Budapest is a fascinating modern city, a sprawling behemoth that not only spans a major river, but also a riveting and turbulent past with the energy of today. The city is huge, but for most visitors, it is easily broken down into neighborhoods. Stroll the Danube River, gaze over the expansive vistas on Castle Hill, and soak in the vibrant energy of a population in love with culture, music, and life.
Of all of Europe’s great historic cities, Budapest surprised me the most. My studies of Hungary’s history painted a picture of a city wearily recovering from Communist rule, but this is so far from the truth. Once a capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the Hapsburgs, Budapest is a history lesson of imperial grandeur and flourishing culture, displayed in its stately and flamboyant architecture, imposing grand boulevards and elegant cafés. Yet compared with Vienna – the other Hapsburg imperial capital – Budapest is more in love with life, radiating a sense of contentment beneath the veneer of bustling people.
Budapest is really two cities split by the Danube River – Buda on one side, Pest on the other. Navigating the city may seem intimidating, but think of Budapest as a collection of neighborhoods linked by efficient mass transit. Focus on one or two neighborhoods at a time and Budapest will shrink from a colossus into a medley of neighborhoods with distinct personalities. For the most part, major sights are all located in a centralized radius around the Danube, stretching along the river banks and out along Andrássy út to City Park.
Budapest is one of my all-time favorite cities to visit – world-class music at a fraction of the price, a thriving café culture, an intriguing mix of historical sites, fantastic restaurants, an entertainment scene that never sleeps, and friendly locals not yet jaded by tourism. Even at the touristy sites, you will almost always be surrounded by Hungarians. So take in an opera, search out a ruin bar, soak in a Turkish bath, or sigh over the city lights on a Danube stroll in one of Europe’s most underrated grand cities.
Photo Gallery: Budapest October 2009
Blog Posts about Budapest
- Budapest as Seen from the Local Cafes, September 28, 2009
- Some Fond Notes on Budapest, September 30, 2009
- And the Fibro Finally Rears Its Ugly Head..., October 1, 2009
Budapest has always been a crossroads in Central Europe, where diverse cultures have met, clashed, and merged. The Magyars came to Europe as nomadic raiders from the steppes of central Asia and settled down, merging with the various cultures of the region. After King István converted to Christianity and was crowned by the pope, Hungary became a medieval vanguard against the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire. Budapest fell to the Ottomans in 1541. Turkish influence still infuses the city, through the strong coffee and locals love of soaking in the public baths that dot the city. The Hapsburgs took control of Hungary in 1686, leading to a new era of Catholic rule from Vienna. The Hungarians, always fiercely independent – part of their Magyar history – rebelled against the Hapsburgs, engaging in uprisings and causing trouble until finally Hapsburg Austria agreed to the Compromise of 1867, which set up the Dual Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and allowed Hungary autonomy over their own territory within the empire. Budapest suddenly became an imperial capital and the multitudes of lavish buildings remain as evidence of this Golden Age.
After Austria-Hungary’s defeat in World War I, Hungary became an independent nation. Hungary struggled through World War II as an ally to Nazi Germany and the local populace was terrorized by the Arrow Cross, the local Nazi Party. At the end of the war, the Soviet’s marched in and imposed Communist control. In 1956, Communist reformers staged an uprising with Imre Nagy as their leader. They hoped to separate Hungary’s form of communism from the Soviet’s, but Moscow sent in tanks and re-installed a hard-line communist government. Hungary stayed Communist through 1989, but was always more detached from the Communist bloc as part of their own “goulash communism”, with mixed elements of limited free-market enterprise and human rights.
Today Hungary is a member of the European Union and is considering switching from the forint to the euro. Although the global recession has hit Hungary hard, as well as the rest of Eastern Europe, it is a beautiful, friendly country and well worth a visit.
Home Made Hostel – in Pest, district VI, just off Andrássy út (Oktogon) on Teréz körút, M1 Oktogon stop.
A small, quirky, and homey eco-hostel tucked into a quiet courtyard near the insanity of Andrássy út, a central location with access to the M1 Metro line. The staff is friendly and the overall vibe eclectic and mellow, with couches, books and plants everywhere. Second-hand furniture is creatively repurposed, with suitcases used as shelves and big chests as lockers. There are three dorms rooms of various sizes and a private room off the kitchen. Avoid sleeping in the 8-bed dorm, as it is essentially a communal hallway with lofts. The 4-bed dorm is quieter and spacious. A big, retro kitchen packed with cooking utensils and a full-size fridge makes eating on the cheap simple. Free computer and Internet use. Complimentary tea and coffee.
