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ITINERARIES

Castle Hill
The Castle District on Castle Hill is the premier destination for visitors and contains many of Budapest's most important monuments and museums, not to mention grand views of Pest across the snaking Danube. The walled area consists of two distinct parts: the Old Town where commoners lived in the Middle Ages, and the Royal Palace. Stroll around the medieval streets of the Old Town and and take in the odd museum. A brief tour in one of the horse-drawn hackney cabs is worthwhile for the leg weary. The Old Town is filled with attractively painted houses, decorative churches and the famous Fishermen's Bastion. The latter was built as a viewing platform in 1905, named after the guild of fishermen responsible for defending this stretch of wall in the Middle Ages. It has commanding views over the city, and is dominated by seven gleaming turrets (representing the seven Magyar tribes who entered the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century) and a statue of St Stephen on horseback. Immediately south of the Old Town is the Royal Palace.

City Park
City Park, or Városliget, in Pest's northeastern reaches, makes a welcome break from the built-up inner-city area and incorporates many of Budapest's drawcards. The entrance to City Park is Hosök tere (Heroes' Square), which has the nation's most solemn monument - an empty coffin representing one of the unknown insurgents from the 1956 Uprising - beneath a stone tile. The inspirational Millenary Monument, a 36m (120ft) pillar backed by colonnades, defines the square. The Angel Gabriel tops the pillar, offering King Stephen the Hungarian crown. To the north of the square is the Museum of Fine Arts, which houses the city's outstanding foreign works (especially the Old Masters collection), while to the south is the ornate Palace of Art. Inside the City Park is the City Zoo, with its beautiful Secessionist elephant house. Next to the zoo is the Municipal Great Circus. The gigantic 'wedding cake' building south of the circus is the glorious Széchenyi Bath. In the middle of the park is the stunning Vajdahunyad Castle on the island in the lake, which becomes a picturesque setting for ice-skating in the winter. Outside the church opposite the castle, Ják Chapel, is a statue of a hooded scribe outside named Anonymous after an unknown chronicler who wrote a history of the early Magyars. Writers today touch his pen for inspiration. The surrounding streets on the southeastern corner of City Park are loaded with gorgeous buildings, residences and embassies. To get to City Park take the yellow Metro to Hosök tere, or walk up beautiful Andrássy út.

Gellért Hill
Another hill, another climb: however the panoramic views of the Royal Palace, the Danube and its bridges are well worth the effort. At the top of Gellért Hill is the Citadella, a fortress of sorts, and the Independence Monument, Budapest's unofficial symbol. With every hill climb comes the rewarding stroll down the other side, in this case to the pleasant Jubilee Park, an ideal spot for a picnic. Below Gellért Hill lies a gush of hot springs; not surprisingly, there are more public baths in the locale. The Gellért Hotel on Kelenhegyi út is a kind of Art Nouveau palace and the city's favourite old-world hotel. It has an impressive spa open to the public; it's like taking a soak in a cathedral. A few minutes northeast of Elizabeth Bridge are the Rudas baths, with an octagonal pool, domed cupola, coloured glass and massive columns. It is restricted to males only.

Király Baths
Budapest rests on a network of warm thermal and cool mineral springs. As a result, communal bathhouses, pools and spas are a house speciality. They are truly relaxing and are the perfect salve after a day spent exploring the city on weary feet; for many visitors the bathhouses rate among the city's greatest delights. They're clean, safe and cheap. Some are architectural attractions in their own right; in between Margaret Island and the Castle District, along the Danube on the Buda bank, are the Király baths on Fo utca. It has four pools, the main one with a fantastic skylit dome dating back to 1570. It should be noted that the baths become a gay venue on male-only days.

Magyar Állami Operaház (Opera House)
Take some time to ogle the opulence of the 1884 neo-Renaissance Magyar Állami Operaház (the Hungarian State Opera House) - arguably one of Europe's most beautiful interiors. It's worth taking a guided tour just so you don't find yourself distracted by the architecture during a performance.

Royal Palace
The Royal Palace has been burned, bombed, razed, rebuilt and redesigned at least six times over the past seven centuries. It's now an 18th- & early 20th-century amalgam reconstructed after the last war. Take a majestic walk through Ferdinand Gate, under Mace Tower, to the Turkish cemetery or relax in the palace gardens behind the Budapest History museum.

The palace houses the impressive Hungarian National Gallery (with a huge Hungarian art section), the Széchenyi National Library & the Budapest History Museum.


Off the Beaten Track

Eger
Although a long day trip from Budapest (128km/80mi), Eger warrants a visit. It's a beautifully preserved baroque town, with a relaxed, almost Mediterranean feel. It's flanked by two of the Northern Uplands' most splendid ranges of hills and is also home to the celebrated Egri Bikavér (Eger Bull's Blood) wine. Hungarians like to visit Eger because it was here that their ancestors fended off the Turks for the first time during the 170 years of Turkish occupation. This is a perfect city for negotiating on foot because there is something interesting around every corner and the town centre - with its 175 protected buildings and monuments - is closed to traffic. The best overview of the town is from the 13-century Eger Castle. Other attractions include a number of interesting places of worship, especially Eger Cathedral, and a Minaret with 100 narrow spiral stairs twisting claustrophobically to the top.

There is also a walking tour of the city which starts at Eger Cathedral (1836) in the town centre. The wine cellars of the seductively named Valley of the Beautiful Women are not to be missed. Southwest of the town centre and down into the valley are dozens of cellars, some with musicians and outside tables. This is the place to sample Bull's Blood.

There are up to five direct trains a day (they take two and a half hours) from Budapest's Keleti station and also very good bus services running every hour or so to/from Népstadion bus station via the M3 motorway.

