From thermal baths to ancient architecture to the beautiful River Danube, Hungary's thrilling capital, Budapest, holds myriad surprises for visitors of all ages and tastes. On the Danube's west banks lies Buda, whose cobbled, hilly lanes hold countless historic monuments including Buda Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To the east is Pest, home to the Hungarian Parliament, a vibrant business sector and Andrássy Avenue, Budapest's Champs-Elysées. Buda and Pest combined in 1873 to form modern Budapest, linked by the iconic Chain Bridge and pretty Margaret Island.
Cruise down the Danube for a glimpse of both sides to this fascinating city with Budapest Danube Cruises (www.budapestdanubecruise.com). If the water looks tempting, spend a few hours relaxing in the mineral-rich thermal waters of the Gellért bath complex. With two beautifully tiled baths, saunas, plunge pools, a wave machine and a children's pool, it's popular for a reason. A good family-friendly attraction is Budapest Zoo, whose art nouveau architecture is as fascinating as its collection of animals from around the world.
Pick your favourite outdoor restaurant along Ráday Street, a beautiful old street where people-watching, browsing and sipping coffee are the main activities. Halfway down stands Costes (www.costes.hu), Hungary's first Michelin-starred restaurant. For a sophisticated twist on Hungarian cuisine that won't blow your holiday budget, book a table at Aranyszarvas (www.aranyszarvas.hu), where seasonal menus feature traditional dishes including game. Indulge your sweet tooth at Gerbeaud (www.gerbeaud.hu), a legendary coffee house and patisserie on pretty Vörösmarthy Square. Pick a decadent somlói, a cream-filled sponge cake with chocolate sauce.
Nightlife comes with a twist in Budapest. Float the night away at A38 (www.a38.hu), a permanently moored ship on the Danube which hosts concerts, exhibitions and DJs throughout the year. Another superb music spot is Akvárium Klub (www.facebook.com/akvariumklub), peeking out from half underground opposite the Deák tér metro, with a diverse program of live bands, DJs and dance classes. In the heart of the upscale 5th district you'll find Ötkert (otkert.hu), one of the trendiest nightlife spots in Budapest with a nightclub, restaurant and bar.
Sample fresh Hungarian specialities in the latest 'foodie' market in Budapest – Szimpla Farmers' Market, held every Sunday morning in Szimpla kert (www.szimpla.hu). If you're looking for Hungarian fashion, it spans the whole gamut from the unique handcrafted jewellery and clothing of Intuita (www.intuitashop.com) on Lower Váci street to high-end brands such as Nanushka (www.nanushka.hu) on Deák Ferenc, otherwise known as Fashion Street.
Any time of year is great to visit Budapest, but August may be one of the best. Not only can you experience the Sziget Festival (www.sziget.hu) on Óbudai island – a celebration of music and culture that won the Best Major European Festival Award in 2011 – but there's a magnificent fireworks display on August 20th to commemorate the founding of the Hungarian state. If you're in Budapest in March, check out the busy program of concerts and cultural events for the Budapest Spring Festival (www.btf.hu/btf2012). And if you miss both of these, you'll find music, dancing and shows throughout the year at the Palace of Arts Budapest (www.mupa.hu) and Hungarian State Opera (www.opera.hu) – iconic venues in this iconic European city.