A triptych city with art galore
It's well known that Budapest is the marriage of two cities - Buda and Pest - but how many outsiders realise Hungary's historic and culture-filled capital is really a merger of three?
For the better part of two millennia, there were three adjacent towns in the area, united by bureaucrats in 1873.
Residents of the triptych city still proudly identify with noble Buda, working class Pest or ancient Obuda, where the Romans pitched their tents.
Budapest offers a wealth of choices for lovers of music, art and architecture in a beautiful setting on the Danube river, which bisects the city on the midpoint of its journey from the Black Forest to the Black Sea.
Here are tips for getting the most out of a trip to Budapest.
The views from either side of the Danube are breathtaking at any hour but there is much to be seen indoors as well. Over the past decade, Budapest has developed a reputation for major art and photography exhibitions, as well as more esoteric fare.
This fall, exhibits include the painters Chagall, Caravaggio and Canaletto, the trail-blazing Hungarian photographer Robert Capa and American beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
Chagall is at the National Gallery in the Castle District, "Caravaggio to Canaletto" is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Capa's haunting images are at the Hungarian National Museum and the Ginsberg show is at the Ludwig Museum.
After gorging on art, visitors can sample world-class operas, award-winning rock festivals and some of the best nightlife in Europe, including the now famous "ruined pubs" in semi-abandoned buildings in the historic Jewish quarter that feature colourful settings and clientele.
To get an overview of Budapest, book a Danube cruise. Some operators offer dinner on board and one uses an amphibious bus that goes directly from road to river.
Online listings of shows, concerts and events are mostly in the notoriously impenetrable Hungarian language (if you have a translator at hand, est.hu and port.hu work well) but samplings in English can be found at funzine.hu and welovebudapest.com. Printed guides are available at hotels.
MUSIC, ARTS & CULTURE
Communist mementos are everywhere and, with retro in full swing, there is plenty of old-school design all around.
If you want to see what public space looked like before the collapse of communism in 1989, take a taxi to Momento Park on Balatoni Way in the 22nd district for a collection of colossal Cold War statues. (mementopark.hu)
With the greyness of communism fading into history, Budapest shelved high-rise plans and retained its quaint architecture, opting to renovate and preserve the turn-of-the-century Austro-Hungarian feel with some spectacular results.
A recent example is the Franz Liszt Academy of Music at 52 Wesselenyi Street, a world-renowned institution that reopened for concerts after a painstaking renovation brought out its Art Deco beauty in full. (zeneakademia.hu/en)
If you yearn for an old-school cup of coffee before a show, don't miss the slightly kitschy but very impressive stuccos of the grand cafe at the Boscolo Budapest hotel, a short tram ride east along the great boulevard that rings the Pest side.
Budapest also has a cutting edge. One of the newest additions to the Danube is the Balna (Whale), a fish-shaped glass building that connects two wings of a former shipping office on the river bank. Its contemporary exhibition hall, cafes and shops are open year round.
The city's vibrant markets are famous for a reason. Go on a Thursday to sample the freshest produce from the countryside but any day will give you a taste of how ordinary Hungarians never lost touch with the farmer's market.
Just around the corner from the Whale is the aptly named Great Market Hall, designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. The steel structure exudes a whiff of Paris, with more than a soupcon of Hungarian paprika.
Also listed on maps as Central Market Hall, its stalls brim with spicy red Hungarian sausage, pale pink goose and duck livers and hundreds of other items in vibrant hues.
In the same area is the Budapest Music Centre, where recording studios and smaller-scale shows share the space, mostly on the jazz side of the musical spectrum.
The Budapest Spring Festival attracts top classical talent in March. Other revered halls of classical music - including the Opera and the Palace of Arts - usually have more on offer than a single visit could accommodate.
The 20-year-old Sziget Festival has offshoots that turn up nearly every weekend over the summer. (www.sziget.hu)
Also in summer, the spectacular O.Z.O.R.A. trance festival - billed as a "psychedelic tribal gathering" - brings hordes of visitors and artists to Ozora, a village about 130 km (80 miles) southwest of Budapest. Next year, the event runs from July 29 to Aug. 3.
BREAKFAST, LUNCH & DINNER
Budapest has been experiencing a seismic culinary change, and about time it did.
The traditional fatty, unimaginative fare - served while Gypsy bands play ersatz Gypsy tunes - is easy to skip. Instead, jump into the exciting foodie scene that has taken hold, from the list of ingredients and ways of cooking to fine wines, microbreweries and the art of fruity schnapps (palinka).
The inner 6th and 7th districts east of the Danube are home to so many bars, restaurants and clubs - with new ones opening so frequently - that even locals find it hard to keep up. Those who live in the area often complain about the noise, always the sign of a good party.
Across the Danube and to the northwest, the original Obuda town was mostly destroyed and the narrow old streets replaced by Communist-style apartment blocks.
An exception is the Main Square area, where the Uj Sipos restaurant occupies a centuries-old building and serves the kind of paprika-laden fish soup that Hungarians like so much. Eat it spicy.
The once fairly forlorn Raday Street in the 9th district has transformed into "restaurant row" with one eatery after another offering everything from pizza and hamburgers to sauteed goose liver and chicken paprika.
If you are lucky or well-connected, you can also take part in the new craze of home restaurants. There are so many foodies that finding a dinner should not be impossible but plan ahead.
Volcanic activity in low-lying Hungary means an abundance of hot springs. The Romans knew this and the Ottomans built bath houses that stand to this day, renovated in a splendid way and open to the public.
Rudas Baths is probably the most breathtaking. On the west side of the Danube near Elizabeth (Erzsebet) Bridge, it offers massages, scrubs and drink diets in an elegant environment of octagonal pools with limestone domes.
Another tourist target, with good reason, is the Gellert, an Art Deco hotel at 4 Kelenhegyi Way with a nicely restored Secessionist bath house. It is also on the west side of the Danube, near Liberty (Szabadsag) Bridge.
In winter, soak in the hot waters of the Szechenyi Baths in City Park, where you can mingle with old folks playing chess on floating boards - especially on a weekday morning - while steam rises into the icy air. The outdoor pool is popular in warmer months.
Cinetrip has become an international hit by organising parties where people dance to electronic music with stunning visuals in the pools of a downtown spa. The pay system is waterproof, too.
Another entertaining option is going underground to check out one of the spectacular caves that the thermal water carved. Start with Palvolgyi Cave at 162 Szepvolgyi Street in the 2nd District. Not for the claustrophobic.
If you are into movies, visit one of three major film studios that have opened near the city in recent years. Start with a tour of Korda Studios in the town of Etyek, about 30 km (19 miles) west of central Budapest.