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Budapest
Budapest

"Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East's exuberant vision of the West, the West's uneasy hallucination of the East." M. John Harrison

If it's your first visit to a city, and you're only spending a couple of days there, the biggest challenge is singling out the most exciting things to do, while steering clear of the tourist traps. My requ...

"Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East's exuberant vision of the West, the West's uneasy hallucination of the East." M. John Harrison

If it's your first visit to a city, and you're only spending a couple of days there, the biggest challenge is singling out the most exciting things to do, while steering clear of the tourist traps. My request for a selection of the six must-dos or must-sees at the Budapest tourist office was met with a customary handful of brochures which narrowed the choice of things to do and to see down to about 500. A coffee with Andras Torok, a former Secretary of State for Hungarian culture, was not much more helpful: His answer was a book of no less than 200 pages, which he'd written. He signed a copy for me, saying, "You'll find it all in here". Then he added "except for the new MEO Contemporary Art Collection, which is in a disused leather factory - that's too recent". After gallivanting across the city (or, more accurately, cities-Buda and Pest were two separate cities until just 125 years ago) for five days and talking to numerous people, I managed to single out four things that make Budapest very special, and which you really should try to do or see if you go there.

The most elementary and unique (or maybe I should say downright weird) thing about Budapest is the layout of the city, which is, of course, closely connected with its history. The best way to make sense of it is to spend half a day taking a guided tour of the city. After your tour, you'll probably agree that the most magical place in Budapest is the Castle District, so you should set aside another half day to wander around there. It's also important to note that the oft-held notion that this city is a twin of its Central European neighbour Prague is just that, a notion. Although both cities still have strong Belle Epoque flavour and influences, Budapest is more authentic and gritty, and a lot less polished (and therefore less touristy) than its Czech cousin - it's a real working city.

With the essentials out of the way-- learning a little about the history, culture and layout of the city-that should leave a little time left over for a bath and dinner. Among the most special features in Budapest are its Turkish Baths, so you should try to find two to three hours for a soak. As for food, any trip to Budapest, however brief, should include a visit to a one of those splendid turn-of-the-century coffee houses which are now coming back into fashion, as well as at least one meal in a Hungarian restaurant (complete with gitane (gypsy) band, playing traditional Gypsy music). For the cherry on the cake - simultaneously enjoying the resplendent architecture and some marvellous music-- you should also try to get your hands on some opera tickets. And finally, a visit to the MEO Contemporary Art Collection is de rigeur.

Some important abbreviations:
Korut (krt)=boulevard, rakpart (rkp)=embankment , ter=square, ut=avenue, utca=street.

Public transport is reasonably good. The entire city is accessible by buses, trolley buses, trams and/or underground trains. However, you must buy you tickets in advance at the underground station, or from post offices, where instructions are included in several languages. Also good to know: If you change lines you have to purchase two tickets. Plain-clothes ticket inspectors check tickets from time to time, so beware. Taxis are not as bad as most guide books make them out to be. Provided they are licensed, cabs are clean, cheap and reasonably easy to find. The best- and cheapest- way to get one is to call.

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