Dollars don’t go far against Euros anymore, but in Budapest you can still dine for the price of a Parisian cab ride. We went to check out the land of wine and thermal spas.
You’ll visit Buda (the west side of the Danube) for cobblestone castle streets but will spend most of your time on the east side in Pest. Main shopping drag Váci utca is tourist packed by day — sleazy by night. The bohemian set likes the quirky, smoke-filled bars and cafes in the old Jewish district; the flashier crowd prefers cafe-lined Liszt Ferenc tér. Head to Ráday utca for back-to-back galleries, cafes, and bars.
Sleep in art nouveau luxury and get massaged with brown sugar and the famously sweet Tokaji wine at the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace (V. Roosevelt Tér 5-6; +36-1-268-6000). Or go sleek and chic at brand new Buda boutique hotel Lanchid 19 (I. Lánchíd utca 19; 800-337-4685). Immerse yourself in the artwork of Donald Sultan at Art’otel (I. Bem rakpart 16-19; +36-1-487-9487), which has both Danube and Castle views.
You’ll feel like a local once you’ve found your favorite coffeehouse. These days the fabulously restored New York Cafe (VII. Erzsébet körút 9-11; +36-1-886-6111) is too pricey for most natives and instead attracts chic Italians and Americans. Budapest’s hipsters drink and smoke (heavily) at Szóda (VII. Wesselényi utca 18; +36-1-461-0007), which doubles as a bar, and at Kuplung (VI. Király utca 46), a sprawling (and very smoky) bar in a former auto shop.
When you’re hungry, bistro Klassz (VI. Andrássy út 41) has a short but fantastic menu and a long list of wines from small Hungarian wineries. Newcomer Csalogány 26 (I. Csalogány utca 26; +36-1-201-7892) has a scandalously cheap three-course lunch and a fancier dinner menu. Get the duck or goose liver; both are Hungarian specialities.
Design collectives like Magma (V. Petõfi Sándor utca 11; +36-1-235-0277) and Eventuell (V. Nyáry Pál utca 7; +36-1-318-6926) stock avant garde Hungarian textiles, jewelry, and glass. Closet-size Retrock Deluxe (V. Henszlmann Imre utca 1; +36-1-318-1007) specializes in clothes by young local designers. It’s more indie at the monthly WAMP design market, where designers sell their wares on folding tables. More old-fashioned types should visit Falk Miksa utca, antique row, for folksy textiles and ceramics, elegant Zsolnay china, or chunky silver jewelry. Or make the trek to Ecseri (XIX. Nagykõrösi út 156), a flea market in the Pest outskirts, for everything from leftover Communist kitsch to furniture.
* Drink: Try a shot of Unicum (a strong bitter) or pálinka (fruit brandy). Villány is the region for red wines; especially tasty whites come from the Tokaj and Balaton regions. Dreher is the ubiquitous beer.
* Dance: Ship-turned-club/bar/restaurant/cultural center A38 Hajó (XI. Pázmány Péter sétány; +36-1-464-3940) shows international acts and world music.
* Pamper: Try Hungarian beauty products like the organic Ilcsi brand (sold at salons) and Helia-D (sold at drugstores).
* Spaaah: This town is famous for its baths. At popular spa Széchenyi bathhouse (XIV. Állatkerti körút 11) couples kiss in the corners and pensioners play chess. The jaw-dropping art nouveau spa at the landmark Hotel Gellert (XI. Szent Gellért tér 1) is the city’s prettiest. Király (II. Fõ utca 82-84) was built during the 16th-century Turkish occupation and has reserved days for men and women. Nearby, the coed Lukács (II. Frankel Leó utca 25-29) was a favorite intellectual haunt during the Communist era.
And remains a good time today.