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Budapest back to the glory days

Costa Rica

Since the collapse of Communism, Budapest has been catching up fast with Vienna, its twin from the grand old days. They are restoring the architectural splendour of one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The writer visited the Queen of the Danube, and was seduced by her charms, from sixteenth century Turkish baths to new boutique hotels, pedestrianized nightlife districts and bars, and broad boulevards full of smart shops.

Top Coffee

Of all the coffee shops in all the towns in all the world, you have to walk into this one -- and stay as long as the pianist plays. The New York is where Casablanca director Michael Curtis used to hang out with Hungary’s glittering
literary set. Built by the NY Life Insurance Company in 1895, it dazzled as the city’s creative hub, before post-war decay and closure. In 2006 came glorious rebirth, as part of the restored luxury hotel. The owners scoured Italy for the finest marble, textiles and furnishings. Find a gilt table
amid the frescoes and friezes. Order a frothing cappuccino and a somlói galuska -- sponge cake with rum and walnut stuffing, with lashings of cream and chocolate sauce. Then sit back and release your inner muse.

Fine Arts Tour

The Budapest Museum of Fine Arts is one of the most important venues of Italian culture in Hungary. It offers a service which is rare in Europe: a team of ex-pats lead free one-hour tours in English (daily at 11am and 2pm), focusing on the works in one particular gallery.

Bus Bliss

The easiest, laziest, cheapest way to explore the city is from the 15 bus (board near the park at Deak Ter). The round trip takes about an hour. With a good map, you’ll be able to identify most landmarks. Buy the tourist ticket (3 days): it gives you the hop on - hop off freedom to follow any fancy. Across the park is the stop for the 16 bus, for the ride up Castle Hill. As for the No 2 tram, outside of San Francisco, there are few downhill trundles anywhere to match it. Get the slow-and-close-up low-down on many of the finest buildings, including the art nouveau Gresham Hotel, the Danube Embankment, Chain Bridge and the whole panorama of
Buda. Best ride at night, when the castle and the 275 yards long façade (white neo-gothic turrets and arches) of the Houses of Parliament are lit up.
Very romantic.

Excellent Architecture

Hungary’s post-communism building spree earned Budapest the
property’s world’s version of the Oscars in 2006 -- the Prix d’Excellence. The building in question is the monumental Palace of Arts. Imagine the Festival Hall, National Theatre and Tate Britain all under one roof.
Take in a performance in the Bartók Concert Hall, where the acoustics are praised to the roof as high as a standard Gothic cathedral. You may just want to head for the bar, order a cheering glass of Palinka (the famous warming fruit brandy), or a glass of aristocratic Tokaji wine and marvel at the Danube by night.

Top-quality Crafts

Other cities may claim to run the best Christmas market. Budapest rests its case on quality control. The location for the Christmas Craft Fair (around November 25th - January 1st), in Vorosmarty Square, is gorgeous enough. But the panel
of experts from the Union of Folk Art demands more. Their close scrutiny of the 100 stalls keeps this a tat-free zone, with only high-standard products on sale, as presents or festive decorations. And the food! They serve traditional
bakery from clay ovens, with torrents of mulled wine. Then to the grand old Café Gerbeaud hard by, for a wicked konyakos meggy, dark chocolate with a cognac-soaked sour cherry in the centre.

Easy Wheels

Segway is the ultimate must-try-it city tour. There’s some keen technology here, so you’ll be an item of marvel not mirth. The two wheel, self-balancing device works (it’s all done by gyroscopes): it really does hold you upright as you glide, automatically responding to your body’s movements, sensing when it should speed up and slow down. The two and a half hour jaunt starts with a 30 minute practice session. Then off to conquer Budapest.
You glide past St. Stephen’s Basilica, the elegant neo-Renaissance Opera House and up the Grand Boulevard of Andrassy (map your shopping route in the best retail street
in town for later), over Vorosmarty Square, Roosevelt Square, and the Danube Pomenades. City Segway Tours.

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