The city splits like the name – Budapest is really two settlements riven by the Danube River. Buda is the one with most of the obvious goodies – castle, wooded hills, ultra-photogenic churches and royal history.
But it only takes a wander down Kazinczy Utca to work out why Pest is the more appealing side of the city. The street has an awful lot going on: Thai restaurants, Ramen joints, taco bars and bike-rental shops are crammed in, and Karavan (www.streetfoodkaravan.hu) is a collection of street-food trucks banded together under one label. Next to it is Szimpla (www.szimpla.hu), an audacious takeover of a ruined building with dozens of alcoves and separate sections, all decorated with random ephemera such as carousel horses and old Trabant cars. A shisha bar sells a magical variety of flavours, and gigs advertised are in genres such as "elegant scandal music" and "doom jazz".
In short, you do a few hours in Buda, then spend the rest of the break in Pest. It’s the fun half – and then some.
A comfortable bed
The Four Seasons' Gresham Palace (www.fourseasons.com/budapest) is the most spectacular address in town. A bona fide art nouveau masterpiece, the detail is luxurious – from the quirky clock hands above the lifts to the glass roofs in the lobby and period-style furniture. Doubles cost from €396 (Dh1,560).
For some old-school grandeur at a lower price, the Danubius Hotel Astoria (www.danubiushotels.com) has a wonderful lobby of gilding, green marble and wood panelling, while upstairs the rooms are comfortable and go big on the heavy draped curtains. Prices start at €60 (Dh236).
One of a plethora of indie, design-leaning boutique hotels in Pest, the Hotel Carat (www.caratboutiquehotel.hu) features a courtyard, silvery accent walls and black-and-white photo prints of Budapest on the walls sassed up in a near pop-art style. Doubles cost from €80 (Dh315).
Find your feet
Hungary's undeniably fabulous Parliament building was partly built as a two-finger salute to the royal establishment on the opposite bank of the Danube. A glorious red and white behemoth, it straddles architectural styles, although the Gothic influence is most visible. It doesn't exactly tone down the opulence inside either. It can only be seen on a guided tour (book via www.jegymester.hu).
From there, string together a few parks and admire the architecture on the way to major thoroughfare Andrassy utca. Highlights along the route include the colourful, artfully tiled and somewhat-playful Royal Postal Savings Bank building, plus the heavily detailed National Bank Building, where busts on the facade tell tales of trade around the world.
At Andrassy Utca, head past the grand cafes to the House of Terror (www.terrorhaza.hu). Formerly the secret police headquarters, it inventively tells the story of Hungary's tribulations under the Nazi and Soviet-backed regimes. It's an almost unrelentingly grim tale of murder, repression and deportation to work camps, but it's well told with bold imagery, reconstructed cells and plenty of video recollection.
Meet the locals
Kazinczy Utca is the most obviously humming street in Pest and arguably the one best known by visitors. But it is by no means on its own – you’ll find good local hangouts within a few streets on either side.
Book a table
The third restaurant in Budapest to be awarded a Michelin star, Borkonyha (www.borkonyha.hu) pulls off a stylish but unstuffy modern vibe – and dishes aren't quite as pricey as you might imagine. They lean towards forest fare, such as the 6,750 forint (Dh85) venison saddle with dried fruit-filled ravioli.
Koleves (www.koleves.com) isn't as exalted, but does a wonderful job of good food in a laid-back, art-surrounded atmosphere. Hearty mains, such as the goose leg confit with semi-mashed potato, stewed cabbage and sun-dried plum (3,380 forint [Dh43]) work really well – but there's also a large range of vegetarian options.
The Central Market Hall on Vamhaz Krt is worth visiting for the visual spectacle. It’s a humungous building, reminiscent of an early 20th-century pride-and-joy train station and packs in hundreds of stalls. Dangling meats, artisan chocolates, honey stalls and food carts mingle, while there’s souvenir and gift fare on the upper level. A lot of it is tat, but there are some good pottery and woven goods among it.
Kiraly Utca has several design and fashion shops, including the appealing Atlantisz bookshop and Orange, which does flamboyant and colourful eyewear.
What to avoid
Billed as the main shopping street, pedestrianised Vaci Utca is something of a disappointment, unless you like poor quality strictly-for-tourists junk and women trying to hustle you into buying “genuine leather” gloves.
Budapest is blessed with thermal springs, and the sprawling Szechenyi Baths (www.szechenyibath.hu) takes full advantage of them. There are 15 indoor pools and three massive outdoor pools, and it's as much a hang-out as a place for a swim. Expect to see old men playing chess at the water's edge.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies directly to Budapest from Dubai. Economy class returns cost from Dh2,760.