Budapest presents the best of both travel ideals, a visitor-friendly city tinged with plenty of exoticism. (Bonus: English is widely spoken.)As soon as you see Budapest — we like the view from the top of Buda Hill on the Budavári Siklo railway, gazing across the Danube to Pest — you understand the city’s name and the phrase: “Buda for living, Pest for history.” A city that begs to be explored on foot, Pest has the feel of Paris, with broad avenues adorned with architectural baubles and narrow, curving streets dotted with shops and cafés; ancient Buda, however, with its quiet neighborhoods and Roman ruins, gives your calves a San Francisco–worthy workout. Which is why we like choosing the funicular and working our way down.
Memento Park For an American visitor (particularly anyone who came of age during the Cold War), the most striking quality of Budapest is its relationship with its communist past — gone but by no means forgotten. When Hungarians rejected their dictatorship, they didn’t scrap the statues of Lenin and Stalin and other monumental remnants of totalitarianism. They put them in a giant sculptural zoo on the outskirts of the city. Watch a film about secret-police spies or just wander among the “hundreds of tons of communism.” Corner of Balatoni út and Szabadkai utca, www.mementopark.hu
Rosenstein After the austerity of Cold War nostalgia, you’ll need a fortifying goulash, which you’ll find in abundance in Budapest. Hungary’s signature dish, a type of beef stew with paprika as its main spice, goulash goes straight to the soul. One restaurant in particular stands out for its combination of understated elegance, attentive service and, crucially, a beautifully prepared bowl of goulash. Mosonyi utca 3, Budapest 1087, 011-36-1-333-3492, www.rosenstein.hu/en
Daubner Confectionery As cakes are to Vienna, so pastries are to Budapest, and the best pastry shop in the city — bar none — is the family-owned Daubner. It’s a little out of the way (making it a true locals-only mainstay), but you can work off the calories walking back into the heart of the city. We love the traditional pogácsa treats, but with strudels, tortes and more to choose from, why stick to just one thing? Szépvölgyi út 50, Budapest 1025, 011-36-1-335-2253, www.daubnercukraszda.hu
Alexandra Bookstore Unless you read Hungarian, a bookstore may not seem the most obvious tourist destination. But the Alexandra, in the recently restored Paris Department Store on Andrássy Avenue, may well be the most beautiful bookstore in the world. Ride the escalator to the top-floor Bookcafé and prepare to collect your jaw from the floor. Andrássy út 39, Budapest 1061, 011-36-1-484-8000
Corinthia Hotel Budapest Once the grandest hotel in Budapest when Budapest was one of the grandest cities in Europe, the aptly named Grand Hotel Royal was left in ruin after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. But in 2003, the facade was restored to its former glory and its interior courtyards enclosed, creating a bright and airy cocoon — a perfect respite from the clatter of the city. From $250. Erzsébet körút 43, Budapest 1073, 011-36-1-479-4000, www.corinthia.com
Hotel Palazzo Zichy The eighth district is known for its plethora of palaces, and the Zichy is no exception. Once the home of a Hungarian count, this belle epoque marvel has been converted into a gem of a boutique hotel. Even if you don’t stay here, the lobby is a must-see. From $120. Lőrinc pap tér 2, Budapest 1088, 011-36-1-235-4001, www.hotel-palazzo-zichy.hu