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Nothing quite compares to a long, hot soak in the Gellért Baths. After all, it's impossible to remain blasé amid such Art Nouveau opulence (especially when you only pay $14 a day for the pleasure). The main pool is a marble extravaganza rimmed with sensuous statuary and capped by a vaulted glass roof. But the star attraction is the sublime stuff that fills it: naturally-heated mineral-rich water. Devotees claim it can cure almost any ill. Whether that's true or not, the Gellért Baths certainly do relax and revitalize. Yet there are numerous others that also deserve a dip.
Take the Rudas Gyógyfürdo: built by a 16th-century Turkish pasha, it has recently been restored—and opened to women! Then there's the neo-baroque Széchenyi Gyógyfürdo: a super-sized indoor-outdoor bathing complex much loved by locals. Beyond Budapest, another hot pick is the century-old spa resort at Hévíz, the world's second-largest thermal lake. The downside with such historic spots is that cultural differences can cause confusion. Ditto for entrance policies (many are single-sex or have alternate days for men and women).
Furthermore, since all focus on health—not hedonism—you'll typically need a doctor's prescription if you hope to follow your bath with anything more stimulating than a sauna-and-massage combo. So for full-on pampering, Budapest's Western-style spas are a better bet. One of the best, Aphrodite Health & Wellness Center in the five-star Corinthia Aquincum Hotel, blissfully combines trendy treatments (think lava-stone massages and lavish body wraps) with traditional thermal bathing.
Maybe the symphonic sweep of its history inspires them. Maybe having so convoluted a language motivates them to communicate by more melodic means. In any case, a number of imposing classical musicians have been bred in Hungary, most notably Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and Ferenc Liszt (familiar to the rest of us as Franz). Prodigious talents aside, what's most impressive about the music scene here is that it's not monopolized by the tux-and-tiara crowd. On the contrary, everyone seems to know the score.
Hence both programming and ticket pricing are designed for a demographically diverse audience. The internationally acclaimed Budapest Festival Orchestra, for instance, strikes an equalitarian chord by offering One-Forint Concerts for the cash-strapped (basically midday dress rehearsals) and Cocoa Concerts for kids. These are usually held in the National Concert Hall, part of the über-modern "concrete colossus" known as the Palace of Arts (Mûvészetek Palotája). But there are also plenty of other places where you can hear the sound of music.
Budapest alone has two opera houses, 12 concert halls, plus a host of intimate chamber-style venues. Add in festival stages—to say nothing of street corners—and the possibilities seem limitless. When architecture matters as much as acoustics, opt for the Magyar Állami Operaház (a glittering confection that ranks as one of the world's most beautiful opera houses) or the Liszt Ferenc Zeneakadémia: home to the country's most prestigious music conservatory and the city's premier concert hall, the academy has been a local landmark since 1907.
Hungarians, to put it bluntly, like to drink. And so do many of the tourists who visit their country. Some, in fact, seem to come solely for that purpose. Prospective imbibers, though, should pick their poison wisely. As far as Eastern Bloc beer goes, Hungary's can't match those brewed in the Czech Republic. Meanwhile its bitter national liqueur, Unicum, is—hmmm, how shall we say it?—an acquired taste. Domestic wines, on the other hand, can meet even an oenophile's grape expectations.
The two most celebrated are sweet white Tokaji Aszü and a full-bodied red that's fittingly dubbed Eger Bull's Blood (Egri Bikavér). Connoisseurs wishing to sample these at their source can contact regional "wine route" associations (www.wineroads.hu has links) for help plotting a vintage countryside vacation complete with winery tours and vineyard visits. Plan on sticking close to the capital? Try timing your trip to coincide with the Budapest International Wine and Champagne Festival, a suitably bacchanalian event held each year in early September.
Of course, the easiest option is to take part in a two-hour tasting session at the House of Hungarian Wines (Magyar Borok Háza) on Castle Hill. Within its labyrinthine cellars guests are invited to help themselves to representative wines from each of Hungary's 22 regions: all for the princely sum of $19. Considering that there are more than 50 different varieties to choose from, you might want to practice saying "Egészségedre" (slowly now, eg - eeS - SHE - ged - re)—"to your health!"
These days Budapesters are reveling in consumerism, so it seems almost unsporting not to join the fun by doing a little shopping. A logical first stop is Váci utca: the pedestrian-only thoroughfare in Pest where 19th-century facades and attractive storefront displays compete for your attention. Along the street, boutiques selling local luxury items like lead crystal and hand-painted Herend porcelain are interspersed with the same "high street" stores found in other European centers (Britain's Marks and Spencer, Sweden's H&M, Spain's Zara: you get the picture).
Treasure hunters may try their luck elsewhere in town. Although most Hungarian attics were emptied out a decade ago, goodies are still being discovered. (In 2003, for example, 40 of composer Joseph Haydn's libretti surfaced in a second-hand bookshop.) If your pocketbook is well padded, sift through the eclectic selection on Falk Miksa utca (aka "Antique Row"). Otherwise, haggle to your heart's content at Ecseri Piac on Budapest's southeast edge. Billed as Central Europe's largest flea market, it has everything from the family jewels to military paraphernalia.
Whatever your tastes, don't miss the fin-de-siècle Vásárcsarnok Market. Under its Zsolnay-tiled roof, you'll find butchers, bakers—even a few candlestick makers. Browse the mezzanine level for intricately-patterned lace, embroidered linens, and ceramics decorated with folk-art designs; then head to the ground floor to check out the chockablock food stalls. Piled behind hanging garlands of paprika are smoked sausages, pungent cheeses, and all the other fixings for a picnic on the riverfront promenade.
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