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August 16, 2017
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15 reasons why Budapest is known as the Jewel of the Danube

For centuries, invaders have surged across Hungary to conquer its beautiful capital, Budapest, long known as the Paris of the East. While reminders of successive occupation by Romans, Mongols, Austrians, Turks, Nazis and Soviets still testify to Budapest's turbulent history, this city on the banks of the Danube now welcomes friendlier visitors -- all eager to see one of Europe's most historic capitals with a reputation for its cuisine, culture and nightlife.

Gypsy bistros, lavish hotels, Baroque palaces and castles, Bull's Blood red wine, thermal baths, subterranean caverns and jazz clubs -- Budapest has it all, often at reasonable prices despite the high standards typical in this centre of fine living. And directions are always simple: you'll find something to see at every street corner or square.


1. A Tale of Two Cities
In 1873, the town of Buda on the Danube's right bank joined with Pest on the left bank to form one city. Connected today by nine bridges, Budapest's two parts each retain a distinct character.

Wooded, hilly Buda was the seat of Hungarian royalty. Its castle district contains the monumental hilltop Buda Castle (Royal Palace), the riverside Fisherman's Bastion and Matthias Church. The district is filled with Baroque landmarks, museums, charming cafés and cobbled streets. Panoramas of the Danube and the skyline are superb.

Lowland Pest is filled with shops, businesses, hotels, restaurants and all kinds of nightly entertainment. Visit Pest's former walled district, the Inner City, which stretches along the river. Or stroll in the 19th-century City Park, home to the Palace of Art, an Art Nouveau-style zoo and Vajdahunyad Castle, resplendent on an island in a lake.


2. Over Hill, Over Dale
Looming over the river and dominating the city, Castle Hill and Gellért Hill have always shaped local life. Use the funicular railway to get to Buda Castle -- a complex of fortifications repeatedly rebuilt as generations of Hungarian rulers tried to ward off 31 different sieges. Today, the Royal Palace, constructed in a welter of styles from the 17th to 19th century, sprawls grandly on the landscaped hilltop with a central dome seen all over Budapest. The palace's 203 rooms house several museums, including the Budapest Historical Museum and National Gallery.

Nearby, Gellért Hill drops in cliffs to the Danube and offers unparalleled views. Still largely wooded, the Gellért has its own hilltop fortress, the Citadel.


3. In Hot Water
Budapest is famous for its natural hot springs and boasts an astounding 123 thermal and 400 mineral springs within the city limits. Grandiose buildings house public baths and locals take the waters the way Parisians fill cafés. Most feature an endless number of therapeutic and medicinal pools amid elaborate decors. (Children are not permitted.)

Best known is the Gellért (XI. Kelengheyi út 4-6; tel: 011-36-1-466-6166; www.gellertbath.com). Likened to scrubbing up in an Art Nouveau cathedral, it's filled with mosaics, columns, tinted glass, plants and sculpture. The Széchenyi (XIV. Állatkerti út 11; tel: 011-36-1-363-3210) is as Baroque as it gets. Featuring chandeliers, statuary and ornate courtyard pools of varying temperature, this huge complex immerses you in the art of a grander era.

Romans exploited the springs first, but Ottoman Turks perfected the experience. The Király (II. Fö utca 82-86; tel: 011-36-1-202-3688) is the oldest Turkish bathhouse in Budapest. The Rudas, (I. Döbrentei tér 9; tel: 011-36-1-356-1322) completed by a sultan in 1578, is straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights -- its hot pool is a searing 40°C (104° F).


4. Stocked Market
Located in central Pest, the vast Central Market Hall (Vámház körút 1-3) overflows with wares. Stuffed pickles, garlic wreaths, hot-pepper garlands and strings of spicy sausage hang from the food stalls, while the upstairs is devoted to linens and crafts. To get a real feel for the place, join Bridge Tours (tel: 011-36-1-484-0805; www.bridge-tours.hu) for their entertaining scavenger hunts. Competing teams must search the market for hard-to-find ingredients before cooking them up into a feast, Budapest style, at the market's Fakanál Étterem Restaurant.


5. Hot Stuff
Paprika was first introduced by the Turks, who then forbade its use on pain of death. The pungent seasoning made from hot peppers is Hungary's favourite spice. A scientist here even won the Nobel Prize for research into its vitamin content (which is higher than that of citrus fruit). Budapest's paprika is the world's best and nothing like the tasteless, rusty powder your mother used -- the real stuff has the deep colour of a sunset, an unmatched kick and aroma, and comes in grades from sweet and delicate to tangy and spicy. Keep the fiery Eros variety out of your goulash unless your mouth is fireproof.


6. Cave In
Rare is the city with an actual underworld -- and we're not talking catacombs or sewers, either. A labyrinth of 200 caves lies beneath Budapest, carved over eons by subterranean rivers fed from the area's hot springs. The Pálvölgy Cave (II. Szép-völgyi út 162, Buda Hills) network is 18 kilometres long and includes kilometre-wide caverns and huge stalactite formations, as well as chambers with electric lighting. The Castle Hill Caves have been tunneled into since the 11th century, and the hill itself is now said to be virtually hollow.

The Buda Castle Labyrinth (I. Úri utca 9) is a kilometre-long complex of phantasmagoric caves and maze-like passageways inside the hill. Highlights include underground fountains gushing red wine and a Cave of Courage, which visitors navigate alone in total darkness. There are also exhibitions and a café.


