For first-time visitors-and even for some old Hungary hands - initial impressions of this handsome, mostly nineteenth-century-vintage capital (pop. 2 million) are usually of rather impressive prosperity. Sitting in an outdoor cafe along the Vaic utca, Budapest's preeminent pedestrian mall, I watch Magyars (Hungarians) saunter past in colorful, well-coiffed droves, window-shopping and cheek-kissing furiously. The busy avenues - which bring to mind Baron Haussman's classic Paris - are lined with testaments to the dozen-year-old capitalist order: gleaming, Madison Avenue-style storefronts crammed with cell phones, pricey antiques, and brand names. But as always, appearances can be deceiving-after all, there's a Gucci in downtown Moscow and Jaguars now tool the boulevards of poverty-stricken Bucharest. Yes, the economy has gone to town since the bad old days of the Warsaw Pact, and growth is at a humming 6 percent. But monthly incomes still hover around $300, and though you can find plenty of costly expense account hotels and restaurants, many prices still reflect the Hungary of yesteryear - similar to those of the Czech Republic and 10 to 15 percent lower than Poland's. Thus Budapest still sits squarely in shoestring travel territory - and probably will for some time, at least until 2004 or 2005 when the European Union brings Hungary into the fold. At the moment, exchange rates (US$1 recently bought 298 Hungarian forints) also strongly favor American visitors.
Furthermore, as I delve deeper, I happily discover that prosperity has been no more successful than Lenin or successive armies at squashing Budapest's fiercely distinct heritage and charms. Hungary's capital has long been called "the Paris of the East" because of its cultural offerings, homegrown wines, Seine-like riverfront, and grand avenues. But that label isn't quite right. The distinctive Magyar cuisine, the hot-spring baths, the gypsy melodies-they leave no doubt as to exactly where you are.
On a map, the city appears to be carved in half by the Danube. In fact, Buda and Pest were separate cities until they merged in 1873; to this day they each retain distinct personalities. Buda commands views from heights that for centuries served as the seat of monarchs and Austro-Hungarian emperors; there are no more aristos here, but the imperialistic sensibility is still palpable on the mile-long Castle Hill. Pest, the flats east of the Danube, is historically a commercial center; it's now quite cosmopolitan and home to most of the city's residents and businesses.
Upon arrival, it's a good idea to purchase a Budapest Card, which for f 3,400 ($11.40) for two days and f 4,000 ($13.40) for three days gets you free trips on public transportation, entry into museums, and discounts on a number of attractions, including the historic baths. It's available at subway stations, tourist information bureaus, and hotels.
Buda: Castles, caves, & baths
The Buda side of the city rises abruptly out of the plains and looms high over the Danube. As I stroll across the landmark Chain Bridge, gazing up at the hills, I quickly comprehend why the city's royalty set up shop there.
Castle Hill calls to mind all those medieval epics involving suits of armor and vats of boiling oil. The ridge is studded with bastions, manors, and the Royal Palace, amazingly reconstructed from rubble after World War II. The Gothic Matyas Church, too, is remarkable, first erected in the mid-thirteenth century and still one of the city's most prominent landmarks despite being nearly completely destroyed several times. Its jagged spires and diamond-patterned roof were among the reasons it took nearly 20 years to rebuild after the Nazis hammered it. Don't neglect to wander over to Fisherman's Bastion, a former marketplace with towers and meandering steps and passages; here both residents and visitors now gather to watch sunsets over the Danube far below. The view through stone-framed windows is truly sublime.
Buda holds all the city's geological oddities, too: a network of caves with wonderfully grotesque limestone formations-such as the Palvolgyi Cave (Szepvolgi ot 162) - and 123 hot springs alleged to have medicinal value for conditions from rheumatoid arthritis to heart disease. Whether you buy the therapeutic part is up to you, but a soak in one of the baths is an obligatory part of the Budapest experience, dating back two millennia to the Romans and later the Turks. Unlike in America, the spas are intended for both plebes and plutocrats, and priced accordingly. A full day in the warm waters of the historic Gellert Bath (Gellertater 1, 466-6166), a grand nineteenth-century spa hotel, costs only $7. A 15-minute "refreshment" massage - a unique Budapest experience - adds merely $2.75 to the tab. Admittedly, it's not always the most soothing experience; the masseurs (for men, at least) work in a brightly lit, tiled room and converse loudly in Hungarian, often breaking into uproarious laughter (oy, those Hungarian knock-knock jokes). Facilities also includes various saunas and swimming pools, one of which has a wave machine.