Budapest is a mass of old buildings, made new again stone by stone, step by step, address by address.
Modern boutiques share space with old, abandoned mansions, boarded-up windows next to sleek glass.
Two cities face each other across the river, united and unique. Buda is a quiet town of rolling hills, castles and green spaces; Pest is a vibrant district of restaurants, traffic and shops. Bridges strung in lights connect the two across the Danube River.
I spent three days in Budapest last week and wish I’d spent ten. Here are tips to make the most of your journey, no matter how much time you spend there.
Tips for Travellers
Watch out for traffic and bikes. Cars will not necessarily stop for you if you jaywalk, and some intersections are extremely busy. Bike path signs are clearly painted on the sidewalk — pay attention to them! Not that I learned this from experience or anything…
Visit the Museum of Terror. More similar to a war memorial than a simple museum, the Museum of Terror occupies the former Nazi and Soviet intelligence service headquarters on Andrassy Street in Pest. The aim is to remind people what happened here and how it ended. One of the most effective museums I’ve ever visited — emotional, horrifying and informative. Afterward, walk down the street to Heroes Square, where statues of ancient Hungarian rulers stand guard.
Check out the schedule at the Hungarian State Opera house. I saw a matinee production of Falstaff, which was enjoyable and far less expensive than the Vienna State Opera. Good single seats were available one day prior, although the ballet at night was sold out. The opera house is old, gorgeous and majestic — worth seeing.
Eat breakfast at Gerloczy’s. Just behind City Hall is a small restaurant at a triangular intersection serving some of the best food in Budapest. Breakfast isn’t a big meal here, so it’s a real find. I had simple food: muesli with yogurt and an almond roll, which was hot from the oven and full of sweet almond paste. So delicious I returned the next morning too.
Get Hungarian forints and don’t rely on euros. I used a money exchange at a tourist information point and paid just over 2 euros in commission to change 50 euros, but that commission stays steady up to about 200 euros. Many businesses take only forints or credit cards, and if you want to use public transportation, you may need forints to buy tickets or passes.
Where to Stay
This decision depends on your personality. I stayed at the St. George Hotel near Buda Castle because I got a great price on Booking.com. It was beautiful, near Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the entire city. All of the rooms are actually suites, with a living/dining room, kitchenette, bathroom and bedroom. Furnishings are antique-style and gorgeous. In the morning, the number 16 bus (not the 16A) took me directly to the center of Pest within 15 minutes.
If you’d rather stay in the center of nightlife and action, Pest is more suitable. To avoid ending up somewhere loud, check out the reviews and neighborhood online before booking. One promising option is the Gerloczy Rooms de Lux, above Gerloczy’s restaurant. I picked up a brochure while eating breakfast, and the rooms look beautiful. It also has 5 stars on TripAdvisor.
If you’re more inclined toward Airbnb, there are some fantastic, affordable places on offer. Because I was only staying for three nights, I went with a hotel, but I’d love to return for a longer stretch of time and rent an Airbnb.
Getting to Budapest
There’s an airport for travellers arriving from a distance, but getting to Budapest by rail is easy from Vienna, and that’s what I did. The Austrian OEBB train service runs every two hours from Vienna Wien Meidling station to Budapest Keleti station. The trip takes three hours, and the train travels through flat farmland (it’s not an alpine train).
Interestingly, I found a flexible fare that was cheaper than the restricted-schedule fare, so don’t assume the “SparSchiene” tickets are always cheaper.
If you want to reserve specific seats on the train, you’ll need a 6-euro reservation, sold alongside the basic train ticket, although these trains are rarely sold out.
Traveling within Budapest
Budapest has an excellent public transit system, and a map of the main tram and bus lines is available, although I couldn’t find a full bus map. The best option for me was to buy a 24-hour transit card that allowed unlimited trips on all trams and buses. It cost less than 2000 Hungarian forints (about 6 euros). If I’d known about this card’s existence sooner, I’d have gotten the 48-hour card instead of paying for some individual bus trips.
Taxis tend to be relatively expensive but are useful for late-night trips or for transport to and from the train station or airport.
I loved Budapest. It was beautiful, modern, evolving and dynamic, with great food and the sense of a city on the rise. Since leaving, I’ve been thinking about returning to continue sightseeing and settle into the rhythm of the city, as I did during my 10 days in Florence.
I’ve also read about the city’s nascent startup culture and would love to meet some of the entrepreneurs who are making Budapest their base. With its combination of affordability, things to do, beautiful scenery and good Internet (much better than in Florence or Tuscany), Budapest’s momentum is promising, and it’s simply a great place to visit and explore.