young Budapesters, who fill the pulsating kertek (garden bars) and floating lounges around Hajógyári Island at the first glimmer of summer. One of Hungary's hottest clubs, A38 is actually a ship that cruises along the Danube to the beat of live concerts and big-name DJs like DJ Krush. For a Bohemian feel, join alternative types for drinks in the Jewish District's artfully decayed courtyards. Opera, ballet and classical music is astonishingly inexpensive in the sumptuous Hungarian State Opera House.
Restaurants and Dining
No visit is complete without devouring chocolaty Esterházy torte in the opulent, chandelier-lit surrounds of Gerbeaud -- Budapest's most famous coffee house and a lingering memory of the sweet-toothed Hapsburgs. Loosen a belt notch for a Hungarian feast of goulash and creamy carp soup in Central Pest, or head down to the river for alfresco Italian, Japanese or one of the hip floating restaurants. In the strikingly illuminated Castle District, Alabárdos serves butter-soft foie gras and paprika-infused guinea fowl in elegant vaulted surrounds.