M. John Harrison might have said it best in his book The Course of the Heart, “Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East.” During my travels, I often hear great cities equated to other great cities, such as Paris for example. Travel writers and tourists seem compelled to compare less traveled locations to familiar places. Paris is one of the most used comparisons; the Paris of South America, Buenos Aries; or the Paris of the North, Riga; or the Paris of the 50’s, Prague. Never have I heard of anyone comparing Budapest to any other specific place, possibly, because it is so uniquely its own, that it is not clearly comparable to anyplace else on Earth. However, many people, including M. John Harrison describe Budapest as a composition of many of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is easy to see why, with all of the styles of architecture.
Budapest, with her long history straddling the Danube, stands beautiful and proud, with natural beauty and architecture so superb that Viking Cruses launched a major ad campaign floating down the Danube between Buda and Pest. Budapest has starred in several movies and music videos as a backdrop, often representing other locations entirely. Budapest has so many varieties of architecture, it can represent about thirty different cities across the world. Even parts of the 1996 movie Evita used Budapest as a stand-in for Buenos Aires, Argentina. Budapest, while trailing significantly behind the major travel destinations, is on an upswing in popularity. This year it made Tripadvisor’s Top 25 World Destinations, ranking in at number 21. So, if you want to see Budapest before it turns into a tourist hotspot like Paris, London or Prague, consider going soon! During our visit while working on this article, we ran into Anthony Bourdain, filming for CNN’s Parts Unknown. He was covering the New York Café at the same time we were and he joined us in a You Can Take it With You photo for 380Guide.
If you are going to Budapest, New York Café must make it on your list of places to see. While very expensive by Budapest standards, it is still affordable and it is well worth the splurge to visit this perfectly restored jewel. Budapest is actually a combination of two cities Buda, the hilly side on the west, and Pest, the flat side on the east, connected by the Danube and its beautiful bridges. Each side boasts monuments that will leave you breathless. Therefore, no matter which side you are on, you can look across and see more splendors. The Hungarian Parliament sprawls for over 260 meters in fabulous Neo-Gothic style along the bank of the Danube on the Pest side. And on the Buda side, you can sigh at the spirals of Fisherman’s Bastion and the grand Buda Palace alighted upon the hill. My first trip to Budapest was in 1992, not too long after the Iron Curtain came down and right as the Bosnian War broke out. I was traveling alone as a backpacker across Europe. I remember my trip to Budapest vividly; it overwhelmed me, as well as intrigued me. My first memories were of refugees trying to get into Hungary at the border (this was before Hungary entered the Schengen Zone in 2007). It was unnerving for a small town girl from Oklahoma, but it did not prevent me from returning.
Four trips later, I can almost guarantee it will not be my last, let me share with you why. Over the years, I have watched Budapest become more and more tourist friendly, improve their transportation systems and inhale a deep breath of new life. Once upon a time, I picked my meals by pointing blindly at something on the menu, written in a language that I could not even start to relate to, nor did it resemble any other language to which I had been exposed. Hungarian is part of the Ugric language, which is very rare. On my last two visits it seemed like Hungarian’s did not expect travelers to understand their language easily and they were extremely delighted or very confused with my slaughtered attempts at their basic words. Also, in today’s Budapest, the menus and several other services and attractions are also offered in English. Most of the younger generation either speak fluent English, or have a decent vocabulary. Even the older generations will work with you, piecing together bits of each other’s native tongue and bits of common basic words in German, or French along with a healthy dose of pantomime. It is occasionally challenging, but the good spirit of the Hungarians I met made communication possible and often quite fun!
The Hungarians in general are very kind, curious and welcoming. With some type of magic, they have managed to make a very large city still feel like a small town. On this trip, we stayed in District Seven, which was delightful and in the center of the city. It gave us the urban vibe we were looking for, with convenient access to all types of public transportation. It was also an easy walk to everything one would need, such as stores and restaurants, as well as several major attractions in the city. Within the first week, the shop owners were recognizing us and saying hello, or waving at us as we walked by. By the time we were packing up to go home, I felt like I was leaving new made friends. With almost two million residents in the city center it is surprisingly quiet and has an amazingly low violent crime rate. Yes, as with any other large city there is petty crime and you will see homeless people from time to time.
Overall, Budapest is relatively clean and easy to navigate. It is a great adventure for couples, families and of course backpackers. Compared to most places in the U.S. and Europe, it is surprisingly affordable. We attended operas, and concerts in venues that were so beautiful that even if there was not a performance you felt like you were getting your monies worth just to go inside and view the grandeur. We enjoyed Mozart’s The Magic Flute for about $5.00 a person, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Ode to Joy for just under $6.00 per person. We ran the gamut on food experiences, from shopping at the nearby market (a giant bottle of water was about half a dollar), local street food, fine dining and even a dinner cruise. A giant yummy Kabob would only set you back about $2.50 per person and a six course dinner in a beautiful restaurant with wine pairings was a steal at under $50.00 per person. You could splurge on a five star hotel for the price of a moderate hotel most other places, or opt for a large apartment with a balcony for about $45.00 a night. However, with increasing popularity, these prices are sure to fade away over time.
There are so many things to do and see in Budapest that you need to plan plenty of time for your visit. It has something for everyone and for every budget. If you love the arts, museums, history, night clubs, interesting dining, river cruises, castles, architecture, just to name a few things, Budapest needs to go on your must visit list!
The site of Budapest has documented history dating back to the 3rd Century B.C. and the earliest beginnings of what we now call Budapest can be dated back to the 6th Century A.D. Museums and archaeological remains can take you on a historical smorgasbord around the city. The younger crowd has embraced Budapest’s past by opening cool and popular Ruin Bars, an innovative use for once dilapidated buildings. The citizens of Hungary prefer to attend live performances and theaters rather than movie cinemas. Budapest is second to Paris in theater venues and has even had to convert cinemas into theaters to accommodate all of the performances. Many are sold out weeks in advance. So, if there is something you want to see, purchase your tickets ahead of time. I used www.Jegymester.hu with ease and success.
Also, a visit to Parliament is a must during a trip to Budapest, but there are only so many tours in English, so it will pay-off to purchase these tickets in advance as well. Otherwise, you may have a very disappointing day when you arrive and there are not any tickets left. I hate to make rigged plans when I travel, but a few days with planned activities never hurt, especially if it insures your seat, or entry.
Don’t forget, Budapest is known as the City of Baths, there are several to choose from, depending on what you are looking for. I have yet to visit one, but I have heard mixed reviews. One place I highly recommend, however, is the amazing Market Hall. It is a giant market with everything from fruits and vegetables, to meats, wines, spices and souvenirs. If time allows, visit the zoo and botanical garden, which besides the animals that you can get extremely close to, has some of the most impressive architecture I have ever seen. The elephants need to move over, their Ottoman style dwelling is fit for a Queen! In the same area as the zoo, you will see Hero’s Square, Szechenyi Baths, Vajdahunyad Castle and the Museum of Fine Arts. You could spend days in this area alone. During the winter months there is a giant outdoor ice skating rank where the locals spend their evenings.
One more exciting thing about Budapest is the location. You can take a train to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia or Serbia, arriving in just a few hours. You can also take day cruises down the Danube in the warmer months. If you want to venture out farther, a night train will get you several places in Europe, including Germany, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. So, it is an excellent place to venture out from.
Budapest looks in the direction of the future without losing her history and identity. She will delight and intrigue. But beware, she may get a hold on you, and you will have to return over and over again, just to get to know her better.