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Buda

Viewed from the embankments of the Danube, Buda forms a collage of palatial buildings, archaic spires and outsize statues, crowning craggy massifs. This glamorous image conceals more mundane aspects, but at times, in the right place, Buda can really live up to it. To experience the Várhegy (Castle Hill) at its best, come early in the morning to visit the museums before the crowds arrive, then wander off for lunch or a soak in one of the Turkish baths, and return to catch street life in full swing in the afternoon. The outlying Buda Hills - accessible by chairlift and the Children's Railway - are obviously less visited during the week, while Gellért-hegy , with its superb views over the city, the Rózsadomb district and the Roman ruins of Óbuda and Római-Fürdo can be seen any time, but preferably when the weather's fine.


Margit sziget

A saying has it that "love begins and ends" on Margit sziget (Margaret Island), for this verdant expanse just upriver from the city centre has been a favourite spot for lovers since the nineteenth century, though until 1945 a stiff admission charge deterred the poor. Today it is one of Budapest's most popular recreation grounds, its thermal springs feeding outdoor pools and ritzy spa hotels. The easiest way of getting there is to catch bus #26 (which runs all the way along the island) from either the Nyugati pu. or Árpád híd metro stations in Pest. Alternatively, you can take tram #4 or #6 from Moszkva tér or the Nagykörút to the stop midway across the Margit híd, and walk onto the island via the short linking bridge. Motorists can only approach from the north, via the Árpád híd, at which point they must abandon their vehicles at a paying car park. You can rent bikes at the southern entrance to the island, on the left-hand side - they tend to be rather battered but are good enough to get around the 5km circuit.

The southern part of the island is for chilling out and improving your tan. A huge circular fountain presages the Hajós Alfréd Pool (daily 6am-6pm; 500Ft; popularly known as the "Sport"), named after the winner of the 100m and 1200m swimming races at the 1896 Olympics, who was also the architect who designed the indoor pool - though the main attractions are the all-season outdoor 50m pool and the fresh pastries at the buffet. Ten minutes' walk further on, a ruined thirteenth-century Franciscan church and a rose garden lie across the road from the Palatinus Strand (May to mid-Sept daily 8am-7pm; 600Ft), which can hold as many as ten thousand people at a time in seven open-air thermal pools, complete with a water chute, wave machine and segregated terraces for nude sunbathing.

Further north, an outdoor theatre , by a conspicuous water tower, hosts plays, operas, concerts and fashion shows over summer, and is a handy spot for a beer or snack. To the east stands a ruined Dominican church and convent ; Béla IV vowed to bring his daughter up as a nun here if Hungary survived the Mongol invasion, and duly confined 9-year-old Princess Margit when it did. She apparently made the best of it, acquiring a reputation for curing lepers and other saintly deeds, as well as for not washing above her ankles. Beatification followed her death in 1271, and a belated canonization in 1943. The convent fell into ruin during the Turkish occupation, when the island was turned into a harem.

A short way northeast of the water tower is a Premonstratensian Chapel whose Romanesque tower dates back to the twelfth century, when the order first established a monastery on the island; its fifteenth-century bell is one of the oldest in Hungary. Beyond lie two spa hotels catering to wealthy northern Europeans with a yen to be pampered: the Ramada Grand , a refurbished fin-de-siècle pile; and the equally well-equipped Thermal Hotel , built in the 1970s.


Pest

Pest is busier, more populous and vital than Buda: the place where things are decided, made and sold. While Buda grew up around the royal court, the east bank was settled by merchants and artisans, and commerce has always been its lifeblood. Much of its architecture and layout dates from the late nineteenth century, giving Pest a homogeneous appearance compared to other European capitals. Boulevards, public buildings and apartment houses were built on a scale appropriate to the Habsburg empire's second city, and the capital of a nation which celebrated its millennial anniversary in 1896. Now sooty with age or in the throes of restoration, these grand edifices form the backdrop to life in the Belváros (inner city) and the residential districts, hulking gloomily above the cafés, wine cellars and courtyards where people socialize. While there's plenty to see and do, it's the ambience that sticks in one's memory.

Away from the waterfront, you'll find that two semicircular boulevards are fundamental to orientation . The inner city lies within the Kiskörút (Small Boulevard), made up of Károly körút, Múzeum körút and Vámház körút. Further out, the Nagykörút (Great Boulevard) sweeps through the VI, VII, VIII and IX districts, where it is called Szent István körút, Teréz körút, Erzsébet körút, József körút and Ferenc körút respectively. Pest is also defined by avenues ( út ) radiating out beyond the Nagykörút - notably Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út (for Nyugati Station); Andrássy út, leading to the Városliget (City Park); Rákóczi út, for Keleti Station; and Ülloi út, leading out towards the airport. As the meeting point of three metro lines and several main avenues, Deák tér makes a good jumping-off point for explorations.

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