A view of Budapest

Budapest is the Europe you’ve been looking for.

Budapest is laid along both banks of the Danube: the palatial fortress of Buda rising high above the river to one side, the commercial center of Pest splayed along the flat bank opposite.

It is a city of hearty food, forthright and genuine people, fine wines, and elegant thermal baths.

It’s a city steeped in a wonderfully convoluted past—Romans and Magyars, Mongols and Turks, Austrian emperors and Soviet puppets—yet one that looks to the future, with elegantly odd new buildings going up to replace some of the cement-block scars from the Soviet era.

But these avant-garde new structures and sad Soviet holdovers are outnumbered in the old city by a gorgeous mélange (yes, I said it: a gorgeous mélange) of decorous 19th century Empire structures and decorative Secessionist ones, all jostling for space on busy boulevards.

And, yes, you can do it all in a long weekend. (And, despite all news to the contrary, there is not currently a toxic river of sludge moving down the Danube.)

Those famous Budapest baths

The Rudas Baths in Budapest

Budapest’s famous bathhouses range from broodingly 16th century Turkish (the Rudas Baths; www.budapestgyogyfurdoi.hu), to grand Art Nouveau (the famed Géllert Baths; www.gellertbath.com).

There are also button-down modern spas, exemplified by the Danubius Grand on Margaret Island (www.danubiushotels.com) that feature menus of treatments ranging from spa massages and mus baths to nose jobs, cosmetic dentistry, and laser eye surgery.

Hungary has become famous for this kind of medical tourism, (they have made a particular specialty of dentistry), all of it performed by highly-trained physicians, surgeons, and dentists at prices so low that you can actually spend a week at the spa hotel—including airfare, meals, sightseeing, and the medical procedures— and still spend far less than you would Stateside just for the procedures themselves.

What’s the best way to get to Budapest?

The elegant New York Cafe at the
Boscolo Palace Hotel (www.boscolohotels.com)

How do you do Budapest in a weekend? Well, it helps if you live in the greater New York City area, because as of this year Delta Air Lines (www.delta.com)—and staring next year, American Airlines (www.aa.com)—offers nonstop seasonal flights (in about 9.5 hours) from JFK to the rapidly expanding Budapest airport.

Off-season, you can still go, of course, but you will transfer somewhere like Paris or London and the journey will take up to 12 hours.

That might actually be a preferable way to go, because one thing those direct flights are not is cheap.

Coach class starts around $1,000 roundtrip (though I highly recommend their Business First service, if you have the scratch—I don’t, which is why I was only too happy to let Delta pick up the tab for me; speaking of which: yes, it’s perfectly natural to hate travel writers).

However, if you don’t mind transferring in Europe, you can get roundtrip plane tickets for as little as $650, including taxes and fees (found that fare on a LOT flight from New York via Warsaw using Kayak.com).

If you are already in Europe, however (or perhaps can snag an inexpensive fare to London; this winter they’re bottoming out around $397 roundtrip at www.AuroEurope.com), you are in luck, since Budapest is the home base for the low-cost airline Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com). Flights from London’s Luton airport run as little as £25 (about $40) including taxes.

Even better, once you get there, everything in Budapest is pretty inexpensive.

How much does Budapest cost?

Those fabulous and famous Budapest bathhouses? Entry for a day, including use of a private changing cabin, costs about $18 to $21. Once inside, massages run as little as $13 to $20.

It’ll cost $6 for a bottle of really good wine—a bit more for that famous sweet Hungarian wine called tokaj—or $1.50 to $4 for a beer even at the trendiest of “Ruin pubs” (semi-legal squatter bars, like the classic and excellent Szimpla kert [www.szimpla.hu], installed in the courtyards of abandoned buildings; www.ruinpubs.com).

A goulash cooking lesson at one of
the upstairs restaurants in the central market

A massive bowl of goulasch will run you $5 to $6, while the priciest main course on a menu may break $10 or $11 (and that’s not even for the famed Hungarian fried goose liver on brioche—best accompanied by a glass of that sweet tokaj wine).

At online booking sites like Venere.com and Booking.com, Hotels in the center start around $26 for two people—though around $40 per night is more typical (international chain properties like Ramada or Best Western start at $60 to $90). Simple guesthouses sell double rooms starting as low as $17.

You can bargain in the central market for handicrafts—and they stall owners are refreshingly devoid of shill or tout-ism. They just sit there quietly waiting for a potential customer to ask them a question, rather than constantly exhorting passersby to come peruse their wares. I love it.

(I also love the prices, where embroidered linens start at $2 to $4 for smaller pieces, and sampler packs of super-fresh paprika cost half what they would at home.)