It is essentially college dorm life on steroids, with a mostly twenty-something clientele. If you have difficulty with stairs, there is an old-fashioned 1920s elevator in the courtyard.
Follow the hostel’s directions carefully, as the doorway into the courtyard from the street is easy to miss and only marked by a small plaque. It’s one of many little hidden worlds around Budapest – a courtyard of flats and businesses quietly nestled into huge block-wide buildings on busy streets. Follow the faded beauty of the grand staircase to the second floor to find the hostel.
FOOD & RESTAURANTS
Hungarian restaurant food is heavy on the meats and starches and finding a decent salad is difficult. This is a mystery to me, since the grocery stores are full of produce. If you need your greens, hit up the markets and fix your own.
Soda pop sold in stores and restaurants come in smaller sizes than the States. Most will be in a 0,25 liter bottle or can, which is 8 oz. Produce is sold by the gram. In grocery stores, look for the scales, place your produce on the scale and press the photo of the item you want. A price sticker should print out. When in doubt, watch the locals and copy.
Water served in restaurants is carbonated. If you want still water, you will probably be served expensive bottled water. Asking for tap water can be arduous – I decided to go with the flow (“When in Rome…”).
Restaurants serve much smaller portions than we are used to in the States – this is healthier anyways. Meals are meant to be savored and dining out is a social event. The waiter will not bring you the check until you ask for it, since he is expecting you to be there for the evening.
Self-catering is super simple in Budapest, as long as you book accommodations with a kitchen. I picked up groceries at a local market and was able to make my own breakfast as well as a few larger meals for three days for only $9 altogether. Grocery stores in Budapest are much smaller than in the States, although you will still find a nice variety of fresh produce. Some of my grocery standbys are bananas, fresh fruit, muesli mixed with a drinkable yogurt for breakfast, freshly baked breads (a fantastic selection), pasta and tomato sauce.
Great Market Hall – a massive building full of a dizzying array of fresh produce, cheeses, meats and spices. Assemble a picnic or head upstairs to the food vendors for some Hungarian fast food. Multiple food booths line one side of the top floor, serving a variety of sausages, stews, meats, and fried breads. It is stand-up style fast food – you’ll be lucky to snag one of the few bar stools. This is an inexpensive and tasty way to sample what the locals eat. (Open Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday. In Pest, district IX, on Fővám körút near Liberty Bridge. Near M3 Kálvin tér stop.)
Menza – Everyone, at least in the guidebook crowd, seems to rave about Menza, a 1970’s throwback restaurant with bizarre, retro décor. My own experience was mixed. My first meal was excellent – fried bread stuffed with chicken and cheeses and accompanied by a fresh salad, which is a surprising rarity in Eastern Europe. However, my second try disappointed – the pork in my entrée was dry and I could only force it down with the help of an excellent local Hungarian wine suggested by my waiter. I dug the 70’s Communist version of the Jetson’s futurism, especially the main dining room’s wall texture, which made me feel like I was eating inside a ball of bubble wrap. The outdoor seating on Franz Liszt Square is also nice in the warmer months. An affordable splurge – go there for the atmosphere, the food is a coin-toss. (Pest, Liszt Ferenc tér 2, just off Andrássy út, meals with wine ~1,900-2,500Ft, M1 Oktogon or Opera.)
Paprika – AVOID AT ALL COSTS. This is a tourist trap, with an unfriendly, chronically annoyed staff and average food. The only saving grace was my Cold Peach Soup dessert, which was delicate, refreshing and not overly sweet. The traditional goulash was a joke – a touristy version without much taste. If you want to discover the subtleties of Hungarian paprika, scout out a place filled with locals (Pest, short walk from Heroes Square, Dózsa György 72).
Horgásztanya – My favorite restaurant in Budapest. I stumbled across this humble “Fisherman’s Pub” while exploring the neighborhood in the shadow of Castle Hill. I was the only tourist there, always a good sign. My pork dish with a spicy paprika mushroom sauce was mouthwatering and paired perfectly with the house white wine, which was smooth and not too sweet. A little bit of paprika heaven. The atmosphere is fun and relaxed, with paneled wood walls, fish nets and a row boat suspended from the ceiling. The wait staff is helpful, even though they hardly spoke a word of English and I hardly a word of Hungarian. (Buda, district I, corner of Fö utca and Halász utca in Víziváros neighborhood below Castle Hill, meal with wine ~3,000Ft, M2 Batthyány tér.)
