Welcome to Budapest
Budapest is a beautiful, faded duchess, gathering her tattered velvets around herself, still dreaming of long-ago parties.
Much of the city is in a state of gentle, crumbling decay; its exquisite buildings often more memorials than monuments, while turmoil in the War, followed by the Revolution of 1956, meant that parts of this ancient and civilized city were destroyed beyond repair, and rebuilt in the Eastern bloc style.
Yet despite its turbulent history, Budapest remains one of Europe’s great capitals; a place of dignity and determination, where the Buda side, with its Royal palace and renovated Renaissance buildings still glows from across the Danube like a Biblical promised land, and the Pest side still thrives with intellectuals, artists and innovators.
Budapest’s lofty restaurants and cosy bars, its tiled steam baths and gilded concert halls all encourage the sense that this is a city of the imagination. As night falls, walking the elegant length of Andrassy Avenue, or taking an old rattling tram across the chain bridge which links both sides of the city, can resemble a strange dream; a sense that one has never experienced anything quite like this before.
There’s the hint of an experimental 1920s film in Budapest’s original underground stations- the first in the world- its glorious Art Nouveau cafes spilling white light from their carved windows and the old pharmacies, labyrinthine bookshops, elegant patisseries and deserted arcades. There are roses growing outside the opera house, students drinking in crumbling mansions that have become bars, pianists in the streets and parrots in the restaurants.
Everything in Budapest is unexpected, and all of it is unforgettable.
Buda - The Castle.
The Thermal Baths
PARISIAN DEPARTMENT STORE CAFE
The Ruin Pubs
Kempinksi Corvinus 5*
Bohem Art Hotel
Buddha Bar Hotel
For a real insight into the city, book an UNDERGUIDE. They are young, cool, and know far more about food, politics and where¹s great than they do about dusty Hapsburg history. An afternoon in their stimulating company will make you feel like a local.
Many of the signs and transport instructions are in Hungarian- so a phrasebook or app is extremely useful. Most of the big hotels and tourist attractions, however, have signs in English too.
Be aware that everything shuts on Sundays- even museums. If you¹re going for a long weekend, don¹t plan shopping or galleries for a Sunday. Several of the major hotels such as the Gellert and the Corinthia offer Sunday brunch, with musical accompaniment, which is a lovely way to spend the afternoon. Or before 3pm, try the fascinating flea market at Ecséri- also open Saturdays.
Tipping in restaurants is not expected (a hangover from the Socialist days) but it is always appreciated- around 10% is fine.
Currency is HUFs- but don¹t assume there will be an ATM round every corner. Much of Budapest is still a cash currency, and some of the smaller shops and cafes won¹t take cards at all, so carry some notes with you. Be careful however- the 1000 and 10000 HUF notes look alarmingly similar.
Look up: Balconies, flowers, cats, crenellations, gardens and gargoyles are found high above street level- Budapest is full of 19th Century apartments, and you will see far more if you look up. Look round, too- off many streets are little garden courtyards. Don¹t be indiscreet and peer at private homes- but do stick your head round the gate if you get the chance.
There are several types of food that constantly appear on menus. A quick translation:
Goulash- Beef soup (not the stew.)
Palinka- a herbal spirit. It¹s alarmingly strong.
Unicum- a bitter herbal spirit- an acquired taste.
Dobos- cooked cream with cocoa
Eserhazy- walnut cream, a very popular cake.
On the Metro or tram, always, always validate your ticket at the machine by clipping it, before you board or sit down. There are many inspectors who a) don¹t speak English b) will fine you on the spot, and refuse to listen to foolish, tourist pleading.
The trams are lovely and old fashioned. There are two lines- at the end of line two, on Szent Istvan Korut, is a cool district of vintage and antique shops. Have a coffee at Cafe Jubilee- it has an English menu, and vintage posters coating the walls.
Many great photographers come from Hungary- the Hungarian House of Photography at Mai Mano House hosts permanent and temporary exhibitions and is well worth visiting.
If architecture delights you, be sure to look at the astonishing, now empty shopping arcade, the Parisi Udvar. Here are the delicate, abandoned bones of 19th century Budapest. A scene from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was filmed in the arcade.
Get a Budapest Card, for free travel and museum entry, if you plan to do lots of sightseeing.
There¹s a good tram service across the city, running from 4.30am to 11.00pm. The major tram lines are serviced by numbers 4, 6 and 2, which cover the main sightseeing areas and the banks of the Danube. Tram 6 runs every 15 minutes throughout the night.
Tram 2, however, offers the best sightseeing route from Margaret Bridge along the Danube, via Gellert Hill, the Parliament buildings and the castle.
Always validate your ticket in the red or orange machine. Check timetables at the stops.
Useful for going up the hill in Buda, if the funicular is busy. Buy tickets at the stop, tobacconists and newsagent kiosks- and validate your ticket. Buying from the driver costs more.
To alight, press the button above the doors- but be aware that if no one wants to get off, the bus won¹t stop automatically, so it¹s easy to lose count, although there are maps inside the bus.
Ask a fellow passenger or driver to let you know your stop if you¹re unsure.
There are also red trolley buses, which require a separate ticket.
The underground system is old fashioned, efficient and frequent. Underground trains run every 3-5 minutes at peak times, and the service runs from 4.30am to 11.10 pm.
The lines interconnect at Deák tér Station.
Make sure to validate your ticket- there are uniformed and plain clothes inspectors, who check regularly. Always keep your ticket, as it may be checked after your journey.
Taxis are clearly marked "taxi" with a yellow registration plate. However, some will over charge tourists, so if possible, ask the hotel concierge to agree a fare in advance.
If not, bear in mind that the fare is in three parts- Basic (300 HUF daytime, up to 420 HUF at night) Per Km charge (under 240 HUF daytime, or 336 HUF at night) and waiting time (Up to 60 and 84 HUF respectively.)
The tip is usually 10%.
Try not to flag down a taxi- larger companies have English speaking operators and will discuss the price in advance.
Driving rules are strict- no alcohol whatsoever is permitted, and a foreign license can be confiscated if you¹re stopped having had even one beer.
Like most major cities, Budapest is seriously congested- lack of parking spaces, tram routes, buses and taxis mean long, irritable jams, and parking in the main districts of both Buda and Pest is pricy.
In busy areas, the minimum parking time on a meter is 15 minutes, maximum is four hours (though less in some areas.) For longer stays, park and ride is expected- park in a P+R car park, found at Metro stations and bus depots such as the Pest side of Árpád Bridge and Nagyvárad Square, and take the bus, tram or Metro into the city.
While cycling is not advisable for tourists unfamiliar with the road lay-out, Budapest is taking steps towards becoming a more cycling friendly city, and there are 200 km of cycling paths.
Cycling is easiest around Margaret Island and in the hills on Buda.
Currently, the city is finalising a bike borrowing scheme, but in the meantime, you can rent from Budapest Bike (+36)30/944 5533 near the Astoria Metro 2 station from 2500 HUF a day, or Bikebase near the Oktagon tram stop (+36) 70 625 85 01 from 2000 HUF a day.
The price includes a chain and a safety helmet.