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Budapest

It's been called the "Pearl of the Danube" -- and no wonder. For elegance and feel, Budapest easily rivals any other major capital city in Europe. The artery that defines it is the Danube, one of the world's most celebrated waterways and also one of the most popular for European river cruising. Spend any time at all in this grand city, and it's easy to understand why the riverbanks of Budapest -- that's right, the riverbanks -- have been assigned UNESCO World Heritage status.

The first thing you need to know about Budapest: It, in effect, operates as two cities with distinctly different personalities. Buda, on the west bank of the Duna (as the Danube is called), is hilly and houses the restored Castle District, a cultural and arts center known for its famed Matthias Church, Royal Palace and Fishermen's Bastion, a rampart that offers the best views in town. The entire district is a real scene-stealer.

Pest, on the east bank, is the hub for dining, shopping, banking and nightlife. There you'll find the pedestrian shopping zone, Vaci Utca; Heroes' Square; the old Jewish quarter; the not-to-miss Andrassy, Budapest's grandest avenue; and the imposing neo-Gothic Parliament, modeled after the British version in London.

Budapest's history dates back to the third century, when Celtic warriors occupied the area. Study the place a bit, and you'll find yourself wondering: Who didn't invade the city? The Romans, Magyars, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Austrians, Germans and Soviets have all played starring roles in Budapest's longstanding municipal drama. Hungarians are said to be famously pessimistic and cynical -- maybe that history explains why. As one guide told us, "We lost all our battles, but we celebrated all our defeats."

Budapest is a town that's been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries -- part of the reason for its eclectic architecture. Its current skyline reflects the building programs and styles of the turn of the 20th century. For my part, I agree with Claudio Magris, who writes in his travel memoir, "Danube," that "Budapest is the loveliest city on the Danube. It has a crafty way of being its own stage-set."

--written by Ellen Uzelac

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