Budapest is a city pumping on the caffeinated veins of cafés. A direct influence of the Ottoman Empire on Hapsburg society, the slightly faded elegance of today’s grand cafes still host after-opera crowds, business meetings, and friends catching up on their lives. These elegant cafes, full of crystal chandeliers, gilded mirrors and shimmery wallpaper, embody a way of life that developed under the imperial years of the Hapsburgs. Today locals slow down over a newspaper and coffee while life breezes by outside.
While in Budapest, I discovered the secret of embracing the café culture. Unlike in the States, you can sit in the café for as long as you want for the price of one cup of coffee. The waiters never rush you and will only bring the check when you ask for it. Unlike our java culture in the US – standing in line at the Starbucks counter, the baristas scurrying to fill orders, names shouted out for pickup – in Budapest, time is an old friend to be embraced. In a café, you have nothing but time. Time to connect with friends, develop a business relationship, reflect in a journal, or read the news of the day. This is an experience not to be rushed. So when in Budapest, live as the locals do and make your coffee break an experience to be savored.
There are plenty of American-style coffee shops that mimic Starbucks, but locals see them as rude and cheap. You can pay to stand in line, be rushed and served coffee in a cheap cardboard cup, or you could pay to sit in an elegant café, quietly reading while sipping your coffee out of a teacup as soft music plays. I know which experience I prefer.
When you order your coffee, do not be surprised if a little glass of carbonated water accompanies your drink. You are not being charged for it; this is a standard practice of respectable cafes. I never asked why they serve water with the coffee, but my educated guess is that this practice helps people avoid the dehydration affects of caffeine.
Gerlóczy Café – A faded 19th century beauty of the Hapsburg era, tucked away from the busy city streets of Pest. The interior is gorgeous and everything a Hapsburg café should be – elegant wallpaper, rich colors, and chandeliers. Piles of newspapers. In warmer months, the leafy courtyard is pleasant. This is one of the rare places to find egg breakfasts in Budapest, although scrambled eggs are a splurge at 600Ft. I stuck to an espresso and buttery croissant. (Pest, district V, Gerlóczy utca 1, two blocks from Váci utca, coffee 350-550Ft, M1-3 Deák tér.)
Művész Kávéház – A famous 19th century café across the street from the Opera House. This spacious café once hosted the cream of Budapest society as they socialized in their finest gowns and tuxedos. While more touristy than many other cafes, I enjoyed the ambience here the most, with its high ceilings, friendly wait staff who recognized me on my second visit, and the comfy banquette seat along the mirrored and gilded wall. They also serve delicate desserts. I tried the Angelo, a chocolate cake with cream and topped with white chocolate and strawberries. A decadent treat best enjoyed on a lazy afternoon with an espresso. (Pest, Andrássy út 29, coffee 500-600Ft, M1 Opera.)
Centrál Kávéház – A more humble, if still grand, 19th century interior, with simple brass chandeliers. The atmosphere left me cold. It is hard to put my finger on, but something about the ambience was not as comfortable for lingering as even the fanciest of cafes on Andrássy út. Maybe it was the strange pale green-gray of the walls, but I hurried on. A shame, because the coffee is the best I had in Budapest by far – smooth, rich and robust. (Pest, district V, Károlyi Mihály utca 9, coffee 500-600Ft, M3 Ferenciek tere.)
Komédiás Kávéház – A tiny gem not listed in any of my guidebooks. Tucked around the corner from the Opera House on Andrassy ut, this café is more intimate than intimidating, with an elongated interior dressed in rich dark wood paneling, sumptuous fabrics, and mirrors magnifying the dim light. A place to whisper secrets. The only downside is the uncomfortable chairs – sit at the wall banquette instead. (Pest, district V, just off Andrássy út, Nagymező utca 26, coffee 500-600Ft, M1 Opera.)
Budapest is a city swirling in entertainment – cafes, world-class opera and theater, a blood-pumping young club scene. There is something here for everyone and some of the best entertainment is free. Stroll the Danube embankment at night, sighing over the romantic silhouettes of the lights of Parliament and Castle Hill twinkling in the Danube waters before you head off to a night of opera or dancing.