Veszprém
Veszprém has one of the most dramatic locations in Central Transdanubia, between the northern and southern ranges of the Bakony Hills. The walled castle district sits atop a stunning plateau. Once the favoured residence of Hungary's queens, it is now a living museum of baroque art and architecture. Stroll through the Castle Hill district's single street, admiring the embarrassment of fine churches. It takes about two hours to get to Veszprém from Budapest (Déli station) via train, even faster by bus from Népliget bus station.

Óbuda
On the Buda side of the Danube, just north of the city, Óbuda is heaven on a cross for history buffs. Beyond the monotonous concrete housing blocks is the oldest part of Budapest, containing important Roman ruins and museums.

Among these is the Roman Military Amphitheatre. Built in the 2nd century to accommodate 15,000 spectators, it was larger than Rome's Colosseum. There is also a branch of the Budapest Gallery here with some interesting avant-garde exhibitions. An ancient stone's throw north of Óbuda is the Roman civilian town of Aquincum, established at the end of the 1st century.


Other Hungary Attractions

Lake Balaton
This oblong lake, about 100km (62mi) from Budapest, is one of the largest in Europe. Often called 'the nation's playground,' Balaton is divided into two quite different shores: the south, which is essentially one long resort of high-rise hotels and minuscule beaches; and the north, where there are more historical towns and sights, mountain trails, better wine, and much less glitz.

Dominating the south is Siófok, the largest of Balaton's resorts. The dedicated pursuits here are eating, drinking, swimming and sunbathing - and whatever comes in between. If you get bored with the beach and the crowds, you can take a trip to nearby Szántódpuszta, a recreational centre of perfectly preserved 18th- and 19th-century farm buildings, barns, workshops, and a Baroque church. Further west is Keszthely, a pleasant town of grand houses, tree-lined streets and funky cafés, with unique views of both shores of the lake.

The north's oldest and most popular resort is Balantonfüred. During the 19th century it was the gathering place for politicians and cultural leaders, then a writers' colony and, by 1900, a summer retreat for the country's emerging middle class. It remains a sophisticated, yet peaceful place, and counts among its attractions a splendid promenade, a number of artist's museums and warm-water springs. South of here is the historical village of Tihany, while east is Badacsony, a region renowned for its scenery, excellent hiking trails and wine-producing towns.

Pécs
Lying equidistant from the Danube and the Dráva rivers in Southern Transdanubia, Pécs is one of the most interesting cities in Hungary. Blessed with a mild climate, it has an illustrious past, superb museums and some of the finest Turkish monuments in the country. It is also renowned for its music, opera and ballet, and has some of Hungary's best leatherwork.

The symbol of the city is the Mosque Church, the largest building from the Turkish occupation still standing in Hungary. The square mosque, with an octagonal green copper dome, was built in the mid-16th century. After the expulsion of the Turks, the Catholic Church resumed possession. The Islamic elements are still in evidence today: prayer niches carved into the walls, distinctive S-shaped arches and geometric frescoes on the cupola. Nearby is the synagogue, another of Pécs extraordinary monuments. Built in the Romantic style in 1869, it has carved oak galleries and pews, ceiling paintings, and the ornate Ark of the Covenant in the sanctuary.

Among the city's best museums are the Victor Vasarely Museum and the Zsolnay Porcelain Exhibit. Vasarely was the father of Op Art - a style popular in the 1960s - and although some of the exhibited works by him and his acolytes are dated, most are evocative, tactile and very playful. The Zsolany porcelain factory, established in 1851, was at the forefront of art and design in Europe for more than half a century. Many of its tiles were used to decorate buildings throughout the country and helped establish a new pan-Hungarian style of architecture (the Communists later turned the factory into a plant for making ceramic insulators). The museum was the home of the Zsolany family and contains many of their personal effects; on the ground floor are exhibits of the popular sculptor Amerigo Tot.

Hortobágy National Park
This huge national park offers some of the best bird-watching in Europe: over 310 species have been spotted here in the past 20 years. Among the fragile wetlands, marshes and saline grasslands are many types of herons, egrets, spoonbills, storks, warblers and eagles. The park is also home to the great bustard, one of the world's largest birds, which stands a metre high and weighs in at 20kg. A visit to the best parts of the park requires a guide, and travel must be done by horse, carriage or on foot. The wildlife preserve is about 40km west of Debrecen, in the Great Plain.

Máriapócs
The tiny town of Máriapócs is an important place of pilgrimage. Devotees are drawn to a gorgeous Greek Catholic church, which houses the Weeping Black Madonna, an enormous and unbelievably ornate iconostasis that now takes pride of place above the altar. Even Pope John Paul II hurried here in 1991 to pay homage to the miraculous image, which is why the church is in good condition today. What was surely known to him - and not to others - is that this icon is not the original, but a 19th-century copy. The real one is kept in St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna.

Pannonhalma Abbey
Founded by Benedictine monks almost 1000 years ago, Pannonhalma Abbey has been destroyed and rebuilt many times and is now a crazy quilt of Turkish, Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. The interior is beautiful despite the butchery, and includes a neoclassical library containing 300,000 volumes, making it the largest private library in Hungary.

Also inside the abbey are historical archives holding some of the earliest surviving examples of written Hungarian; a gallery with works by Dutch, Italian and Austrian masters from the 16th to 18th centuries; and, above the red-marble arched doorway, a fresco depicting the patron, St Martin of Tours.

Look down to the right near St Martin and you'll see, written in Latin, perhaps the oldest graffiti in Hungary: 'Benedict Padary was here in 1578'. Pannonhalma is a working monastery, and must be visited with a guide.



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