This is a city of two halves separated by the Danube. To the west is hilly Buda, to the east is Pest, spread out on a plain.
In 1873, the two parts combined to establish Budapest. Many of the magnificent bridges date from the 19th century, when the city was forging its identity.
Expect cafe culture, art nouveau buildings, late-night revelry… and hot water. The city has geothermal springs, which attracted the Romans (and can still be enjoyed today).
Where to stay
Budapest is a city of two halves, says the Daily Mail’s Tom Chesshyre, with hilly Buda in the west of the Danube river and Pest in the east
Brody House: A secretive, 11-room hotel next to the excellent Hungarian National Museum (mnm.hu) in Pest. You enter up a grand stone staircase into a shabby-chic lounge with creaky floorboards, old leather sofas, fireplaces, an honesty bar and an arty crowd. Super-comfortable. B&B doubles from £59 (brody.land).
Mamaison Hotel: Situated in the north-east of downtown Pest, Mamaison is a modern, friendly hotel a short walk from the Szechenyi Thermal Baths. A lift whisks you to 68 smart rooms with modern art, espresso machines and wide beds. B&B doubles from £86; breakfast £14pp extra (mamaison.com).
Maison Bistro & Hotel: Up the hill in Buda, not far from Matthias Church, Maison has 17 delightful rooms set around a courtyard with a jolly lunchtime bistro on one side — plus nine more just down the street. This is another quiet setting. Designer furniture features throughout, and some bathrooms have marble fittings. B&B doubles from £100 (maisonbudapest.hu).
Corinthia Hotel: One of the inspirations for the hit 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel, starring Ralph Fiennes. If you book in the winter, last-minute rooms can be had for £95. At other times, they’re from £150 — plush furnishings, tinkling pianos and spa entry included. Doubles from £95 (corinthia.com/budapest).
Where to eat
Frici Papa: This is a no-nonsense restaurant in the centre of Pest serving dishes including dumpling soup, goulash and chicken paprika with noodles. It’s great value: a meal for two with wine starts at £15. Service is swift and friendly. fricipapa.hu
Hauer: Off the beaten track, but not far from Keleti station (where international trains arrive), Hauer is an oasis of calm. The restaurant/patisserie dates from 1899 but closed in 1991, then re-opened again two years ago. It has red velvet curtains and old wooden panels. Go for pork ribs with mash and pickles (£7). Cake is £2 a slice. hauercukraszda.hu
The Great Market Hall is a popular spot described as being ‘raucous’ and ‘cacophonous’
Great Market Hall: This massive covered hall by the river near Liberty Bridge is on two levels. On the mezzanine, stalls offer goulash and bowls of spicy fish soup for £4.50. On the ground floor, hams, cheeses, fruits and vegetables are sold. It’s a raucous, cacophonous place usually swarming with tourists. But it’s great for lunch or a snack — a slice of apple strudel is recommended (80p). budapestmarkethall.com
Karavan Street Food: In the heart of the historic Jewish quarter on Kazinczy Street, this is popular for brunches — especially for those who have been out in the nearby bars the night before. Stalls offer chicken stews with dumplings (£5.50), burgers (£3), pizzas (£3.50) and kurtos cakes (£4).
Best ice cream: It’s worth a diversion to the little ice cream stall on March 15 Square, near Elizabeth Bridge on the Pest side. Flavours include pistachio, orange and cheesecake and raspberry and basil. A scoop is £1, but after 9.30pm they’re 60p.
What to see and do
Spa day: Budapest’s spas are legendary, with waters touching 40c. The best is the Szechenyi Thermal Spa in a huge palace-like complex in Varosliget Park. Arrive before the crowds to make a day — or at least half a day — of it. There are places to eat and sun loungers in the courtyard. Entry costs £15 and includes locker access. Entry to an inner ‘beer spa’ where unlimited beer can be drunk while in hot tubs — if that is your thing — is £26 for 45 minutes. szechenyispabaths.com
Visit a ‘ruin bar’: The Jewish quarter fell into decline under communism (Soviet troops withdrew in 1991). Now, the crumbling edifices have become a warren of ‘ruin bars’ around Kazinczy Street. They’re incredibly busy at weekends. Go during the day for a beer (£3), wine (£2) or shot of palinka fruit brandy (£1.80). Head for Szimpla Kert to be in the heart of the action. offbeatbudapest.com
A relaxing dip: Budapest’s spas are legendary, with waters touching 40c. The best is the Szechenyi Thermal Spa (pictured) in a huge palace-like complex in Varosliget Park
Have a cocktail: One of the coolest spots for a cocktail is the TOPRUM SkyBar, on the top-floor of Hotel Rum, where a rum, mango, pineapple and lime punch sets you back £5.65. hotelrumbudapest.com
Picnic by the Danube: Pick up ingredients from the Great Market Hall, or in one of the supermarkets that dot the city centre, and head for the river. Some gather by the lowest point of the suspension cables of Liberty Bridge to enjoy sandwiches (and the great views). Afterwards, walk along the waterfront.
Pinball wizard: Enjoy the delights of the Budapest Pinball Museum — where the history of Hungarian pinball is explained (flippermuzeum.hu) — and pop in to dozens of others, including the Liszt Ferenc Memorial Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts. A 24-hour Budapest Card, which covers museum entry and public transport, is £19. budapestcard.org
Ride the old Metro: If you don’t want a Budapest Card, a 24-hour public transport pass is £4.30. The M1 Metro is the oldest on mainland Europe, with tiny trains and narrow carriages. Tickets are available at stations.
See the synagogue: The Dohany Street Synagogue is the largest in Europe, seating 3,000 people. There is a moving weeping willow-shaped memorial to the Jews who died in Budapest during World War II. Excellent tours are included in the £10 entry fee, with cash going towards maintaining the building.
Wizz Air has returns from Luton from £53 (wizzair.com); buses from the airport to the centre take about 35 minutes and cost £3.