Gay Budapest: Grand and racy capital city

This grand and elegant capital is one of Europe's gems, consistently and breathlessly referred to as "One of my favorite places...," by anyone who has spent time there. Budapest's imperial and aristocratic past comes alive in the architectural splendor, and the jaw-droppingly opulent interiors of the great cafes and restaurants.

The city has an air of mystery, and it's easy to imagine the days of cold war intrigue or the next Jason Bourne film location. Its central location makes it easy and inexpensive to get to and from anywhere in Europe. Gay travelers are just starting to discovering what Europeans have been enjoying for over a decade: a sophisticated, funky, sometimes raunchy, energetic and blooming gay scene.

But Budapest is a true traveler's city, not a tourist town. One doesn't come here to line up for mobbed attractions. The city is the monument, its beauty and culture the attraction, and one comes here to bask in it. The same is true of the Budapest gay scene. It's here and it's fun, and all you need to do is relax and be open to something new and different. But it's also a bit of an insider's scene, and a little direction will ensure a great time.

Budapest nightlife boasts latin character. Although comparisons are often drawn to Paris, anyone who has been to Buenos Aires will probably find it more similar to that city in look and feel (Madonna's Evita was filmed in Budapest). The clubs and bars don't get busy until late, with people generally not going out on the town until after midnight. The bars stay open until dawn (hours seem to be discretionary), even 5 or 6am on weeknights.

The out and about gay population is noticeably young, although all ages are present, especially at the pricier events. There's no gay ghetto, and bars and clubs are sprinkled throughout the city. Nightlife ranges from neighborhood pubs and cafes to dance clubs to seedy bars with backrooms and live sex shows (yes, going all-the-way sex). There is a constant rotation of DJ events at venues ranging from underground basement clubs to ultra-glam parties at seriously swank night clubs (one of which is located in a 5-star hotel). Some of these venues are over-the-top gorgeous and have a quintessential East-meets-West quality. Think Moscow. Posh. Strippers. You get the picture. The whole scene shifts outdoors in the summer, with the cafes spilling out onto sidewalks, and outdoor DJ events in parks and al fresco clubs all summer long. It's a non-stop party.

Hungary's rich and ancient history of invasion and occupation comes alive in the faces that pass you on the street. Hungarians are famously beautiful and Hungary's reputation as the capital of twink porn is justified. Tight jeans are de rigueur. Of course there are plenty of ordinary sexy folk as well. There are occasional bear nights at some bars, but the bear/leather/SM scene seems to be mainly centered at bathhouse events, sex clubs and private parties, rather than at bars catering to alternative tastes.

There's an active lesbian community, with girls' bars and parties (although, at certain dance events, men and women integrate harmoniously).

Shopping is expensive. The boulevards are lined with the boutiques of familiar international design houses as well as local brands. But Budapest is not a shopping destination if you're looking for bargains on luxury goods. Nevertheless, people seriously dress up here, especially to go out. You'll see more button-down shirts than t-shirts at the nicer clubs. There's no shabby chic here, so pack sharp.

Dining in Budapest is as sophisticated and international as anywhere and, for the most part, inexpensive. Hungarian and Central European food is omnipresent, delicious and cheap, as are Hungarian wines, and both are currently enjoying a surge in notoriety and popularity in the American fine dining scene.

The climate for gays is considered the most liberal of the former Eastern Bloc capitals. Budapest Pride was the first such event in the ex-communist blocs, and the fair has been opened in the past by the mayor of Budapest and the minister of foreign affairs. Budapest hosted Mr. Gay Europe in 2007 and is hosting the 2012 Eurogames.

The current conservative government is not too keen on same-sex marriage, but, other than that, it has been supportive. Legal protections for gays are well established, even before Hungary entered the EU. Common law marriage has applied to same-sex couples since 1996. Since July 2009 same-sex couples can enter into registered partnership, providing the same rights to registered partners as to spouses--with major exceptions for adoption, IVF access, surrogacy or taking a surname.

Gay and bisexual people are not banned from military service. The age of consent, 14, has applied equally to heterosexual and homosexual activity since a constitutional court decision of 2002. Generally Hungary is considered the most gay-friendly of the former Eastern Bloc countries, including the Czech Republic. In short, with common sense precautions, you can feel quite safe and comfortable being gay here.

Restaurants to check out