Spa capital Budapest melds Old World charm, small-town feel

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Associate editor Rebecca Tobin toured Budapest with members of the Central and Eastern European Travel Board. Her report follows:

ood personality, handsome features, easy to get to know. Loves culture, art and music; strong, hearty food; strong coffee, and sweet wine. Enjoys a sense of adventure, a good mystery and a love of history. Optimistic, friendly and fun.

In short, for a good time, call the Hungarian capital city of Budapest.

Budapest has plenty of practice in receiving foreign -- although not always welcome -- visitors: Turks in the 15th century, Austrians in the 19th and Germans and Soviets in the 20th.

Now it's welcoming tourists -- including a projected 400,000 U.S. visitors this year -- with open arms.

As part of a new long-term economic development plan, the Hungarian government has made tourism a top priority, this year accounting for nearly 10% of the nation's budget.

That's good news for agents and their clients because Budapest is a gem of a city.

At 2 million inhabitants, it's larger than Prague, Czech Republic, or Krakow, Poland, but it also features a small-town feel.

Several areas of tourist interest can easily be explored on foot, especially the quaint, cobblestoned Castle District, where visitors can wander all day.

At the Royal Palace, visitors get a panoramic view of Budapest.During the day, the Old World art nouveau and neo-classical architecture mesh with the cosmopolitan vibe of the people on the street.

At night, the castles, churches and bridges are brilliantly lighted and twinkle in the dark.

There's another bonus in Budapest: A steady increase of visitors hasn't translated to a sharp hike in prices.

For example, the Hungarian State Opera House, built in 1884, is a must-see, even for non-opera buffs. Guided tours of the Opera House start daily at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.

But a ticket to the opera can be had for about $10. Try that at La Scala.

Budapest also is a good sell because it's an easy destination to combine with a Central or Eastern European multi-city tour.

Hungary sits almost smack-dab in the middle of Europe, so visitors are able to reap the benefits of easy access to several cultures.

But they'll find it easy enough to fill a day or five in Budapest alone, soaking up either various cultural activities or soothing mineral waters at one of the city's famed bath houses.

Streets of the city

The streets of Budapest are so lively, it's hard to be-lieve that 10 years ago this city was still behind the Iron Curtain.

The city is divided into 22 districts, which make it easy to navigate.

Guide books spell out walking tours in Buda, the hills on the west side of the Danube, or in Pest, where most of the commercial and nightlife action is.

Budapest's Royal Palace and Chain Bridge light up the Danube River at night. Start at Hero's Square and then walk down Andrassy Utca, Pest's grand boulevard, or browse through the Central Market Hall and then walk up Vaci Utca, the pedestrian-only shopping street.

Along the way, duck into one of Budapest's cafes.

Drink the strong Hungarian coffee and you might be up all night -- not necessarily a bad situation.

Blue Danube

One of the best ways to see Budapest is by boat.

Several companies offer day cruises along the Danube; romance abounds on a nighttime cruise as you drift by Budapest's monuments, cocktail in hand.

Mahart Tours, for example, conducts a day cruise to Margaret Island, the Central Park of Budapest, and an hourlong showboat cruise at night.

Cityrama does a two-hour Budapest cruise and -- for those with extra time -- a 10-hour daytrip to Szentendre, a colorful artist's colony.

Cityrama offers 20% commission on all its tours; they also offer bus programs.

For more information, contact the Hungarian National Tourist Office.

Spas

Budapest proclaims itself the "spa capital of the world" with good reason: There are more than 100 baths in Budapest, according to the Budapest Tourism Office, where visitors can stop and soak in Turkish or art nouveau surroundings.

The Tourist Office has a brochure listing 25 different baths.

The most famous Budapest spa is at the Hotel Gellert, but a more modern -- and Americanized -- bath can be found at the Thermal Hotel Margitsziget on Margaret Island.

The Thermal Hotel Margisziget recently underwent a $13.5 million renovation that added 60 rooms, new services and a 4,300-square-foot gym.

Three-week Spa Special trips to the hotel, including air from New York, start at $1,614 per person, double, and depart Oct. 14, Nov. 4 and 25, and Dec. 16.

For additional information, call Tradesco Tours at (800) 448-4321.

Budapest Card

If clients are staying two or more days in Budapest, agents should look into getting them a Budapest Card.

The card provides unlimited public transportation, free admission to 55 muse-ums and discounts throughout the city.

Towne & Country Tours sells a seven-day card for $17.95. Commission is 10%.

Other companies, like Collette, Rhapsody and Tradesco tours, sell Budapest Cards in conjunction with a trip or hotel reservation.

Two- and three-day passes also are available.

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