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Budapest is one of the most fascinating cities I’ve been to. Make that two cities. I’ll bet you didn’t know Buda and Pest were separate less than 150 years ago.
I arrived in Budapest at 6 AM off a night train from Timisoara, Romania. It was the first night train I’ve taken in my travels (and one of the first trains outside Italy as I mostly favor the cheaper option of buses). First I didn’t realize I had an assigned seat, and it turned out I accidentally chose the private room of the conductor, which he wasn’t happy about. Then I found my room and the three people already in it. The six seats opened up to make three beds for the four of us to squeeze into. I slept decently and I think the Hungarian border guard was humored when I managed to give him my passport while to all intents and purposes fully asleep.
On the train ride, the charging port on my tablet somehow broke, and the battery was already drained. Upon arrival, I was a little lost in a town I had failed to plan ahead for. I pulled out my last resort, a six-year-old cracked iPod, and stood outside Burger King using their wifi to find a hostel to check into and Samsung store to repair my tablet. I then walked several kilometers to the store, skipping the public transport which I later found was very cheap and simple, only to be told that I would need to stay in Budapest for three working days to get my tablet fixed under the warranty. I already had plans to move on to Bratislava sooner than that, so I said no and headed to the hostel.
The hostel I checked into was West Side Hostel. There are over 100 hostels in Budapest to choose from, in addition to budget hotels, apartments and campsites. West Side wasn’t one of the best hostels in town, but it’s one of the cheapest at €10 a night. In a town that’s relatively small, almost every hostel is in a good location, and the local transport as mentioned is broad and cheap.
But Budapest is not a city where you want to spend a lot of time in a hostel. So I won’t waste time talking about it. What’s truly important is the city itself.
Of course, my first action in Budapest was to take the free walking tour. This one was presented by Riga (pronounced Ree-ga not -ja), and I was extremely impressed at her ability to conduct not just one three-hour tour a day, but two, and in 40° weather no less! Luckily the city was passing out free cold water around town, and there were several fountains along the tour so it was easy to stay hydrated. The tour was quite comprehensive, covering both Buda on the west bank and Pest on the east. As much as you are able to see in the three hours, there is so much more to Budapest. That’s why taking the tour first is so important as you get to find out where else to go in the city, what to eat, etc. Riga did a great job giving us the details throughout the tour. Some other attractions include the Citadel, Dohány Street Synagogue, Roman remains, bathing spas, beer spas, etc. After all, Budapest as a city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are a whopping 223 museums in Budapest! The only one I personally went to was the House of Terror. The museum is in the original headquarters building of the Nazi operations in Hungary and covers an extensive amount of information about the war and Nazi Occupation. As far as communism museums go, this is one of the best I’ve been to. The price of the museum is 2000 HUF (currently about $6.50), which is very budget-friendly.
Other than just seeing sights around the city, there’s always the food to try. First, I’ll start with a warning. Don’t get Lángos. It’s a deep-fried flatbread with various ingredients splashed on top, and even though I went to the reportedly best Lángos stand in town, it was one of the few meals I’ve had in my travels that I couldn’t finish because of how bad it was. Literally fast food at it’s worst. If you absolutely have to try it just to say you’ve sampled all of the Hungarian cuisine, good luck. I wouldn’t recommend it.
The dish I definitely do recommend is goulash. There is not an exact recipe for this stew, but it is one of the most popular dishes in Hungary, along with lecsó. Otherwise, I admit that one day I had a burger from Burger House, which surprisingly was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. I also had a fantastic salmon sandwich at a corner restaurant near the hostel, which I would definitely recommend. Sorry, but I don’t remember the name of the cafe and it doesn’t show up on Google Maps.
As mentioned above, the transport around Budapest is extensive and cheap. There are four metro lines around the city, in addition to buses, trams and urban trains. A 30-minute metro ticket will cost you less than €1, while a full-day ticket is around €5. Or you can get a ticket for a whole week for about €15. Just make sure you validate your ticket after you purchase it. The validation machines are at the top of the stairs before descending into the tunnels.
Many years ago, I was browsing Fest300.com and learned about Sziget. Of all the festivals in the world, it was the one that I was most interested in going to. Wouldn’t you know that I completely unknowingly showed up in Budapest a mere three days before the festival was starting! Unfortunately, I was told the tickets were over €300 for the week, which was way out of my budget. Then I heard that I could get tickets for just one day for €60, and that Alesso, Robbie Williams, Kings of Leon, Ellie Goulding and Avicii were performing, I seriously started considering it. But at the last moment, I chose to continue my travels. The worst part is a few days later I found out a couple of friends at the hostel had swum the measly 20 meters to the island to enjoy the festival for two days! Damn!! Well, live and learn!!!
After my first two days in Budapest, and with the onset of Sziget, the town filled to capacity, literally. Every hostel was fully booked, and I ended up spending my last night at the Arena Campground. It was actually great, especially since the temperature was about 10° colder than the hostel rooms. The staff were fantastic, giving me a free bottle of water when I arrived and helping me find a place to pitch a tent. The bathroom and shower facilities were better than most hostels I’ve seen and any campground so far in my travels. Using the aforementioned transportation system, it was easy to get to. At only €5 a night, it was by far the cheapest place to stay in Budapest.
On my final day in Budapest, I really had an adventure. I got up at 7 AM to get a bus to Bratislava. I packed up my tent, took the metro to the bus station I was told I needed to get to and found out it was the wrong station. So I went across town to the other station and was told the buses to Bratislava were sold out for the day. I was referred to the information desk on another floor, who politely referred me to the bus ticket booth I had just been to. Then it was back on the metro to the train station, where I found the queue to purchase a ticket was over 130 people long! I took my number and two hours later purchased my ticket. Finally after nearly nine hours I finally boarded my train to Slovakia and left Hungary behind. But only temporarily.
Writing this blog post, I saw just how much of the city I failed to see while I was there. The law of the traveler strikes again: The bucket list only gets longer. I might have had a bad meal there and the hostel wasn’t the best, but those experiences were not really bad enough to color my experience of the city. Overall, Budapest is fantastic, and a must-see for any European traveler. I learned a very important lesson. Along with cities like London and Barcelona, Budapest simply cannot be seen in two days. Hell, I doubt you could see all the important places in a week, and that’s not even scratching the surface of the 233 museums, experiencing their plethora of spas and hot springs, watching the sunset from the Citadel (the best view in the city) or simply wandering through all the parks. Each city, Buda and Pest, have a whole culture to experience. As was recommended to me, explore Buda in the day and Pest at night. Around sunset, the posh culture of Buda winds down and the wild nightlife of Pest comes to life.
You will be able to find things to do in Budapest no matter how long you stay. Just make sure you take the walking tour first and book ahead in the summer. Of course, if you want to experience the best, get your tickets early for Sziget and party like there’s no tomorrow. I know I certainly will next year! Hope to see you there with me.