It's difficult not to notice the contrasts of the 'Pearl of the Danube', because Budapest, unlike Prague, doesn't care about being tourist friendly: rococo façades follow on from gaping holes, urban wastelands are transformed temporarily into ready-made car-parks. Baroque churches embellished with domed steeple towers get lost in a jungle of high rise tower blocks, and a mixture of clapped-out Trabants and shiny BMWs cross the Bridge of Sighs, almost running over two elderly toothless gypsies dressed in old, discarded tracksuits. This diversity and architectural wealth, which mixes baroque and Art Nouveau styles with Ottoman remnants, makes this metropolis of 2 million inhabitants one of the most fascinating capitals of central Europe.
Immediately upon arrival in these Magyar lands I fall into the first tourist trap: metro ticket inspectors, who look more like stocky bouncers, threaten to call the police if I continue to claim ignorance of the rule which says I have to punch my ticket every time I change lines. The cost of this subterranean psychodrama: 8,000 forints. No small sum, considering the average salary in Hungary is around 80,000 forints per month.
Despite initially feeling like a millionaire counting his money, prices are pretty unpredictable. And my passport to Hungarian living "Elnézést, nem értem. Beszél angolul?" (Excuse me, I don't understand. Do you speak English?) certainly didn't help me get any discounts. It’s not easy discussing the bill when you're faced with the impossible sounds of this Uralic language, which came from the plains of Mongolia. But not everything is so difficult to understand: after three months I abandon the idea of cold-blooded murder of my boyfriend who has the tendency to ogle the local talent, far too often blonde, tanned and toned...thanks to Magyar charm and solariums on every street corner.
Like everywhere, trendy but characterless cafés where wealth and glamour combine are continuously springing up around the Déak area, the nerve centre of the city, and around Andrassy Utca, the 'Champs-Elysées' of Budapest. It's better to avoid these and instead have a wander around the backstreets or the private gardens, known as 'kert', which are very popular in summer. Or perhaps explore the Jewish quarter on the hunt for a 'sörözo' (a pub) or a typically smoky 'borozo' (a wine bar). Concerning shopping, international chain shops on Vaci utca street and huge American-style commercial centres have sprung up like mushrooms: The 'Mammut' and the 'West End' share the limelight as new attractions, such as cinemas, clubs and bars, continuously open up. For those who enjoy Soviet nostalgia, you might like to root around the flea markets of Ecséri, nestled between motorways right at the end of a vast urban sprawl.
As for relaxation, what better way to nurse an aching hangover than lounging on the soothing green and tender grass of the island of Margitsziget, or taking a dip in the detoxifying gyufürdok, Budapest’s famous baths. Or how about glasses of Takaij sipped alongside a grilled steak? Charming, frivolous and melancholic, Budapest truly is the righteous daughter of Bohemia.
Hungarian, along with Finnish and Estonian, is the only non indo-European language of the continent and Hungarians take pride in this fact. Approaching the locals directly with English is rather frowned upon; try to learn some basic words. People of a certain age will probably speak German but the younger generation are generally able to speak English.
The Central European University, founded by the multi-millionaire of Hungarian origin, Georges Soros, offers excellent degree courses in social sciences.
An original place
The Bateau A 38 on the Danube: concerts, exhibitions, DJs…
First and foremost the baths. You will be spoilt for choice: Szechenyi, Géllert or Lukacs are some of the most well-known.
Not to do
Flag down a taxi in the street. Call an official taxi company in order to avoid extortionate taxi fares.
If you turn up unprepared then opt for a room in a local's house, which will give you the time to go round the estate agencies. Many Hungarians advertise rooms for rent in stations or at the airport. However, do exercise caution. Estate agencies will put you directly in contact with the owner who will make the final decision. The commission will depend on the renting price and (implied) agreements with the landlord. Hence the price can be very unpredictable. Consult the Budapest Sun guide. Don't hesitate to take a trip to the universities to have a look at the local adverts posted there. Or before leaving take a look at the forum of the site Tout sur Budapest. Also worth a try are the sites Budapest Cheap Flat or Budapest Rooms.