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.
Another bath definitely worth visiting is Rudas (Dobrentei tér 9, 375-8373), built in the 1500s, which features a spectacular domed Turkish-style interior with a hole on the top that lets in rays of sunlight; admission's $1.75 to $2. One caveat: while the main pools are available to everyone, the steam bath is open to men only.
Pest: Culture - and shopping
Pest is Budapest's workaday half, but over the years it has accumulated an impressive array of attractions, including world-class museums, antiques shops, and the monstrous neo-Gothic Parliament building. Catch a performance of Romeo & Juliet or Giselle at the stunning nineteenth-century State Opera House - one of the few landmarks that somehow avoided the Nazi blitzkrieg at the end of World War II. Tickets sell for about f 3,500 ($11.36), though the true forint-watcher can opt for limited-view seats for about $1.30.
To connect the dots of Hungary's proximate past, one of my favorite spots is the quirky and poignant Statue Park (227-7446, szoborpark.hu), the final resting place for 42 of the Communist monuments that once dotted the cityscape. From the center of Budapest, take the 7-173 bus to Etele ter, then switch to the yellow Volan bus. Admission is 65[cents].
If you develop a taste for Commie tchotchkes - or just feel like sifting through Budapest's attic - check out the Ecseri Flea Market, where you can find old timepieces and military uniforms bearing the familiar red star. There are also classic hand-cranked Victrolas, furniture, china, and all other imaginable varieties of treasure and junk. It's fun for wandering, but if you buy something, bargain lustily.
Open six days a week, it peaks on Saturday mornings, when half of Budapest seems to squeeze into the sprawling sheet metal complex. To get there, take bus 54 (black) from Boraros ter by Petofi Bridge. Admission is free.
Buda beds & nests in pest
Budapest offers a vast collection of lodgings for both backpackers and business travelers. Penny-saver hotels aren't quite as common as they were a few decades ago, but there are still a decent number of budget digs, particularly on the Buda side of the river. And even budget hotels typically include breakfast buffets with cheeses, cereals, fruits, and vegetables. And keep in mind that prices everywhere drop by about 20 percent during the off-season.
If you arrive without reservations-not necessarily a good idea during the May-through-October high season - the 24-hour Welcome Hotel Service (Apaczai Csere J. utca 1, 318-5776) will help you find a place to crash. You can also make online reservations of various sorts at budapest.com, hotels.hu, and BudapestHotels.hu. Finally, the Hungarian tourist office also publishes listings. Travellers' Youth Hostels (340-8585, travellers-hostels.com) operates 11 university and secondary-school dormitories in various downtown locations. Prices range from $9.05 for a dormitory bed to $25.50 for an air-conditioned double with a toilet and shower.
Another option is renting a unit at the Victor Apartment House, which you can reserve through the Budapest Hotels Web site. Located downtown at Victor Hugo utca 25-27 near a huge new shopping center, it isn't much to look at - gray and squat, with a small terrace - but you get a kitchen and all the normal accouterments. The rates help you forgive the lack of aesthetics: $33 for a single, $40 for a double ($201/$214 weekly, discounts available).
Moving up a notch to hotels, try the 130-room Touring Hotel in Buda (Punkosdfurdo utca 38, 250-3184, email@example.com), equipped with a restaurant and even tennis courts, and located north of downtown but only a 15-minute subway ride from the hubbub. High-season doubles with shared bath are $39 (they include sinks), and for a couple of dollars more, you can have your own shower. Another Buda bargain is the Hotel Budai (Racz Alad r utca 45-47, tel. and fax: 249-0208), an amiable 23-room establishment perched on a hill with a great view of downtown. Rates are $45 to $56.50, with breakfast.
On the Pest side, the Hotel Pedagogus (Benczur utca 35, 342-7970, firstname.lastname@example.org), is located just down the street from the magnificent Heroes' Square, an 1896 monument to Hungary's kings, statesmen, and warriors. The 62 basic rooms with full bath and double beds range from $23 to $36. Just down the street, the Radio Inn Budapest (Benczur utca 19, 322-0237), has 32 rooms, a garden, and a mostly English-speaking staff. Immaculate double rooms with satellite TV go for $54; the price dips to $40.50 off-season. Or try the modern but quirky-looking Hotel Liget (Dozsa Gyorgy ut 106; 269-5300, email@example.com), where 139 modern, spiffy rooms with baths start at about $63 single and $85.50 double.
