Budapest's eclectic mix of old and new is the result of centuries of political and social upheaval intertwined with periods of great prosperity. Thousands of local landmarks were destroyed during World War II or fell into disrepair during communism but Budapest is slowly returning to its former glory. The challenge for those with limited time is deciding which historic buildings to explore and leave time to sample delicious Hungarian pastries in one of the city's elegant cafés.
The Danube divides the city into two parts,
A funicular takes you to Chain Bridge, and a scenic walk along the embankment brings you to the huge parliament building (for guided tours, call 317 7767). Built at the end of the 19th century, the edifice was intended to be a symbol of the city's growing importance, its interior decorated with 41 kg of gold to "impress the eyes of friends and foes alike." Next to Andrassy Avenue is a stylish stretch of elegant 19th century neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque mansions where wealthy locals, including the composer Franz Liszt, once lived. One building along Andrassy that is worth a stop is the famed and richly ornate State Opera (visits daily at 3 and 4 p.m.), once the preserve of Habs-burg monarchs. At the end of the long avenue is
Heroes Square with its impressive Millennial Monument, an ornate colonnade with statues depicting real and legendary Hungarian heroes. Adjacent to the square, the Fine Arts Museum houses one of Europe's largest collections of Spanish art, in addition to Italian, Flemish and French masters.
Culture satisfied, you can get down to the serious business of pastries. No one should leave the city without sampling at least two specialties: rétes, a strudel filled with apples or black cherries, and dobostorta, a cake generously layered with a custard of egg yolks, sugar, chocolate and vanilla and then covered with caramelized sugar. Fortunately, the city has numerous cafés ranging from simple to palatial. One worth a visit is the Gerbeaud Cukraszda on Vörösmarty Square. Its opulent decor of brocade wall coverings, wood paneling and crystal chandeliers hanging from vaulted ceilings reflects the Old World ambience of imperial Budapest. It may not be as cozy and intimate as some smaller cafés, but its message is clear after 40 years behind the Iron Curtain, Budapest is slowly rediscovering its heritage as one of Europe's most beautiful cities.