Budapest is home to the Hungarian Opera House, one of the most affordable venues for world-class opera in Europe. During the season, which usually starts in October and runs through the spring, the opera performs almost nightly. Regular tickets only start at 1,000Ft ($5), but the obstructed views seats are an even better deal for those in the know – 400Ft ($2) and often still available right before the performance. Unfortunately, I timed my visit the same weekend as the 125th anniversary gala performance, when the theatre truly was sold out. However, as part of their 125 year celebration, the opera set up a live video feed outside, closed off the street, set up chairs for free viewing, and even entertained us with a live brass quartet as women in 19th century period costume passed out programs. I enjoyed the best opera of my trip that night for free with hundreds of locals. (Hungarian State Opera, district VI, Andrássy út 22, M1 Opera.)
If you go out drinking in Budapest, be aware that not only is the beer inexpensive by American standards, but the serving size is huge. Pace yourself. Beers come in half liter mugs, about the equivalent of 2 beers in the States. For only 400Ft ($2), you can easily socialize in Budapest on a tight budget.
An unusual phenomenon has been brewing in Budapest for a few years, called the “ruin bar”. In many of the boarded up, abandoned buildings of the city unofficial bars and clubs have sprung up. Many of these bars will only stay a little while before they move on to a new location. The partiers show up by word of mouth and the authorities seem to look the other way. The best way to find one of these transient in-the-know places is by asking a local. In my case, we asked the Hungarian students working at the hostel. In all, I experienced two ruin bars. One was especially difficult to find. We circled an old, run-down shopping mall looking for the entrance. Finally, two girls pointed us to a graffitied staircase that led us up into a sprawling labyrinth of humanity and concrete hallways. A creepy, horror-movie vibe, with odd lighting that reflected harsh shadows in the corners. After ordering our drinks, we emerged onto a rooftop packed with locals vigorously cheering on a Hungarian soccer team in a match broadcast on the large screen. The match was being played in the stadium only 10 blocks away and the crowd was full of electricity, as the game was part of the Champions League. At that moment, the entire escapade was worth it.
Another ruin bar, Szimpla kert, seems to have become a permanent fixture in the nightlife scene. Set into an old warehouse in an industrial section of Pest, they actually have a sign screwed into the façade above the door. Inside was packed with locals mingling beneath an exposed concrete structure of beams and wires. The décor fits the scene – an eclectic array of reused industrial items, such as a bench made out of the trunk of an old car, and a bathtub sawn in half to make a little booth. The patio is pleasant and the beer plentiful and cheap. (Pest, district VII, Kazinczy utca 14, few blocks from M2 Astoria.)
MY SIGHTSEEING MUST-SEES
Great Market Hall – Built in 1896 as part of Hungary’s 1000th Anniversary as a nation, this giant market is not only gorgeous architecture, but also a spot for incredible people-watching. Inside the huge spacious hall are three levels of shopping and food. Assemble a picnic from among the produce, cheese, and bread vendors. Sample spicy paprika. Head downstairs and wrinkle up your nose at the fishy ambience and tanks full of eels. Upstairs is a souvenir-hunter’s dream, with a maze of crafts to browse, especially lace and embroidery. You might even stumble across relics of Communism, such as actual Soviet army flasks and hats. While many vendors accept credit cards, if you pay in cash, you often can negotiate a reduced price. Hungarian-style fast food vendors are also located on the top floor for a cheap and tasty lunch. If you miss the variety of American-style grocery stores, there is a large supermarket in the basement. (Open Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday. In Pest, district IX, on Fővám körút near Liberty Bridge. Near M3 Kálvin tér stop.)
Great Synagogue – A beautiful synagogue built in the 1850s and restored after World War II with the help of many Hungarian-Americans, including actor Tony Curtis. It was Yom Kippur when I was there so I was unable to go inside, but friends from my hostel told me the interior is gorgeous. Instead, I stood outside under the towering entrance and let myself feel my own small insignificance in the presence of God, which is probably what the architects intended. Most of the synagogues I visited in Europe were small and humble, but this one reminds me of the cathedrals, reaching to the heavens. (2,000Ft. Closed Saturday. Pest, district VII, Dohány utca 2, short walk from M2 Astoria.)
