It was a typical Budapest Saturday, an autumn wind flowing down the surface of the Danube and whistling in the elegant lattices of the grand suspension bridges that feature on the front of every Hungarian travel brochure.
The morning had been spent soaking away any residual workaday stresses under the dome of the 16th-century Ottoman baths that perch over hot springs at the foot of Gellert Hill. Lunch was nouvelle Spanish-Italian cuisine at an establishment owned by a hospitable Uruguayan man and his Milanese wife.
Dessert would follow in its leisurely, calorie-intensive Central European guise at a fin de sicle cafe now simultaneously favored by tourists, artists, and the opera set.
After a long walk among Gothic cathedrals, heavy Imperial mansions, modern glass hotels, and Chinese-owned boutiques we'd start debating where to eat dinner.
The tourist's lot is indeed a difficult one in Budapest.
This is one of the great European capitals in the mold of Paris and Vienna, crafted as symbolic centers of empire in the excessively grand 19th century. Budapest's tenure as an imperial hub was a limited one. It became a sister capital of the reorganized Hapsburg Empire in 1867, administering the vast Hungarian crown lands, which included much of present-day Slovakia, Croatia, and Romania.
But the Empire lasted only 50 years, collapsing with much human suffering at the end of World War I. When the victorious Allies left the Paris Peace Conference, Hungary was left with only a third of its crown lands.
But that brief period of quasi-independence left an indelible mark on Budapest, defining much of the city we see today. The Hungarians set out to erect a capital to rival any on the Continent, bringing in foreign architects and enormous building crews. It is divided into two areas: hilly, residential Buda and industrial Pest.
Continent's first subway
Neighborhoods were razed to make way for the ring roads, radial boulevards, and triumphant squares we see today. Sewers, tram lines, bridges, parks, cafes, the Continent's first subway, and the massive neo-Gothic Parliament building were all built during these heady times. Despite two world wars, a Soviet invasion, and decades of neglect under communism, the central city retains the grandeur and dignity of a centrally planned 19th-century metropolis.
It is an imperial city that outlived its empire - an international metropolis to which gravitate people of all sorts. There are Western businessmen, Ukrainian mobsters, Romanian peasants from the backwaters of Transylvania, and sensitive young artists who fled the madness in their native Serbia. There's a sizable Chinese community, and the remains of a once vital Jewish community that was nearly extinguished in the 1944 Nazi deportations.
Resurgent Hungarian aristocrats and communists, struggling factory workers, twentysomethings from the US and Canada and their Hungarian counterparts are all mixing in the still manageable streets of this not-so-large city. It's where Old World grace coexists with newly built suburban shopping malls.
Take time to visit Castle Hill (Vr), the walled medieval district perched on Buda's main riverfront ridge. The peaceful cobblestone streets wind between restored medieval burghers' houses with some amazing views of the city below. But don't get trapped here. This neighborhood is something of a tourist ghetto, with artificial "folk art" boutiques and overpriced restaurants.
The same applies to Vci Street, the shopping zone for pedestrians of downtown Pest. Here's where to find the same brand-name boutiques you have at home and maybe get hustled by scam artists outside the store (See travel tips, left). It's chock-a-block with tourists and Russian-speaking "businessmen" showing off cell phones and bodyguards. The real, living city pulses around these tourist zones, slowing as you climb the Buda Hills behind the Castle district until you are in woodland parks high above the city.
A fantastic urban canyon
Central Pest is reminiscent of Vienna - only bigger, grittier, and less expensive. By day the arteries bustle with trams and commuters, the latter turning off onto quiet side streets to shop. At night among rows of gigantic, highly ornamented sandstone faades, it feels as if you're traveling at the bottom of some fantastic urban canyon - the floor lit by street lights and neon signs, and gargoyles perched on the rim seven stories above.
Here you find the shops, restaurants, cafes, museums, and night life that draw so many. Opera fans shouldn't miss a performance at the Operhaz on Andrssy Boulevard - the low ticket prices will astound you as much as the performance. The same can be said of the ballet at the historic Vigszinhz or the classical concerts in the intimate concert hall of the famous Franz Liszt Academy of Music.
If you're adventuresome and interested in folk music, you can see authentic Hungarian or Gypsy folk dances at the Almssy Square community center and other venues hidden around town. This can be an incredible scene - a half-dozen bands from villages all over the former empire playing all night long to a wildly dancing crowd of Budapesters.
Exploring the partially overgrown Kerepesi Cemetery provides a unique survey of Hungarian cultural history from temple-like mausoleums to formations of polished black communist tombstones with red stars. Most monuments from the 16th-century Ottoman occupation have been destroyed, but the baths were spared and should not to be missed.
Boats ply the Danube to historic Szentendre and beyond - a delightful day trip. For centuries, this has been the center of the tiny Serbian and Greek communities in Hungary, accounting for a cluster of Orthodox churches - unusual in largely Roman Catholic Hungary.
On the other side of Budapest, local authorities have collected relics of the communist period in a field.
All those Socialist Realist war monuments that used to stand in every park sit here as if history were holding a lawn sale. For Budapest - ruled by kings, sultans, Hapsburgs, fascists, and the Communist Party - that's hardly an unprecedented event.
Tips for Traveling In Budapest
Taxis: Not all taxis are alike. Stick with honest, reliable Fo Taxi and City Taxi to avoid paying more than you should. From the airport, consider the minibus service ($6) run by the airport authority; Fo and City can take you there for about $14.
Crime: Budapest is a very safe city, with most areas safe to walk around in at any hour. Pickpockets ply public transportation and Vaci Street in search of inattentive tourists. Violent crime is a regular feature at Budapest's erotic clubs and more hedonistic discos, which are controlled by mafia factions and best avoided.
Changing Money: Don't change on the street - the difference in rates is negligible and your chances of being ripped off are not. As elsewhere in Europe, avoid the brightly lit private exchange windows that offer terrible rates for exchanges of less than $1,000 or so. The official exchange windows at the airport are fine, as are most banks. The MKB (Foreign Trade Bank) does Visa cash advances into local currency (forints) at the office on the corner of Vaci and Turr Istvan streets.
Guidebooks: The Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guides to Hungary are good overviews for the independent traveler, the latter catering to budget travel. Another fine book is Andras Torok's "Budapest: A Critical Guide," a series of well-mapped walking tours of the city written by a well-known Budapest writer.