A notch swankier, the shiny new Hotel Ibis Centrum (Raday utca 6, 215-8585) is just a paprika's throw from the National Museum. It has 126 rooms, three floors for nonsmokers (not a small thing in this tobacco-loving country), and an attractive rose garden. Rates are $66 single, $74.50 double, including breakfast.
A bed-and-breakfast in Hungary is called a panzio, but Budapest B&Bs are largely indistinguishable from hotels in terms of both charm and price. The City Panzio Matyas (Marcius 15, 338-4711) is a good choice because of its central location, almost on top of the Danube and just a few steps from the Vaci utca, where luxury hotels cost twice as much. It looks a little beat-up from the outside - a window on the front door is broken - but the building's clean and secure, and the included breakfast excellent. High-season doubles are $75.
Buda bites, pest repasts
Magyar cuisine is a major attraction in Budapest, and about far more than just the ubiquitous goulash. Don't expect to go home any lighter; this is a country where people eat salami for breakfast. Traditional fare favors game and fish laden with cheeses, creamy sauces, and of course, the beloved paprika.
Huge meals won't set you back much, even at some of Budapest's top eateries. Fortuna (Hess Andrasater 4, 355-7177), perched on Castle Hill in the upper reaches of Buda, is famous for its innovative gourmet dinners. Here, the menu includes creamy paprika stews of assorted fish with dumplings ($9.40) or breast of duck stuffed with goose liver, including apple pie for dessert ($10.50).
But it's not necessary to spend nearly that much to eat well - though the Pest side harbors many of the cheaper eateries. Hugely popular among locals is a traditional restaurant called Sipos (Obuda Lajos utca 46, 368-6480), where I recently feasted on cream of asparagus soup (97:) and grilled carp with fried beef fat and garlic ($3), awash in a creamy sauce of - what else? - paprika.
You'll spend just slightly more ($6 to $7) on fish dishes, served in a kettle and spiked with hot paprika, at Horgasztanya (Fo utca 27, 212-3780), located right near the banks of the Danube. Or try Tabani Kakas (Attila ot 27, 375-7165), which serves a huge menu of traditional fare for less than $10.
Pest, meanwhile, is a hotbed for coffeehouses, which have long been popular gathering places for thinkers, writers, and rebels, and thus are a huge part of Budapest culture. A good bet is the Central Kavehaz (Karolyi Mihaly utca 9, 266-4572), a significant intellectual hotbed dating back to 1887. Three leading periodicals were born here before the Soviets shut the place down in 1949. It re-emerged from exile in January 2000, art nouveau touches and menu meticulously restored. You can get the tarragon lamb - a favorite soup of the eminent Hungarian writer Zsigmond Moricz - for a mere $1.43. Or try the paprika potatoes with boiled sausage ($2.25), goose-liver risotto ($4.20), or paprika veal stew with gnocchi and sheep's cheese (ditto). With its muted, mustard-brown walls and gentle purr of conversation, it's the perfect place to try to mentally assemble the shards of the nation's dramatic and splintered history. By the way, the coffee is as strong as Zeus and as black as obsidian, so be prepared for some soaring caffeine highs. Many Hungarians drink it black, though cappuccino has become more common.
Though its prices are slightly higher, Gerbeaud (Vorosmarty ter 7, north end of Vaci utca, 429-9000), Budapest's internationally famous bakery, is well worth a visit. The piano on premises was bound for the Titanic, but wasn't completed before the fateful voyage. The Black Forest cherry cake ($1.60) and English apple pie ($1.10) live up to advance billing, though the coffee ($1.30) is disappointing.
