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A Much-Anticipated Return to Budapest

When I was planning my trip to Paris last October I was seriously considering adding a couple of cities in Belgium as a naturally logical 2nd portion. But the lure of Budapest was still fresh in my mind--I had visited for 4 days in August 2014 and had been totally captivated by it, hated to leave and had explored only a few of the many things it had to offer, plus it's a heritage country for me on my mother's side--I felt an immediate connection and knew I needed to return very soon. So, upon discovering I could fly on Air France from Paris to Budapest for $120, that made up my mind and I planned a 6 day visit. I was fighting a cold but the minute I made the trek through the airport at 10:30 am last Sunday, greeted by adorable young women with a cheerful "Jo reggelt kivanok!", I knew I was in the right place. I had prepared for this trip by studying the language a bit, Pimsleur has a great program and I was ready to at least be polite, greet and say good-bye, ask directions, discuss the weather and order beer, wine and coffee--plus a few other words that I'm studying on flash cards--the Hungarians are indeed very tickled and pleased by anyone who bothers to learn their notoriously difficult language. Aside from koszonom szepen (thank you very much), the word I used most was bocsarnat--pardon me--to get off the metro.

I bought a 7 day transit card before leaving the airport--hetjegy--and they put your name on it. For 4950 HUF it was a bargain and I got great use from it on the metro, trams and buses. I then got in an official Fo airport taxi and was whisked to my hotel in about 20 minutes, cost was 6100 HUF, about $22 US. I chose again to stay at the far end by Szabadsag hid and the Great Market Hall, this time at the Residence Baron Hotel and I had an executive room that was quite large, and from the window I could see the bridge and the Danube. Very clean and comfortable, attentive and friendly front desk and an excellent breakfast was included. I was close to the tram and metro 4 at Fovam ter and also metro 3 at Kalvin ter. It's at the end of Vaci utca, a pedestrianized street and thus very quiet at night.

I had big plans to hit 2 flea/antique markets and both hopes were dashed--the market at the Balna near my hotel wasn't happening that weekend, and then I went to City Park only to discover that one, Petofi Csarnok, was shut down, possibly for good. I explored the park a bit and then headed back for option #3, WAMP at Erszebet ter, an outdoor market of goods handmade by Hungarian designers. I stopped to hear a marching band play Hungarian folk tunes before heading in to the market, interesting displays but I quickly moved on to #4, Gozsdu Urdvar in the Jewish district, a courtyard between Kiraly and Dob utcas, very lively but nothing I needed to buy. I sat for a while with an iced coffee and was delighted by a huge painted tribute on a wall to my favorite Hungarian writer, Gyula Krudy. I wandered Kiraly all the way to the ring road, immersed in the less touristy areas and enjoying my observations. I ended up back near my end of town at the Hungarian National Museum where there was a most wonderful museum festival going on--full of Hungarians, with exhibits from all the major museums throughout Hungary--with food booths, handcrafts to buy, a book sale, demonstrations of traditional crafts and most importantly, a bathroom. I spent a good 2 hours there and bought a fabulous handmade tooled leather purse--it spoke to me and that was that.

The entire week I was in Budapest was hot, 79-84 and dry heat, at least. Monday I needed a restful day and headed out by tram and bus to Margrit sziget with a book. What a glorious park! No cars, only a bus goes through, very peaceful and serene there in the middle of the Danube. I wandered and read, people-watched, and then I found the little zoo where there were not only storks, but baby storks! I love storks, so this was quite exciting & I spent a good hour observing them.

Posted by
1953 posts

Very interesting!

Can you tell us some more practicalities?
--Were you able to find and use ATMs to get cash?
--Were your credit cards accepted everywhere?
--Dining hours match when you wanted to dine?
--Audioguides or labels in English in the museums?

Posted by
2329 posts

Tuesday I was still feeling the effects of my cold but headed out by HEV to Godollo, a pleasant 1/2 day trip to the palace used by Franz Josef and Sisi. I really enjoyed this palace more than most others I have seen--smaller, yet quite a lot on display and plenty of explanations. I headed back to Budapest early enough to be ready for the opera at 6 pm--for $55 US I had a ticket in row 15 to see Otello--in San Francisco this would be a $300 ticket, so I was fairly excited. I bothered to pack a nice dress and heels and had to brave the rain and 3 metro changes, but arrived in plenty of time to enjoy the gorgeous Opera House. Much discussion is made about appropriate dress for travelers at such affairs, and I saw the gamut--evening dress, tails, nice dresses, pant suits, jeans and dress shirts and--gasp--someone in a hoodie. The seats were extremely hard, and while I was thrilled to be seeing an opera there, I did not enjoy this particular opera. It's ok, it happens.

