This trip report is about Budapest Hungary or “Budapesht” as the Hungarians would pronounce it. I found the city overall to be very enjoyable and hospitable, but my feelings are very complex and very hard to write. The complexity could arise from the nature of our trip, or the complexity of the Hungarian culture.
Our trip to Budapest was an experience viewed from several different roles: about ½ business traveler, ½ resident, and ½ tourist (yes that adds up to 1.5!). We arrived on a Monday evening after dark and met a co-worker to get a key to the “company apartment”. The apartment was in a well kept building that looked like it was built in the early 1900’s and the elevator looked like it was there before that time period. We were pleasantly surprised when we entered the apartment and found it to be a large modern two bedroom apartment, probably about 1600 square feet with very high ceilings that one would expect in a building from that era. The apartment was on the “Buda side” of the Danube. The office and probably most of the buildings you have seen in pictures are on the “Pest side” of the river. The Buda side is mostly residential and hilly; the Pest side is mainly office buildings and restaurants. Several long bridges connect both sides of the Danube River, and the whole city is crisscrossed by mass transit consisting of trams, sub-ways, and busses.
I commuted like a resident on the mass transit system: “Down the Hill” from the apartment I caught the 4 or the 6 tram to cross the Danube (probably about 3 or 4 km), I then took the M4 to the underground station near the office and walked about 1 block to work. The trams were quite nice and not too crowded. The underground was more crowded but not uncomfortably so. For the underground line that I took to work, the cars looked like they had seen significantly better days. I think these were left overs from the Communist era … the whole experience had a very different feel than the rest of the city. At the stops, the doors closed way too quickly and roughly. The very long escalators down and up ran about twice the speed of any escalator I have ever experienced around the world. If you were elderly or a little off balance, you had a very good chance of breaking a leg or a hip on the escalator; they were that fast and that steep. This was very out of character compared to the laid-back feel, at least for a city this side.
All of the mass transit cost about 14 Euro for a 7-day pass. I would recommend the 48 or 72 hour pass if you are making a brief tourist trip to the city.
Our restaurant experience was a direct contrast to my subway experience. The 1st night we walked “up hill” a block, in a neighborhood with little lighting and found a great local Italian restaurant. Even though it was less than 200 meters/yards from the apartment, we probably would not have found it without directions. More on the restaurants later, but generally the wait staffs spoke great English, so we were able to order great meals, and more importantly great Hungarian red wine throughout the week.
During the week Carol did some sightseeing during the day, more on that later. In the evening, she met me near the office and we enjoyed the restaurants of Budapest, mostly on the Pest side of the river.
The business culture appeared to be similar to other parts of Europe. You will hear Hungarian and English in equal parts in the office. I gave a training class in English and this did not appear to be a problem for any of the engineers. Engineers are Engineers and the office was populated with the prerequisite number of white boards with plenty of markers. The coffee was instant, but was free (or "included", as Carol likes to say.) The office was again in a building that looked like it was from the 1900’s and had been very nicely refurbished. The building was triangular and was built around an interior courtyard that had been redone very nicely to fit an elevator and was covered. The smokers had to go downstairs and to the front of the building.
We stayed for the following weekend and enjoyed the sights. This is when I got a feel for the complexity of the Hungarian culture.
Hungary has a very complex history that I won’t attempt to repeat in detail, but will go over a few highlights. Hungary has been the conquered and the conqueror many, many times throughout history; part of Hungary was part of the Roman Empire, conquered by Attila the Hun (not the source of the name Hungary), the Mongols, the Greeks, the Turks, and the Austrians and later part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Defeated during WWI and later occupied by the Germans during WWII and occupied by the Russians until 1987. Their modern “golden age” appears to be the late 1890’s through the start of WWI.
Heroes' Square requires a little understanding of Hungarian Culture. The center of the square is the Millennium Monument that is topped by statues of the leaders of the seven tribes that folklore says founded Hungary in the 9th Century.
Millennium Monument in Heroes' Square
The country is historically Roman Catholic but with the general trend towards secularism in Europe is about 25-35% practicing Catholic. The long Catholic history has left several beautiful and historical Churches including Saint Stephan’s Basilica (Szent Istvàn Bazilika).
Saint Stephan's Basilica in Budapest Hungary
The Hungarian Parliament Building is one of the most well known buildings in the world.
