The new Budapest
Blah Photo: Getty Images
The magic happens as the sun begins to fade: Budapest, beautiful by day, is transformed into perhaps Europe's most alluring city. Its many streets, lit by hundreds of minuscule lights, create a wondrously ethereal atmosphere. And then there are the castles – the city even has a castle district. Wandering the twisted, hilly cobblestone laneways of the World Heritage-listed Buda Castle District and the Danube embankments is like weaving your way through a fairy tale.
Buda and Pest were separate towns on opposite banks of the Danube River until 1873, when they were merged. They developed independently and the result is two unique regions, both exquisite.
Budapest's splendour can be traced back to another era – the "gilded age", when wealthy aristocrats built magnificent palaces and the intellectual and creative elite flocked to be among the action. Turbulent historical times have dented some of what once was but haven't taken it away, and that's the beauty of Budapest.
Buda is built on a chain of hills that offer sweeping views and a labyrinth of historically significant attractions such as Buda Castle, Matthias Church and Fisherman's Bastion, along with Gothic archways and historical homes. It is a mostly residential district, although there are a few hotels and restaurants scattered about.
The Zsidai family owns some of the best Hungarian restaurants here, a hop and a skip from each other on Fortuna Street. Pierrot (pierrot.hu) was the first family restaurant to open in 1982, 21 (21restaurant.hu) is a bistro with a modern take on traditional Hungarian fare, while Pest-Buda (pestbudabistro.hu) serves food a Hungarian grandmother would make – rustic and delicious.
Cross between Buda and Pest using the Chain Bridge at least once by foot. Opened in 1849, the bridge was the first to link the two and is now one of the capital's most prized monuments. Unlike the Buda district, the Pest side of town is as flat as a board and buzzing with an effervescent energy: this is where you'll find most restaurants, bars, hotels and everything else that comes with living in a big city.
Since the collapse of communism in 1989, Budapest has slowly been regaining its identity as a prosperous – and, more recently, chic – European metropolis. Restaurants and wine bars are opening, showcasing local wine (most of the quality drops that come from Hungary's 22 wine regions never leave the country because they're so good) and food, a fusion of hearty traditional fare (more than just paprika chicken and goulash) with modern-day cooking techniques and beautiful presentation.
In search of a tasty snack and a local drop, I head to DiVino wine bar in Pest, opened in 2011 by a group of young vignerons wanting to offer the best of Hungarian wines. But first, there are panoramic views to be had from the cupola of nearby St Stephen's Basilica, Budapest's largest cathedral.
There's still a friendly rivalry between Buda and Pest occupants, but one thing both sides of town agree on is that every visitor should allocate one full day to the thermal hot baths.
The city has more than 100 hot springs, so there are a few public baths to choose from. At Széchenyi Spa Baths, a large public medicinal bath located in City Park in Pest, it takes a while to work out how to get in and around. There are numerous entries, different locker and cabin room rates, and it's hard to find someone who speaks English. Eventually I'm inside the complex, clad in swimmers and a daggy Széchenyi-branded swimming cap. No one else is wearing one so I quickly take it off, joining in with the locals jumping between the baths of varying temperature.
The spa is housed inside a magnificent neo-Baroque building, with smaller baths inside and larger pools outside. There's a whirlpool that has swirling water, and bathers half swim, half get dragged around in continuous circles. There's laughing as they accidentally collide, so I join in and find myself face to face with the Budapest of today – a laughing and exultant city that's rediscovering itself, not afraid of a few bumps along the way.
Budapest has an extensive, efficient public transport system and most main attractions are easy to get to using the metro and tram lines. Walking is a lovely way to take in the sights, but for those beyond the city centre, try a Danube River cruise.
Where to stay
The boutique Mamaison Hotel Andrassy (mamaison.com), featuring French provincial-style decor, is in a quiet location just off Budapest's eminent Andrassy Avenue. Its La Perle Noire restaurant is a must-eat-at destination. For a touch of bohemia, try the Bohem Art Hotel: each of its 60 rooms feature a different Hungarian artist's work (bohemarthotel.hu).
What to wear
A new generation of creative designers is making waves in the capital. Dress tastefully to fit in with the hip crowd.
What to drink
Enjoy the highly prized Aszús dessert wine from Tokaj, Hungary's most famous wine region, and the full-bodied oak-aged Egri Bikavér red variety, from the Eger wine region. Pálinka, a traditional fruit brandy, is also worth a try.
It's all about the views in Budapest. You can take in views of the Danube, Margaret Island and the Chain Bridge from Fisherman's Bastion in Buda. For a different vista, the view from the dome at St Stephen's Basilica in Pest offers a beautiful city panorama.
A Széchenyi-branded swimming cap ... or something else that will remind you of your personal Budapest experience.
Strictly from Hungary by Ladislas Farago.
More information: budapest.com.