Budapest came of age as a city in the 19th century. Until then the towns of Buda and Pest were provincial outposts on the mighty River Danube, but now the beautiful city leaves no doubt as to its importance. The next city in size in Hungary Debrecen is barely one tenth the size of Budapest.
The Danube is Europe's second largest river after the Volga, but is recognised as its greatest. It flows through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Russia, rising in the Black Forest and flowing west to east for 2850km to the Black Sea.
Budapest straddles a gentle curve in the Danube, which dissects the city into Buda on the hilly west bank and Pest on the flat eastern side.
Buda is dominated by the Castle Hill, a long plateau dotted with bastions, mansions and an enormous palace, dominating the Víziváros below. Rising 170 metres over the Danube, the kilometre-long limestone plateau Castle Hill, or Várhegy, is where Budapest was founded. It sits on a 28km network of caves formed by thermal springs. The Buda Castle's foundations were laid in the 13th century. The Hill's most prominent building has been besieged countless times and rebuilt 86 times.
Hungarian kings built their palaces there because it was easy to defend, a fact appreciated by the Turks, Habsburgs and other occupiers. Its buildings are a legacy of Magyar glories and have been almost entirely reconstructed since 1945. Its main streets follow their medieval courses and Gothic arches and stone carvings in the courtyards and passages of 18th and 19th-century Baroque houses are there to enjoy. Façades are embellished with ornate ironwork and almost every building has a Muemlék plaque outlining the building's history.
The best way to enjoy the old town is to wander along the four medieval streets, peeping into little courtyards which is quite acceptable and carefully choosing which of the many museums interest you.
Táncsics Mihály utca is a narrow street of small houses, brightly painted and adorned with statues.
The simplest and most novel approach to Várhegy is to ride up by Sikló, a renovated 19th-century funicular that runs from Clark Ádám tér named after a Scottish engineer by the Lánchíd.
Budapest lights up at night and both riverbanks are imaginatively lit. The Chain Bridge, one of nine linking Buda and Pest, was the first and is the most dominant. It was blown up by retreating Nazis in WWII, but rebuilt immediately when the war finished. At night it resembles a chandelier. From here there is a magnificent view of the Houses of Parliament, which were inspired by London's Palace of Westminster.
Hungarians are great believers in the medicinal powers of thermal bathing and the people of Budapest head to public bathhouses to be refreshed and enjoy the convivial atmosphere.
The façade of Széchenyi Baths is so grand it could be mistaken for a palace. Outside is a statue of the geologist Zsigmondy Vilmos, who, in 1879, discovered the thermal spring that feeds its outdoor pool. In the huge mixed-sex pool you can enjoy the surreal spectacle of people playing chess while immersed up to their chests in steaming water so hot that you shouldn't stay in for more than 20 minutes. The best players sit at tables round the pool's edge; the former world champion Bobby Fischer was once amongst them.
Hungarian doctors can't guarantee a soak will improve your chess game, but they swear by the benefits of the calcium, magnesium, potassium, fluoride, sodium and other minerals in the water. Apart from helping aches and pains, the baths are subsidised by the government, so are also beneficial to the hip pocket nerve.
For nightlife with a difference, A-38 is a former Ukrainian stone-carrying ship, anchored at the Buda-side foot of the Petofi Bridge. As soon as it appeared on the Danube in the summer of 2003, the three-storey venue became an instant hit.
Sir Lancelot Medieval Restaurant is in one of Pest's liveliest neighbourhoods. It offers tasty food huge servings of knuckles of pork, drumsticks of goose, crisp duckling, all with baked potatoes and cabbage and, being medieval in theme, no cutlery is provided. Entertainment is provided by belly dancers and lute and fife players. Every night a tournament of knights is performed.
Pest is home to the world's second largest synagogue (Temple Emmanuel in New York takes the prize). The splendid Dohány utca Synagogue is an outstanding landmark of Pest. Its design epitomises the Byzantine-Moorish style popular in the 1850s and the yellow, red and blue of its brickwork are those of Budapest's coat of arms. In the 1990s, the synagogue was restored at a cost of over $40 million, funded by the Hungarian government and the Hungarian-Jewish diaspora, notably the Emmanuel Foundation, fronted by Hollywood actor Tony Curtis, born of 1920s Hungarian immigrants.
Alongside is a courtyard full of simple headstones, marking the mass grave of more than 2000 Jews who died during the winter of 1944, and a remnant of the brick wall that enclosed the former Jewish ghetto, with a plaque commemorating its liberation by the Red Army.
Public transport is good the Metro system is more than 100 years old and works well. It is inexpensive and has stations close to most attractions.