7. After Dark
Hungary's capital is a great place for wandering. See the sights, or join the nightly throngs at the cafés, bars and borozó (wine cellars) dotting the city. While some of the many nightclubs and casinos cater to the New Europe's flashier side, there's entertainment for everyone.

With a population of only 1.5 million, the city supports more than 20 professional theatres; concerts and plays remain more popular than films, and tickets to institutions like the Hungarian State Opera (VI. Andrássy ut. 22; tel: 011-36-1-353-0170; www.jegymester.hu) sell out in advance. The Budapest Operetta Theatre (VI. Nagymezö ut. 17; tel: 011-36-1-312-4866; www.operettszinhaz.hu) offers lighter musical theatre; tours and intimate concerts featuring talented understudies can be arranged.


8. Grand Stand
A number of world-class, five-star hotels have sprung up since the demise of Communism in 1989. Housed in a palace that was once used as the secret police headquarters, the elegant Méridien (V. Erzsebet tér 9-10; tel: 011-36-1-429-5500) has soaring atriums, a Baroque dining room and heated bathroom floors. The Four Seasons (V. Roose-velt Ter 5-6; tel: 011-36-1-268-6000) occupies the lavishly restored Gresham Palace, an Art Nouveau gem. And the newly re-open-ed Boscolo New York Palace Hotel (VII. Erzsébet krt. 9-11; tel: 011-36-1-886-6111) is truly palatial -- spend the day, and you'll be annoyed to rediscover the rest of the world isn't all made of marble.


9. Island Park
The pedestrian-only Margaret Island is one of the most beautiful open spaces in either Buda or Pest, and is connected to both by bridges. Once the preserve of medieval monasteries (now in ruins), the island contains parks, spa hotels and public baths, one of which, the Palatinus Strand, attracts up to 20,000 people in the summer. There are some fine restaurants further away from the action.


10. Dine and Wine
Traditional Hungarian cuisine is rich, adventurous and usually complimented by Bull's Blood, a heady red wine. The Matthias Cellar (V. Március 15, tér 7, tel: 011-36-1-318-1693) serves excellent local fare (like pheasant stuffed with apples), while the Kiadja (V. Sas utca 4; tel: 011-36-1-266-1332) offers up cognac-goose liver mousse and the Knights Sword, a towering venison brochette.

If you're a student of the grape, the stylish Vörös és Fehér winebar (II. Andrássy út 41; tel: 011-36-1-413-1545) is a great place to learn about Hungary's wine regions; another good bet is the House of Hungarian Wines (I. Szentháromság tér; tel: 011-36-1-21-1031), where the cellars contain 700 varieties of wine. Tokaj (Tokay) is a famous family of dry or sweet white wines given body and aroma by the "noble rot" of botrytised, fungus-infected grapes.


11. People Watching
Andrássy Avenue is a great boulevard designed in the style of Parisian concourses. Whole blocks are built in Belle Époque style and the 2.5-kilometre avenue contains the cream of Budapest's architecture. The surrounding area is a cultural mecca home to 18 museums, a host of theatres, St. Stephen's Basilica and Europe's largest synagogue. Streets around here are packed day and night.


12. Communist Leftovers
A last chance to peek behind the Iron Curtain, the Sculpture Park (at Balatoni út and Szabadkai utc) is essentially a junkyard for Communist monuments and statues of Marxist heroes banished from Budapest's squares and streets. Engels, Marx and Lenin are all here to reflect on their fate, as are other champions of the proletarian dictatorship; soldiers of the Soviet Army are invariably the most damaged. A gift-shop sells East Bloc nostalgia -- models of Trabant cars, CDs of revolutionary marches and hammer and sickle-covered memorabilia.


13. Hunting for treasure
If you think the past is dead, visit Falk Miksa, a street where resurrection is constantly on sale. More than 20 shops fill a two-block area off the Margaret Bridge with curios and objets d'art. Lace-like porcelain, inlaid furniture, Art Nouveau brooches, silk carpets and Murano chandeliers are all available. A more adventurous option is to trawl the daily Ecseri Flea Market (XIX. Nagykorösi út. 156), so cluttered it resembles a ramshackle ethnography museum.


14. Tongue Twister
Magyar is the name Hungarians give themselves as well as the name of the national language, one of the most indecipherable and unpronounceable in existence. Unrelated to any of Europe's languages except Finnish and Estonian, Magyar has an alphabet with 17 extra letters, but no Q, W, X or Y. Grammar is denoted by suffixes with more than 25 case endings, its endless compound words make it difficult for dictionaries to even define a "word" (never mind the two terms used for a colour the rest of the world calls red). The language's longest word is megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekér, which is untranslatable. Luckily, many people speak English.


15. The Heart of Europe
Among the countries of the former Communist bloc, Hungary is a solid success story, acting as an ambassador and hub for the entire region. Direct flights from Toronto to Budapest by Malev, the national carrier, make it easy to get to Central European destinations. Rome, Venice, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Bratislava, Bucharest and Zagreb are less than two hours by air. Budapest is also a major river port with hydrofoils serving Vienna and Bratislava, and an international railway terminus that has links to 25 capitals. Most importantly, though, the city is the gateway to Hungary -- a country unlike any other in the heart of Europe.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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