Stroll the Danube River on both the Pest and Buda sides. If you have the time, stroll once during the day and once at night for two completely different experiences. My favorite stroll was across the Chain Bridge to Buda as the sun began to wane and the golden light illuminated Parliament.
Matthias Church, Castle Hill – Be forewarned, the exterior may be hidden under scaffolding as part of a restoration effort. However, hints of the tiled roofs bright decorative patterns and the neo-Gothic frills and spires can still be glimpsed. The interior is dark – allow your eyes time to adjust. I sat in a pew and allowed myself to contemplate the glowing light of the stained glass windows penetrating the darkness. This must be how medieval people experienced mass – the radiance of God’s light piercing the darkness, a mystical element of setting missing in today’s world of electricity. Take time to wander the perimeter of the nave, gazing up at the intricately painted walls, which tell the story of Hungary’s history. The weary faded flags lining the main aisle up to the altar are from the coronation of Hapsburg Emperor Franz Josef as king of Hungary in 1867. (750Ft. Castle Hill, take bus #10 or #16.)
Széchenyi Baths – Another remnant of the Ottoman days, Budapest is dotted with public baths and the Hungarians seem to be addicted to soaking with each other in the heated water while gossiping or playing chess. Most tourists gravitate to the upscale and fancy Gellért Baths, but I prefer the local crowd of the Széchenyi Baths in City Park. An elegant Hapsburg building with arcades, domes, frilly yellow and cream accents, and Neo-Classical statuary. There are multiple mineral baths inside, but I head straight to the three outdoor pools. For the work-out obsessed, there is a cooler lap pool in the center. On one side is a fun whirlpool accompanied by a larger pool dotted with alternating massaging jets. A half hour here and I worked the tension out of my fibro-plagued muscles. On the other end is the hottest pool, a shallow pond brimming with wading, socializing people of all ages – old men playing chess, old women gossiping and harrumphing the young couple making out, children splashing, and people like me just allowing the warm water to soothe away stress.
Navigating the baths can be challenging as all the signage is in Hungarian – after all, this is not meant to be a tourist site, but a public gathering place for Hungarians. Bring a sense of humor, patience, and a smile. There are three entrances – I found the swimming pool entrance the easiest to use. It’s located across from the run-down looking zoo. There is no line and at least the women’s locker room is right down the stairs. Pay and get a key-card for a locker from the attendant at the desk. If you are given a receipt, keep it – you may need to show it when you leave, especially if you rented anything. You can rent swimsuits and towels, but I just brought my own. Once you have found the locker room (don’t be afraid to ask or just follow a local), choose a locker. It took me some time to figure out how to operate it. Once you are changed and have stuffed all your clothes inside, insert the key-card into the slot on the side of the door. Close the door, turn the actual locker key all the way to lock and take the key with you. The outside pools should be just up the stairs and outside from the women’s locker room. If you get lost, ask someone or follow a local. Remember to bring flip-flops and leave valuables in the locker or at your hotel. (Prices vary depending on length of stay, expect 2,620-3,650Ft. Pest, district XIV, City Park, M1 Széchenyi fürdő.)
House of Terror – A somber, but important museum about the terror-filled years under the oppression of the Nazi-supported Arrow Cross and the Communist ÁVH secret police. This is one of the most underrated sites in Budapest. The Arrow Cross was a Nazi-supported fascist government forced on Hungary by Germany in 1944 to begin the process of exterminating the local Jewish population. With the end of the war and Soviet control, the local communist secret police ÁVH took over the building as their HQ. Prepare yourself for the emotional impact of visiting a building where thousands of Hungarians were imprisoned, interrogated, tortured and killed. The multimedia exhibits, although only captioned in Hungarian, are striking – you will not even need the English flyers explaining each room to understand the emotional message. You will see the actual torture cells and prison cells located in the basement. In the courtyard sits an intimidating Soviet tank, set against a wall plastered in black and white photos of the victims. This is a serious museum for a tourist to visit, but important to understanding the people with whom you are rubbing elbows on the Metro and soaking in the baths. (1,800Ft. Pest, district VI, Andrássy út 60, M1 Vörösmarty utca. Be careful not to confuse this stop with Vörösmarty tér on the same line.)
