If your ideal destination involves soaking up European history and sophistication without being surrounded by other American tourists looking to do the same thing, then bypass the standard capitals in favor of Budapest. Since the end of communism and Hungary’s entrance into the EU in 2004, this city on the Danube River has been steadily growing in popularity because of its gorgeous art and architecture, as well as its smart and stylish (but still welcoming to visitors) citizens. Bonus: Although you won’t find the type of bargains you might have in the immediate post-communist area, you can attain luxury for less than you could in the big cities of Western Europe.
Before You Go: Need-to-know info
Language: Hungarian, though English and German are also widely spoken
Currency: Hungarian Forint
Entry requirements: Passport valid for three months post-departure
Flight time: 10 hours from New York City; (you might connect in a city like London or Zurich)
When to Go: Budapest at its best
Best weather: The “shoulder” months of May and September may be Hungary’s best weather, when average highs hover in the low 70s, though the summer months (when average highs hit 80) are also pleasant.
Best prices: You should be able to find some great bargains in the winter, when average highs fall into the 30s.
What to Do
Sample coffeehouse culture: Cafes have long been an essential aspect of Budapest’s social and intellectual life. You can find historic ones, where political movements were spawned, and sleek, mod takes on the tradition. To really absorb the flavor of the city, take frequent breaks from sightseeing to linger over coffee with a book or newspaper in one of these cafes.
Appreciate the architecture: Just walking the streets of Budapest will give you an architectural education. You’ll see remains of the Roman Empire, Gothic and Baroque-style buildings as well as lots of Art Nouveau, the style with which the city is most strongly associated. Up your cultural IQ even more by visiting some of the city’s many museums (like the Museum of Fine Arts), and get tickets to a show at one of the local opera houses or concert halls.
Take a bath: Budapest is known for the thermal springs that are beneath it, as well as the thousands of spas where you can bathe in these waters (which are purported to have healing properties) and get pampered.