Budapest See And Do
14 Zichy Mihály u.
Pest, District XIV
Despite being smaller than the Ecseri, Petofi Csarnok is still considered the city's main flea market, due to its central location and a long track record of great finds: kitschy Communist memorabilia, oddball philately, numismatics, possibly valuable oil paintings, antique vases, and plenty of old junk. Get there early: Many vendors pack up before lunch. Since PeCsa is in the verdant Városliget (City Park) near Heroes' Square and the Museum of Fine Arts, you'll be well positioned for a full day of touring the sights.
Open Saturdays and Sundays, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
2 Szent György tér (east wing of the Royal Palace)
Tel: 36 1 487 8800
This somewhat dingy museum at the top of Castle Hill dedicated to the history of Budapest in all its manifestations, sounds like a boring slog, but it's actually interesting, and afterward, everything about the city will start to make a whole lot more sense. The evidence list starts with chipped Paleolithic stone tools (ca. 50,000 B.C.) and includes pottery and glasses from the Roman town of Aquincum. Later arrivals—the fifth-century Hun and seventh-century Avars—also had settlements in the area before the Magyars arrived in the tenth century to found the modern Hungarian nation. Each era is extensively documented with archaeological artifacts, and signs explain the collection in both Hungarian and English.
612 Allatkerti korut
Pest, District XIV
Tel: 36 1 273 4900
It isn't so much the 2,000 animals here that are the essential sight—though kids love the Animal Kindergarten, with its baby rhinos, lions, and monkeys. No, it's the spectacular Art Nouveau building complex that the creatures call home, designed by the Hungarian architects du jour circa 1865, including Karoly Kos and Kornél Neuschloss, that's the must-see. The zoo includes the Palm House (a rain-forest habitat for tropical animals), and the sinuous blue elephants' house isn't bad either. To help fund the breeding program for endangered species, you can adopt a creature from a mere $25 a year, and if you're back in town, attend the annual meeting of adopted animals and "parents" (www.allatkertialapitvany.hu).
Buda, District I
The funicular from Clark Ádam tér is the nicest way to approach the romantic, scenic, and egregiously misnamed Castle Hill. There is no castle. However, there is a Royal Palace, which dates from the 13th century—not that you'd know it. Having been destroyed 31 (yes, 31) times, its latest, Communist-built incarnation is remarkably dull, though it does house the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. Also up here is the residence of the president of the republic, Sándor Palace, and, in Szentháromság tér (Trinity Square), the church Mátyás Templon, where King Matthias was married and Franz Liszt's Coronation Mass had its 1867 world premiere when Emperor Franz Joseph was crowned king of Hungary (www.matyas-templom.hu). The Fishermen's Bastion—the part of the medieval ramparts that once protected the fisherman's market—is another landmark up here, as is Ruszwurm, which catered to the sweet tooth of Queen Erzsébet (a.k.a. Sisi) in 1827 and is still serving cakes today (7 Szentháromság; 36-1-375-5284; www.ruszwurm.hu). Altogether, it's pleasant to stroll the cobblestone streets, admire the views, and maybe succumb to the touristy boutiques.
156 Nagykorosi út
Pest, District XIX
This great example of the genre, not too picked over by eBay sellers and filled with buckets of Communist memorabilia, is the largest flea market in Europe (although smaller Petofi Csarnok is considered the city's main market). The problem is, the Friday market is way out of town between districts XIX and XX and is almost impossible to find, but there is a public bus (#54) from Boráros tér in southern Pest, which takes about 30 minutes.
8 Liszt Ferenc tér
Pest, District VI
Tel: 36 1 462 4600
Fronted by a vast statue of Liszt overlooking a pedestrian street filled with café tables, this remarkable Art Nouveau building anchors Liszt Ferenc tér to Király Street and serves as the venue for numerous evening classical-music concerts (purchase tickets at the box office). There are free afternoon performances by the academy's students about three times a week, but they're sporadic and the schedule is not announced online. The stately marble and ceramic interior is worth a look on its own for its Central European fin de siècle decorative elements, such as vinelike carved columns and gilded statues. And the in-house music shop still sells classical CDs from the old Hungaroton record label at bargain prices.
Danubius Hotel Gellért
4 Kelenhegyi út
Buda, District XI
Tel: 36 1 889 5500
The quintessential city spa is fed by Gellért Hill's mineral hot springs, flush with calcium, magnesium, hydrocarbonate, alkali, chloride, sulfate, and fluoride, and is good for what ails you—especially if that happens to be rheumatism, osteoarthritis, neuralgia, lumbago, ankylosing spondylitis, and pretty much any chronic degenerative joint disease. But you don't need to be sick to bob around with the nénis and bácsis (aunties and uncles) in the gorgeous, dimly lit Roman temple–like pool, with its marble columns, stained-glass roof, and mosaics, inhaling the slightly stinky steam. Despite signs warning of the perils of long immersion in high concentrations of minerals, it's common practice to wallow all day, bringing your snacks, newspapers, and chess boards and ending up with skin that resembles the hippopotamus you've been impersonating. Massages and other therapies take place in the medical suites and are a terrific bargain (though they bear no relation to scented hotel spa sessions with padded benches, Enya soundtracks, and fluffy towels). This is all burly Hungarians, wooden tables, and soap suds—and forget about modesty. There are many other spas in Budapest, of course, but this is the classic one you've seen in pictures, and it's conveniently sited by the Liberty Bridge. Note: It's operated independently from the eponymous hotel by the Budapest Spas Co., so it's not necessary to be staying in the very faded Gellért Hotel. No treatments on weekends.
Closed Saturdays and Sundays between October and April.
