Few European cities are better all-rounders than Budapest. It’s pretty, quirky, fun, relatively inexpensive and packed with attractions. It can also be what you want it to be – Buda on the left bank of the Danube is relatively serene and historic, while Pest on the right bank has much more energy about it. There are chilled-out pockets, grand old cafés, riverbank strolls and seriously knock-out architecture to throw into the mix, too.
07.30: Go for a dip
One of the key things that sets Budapest apart is the thermal springs dotted around the city, which make for marvellous spa complexes. The biggest of these is the Szechenyi Baths in the grandstanding, monument-packed City Park. Built in 1913, and looking for all the world like someone has put a series of pools outside a palace, Szechenyi is a mammoth enterprise.
There are 15 of said pools indoors, and three outdoors – the latter of which are more enjoyable on a summer’s day. All are heated to different temperatures, and part of the enjoyment comes from the people-watching. You’ll often see old men at the edge of the pool, playing chess. The pricing system is somewhat bewildering, depending on time of day and whether you want locker, cabin, towel and swimming cap rental, but starts at 4,900 forints (Dh69).
10.00: A history lesson
With a name like 'the House of Terror', you don't go in expecting light-hearted relief. A stroll down glamorous Andrassy útca from the baths, this museum unflinchingly digs in to Hungary's unfortunate recent past torn between the Nazis and Soviet control. Going just after opening avoids the worst of the crowds, and that allows a bit more space to take in tales of mass deportations, overbearing secret police surveillance and nationalist resistance. What's really impressive is the presentation – including a multi-story wall made up of photos of victims, benches made from copies of documents and one room that's turned into a giant map of Siberian gulags, with artefacts found in each one displayed in the right geographic spot.
12.30: Caravan choices
The Erzsébetváros area, just south of Andrassy útca, is the buzziest part of Budapest, with lots of genuinely distinctive nightlife options, and a good selection of spots to eat too. It's not quite as thriving during the day, but Street Food Karavan on Kazinczy útca is a great example of what's going on. Several permanently moored food trucks have assembled in one place, allowing you to choose from Japanese-style burgers made with rice patties, paneer dishes, traditional goulash in bread bowls and carb-heavy pasta dishes. Most options are under 2,000 forints. (Dh28)
13.30: Buda blitz
With Pest dipped into, it’s time to spend the afternoon on the other side of the Danube. Buda’s Castle District is heavily prettified, particularly the area around the Fisherman’s Bastion – a neo-Gothic viewing platform with rather impressive views over the river towards the superlative red-domed Parliament Building.
Nearby is the Matthias Church, which has the most gorgeous multi-coloured mosaic roof imaginable, and is more than happy to pose for pictures.
The castle itself is a little more austere and dog-eared but contains a range of interesting options, including a Royal Palace in a country that no longer has any royals to occupy it.
For something rather different, try the Hospital In The Rock, a network of caves used as a hospital during World II and a nuclear bomb shelter after that.
17.00: Island time
With both sides of the river visited, it’s only fair to spend a bit of time on the island in the middle. Margaret Island is a gorgeous place to stroll away the early evening, with dancing fountains, rose gardens, hireable bikes and centuries-old ruins part of a winning mix. It’s Budapest at its most summery, green and relaxed.
19.30: Traditional feast
Százéves Étterem proudly boasts that it is the oldest restaurant in Budapest, and does a fine line in Central European hearty classics – such as the delicious garlic-covered goose leg with braised cabbage and roasted potatoes for 3,590 forints (Dh51). A love-it-or-hate-it factor is the gypsy-esque live music. It's much higher quality than it needs to be, but there's a separate room for those who don't buy into the whole string trio by the table thing.
Rest your head
Occupying a grand 19th century building, the Buddha Bar Hotel offers seductive, sumptuous design inside, with oriental stone statues, and backlit, red, peacock motif walls. Furnishings err towards the shimmery and flamboyant, and it's high-tech down to the heated toilet seats. Rooms cost from €180 (Dh790).
Emirates flies direct to Budapest from Dubai, with economy class return fares costing from Dh2,825.