Budapest is our favorite Eastern European city. It has a good mix of cultural sites and nightlife, and it’s quite affordable, compared to a city such as Prague. Here’s some practical tips from Jonathan of Two if by Air who recently went on the Air Canada special from last year.
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Budapest, or Pestbuda if you choose to read the map right to left, is the capital city, and largest city, in Hungary, split down the middle by the Danube River.
Heading to Budapest for the weekend from New York City was a seemingly strange choice when I shared it with my friends and family, but for me the decision was a simple one: the airfare was $217. Tip of the cap to The Flight Deal for sharing last fall’s superb Air Canada “fare sale”, which allowed me to take this trip. For those just deciding on a place to go though, Budapest makes a compelling case for visiting, as it combines a rich, and complicated, history, with vibrant natural sights and a budding cosmopolitan scene, thanks to its position as the financial center of Central Europe.
Flying via Air Canada, my route took me from JFK to YYZ to FRA, and finally to BUD. Having first set foot on EU/Schengen soil in Germany, I passed through passport control there, skipping that always fun activity in BUD. BUD is a simple airport to navigate however, and it is home to only two terminals, so there’s not too much territory to conquer.
Of most importance to all of you, the city center is accessible via public transportation. From the airport you can take public bus #200E to its terminus, which is Kőbánya-Kispest. Here you’ll hop metro line M3, which you can take directly into Budapest proper. The total journey time was about forty-five minutes, and cost 300HUF. For those looking for a more direct journey, a taxi cab will run you anywhere from 15-25 euros, depending on typical factors (traffic, destination).
Though a member of the EU, Hungary is not on the Euro, as they’re unable to hold to the fiscal demands such a step requires. In lieu of that, Hungary still uses its national currency, the forint, which I several times called the “florint”. At the time of this writing, the current exchange is $1USD to about 278HUF, or 1 Euro to 310HUF. To give you some idea of prices, I paid, on average, 350-550HUF for a cup of coffee, and 500-900HUF for a beer. Both were things I consumed a lot of, so that’s why they stand top of mind.
For those traveling with paper money, there are several exchanges located in the airport, but be sure to ask what you’re getting before going ahead with the transaction. I found out later I paid a significantly higher fee than I should have at the airport, which I attribute to 18hrs of traveling.
Credit cards are commonly accepted.
Traveling to a country that doesn’t speak your native (or second) tongue can be a bit scary, but it was never a problem for me in Hungary. As an English speaker (though I also speak the very important world language…body language), I was rarely unable to communicate with someone when I had a need, and most restaurants had English menus and/or photos to order from. For better or worse, I managed for days without mastering a single word in Hungarian.
Like most of Europe, Budapest makes for an incredibly walkable city, though Buda, Pest, and Óbuda are all strikingly different in their topography. Pest is mostly flat, and has clear signs of urban planning. Conversely, Buda and Óbuda are replete with hills that can be a bit challenging if one does not enjoy walking.
I conquered the city on foot, never setting foot in a cab or on metro (besides my arrival and departure), and encourage you to do the same. Walking along the Danube or down Andrássy Ave. is one of the best activities in all of Budapest!
If you should choose, Budapest does, however, have a functional metro system, along with public buses, and lots of cabs. Of note is the enjoyable “ding-dong” the Metro plays when doors are closing, which sounds like it comes from a bassoon. A welcome change from New York’s “ding ding”.
Where to Stay
I can’t tell you much about the hotels of Budapest, as I stayed in an Airbnb (Editor’s Note: Jonathan’s referral link – $25 Airbnb credit to you to signup), but I can tell you that, far and away, the best areas to stay in are Southern Pest and the Jewish Quarter. In both, you’re “close to the action”, have a multitude of cuisines and restaurants to choose from, and are a short walk to just about anywhere you want to be. I stayed just off Dohany street, and would absolutely stay in that spot again if I’m in town. For a quieter trip, look to accommodations in Buda.
Don’t Miss This
For the history buff:
Like any major city in Europe, Budapest has its fair share of art and history museums, and you could easily spend your trip hopping between the staples…but you shouldn’t. Instead, opt for either the House of Terror or Hospital in the Rock. The House of Terror is one of those important museums some may begrudgingly go to, and others painfully explore. The building itself is the former home of both the Hungarian Arrow Cross/Nazi party, as well as German Nazi party, and was latter the HQ of the communist AVH during the Cold War, a body very similar to the KGB. Inside you’ll learn about Hungary’s troubled history with fascism (important given the state of the country’s politics today), and the story of its occupation by both Germans and Soviets. The Hospital in the Rock tells a more inspiring story, yet still ultimately unfortunate, of human achievement. In the 10KM of tunnels underneath Buda Castle, the Hungarians built a hospital used during WW2 and the Hungarian Revolution that, though only scoped to house 60 patients, would eventually house as many as 600. The build is rich with artifacts and wax figures that tell a compelling story.
For those who want some R&R:
Visit the baths! Budapest has some wonderful thermal baths, thanks to its position on a geological fault. During my trip I visited Gellert Spa, inside the Hotel Gellert. If the idea of a spa alone isn’t enough to convince you to visit, just google some photos of Gellert Spa and you’ll understand why its a soul-replenishing experience. The Racz Spa and Szechenyi Baths were also recommended to me, but I did not have a chance to visit.
For the romantic in all of us:
An evening Danube river cruise is without compare. Grab your sweetheart and take him/her onto one of the many boats that roam the river for a view of Budapest no picture will do justice.
Some other points of interest:
- Take a walk across Chain Bridge
- Margaret Island
- Fisherman’s Bastion
- Shoes on the Danube
- Tour of Parliament (a bit disappointing, but still enjoyable for this politico)
About the Author
Jonathan’s life goal is to have always visited more countries than he has lived years on Earth, and he’s spending his 20s loading up before he has kids. Having lived in both Morocco and the UK, Jonathan’s had a taste of life all over the world, which makes it really hard for him to ever stay in NYC. Jonathan is one half of Two if By Air (follow them on Twitter), a SkyTeam loyalist, and swears he’s going to get to Turkey as soon as possible. Follow him on Instagram.
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