Hungarian Parliament Building by night and by day
As usual, we took the Free Walking Tours tour of Budapest. As usual, the tour was great. Warning: When they say there are a lot of steps, they mean it. We took the general tour of Budapest that includes Castle Hill. There is also a Communism Walk and a Jewish Quarter Walk that we hope to do on future visits. Of course the “free tour” shouldn’t be considered as free, and the tour guide should be tipped accordingly, assuming you like the tour.
Four Season's Hotel - St Stephan's in Background
Danube Cruise Boats
Budapest is beautiful at night. One of the benefits of visiting in November is that the sun sets at about 4:30 pm? At least one can get great pictures of the scenic buildings.
Elizabeth Bridge at Night
Castle Hill at Night
Hungarian National Gallery
One of the other benefits of visiting in late November through December is the Christmas Market. The market was larger than others we have read about, but was a lot more "low key". It was fun checking out the stalls and of course we had to have our mid-afternoon cup of hot-mulled wine or Glühwein.
Christmas Market Stall -under contsruction Finished Christmas Market Stall
Porcellino Grasso Ristorante (this is a trip advisor link since their English website is currently out of order) was on the Buda side of the river near our apartment. It was so good that we went back. The pizza was good, the pasta was good, the dessert was good ... everything was good. They also had a great selection of Hungarian wines. Check out the daily "table side special", pasta made at the table one day, crepes at the table another day, etc. We participated in both of these and they were both fantastic. Again we did not order the cheapest wine (but far from the most expensive) and the bills for two were 20,000 and 15,000 Hungarian Forints (or Huffs) or about $100 and $75. A small pizza and a house glass of wine would probably be under $20.
Co-workers recommended Café Bouchon. It was a very good restaurant, an upscale restaurant frequented by locals. You should be adventurous and order from the blackboard of daily specials, this is what the locals do. Of course there is no English translation of the daily special board but our waiter was quite patient with providing a verbal translation. We ordered a Hungarian red wine a few steps up from the bottom of the price list, had dessert, and the total was about 17,000 Huffs; about $80.
Gundel Restaurant was recommended by a co-worker from Ireland. This was one of her favorite places for Brunch on Sunday. It is near Heroes’ Square. I assume Heroes’ Square would be a great place to hang and people watch on a Sunday afternoon when the weather is warmer (but not in November). This restaurant is upscale and you should probably have a reservation, especially on a nice day.
This meal was our most expensive in Budapest, about 20,000 Huffs or about $100. This included a glass of Champagne and an all you can eat very upscale buffet. We finished off our meal with Gundel palacsinta (a crepe) filled with a walnut mixture and liberally drizzled with chocolate and a very, very, nice cup of coffee. We then strolled through Heroes’ square and took the subway back for a nap. A perfect way to enjoy a Sunday. Gundel Restaurant is quite famous and can be found in Wikipedia.
You can eat on a budget in Budapest. When I ate lunch with my co-workers, the cost was closer to 1200 to 1500 Forints or about $6. This was a meat entrée (mostly chicken), two sides, and a drink.
We also ate pizza at a “local place”, Marxim Pizzaria. The bill was less than 3000 Huffs for 2 beers and a pizza… that’s about $10. Very limited or no English was spoken, but “beer” translates well, and they had some English on the menu. Try it if you are in an adventurous mood. This spot is also on the Buda side of the river.
BTW, when ordering a dessert and a waiter asks if you really like poppy seeds, think twice…we are probably talking about ¼ pound of poppy seeds or more on a “poppy seed bread pudding” that Carol ordered, apparently this is a traditional Hungarian dessert and comes with loads of poppy seeds …. Probably quadrupled Carol’s lifetime consumption of poppy seeds. Don’t try this if you have a drug test in the near future. These quantities are well, well beyond the poppy seed bagel urban legend.
Things we want to do next time:
Take a tour of the Parliament building
Visit the famous Budapest Baths (no time this trip and way too cold for this TX/FL boy)
Visit the Hungarian National Gallery
Take a cruise on the Danube
See an opera at the Budapest Opera House
Visit and eat at the Central Market Hall
Take the Communism and Jewish Quarter Walking Tours
I’d recommend Budapest to anyone visiting Eastern Europe. It was very tourist/visitor friendly, lots of unique places to see and experience, and is generally a good value. I’m looking forward to going back.
See You in the Pub!
Jet Lag Jack