Cave Church – Another underrated site located on the Buda side in Gellért Hill. This church is literally built into the claustrophobic walls of a cave. The décor is simple and humble – wood benches, tiny wood altars, and a crucifix entombed in the rock. A single little stained glass window tunneled deep into the rock wall lets in natural light. Tread quietly – this is a place of prayer and contemplation. Only a short walk across Liberty Bridge from the Great Market Hall. (Free. Buda, district XI, across the street from Gellért Hotel on Kelenhegyi út 4-6.)
Stroll Andrássy út – The grandest of imperial promenades in Budapest, Andrássy út is the unavoidable vein of Pest, stretching from the Danube River to City Park. Take time to stroll the leafy sidewalk, gaze up at the ornate history lesson in architecture and peek into the reminders of Hapsburg rule. During ticket office hours, you can step into the marble-lined lobby of the Opera House without paying for a tour. Take breaks at the numerous cafes or hop the Metro M1 beneath the street to save your feet. Some of the major sites line the way – the Opera House, Museum of Terror, the Művész Kávéház, and culminating in the imposing Heroes Square at the entrance to City Park.
Váci utca – I swear all the tourists in the city were shopping on this street. For the architecture and history, absolutely I recommend a quick look, but then get thee off to the rest of the city, please! It’s a street full of upscale shops you can find anywhere else and expensive souvenir shops selling the same trinkets you can find in Great Market Hall for half the cost. Instead of shopping, look up and admire the parade of architectural styles – Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Classical, Modernism, Secessionism. Observe the hidden glimpses of everyday life or recent history, such as the student leaning out of his classroom to people-watch or the once-famous McDonald’s that people from all over the Communist bloc came to eat at in the 1980s. Then go out and explore the rest of Budapest most tourists never bother to experience.
Castle Hill – Once home to Hungary’s royal castle, now a hill of rebuilt and disjointed buildings. Avoid the average museums and over-priced restaurants and focus on the real stars – the amazing city views and gorgeous Matthias Church. Much of Castle Hill was destroyed during World War II, so the majority of what you see is actually completely rebuilt and not always in the most authentic way. The Royal Palace is an example – frilly Baroque, but much of it contemporary additions made to look historic and not following the historical designs. However, the sweeping views of the city across the Danube are worth the hike up. Other notable sites include the statue of the Turul, a mythical bird from Hungarian lore, and the pockmarked forlorn building that looks out of place. This was the Ministry of War and still bears the marks of the severe fighting from World War II.
Currency – Forint. Check a currency converter for the latest exchange rates. Hungary may switch to the euro in upcoming years.
Hungarian Government – Parliamentary democracy with a president and prime minister, both appointed by the National Assembly. The single-house National Assembly is directly elected by popular vote.
Population – (2009) Hungary ~10 million, Budapest ~ 2.4 million
Language – Magyar, a language completely unique from the rest of Europe
Useful Hungarian Words & Phrases
Hungarian is an exceptionally difficult language to learn, especially for an American like me. I took pride in learning a couple key phrases that opened up numerous smiles from the Hungarians I met and interacted with and made navigating the city easier. I never did learn how to formally say hello, hopefully I didn’t insult anyone by using the informal greeting, which is much easier to pronounce.
Tér – square Utca – street Duna – Danube River víz – water
Kávé (kah-veh) – coffee sör – beer bor – wine
For public bathrooms: férfi – men női – women Public baths – fürdő
Hello – Jó napot kívánok (yoh nah-pot kee-vah-nohk) Hi (informal) – Szia (see-ya)
Yes – Igen (ee-gehn) No – Nem (nehm) Please – Kérem (kay-rehm)
To ask for the bill – fizetek (fee-zeh-tek) Thank you – Köszönöm (kur-sur-nurm)
How much? – Mennyi? (mehn-yee) Where is? – Hol van? (hohl vawn)
The Metro system seems daunting at first, but learn the ropes and navigating Budapest becomes a breeze. All the major train stations are linked with the Metro. Metro, trams, and buses operate on the same tickets. Purchase tickets from kiosks, ticket windows inside Metro, or from automated machines. Not all stations have attendants who sell tickets or machines, so plan ahead. I bought a transfer ticket from the attendant at the Metro station near the Keleti train station and a multi-day ticket from a kiosk in the busy Oktogon of Andrássy út.