Wednesday I made my big trip by train to the town of Tata, about an hour from Budapest and where my mother's family lived until 1899. I had no big hopes (nor did I truly make an effort) of finding any remaining Katonas, mostly just wanted to be there and see the town--there's actually several things worth seeing, a castle, lake and museum--to get a feel for what it was like. I wandered for an hour or so and found a cemetery where I did find some Katonas resting peacefully, so more research needs to be done on them. If I do return I may consider going by car (or with a guide as suggested by James) as I believe there's other things that would be easier to find and see that way. Once back in Budapest I visited the Great Synagogue on Dohany--really interesting and quite moving, especially the tree in the courtyard, museum and the memorials. I then took the metro to Kossuth Lajos ter and walked along the Shoes on the Danube memorial and then on to the area near St Istvan's Basilica, mainly to check out the Memories of Hungary shop for interesting souvenirs--some touristy crap but their focus is Hungarian-made items--paprika chocolate bars, paprika soap and a couple of kalocsa embroidered T shirts (by MatyoDesigns, handstitched--very obviously different quality than cheaper machine-stitched ones) made great gifts for special people.

Thursday I spent the day over on Castle Hill, followed Rick's walk and got there by taking the metro to Szell Kalman ter and then the 116 bus up the hill. Predictably full of tourists but the vantage point over to Pest was fabulous. I was thrilled to see the National Gallery had a special Picasso exhibit--as if I hadn't had enough of him in Paris--plus I enjoyed seeing the works of Hungarian artists. The shops up the hill were full of the usual tourist stuff but one stood out for me, Tarnok 10 Galeria, with some small naive folk art Hungarian paintings, found the perfect one that's now hanging in my office at work. That night I had a ticket to see The Duchess of Chicago at the Operettszinhaz, a smaller but incredibly ornate old theatre just a couple of blocks from the Opera House. $22 US for a front row seat. At this one I was truly amongst the Hungarian people, heard no other languages spoken and was relieved to see supertitles above the stage in English. The show was a musical comedy and utterly delightful, charming actors and just a high-quality production. At the end the ovations and clapping went on for a good 15 minutes--Hungarians really know how to appreciate a show. If you have a chance to see a show there I strongly encourage it.

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2329 posts

Friday--my last day--arrived all too soon, and of course by then my cold was gone. I really loved Szentendre on my last trip and decided to return, really such a pretty little town and touristy shops notwithstanding just a really nice place to spend a last day poking around lazily. The warmest day of the week, around 84, so I wasn't moving too quickly, mainly wanted to find a cool drink and a spot to people-watch a bit, also visited an antique shop I enjoyed the previous time and found another 1930s pottery figurine to add to my collection--the proprietor remembered me. A visit to the Margit Kovacs museum was in order as I love her work, then a late lunch at Elisabeth on Fo ter before returning to Budapest by 4 for some last minute wanderings. My flight left at 6:30 the next morning so I was packed but not at all ready to leave by 9 pm that evening.

I sensed there were perhaps more Americans here this time, and noticed (I think) more English in the metro announcements. Same amount of English spoken by locals, and I used what little Hungarian I had whenever I could which amused me and delighted them. Due to the lingering effects of both a strained muscle and cold I wasn't in top form and the meds I took left me woefully unable to drink as much as I might have liked--James' highly recommended Kadarka wine bar/restaurant went unexplored as I went by twice; on a Sunday when they weren't yet open and then on a Wednesday when I wasn't hungry or in need of a drink. The Hungarians just radiate a certain warm kindness and even if I wasn't part Hungarian myself I would still be totally in love with them and their country. The moment I left my hotel that Sunday morning and headed out across Fovam ter and looked up to see the beautiful tiled roof of the Great Market I felt absolutely giddy with glee to be back again. Clearly this is a city I need to visit often. I'm already thinking next time will include stays in other cities, I'm intrigued by Debrecen and a few others, and in the interim I will work on learning more Hungarian.

Posted by
2329 posts

Avirosemail--I took 100,000 HUF (about $360) with me, but did visit an ATM, used OTP which is a bank and they are all over Budapest. This one had a secure vestibule, so I had to wait for someone to let me in since I don't have their card.

Credit cards were accepted everywhere, though I paid cash in restaurants and for tickets and taxis to and from airport.

Dining--I generally was full from breakfast at the hotel so wasn't looking to eat lunch, usually dinner around 5--as a solo traveler I prefer to eat a bit earlier to avoid being alone in a sea of happy pairs and noisy families. Restaurants had English and German on their menus, and it helps to know some Hungarian food words, like hal is fish, csirke is chicken, etc.

Museums offered audioguides, though I do not use them, and all the ones I've visited have English descriptions.

