An observation from a recent visit: Along the Danube River, mixing well among the locals enjoying the specially commissioned music, events and markets, Americans are roaming the streets, taking in the Parliament, shopping in the city's newly established fashion district and eating at Gerbeaud Ház—the city's famed pastry and coffee shop. Those who visit Europe will frequently be impressed with how well Americans blend, which speaks volumes about the type of American traveler that is coming here: sophisticated, adventurous and cultured.
Now is the time to go to Budapest for many reasons. Winter tends to be the city's slow season, so in an effort to lure visitors during the off-season of November through March, the Hungarian National Tourist Office is running its Budapest Winter Invasion promotion. In its second consecutive year, the promotion seeks to draw attention to Budapest's numerous winter festivals and includes an incentive that lets you stay three nights at a participating hotel and get the fourth night free.
If you're at all a history buff, you'll want to experience Budapest in the next two years. The city was battered during World War II, and a few gritty remnants of that period remain. There is anti-communism graffiti everywhere, which the city is in the process of cleaning up. Many visitors can understand this, but some refurbishment is ridding various buildings of fascinating bullet holes from the war, so you'll want to go before all of these time stamps are erased by new construction.
Exploring the City
Budapest is split down the middle by the famed Danube River and actually used to be two separate cities—Buda and Pest—before becoming one in 1873. Buda is the more fashionable, artsy side of the river, where you'll find landmarks like the Holy Trinity Square, the Royal Palace and most shopping.
You can easily walk east across the Chain Bridge to get to the Pest side of the Danube, which is noticeably less trafficked. This is where you'll find Parliament, the second-largest synagogue in the world (New York boasts the largest) and St. Stephen's Basilica. It's also where the famous Gerbeaud Ház is located. (It's highly recommended that you try their dark chocolate cake and take home a tin of their coffee.)
While the Buda side is all hills, Pest is flat. For as little as $1.50 an hour, you can rent a bike, peddle slowly, and see all the sights of Pest in about 30 minutes. The metro also is cheap and quite efficient for getting around.
If your travel times are flexible, go to Budapest during a festival, such as one of the many art- and music-focused events coming up this winter. During these times, the city is replete with markets, showcasing affordable and original homemade goods like handmade lace, semi-fashionable clothing and pottery. If you are an ambitious traveler, you could cover many of the city's top sights in a couple of days, so going during a festival easily tacks on another day to soak in the culture.
Hungary's currency is the forint. During a visit this past summer, 192 forint roughly equaled one American dollar. This rate fluctuates a lot, and its instability is one of the reasons why Hungary hasn't yet converted to the euro. Even so, Hungarian goods are often a bargain, especially the wine, which is next to impossible to get in America, simply because the wineries don't produce enough to export in quantity.
Typically, the best time to visit is summer, but that is also when airfares will run about $1,000 roundtrip in coach. By planning your trip between November and March, you can save a lot of money. Despite your having to lug a winter coat, Budapest in the winter can be quite charming. If you're lucky enough to be there when it snows, the Danube and the surrounding medieval architecture make a magical scene.