Budapest was my best trip this year, mostly because I was pleasantly surprised by how much it has to offer. One thing the city has an abundance of: American tourists--especially in August, when Hungary celebrates St. Stephen's Day, the former communist country's equivalent of the Fourth of July. Along the Danube River, mixing well among the locals and enjoying the specially commissioned music, events and markets for the occasion, Americans were roaming the streets, taking in the Parliament, shopping in the city's newly established fashion district and eating at Gerbeaud Haz, the city's famed pastry and coffee shop. Of all the times I've been to Europe, it's so far the best I've seen Americans blend. I don't think that speaks to Hungarians, I think it says more about the type of American traveler that is coming here.
You could say that being an American has attuned my ears to an utterance of an English word, but in Budapest, you are hard pressed not to find someone who speaks English, making it a very easy city to navigate. Julien Carralero, general manager at the Gresham Palace Four Seasons Hotel, where I stayed, told me that 60 percent of his guests are American leisure travelers.
First, I should say that now is the time to go to Budapest, before it turns into a shiny, reconstructed European city. Budapest was battered during World War II, and a few gritty remnants of this period remain. There is anticommunist graffiti everywhere, which the city is in the process of cleaning up. This, I understand, but what makes me sad is the refurbishment that is ridding various buildings of fascinating bullet holes from the war. If you're at all a history buff, you'll want to experience this city in the next two years, before all of these time stamps are erased by new construction.
Budapest is split down the middle by the Danube River. The Buda side 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 (second to New York) and St. Peter's Basilica.
While the Buda side is all hills, Pest is flat. I found out from a fellow traveler that for as little as $1.50 an hour, you can rent a bike, pedal slowly and see all the sights of the Pest side in about 30 minutes. The metro is also cheap and quite efficient for getting around.