Posted by
12980 posts

Last summer I made my 3rd day to BP from Vienna. The restaurant had the menu in several languages. You can expect German and English to be among them. The Military History Museum on Castle Hill had no English explanations, don't know if audioguides were available sine I did not ask about them but don't bet on it. Useful was a little German explanation. The signs pointing to the museum were in English...surprising.

Posted by
481 posts

Christa, looks like you made the most of your time in Budapest. Do you have any plans to see more of Hungary outside of Budapest in the future? I'm intrigued with the Lake Balaton area, Pecs, and the Miskolc/Bukk mountains areas.

Posted by
2329 posts

Rob--this trip I felt I really wanted to spend it based in Budapest with just short day trips, but next time I want to spend a couple of nights in different areas--Lake Balaton, Pecs, Debrecen, Esztergom, who knows where else...Debrecen and Pecs are my top choices right now.

Posted by
1953 posts

I'm making a mental note about the Operettszinhaz, thanks -- but I'm leery of buying tickets with cash just before a show and risking a sell-out rather than pre-purchasing online. This is assuming I have set plans, not playing by ear :-)

Is dinner available at 8pm or 9pm if that's when one wants to eat? Same question regarding lunch at 2pm.
I find that in France I need to make an effort to eat lunch at what seems early to me or I'll miss out altogether, and same goes for dinner in the American midwest. This is why I feel so comfortable in Spain -- the meal times feel right to me.

Posted by
2329 posts

I never had trouble finding a sit-down restaurant any time of the day, often felt hungry for a meal at 3 or 4 pm and that was fine. Restaurants are definitely open late, the 2 nights I was out after 9 pm leaving the Opera and Operettszinhaz the streets and restaurants were full of people enjoying themselves.

I bought my ticket for the Operettszinhaz about 6 weeks in advance from their website, not many seats left and I had one in the front row. Our resident Budapest expert James told me that if you book a ticket in the upper level boxes you'll be invited to mingle during intermission, if that's your cup of tea. You can always take a chance once you arrive and visit the box office--but from the description I knew this particular show would be right up my alley, and I was right, so very glad I bought in advance.

Posted by
15045 posts

Thanks for the report, Christa. I am planning a return visit, probably a year from now (should have been there right now, but it didn't work out), so I've bookmarked this!

Baby storks, awww. How little were they? I saw lots of them last year in France, but a month later, and they were pretty much the same size as the adults.

Posted by
2329 posts

Chani--there were 3 big nests, one had a stork that remained seated the entire hour (I really, REALLY loved seeing them, plus it was hot and I'd found a shady bench so had the luxury of just observing) I was there, another was empty and the other I'd see a stork moving around but then all of a sudden I realized there were 2 chicks, heads up and begging for food, probably about 6" tall and still downy. At one point another stork took over so the mama could go poke around in the grass. I also saw some mating behaviour--they'd throw their heads way back, then forward quickly and snap their beaks rapidly. The only other country I've seen storks is Estonia, we don't have them here in California.

Posted by
15045 posts

I've seen them in Spain. In Alsace they are everywhere - the regional symbol. The ones nesting in eastern Europe fly through here back and forth from Africa but only stop to sleep and eat.

I can't cry for poor you in the Bay Area, you have elephant seals!

Posted by
2329 posts

Indeed we do--and now I'm thinking I need to visit Alsace...

Posted by
5262 posts

Thanks for this report, Christa. We too loved Budapest on our 3-day visit a few years ago, wished we'd had more time. I know what you mean about the Hungarians just radiating goodwill and friendship -- at least to us, not so much to the refugees I'm afraid. We stayed near Kalvin ter and the Central Market, liked that area very much.

Have you been to the House of Terror on Andrassy ut? Not a Halloween show as the name implies, but an excellent museum focused on the successive tyrannies -- Arrow Cross, Nazi, and Soviet -- Hungary endured for many decades. Unforgettable exhibits, including footage of the last Russian troops leaving the country (nervously).

We also got a sample of Hungarian health care when my wife had a minor ailment on our last day. Finding the hospital, then an English-speaking doctor, then waiting with much sicker Hungarians for his help, paying cash (not much by US standards) -- a slice of life that turned a bad experience into a good one.

Posted by
2329 posts

Dick--on my previous trip I knocked off my absolute must-sees, and that included the incredible House of Terror, one of the most chilling and intense museum experiences I've ever had. Also toured Parliament, the Opera, the Ethnographic and Applied Art museums and went to Szentendre for a day, on top of just exploring and enjoying the wonderful city. I do sometimes re-visit museums, usually to see a special exhibit that appeals, but this past trip I wasn't ready to re-visit any of the above when I still had so much more to see. Budapest now seems to be a city I will return to many times.

We both seem to like the same neighborhood, I find it close enough to plenty of activities and transport yet also just enough removed from the hustle and bustle to suit me perfectly.