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Ferencváros doesn't have the vibrant nightlife of the old Jewish Quarter, nor does it boast pre-war palaces like the inner District 8, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it off the cuff. This once-sleepy area has a dynamic cultural scene and, partly fueled by international college students, its drinking and dining options have vastly improved recently.
Officially part of Ferencváros, the Great Market Hall is a must-see for first-time visitors, so it's a good place to start your trip. Things can get a little crowded here, but zigzag through the ground floor while scanning the array of seasonal fruits, vegetables, and paprika-speckled cold cuts along the way. The upstairs is more touristy, teeming with vendors of knick-knacks and food stalls. When you're finished, exit the building through the back entrance.
The imposing Renaissance Revival building to your right is the Corvinus University ("Karl Marx University" during the communist era), which was previously a customs house placed strategically near the market. In 2007, the university opened a new wing, straight ahead at #4 Közraktár Street, creating one of the few state-of-the-art public college facilities in Budapest. Fans of jazz should drop by the Budapest Music Center, home to the city's jazz scene and hosting almost daily concerts inside a nicely refurbished pre-war building.
Head toward the promenade stretching along the Danube's bank, setting off at the whale-shaped, steel-and-glass building. Flanked by two restored 19th-century warehouses, this impressive piece of contemporary architecture is yet to find its purpose and long-term tenants (its name, CET, denotes Central European Time and is also a name for aquatic mammals in Hungarian). The sweeping views draw many locals to the bars on the ground floor; Esetleg Bistro and Jónás Craft Beer House are especially popular.
A few blocks from here is Ráday Street, the center of the city's nightlife in the early aughts. Although it's still lined with bars and restaurants, they hardly compare to the hip establishments within the Jewish Quarter. One of the exceptions is Jedermann, an all-day café and jazz bistro with a diverse crowd and magnetic charm. No matter the time of day, stop by here for a coffee or drink. Near Jedermann is the Nándori pastry shop whose traditional Hungarian cakes — Dobos, Esterházy, krémes — don't disappoint. All the way on the other end of Ráday is Costes, Budapest's first Michelin-starred restaurant.
From Jedermann, head out to the Grand Boulevard and dart across the road to Tompa Street. Ferencváros beyond the Grand Boulevard looks different than comparable parts of other neighborhoods: an urban renewal program in the early 1990s replaced the crumbling and dark pre-war houses with modern buildings and slower traffic. The area around Ferenc Square is becoming the heart of this up-and-coming residential area, spawning new restaurants and bars.
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Paletta serves updated Hungarian dishes with an emphasis on produce from around Hungary's Lake Balaton. A higher-end option is Petrus, a Bib Gourmand-awarded restaurant specializing in classic French fare. The nearby Élesztő is a lively craft beer bar inside a former glass manufacturing plant, offering 21 types of local craft beers. Next to Élesztő is Trafó, a contemporary-arts center with experimental music, dance, and theater performances, some of them with English subtitles.
Just a block from Élesztő is the Holocaust Memorial Center, an informative and poignant exhibit about Jewish life in Hungary. The corner of Tűzoltó and Thaly Kálmán streets is anchored by the facilities of Semmelweis, Hungary's main medical school. The construction boom here is fueled by the housing needs of the university's legion of foreign students.
Turn right on Thaly Kálmán Street and amble all the way over to the Zwack Museum, about a ten-minute walk. The museum's engaging exhibit depicts the history and the production process of Hungary's most famous herbal liqueur, the Unicum (yes, the tour includes a taste). Next to the museum is Dandár Baths, the least popular but one of the most enjoybale of Budapest's thermal baths, drawing a mainly local crowd.
From here, cross the busy road back to the Danube promenade, lined with a row of gleaming office buildings. International companies like Vodafone and Morgan Stanley have spurred the neighborhood's transformation, bringing white-collar jobs and a service sector to the area. The architectural highlight of District 9 is Müpa, an immense cultural complex completed in 2005. Müpa is home to the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art and two high-tech concert halls with world-class performances.
Shaped like a ship, next to Müpa is the National Theater (2002), a controversial building among both architects and theatergoers. Those with limitless energy can walk back to the city center along the river path, otherwise take tram #2, which also offers river views.