If you are visiting for a couple days, the multi-day tickets will probably be the best option – you will use public transit extensively to hop around the city and save your feet. City blocks are huge and the distance on city maps are deceptive. Multi-day tickets allow unlimited rides and are sold in 1/3/7-day increments. If you are purchasing a single ride ticket and have to transfer Metro lines or hop from Metro to a tram, make sure to get a transfer ticket. With single ride tickets, remember to validate it as you enter the tram or Metro station. Don’t try to cheat the system and ride free or unvalidated – I was surprised at how often officials checked my ticket.
Budapest’s trams are a motley fleet of quirky Communist-era trams and sleek modern trams. It’s especially useful to hop a tram along the Danube or from Great Market Hall to Andrássy út.
I rarely rode the bus, with one exception – to save your knees, hop bus #10 or #16 to the top of Castle Hill. Catch bus #10 at Moszkva tér on the Buda side of Chain Bridge and bus #16 at Deák tér on the Pest side.
The Metro has three lines – all three cross at Deák tér, the only transfer point, which is near Andrássy út. The transfer tunnels are confusing, full of an underground world of shops, kiosks and food – follow the signs for your Metro line or street exit carefully. Rush hour can be an especially discombobulating crowd of humanity – take a deep breath and stay calm or avoid this time of day completely.
M1 (yellow) plies a shallow path along Andrássy út from Deák tér to City Park. You will probably find yourself riding the M1 at least once as it is especially handy in connecting major sights in Pest. This was one of the earliest subways in Europe, built as part of the 1896 millennial celebrations of 1000 years of the Hungarian kingdom, and the first on the Continent. It’s so shallow, reached by only a few stairs from street level, because the Metro cars were pulled by horses, which needed good air circulation to breath. There are no transfer tunnels between platforms, so you may need to go up to street-level and cross the street to get to the right platform.
M2 (red) connects with Pest and the Keleti train station. Deep underground and once used as a bomb shelter during the Cold War. The escalators down to the station platforms are unusually steep – hold on the escalator rail and enjoy the sensation of being whisked down into the depths. You will actual feel a brisk breeze from the motion.
M3 (blue) connects outlying areas of Pest with Andrássy út, as well as the Nyugati train station.
The fourth line, M4 (green), is in the process of being built and will eventually connect Buda and Pest, with stops at Great Market Hall and Keleti train station.
Advice for Fibromites
Budapest is like any modern city – great public transportation, a wide array of lodging options, and a thriving restaurant scene. However, if you are struggling with fibromyalgia or another chronic condition like I am, I have some advice to help make your visit to Budapest easier and more enjoyable.
If you need to carefully monitor your diet, try to arrange lodging that provides you access to a kitchen. A number of small family-run hotels, as well as independent hostels with private rooms among their dorms, are good options. Cooking for yourself gives you more control over your health. If you despair at the lack of fresh fruit or salad in restaurants, just head to the local grocery store or Great Market Hall – the strange lack of fresh produce in the restaurants is not due to a shortage.
When researching lodging, do not assume there is an elevator. Most European budget accommodations are in older buildings. Be prepared to lug your luggage up stairs or look for a place with an elevator. My lodgings at the Home Made Hostel were ideal if you like the hostel scene – only the second floor up and there was an old elevator that was slow, but worked just fine when my legs were weary.
If you are hostelling, always ask if they have real beds or bunk beds. I found that I often slept better in a real bed. If bunk beds are unavoidable, try to snag a bottom bunk. If all this talk of hostelling sounds exhausting, then you probably should allow yourself to spend a little more money and find a more comfortable hotel.
To pace yourself (especially important with fibro), relax the way the locals do and make your rest a part of the experience. Soak in the Turkish baths. Sip coffee or tea in a café for the afternoon. Sit at the Castle Hill café with views of the city.
Budapest is huge and on the map the distances are deceptive. Allow breaks and use public transportation to save your feet as you journey between sights. Better yet, strategically group your sightseeing into sections of the city.
To Be Continued
I fell in love with Budapest and someday hope to return. There is still so much to see and experience. I long to soak once more among the locals at Széchenyi. I am intrigued by Statue Park, a museum of discarded Communist statues and monuments. I want to take the HEV commuter train out to Óbuda and tour the Roman ruins of Aquincum. And apparently there are secret bunkers beneath Castle Hill open to tours. Until then, I sprinkle a generous helping of paprika in my cooking and daydream myself back to this grand city on the Danube.