A popular place for meals and mingling with Magyars is the massive Central Market Hall, off Fovam korot in 1-3 at the south end of Vaci utca. It's a colorful, multitiered farmers-market-type complex rendered a bit touristy by knickknacks and the ubiquitous red packages of paprika - but Hungarians swarm the place too, buying fresh fruit and fish that are squirming around in tanks. The restaurant on the top floor, Fakanal (Wooden Spoon), slings goulash and the like for $2 to $3. If you have a group, Bridge Tours (267-8829) will arrange for a guide to shop with you for traditional ingredients; the kitchen then prepares an enormous all-you-can-eat spread. The $11 price includes soups, wine, and dessert. Bridge Tours also arranges wine-tasting events and cooking courses.
Another interesting place to find traditional fare for low prices is Feszek Klub (Kertesz utca 26; 342-6549), an artists' enclave with a tree-dappled courtyard; Hungarian staples cost $7 to $10, including the obligatory jet-fuel espresso with dessert.
A day away: The Danube Bend
If you have the time, three towns an hour or so north of Budapest make for an alluring escape. Szentendre is an artsy village of stone streets originally settled by Serbs, whose influence is still evident. It's filled with museums, and it's fun to wander the serpentine streets past gardens and up to hilltop churches. The elaborate ceramic works in the Margit Kovacs Museum are impressive.
Also worth visiting are the cathedral town of Esztergom-Hungary's religious capital and home to a gargantuan basilica whose dome is visible miles away - and Visegrad, where you'll find the ruins of a citadel and ramparts that date back to the thirteenth century.
The best bet for a meal in Szentendre is Aranysarkany (Alkotmany utca, 1/a; 26-301-479), a family restaurant specializing in traditional home cooking. The creamy spinach soup ($1.95) and stuffed cabbage with meatballs ($3.60) are highlights; the adventurous should try the smoked goose liver with rose petal jam ($4.20).
Most people make the Danube Bend a day trip from Budapest because the cost of a bed rises outside the city. But if you want to stay over, a good bet's the Bukkos Hotel in Szentendre (Bukkos-part 16, 26-312-021), a tiny 16-room hotel perched on the banks of a stream. Rates start at $32.
All three towns are easy to reach from Budapest, either by train or boat. To Szentendre, take the HEV train from Batthyany ter ($2.70). Boats leave from the Vigado ter pier ($3.15 to Szentendre, $3.50 to Visegrad, and $3.70 to Esztergom, round-trip, 318-1223; by bus, the trip costs $2.70 from the Arpad hid terminal.)
Malev (800/223-6884 or 212/757-6446, hungarianairlines.com), the Hungarian airline, is the only carrier that flies directly from the United States to Budapest. Partnering with Delta, Malév offers flights six times a week from New York and three times a week from Toronto; coach fares from the former range from $358 to $997 round-trip, depending on the season. From Toronto, round-trip fares start at $975 to $1,075. Flying through another European city and then on to Budapest is another possible money-saving option. And you can easily reach Budapest from Vienna in three-and-a-half hours by train.
If you're not a big do-it-yourselfer, you may opt for one of the tour packagers that put together Hungarian excursions. Considering that airfare can rise to more than $900 in high season, Malev's packages are fairly reasonable: five-nighters including air, hotel, breakfast, dinner at a legendary Budapest restaurant, admission to a show, and some sightseeing, for as little as $689 in low season.
Of the packagers putting together trips to Budapest - most focusing on music, food, or baths - the most thorough are Tumlare Travel (800/223-4664, firstname.lastname@example.org) and Tradesco Tours (800/448-4321, tradescotours.com), both of which keep offices in Budapest and the U.S. Tumlare custom-designs tours while Tradesco offers flexibility as well; the latter agency will do as little as book a two-night hotel stay for $53 per person in low season. For a three-night stay at the Gellert, including extras like theater tickets and dinner, prices begin at $309 per person, not including air. Paul Laifer Tours (800/346-6314) offers air from New York and six nights at the Hotel Hungaria with breakfast for $719.
To get oriented before you go, consult the Hungarian National Tourist Office in New York City (212/355-0240, gotohungary.com); it can provide English-language brochures on anything from baths to caves. Another source of information is Tourinform (011-36-60/55-00-44, hungarytourism.hu). For all Hungarian phone numbers, from the U.S. first dial 011-36. To call Budapest, add the city code 1.