with Christina Pfeiffer
Hungary's capital, the pearl of the Danube, boasts an eclectic collection of off-beat cafes, thermal baths, museums and flea markets.
1. Look east to Pest
Built as a viewing platform in 1905, Fisherman's Bastion offers some of Budapest's best views (below left). Its neo-Gothic design, including seven turrets, gives it a fantasy quality; each turret represents one of the Magyar tribes that entered the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century. The bastion, which stands on the Buda bank of the River Danube, was named after the guild of fishermen responsible for defending this stretch of the wall in the Middle Ages. In front of the bastion is an equestrian statue of St Stephen, who became Hungary's first Christian king in 1000AD.
2. Hungary and thirsty
One of the most popular tourist areas in the Hungarian capital is the Unesco World Heritage site of Castle Hill, of which Fisherman's Bastion is a part. It is a 1km-long limestone plateau that sits 170 metres above the River Danube and is rich with medieval monuments, museums, a charming old town and a royal palace (the site of a 13th-century castle). A great place in which to while away a rainy afternoon is the underground cellar of the House of Hungarian Wines. It displays more than 700 wines from 22 regions in the country. The tour offers a sample of more than 50 wines, including the famous Hungarian tokaji. See www.magyarborokhaza.hu.
3. Put a spring in your step
Budapest is one of Europe's major spa centres, so a trip to a thermal bath is a must. The city lies on a geological fault line that divides the Buda Hills from the Great Plain and has more than 120 thermal springs. The mineral-rich waters are believed to have healing qualities powerful enough to cure everything from arthritis to skin ailments. Most bathhouses no longer distribute drawstring loincloths and require guests to wear bathing suits instead. Szechenyi Baths (below right) is a sprawling complex with three swimming pools and a dozen thermal baths. For a list of the city's baths, see www.spasbudapest.com.
4. Operatic splendour
Opened in 1884, the Hungarian State Opera House is one of the city's most beautiful buildings. The facade is decorated with statues of 16 of the world's greatest composers, including Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi and Tchaikovsky. More than 7kg of gold was used to decorate the main horseshoe-shaped auditorium, which also has a magnificent frescoed ceiling depicting Mount Olympus, the home of the gods according to Greek mythology. The guided tour, which costs 2,500 forints (HK$110), includes a brief musical performance. See www.operavisit.hu.
5. Heroes' Square
The Millenary Monument, with its 36-metre-tall pillar topped with the angel Gabriel holding the Hungarian crown and cross, is the central focus of Heroes' Square. The colonnades behind the pillar support 14 statues of rulers and statesmen revered as national heroes. On the northern side of the square is the impressive Museum of Fine Arts (www.szepmuveszeti.hu), which has more than 3,000 paintings by European masters. The Spanish section is significant, boasting works by El Greco, Velazquez and Goya.
6. Go underground
Exploring Budapest's system of caves is a cool thing to do on a hot day. There are more than 200 caves beneath the city, two of which are open for guided tours. Discovered in 1904, Palvolgyi is the second-largest grotto in Hungary. Guided tours run on the hour and follow a 500-metre route that involves climbing steep steps and ladders. Szemlohegy Cave, which was discovered in 1930, has beautiful stalactites and stalagmites.
7. Sweet treats
Not long ago, Budapest rivalled Vienna for its cake shops and cafe culture. Cafes in Budapest were common meeting places for writers, poets and artists, who were allowed to order from a writer's menu (usually bread, cheese and cold meats) at a discounted price. Many cafes also provided ink and paper free of charge. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more than 500 cafes but when communism collapsed in 1989, only a few remained. Today, Cafe Gerbeaud (www.gerbeaud.hu) is the most famous. Founded in 1858, it was the meeting place for the city's elite. Its signature treat is the Gerbeaud cake: ground walnut and jam squashed between layers of sponge covered with chocolate.
8. To takeaway
Painted eggs, dolls in traditional folk costumes and hand-painted Zsolnay porcelain can be found in all major tourist and shopping areas. The city's flea markets are fun to wander through. Ecseri Piac is Budapest's largest and sells everything from antique jewellery to Soviet army watches. The City Park flea market has a good collection of collectables and crafts. See www.bolhapiac.com.
9. Keeping faith
The Great Synagogue is the world's largest Jewish house of worship outside New York. Built in 1859,
its architectural style is both Romantic and Moorish. Renovations were funded by the Hungarian government and a New York-based charity headed by actor Tony Curtis (whose parents emigrated from Hungary in the 1920s). In the rear courtyard of the synagogue, the Holocaust Memorial, a weeping metal tree, stands over a mass grave of Jews killed by the Nazis. The family names of many of the 400,000 victims are engraved on its leaves.
10. A step towards the future
Millennium City (www.millenniumcity.hu) occupies 10 hectares on the Pest side of the Danube. It is a modern precinct in park-like surrounds dedicated to artistic pursuits and is not on the usual tourist route. The Museum of Contemporary Art, also known as the Ludwig Museum (www.ludwigmuseum.hu), showcases international work. The National Theatre (www.nemzetiszinhaz.hu) is a popular venue for the staging of Hungarian plays.