60 Andrássy út
Pest, District VI
Tel: 36 1 374 2600
By no means appreciated by all when it opened, partly due to the word "TERROR" writ huge on the building's facade, this museum sets out to expose the ways and means of two 20th-century systems of oppression that held sway here—right here. From 1937 to 1956, this 1880s neo-Renaissance town house harbored first the ultra-right Arrow Cross Party's HQ, then the offices and interrogation rooms of the Communist secret police. Creepiness has been amplified to the max with re-creations of torture chambers, screenings of propaganda films and survivor interviews, and walls full of coerced "confessions." It's part chamber of horrors, part memorial.
Tel: 36 6 28 444 444
Often mundane and occasionally outstanding, after 20 years the Budapest Grand Prix remains the most significant motor-sport event in the region. It's held every year around the first weekend of August at a twisting track near the village of Mogyoród (12 miles from Budapest). While the shallow, curvy nature of the course is great for fans—almost 80 percent of the track is said to be visible from any one vantage point—drivers find it maddening, as passing opportunities are scarce. Purchase tickets either at the gate or online at www.gpticketshop.com.
2 Szent György tér (west wing of the Royal Palace)
Buda, District I
Tel: 36 1 356 0049
This art collection is the raison d'être for several sections of the Royal Palace located at the top of Castle Hill. Beginning with domestic sculptures and carvings from the 11th century, the collection swerves out through Prague and Viennese Mannerist works, late-18th-century German masters, and 19th-century expatriate Hungarian Impressionists before returning to domestic Abstract Expressionism, Structuralism, and Postmodernism. Despite the forays abroad, encompassing works by foreign artists who lived and painted in Hungary, this truly is a national gallery, dedicated to the greatest works by Magyar artists from the past ten centuries. (Among them, Mihály Munkácsy and László Paál, two 19th-century Romantic realists who lived and worked in Paris). There's also a gorgeous collection of illustrated altars from the Gothic era; don't miss The Altar of the Virgin Mary From the Church of St. Andrew from 1483, a gilt triptych with ornate carved figures of the Madonna and Child surrounded by icons and inlays. In high season, it's best to visit before lunch—castle visitors crowd in during the afternoon to escape the sun.
45 Andrássy út
Pest, District V
Tel: 36 1 322 1645
Missing Barnes & Noble? (Actually, there is one here, but never mind.) Pining for your book group? Here, on the site of a famous literary café, is one of a new breed of bookstore-cafés, providing chairs and a steaming samovar alongside its extensive collection of books—and it's not only for the 0.5 percent of visitors who speak Hungarian; there's a good selection of domestic and international titles in a variety of languages, including English translations of contemporary Hungarian authors and a useful load of Hungary guides. The name means—what else?—Writer's Bookshop.
41 Dósza György út
Pest, District VII
Tel: 36 1 469 7100
This large museum, located right where Andrássy hits City Park (Városliget), picks up where the Hungarian National Gallery leaves off. It houses collections of pan-European (rather than mostly domestic) fine art, as well as an Egyptian wing and rooms dedicated to ancient Greek and Roman works. In addition to the outstanding permanent collection, top-shelf visiting exhibitions of world greats like Titian make the Museum of Fine Arts a must for culture vultures. Even sweeter, volunteer docents offer free English-language guided tours of collection highlights Tuesday through Saturday at 11 a.m. Don't leave without seeing the stunning Gerard Dou and The Dream of St. Joseph by Rembrandt.
4/c Lovas Utca
Tel: 36 70 7 01 01 01
Located deep under Castle Hill in Buda, the Rock Hospital museum offers a glimpse deep into Budapest's World War II and Cold War past. Formed out of older, previously established tunnels and cellars in the rock, the Rock Hospital became an important part of the city's defenses during the American air raids of 1944 and treated wounded troops during the gruesome Siege of Buda the next year. In the Fifties—with the city a capital of the Communist bloc—the site was converted into a secret nuclear bunker in case of attack by Western forces. Today, tours in both Hungarian and English depart on the hour between 10 am and 6 pm. The circuit through former surgical theaters, recovery rooms, and air-filtration chambers (all protected by immense blast-proof walls and doors) takes about an hour. Due to its underground location, the hospital retains a temperature within the range of 59 to 64°F, making this a comfortable (and curious) attraction during the high heat of a Hungarian summer.—Evan Rail
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 am to 8 pm (last entry at 7 pm).
Balatoni út at Szabadkai utca (Budapest outskirts)
Buda, District XXII
Tel: 36 1 424 7500
Just after the fall of communism, some genius rounded up all the giant-scale (and we do mean large) statues of Lenin, Marx, and Engels and set them up as a memorial to totalitarianism and bad taste. It's like a direct time machine back to the days of Stalinist grandiosity, and gives you a sense of what it was like to live under a Communist dictatorship. The park is slightly hard to get to, but the immense forms of Soviet soldiers, proletariat workers (united, naturally), and Communist martyrs are worth the effort. Plus, it's a trip to return afterward to your room at the Four Seasons and order up an Oriental massage and a $200 bottle of wine. There's a one-hour express bus to the park from Deák Ferenc tér in Pest.
Open 10 a.m. to dusk.
Between Clark Adam tér (Buda) and Roosevelt tér (Pest)
Districts I and V
The first permanent bridge across the Danube, unveiled in 1849, this city icon was designed by Englishman William Tierney Clark and Scottish engineer Adam Clark and funded by influential aristocrat Count István Széchenyi. Despite founding the Academy of Sciences and doing much else to reform the bad old feudal ways of his land—including introducing domestic gaslight and flush toilets—Széchenyi ended up committing suicide in the suburbs of Vienna. Long story.