Astounded by Budapest

I knew about the Danube. I knew Budapest was supposed to be a beautiful city. But what I didn't know was that this metropolis has so much more than grand history and great architecture to its name. It is the friendliest capital I've ever explored.

Yes, there are great tall buildings and spectacularly ornate streetlights. It has all the drama of a fine European city.

And there is art and culture which can mesmerise and astound. A gallery facing Heroes' Square has a tremendous collection of El Grecos with all their comic book drama.

But just a short walk away is a park where families wander in the evening sun.

Right across from the famed Szechenyi baths is a funfair.

There's no dull middlebrow in this city, just a zeal for fun - whether at the opera or splashing about in the Gellert baths.

Even this art deco wonderland is no po-faced spa. As well as boasting rooms of deep baths kept at a luxuriant 38 degrees, it also has a big wave machine to entertain anyone ready to jump in.

In a truly great city, the delights you encounter on the way between destinations prove just as memorable as wherever you were originally heading. Ali, my wonderful travelling companion, and I stumbled into the Museum of Applied Arts because we couldn't walk past a building with such an ostentatiously green roof and not look inside.

The exhibits (furniture and Ottoman carpets) are fascinating, but the real star of the show is the building with geometric arches and stained glass.

Millions of tourists must pass through Budapest each year but visitors are treated neither like parasites nor an infinite economic resource. In every cafe we were flashed winsome smiles and you only had to take out a map in public to have people coming up, wanting to speak English and help.

While wandering through sweltering streets in the ancient Buda section of the city we popped into the home of Amerigo Tot.

The coolness of the small sculptor garden was as refreshing as iced tea in the shade.

From an upper window you could see the parliament building.

It is a Puginesque fantasy and a cheeky rip-off of the Palace of Westminster.

You can catch a glimpse of its 96ft-high spire from almost anywhere in Budapest.

But the true soul of the city is the river which runs through it.

Whether night or day it stirs with the promise of the adventure it carries in its currents.

But this is also a city which has known the truest of tragedies.

The sculpted shoes are a memorial to Jews who were shot into the river. A quarter of the city once followed the faith.

Before the horrors of the Holocaust visited Budapest, the community had been flourishing and its confidence was shown in its gleaming synagogue.

There were once plans to build a Jewish alhambra which would celebrate brotherly love.

Instead, there is now a memorial garden with a metal weeping willow.

This is not a place of forgetting.

But nor is it just a monument for mourning.

As Reuben, a Jewish tour guide originally from Brooklyn, explained, there is now a community of 100,000 and the restored synagogue is packed to the proverbial rafters.

The beauty of the stained glass shines with the colours of a culture Europe nearly lost but will always need, where learning and fraternity are celebrated.

These are happy days for Budapest. The Soviet star has been taken down from the Parliament and you can still taste the sweet liberty which swirled across Europe in 1989. Its people are happy to be free and glad to share the riches of their city with you. A new chapter has started.