In April I took a short city break to Budapest, Hungary. Budapest is a beautiful city with a rich history and it is becoming a popular destination now that many low-cost European airlines are flying there. I would highly recommend Budapest as a place to visit for a few days. It is cheap to visit, easy to travel around the city and has a great mixture of things to do and see. Unfortunately the weather was very grey and cloudy while I was in Budapest, but that didn’t take away from the attractiveness of the city. This trip was photographed on a Fuji X100 (click here for my hands-on review of the Fuji X100) an Nikon d90 with 85/1.8D
Budapest has an incredibly conflicting, varied and rich history. It has been settled, fought-over and occupied by many different countries, empires and kingdoms over the course of 2,000 years including the Celts, Romans, Huns, Mongols, Ottomans, Habsburgs and the Soviet Union. Hungary, and Budapest particularly, has been pivotal in many global events such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the start of World War I and the collapse of the Soviet Union. To put it into context, modern day Hungary occupies only around 30% of its previous territory with only 40% of its previous population compared to before WW1.
The first picture is of the incredible Hungarian Parliament Building (Országház) at night, viewed from the River Danube.
The Hungarian Parliament Building
And some more views of the Hungarian Parliament Building from the River Danube. This is the largest building in Hungary, built in a Gothic style similar to the British Palace of Westminster. The river pictured is the River Danube, hugely important to Budapest, and to Hungary as a whole country. The city of Budapest was originally two cities separated by the Danube – the hilly, Western “Buda” or “Obuda” and the flatter, Eastern “Pest” which were joined in 1873 to form “Budapest”
The Budapest Fisherman’s Bastion
The Fisherman’s Bastion is a neo-gothic style terrace built in the 1900′s on Castle Hill. It is located on the Buda side of the Danube and is named Fisherman’s Bastion after a group of fishermen defended the city walls from this area during the Middle Ages. The Fisherman’s Bastion is a nice area to visit with quieter streets than the rest of Budapest. There is less traffic and a pedestrian walking area to wander around. You can also enjoy a panoramic view of Budapest and the River Danube from several viewing balconies above the city. There are also many nice cafes and restaurants in the Fisherman’s Bastion.
There are many beautiful bridges crossing the River Danube. This is the Margaret Bridge which leads to Margaret Island, a small pedestrian island in the River Danube. To travel to the island, we took a river cruise from Pier 11 (Vigado Ter) with the Hop-on, Hop-off Budapest Tour group. The ticket also includes 48hrs of access to the hop-on, hop-off bus service – you will see their big, red, open-top buses driving around Budapest frequently.
These old-style red post boxes are throughout Budapest and are a well-known tourist symbol found on many postcards.
This artist was at the Fisherman’s Bastion and was selling many beautiful painting of the panoramic view of Budapest. If you see him, have a look at his work!
In a rare moment of sunlight, I got this photo of the bronze Statue of Stephen I of Hungary in the square at Fisherman’s Bastion. Stephen I was the first King of Hungary, after it was declared an independent country in the 9th Century.
Market traders selling traditional Hungarian snacks
Another statue in the Castle District of Budapest. “Hajdú szobor” – “The statue of the Hajduk”, which is the type of infanty soldier depicted. Thank you to Harvey in the comments below who identified him for me!
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge across the River Danube. Most bridges in Budapest were destroyed at the end of World War II by the Germany Army as they retreated from the Russians arriving from the East. They were subsequently re-constructed to match their original beauty.
Trams, Bikes and Transport in Budapest
To get into Budapest from the airport, you will probably take a taxi. There are numerous warnings all over the airport, but I will reiterate them again here – Ignore all people coming up to you with clipboards, badges and anything else trying to sell you taxi ride. Instead, go to a proper taxi stand outside the exit. The people with the clipboards will lead you to unofficial taxis, often far away from the airport. They take advantage of tourists who are tired from flying, don’t speak the language and who probably don’t have any local currency yet.
Once you are in the city center, Budapest has many tram lines which you can use to get around cheaply and easily. Riding bicycles also seems very popular and there are quite a lot of cycle lanes around the city. Tourists can rent bikes with flexible return policies quite reasonably too if you want a cheap (and healthy) way to get around Budapest. Alternatively, it is perfectly ok to walk around Budapest on foot. Walking from the River Danube, up Andrassy ut to the Heroes’ Square is a nice walk. Since Budapest is often referred to as the “Paris of Eastern Europe”, Andrassy ut would be the Champs de Elysees. Budapest is mostly flat on the Eastern side of the Danube which makes walking much easier, and it is also relatively safe, although the same warnings about pickpockets, tourist scams and dodgy taxi drivers applies in Budapest just the same as Barcelona, Rome, London or any other major city. Late at night, taxis are ok to take but if in doubt ask a restaurant or your hotel to book one for you. It is also better to pay taxis in Hungarian Forints, as I will mention later in the Market Hall section of this post.
Budapest Heroes’ Square and Millennium Monument
The famous Heroes’ Square (or Hősök tere) in Budapest. This is a large area at the end of the Andrassy Avenue which backs onto City Park. The statues pictured here form the Millennium Monument and depict the founders of Hungary in the 9th century and other important people through Hungarian history. The construction was started 1,000 years after the founding of Hungary, hence the name “Millennium Monument”.
The view from the Margaret Bridge looking towards the colourful buildings on the Buda side of the Danube.
The “House of Terror” building on Andrassy ut. Despite the strange name, it is a museum dedicated to the history of dictatorships in the Hungarian 20th Century.
The Hungarian State Opera House (Magyar Állami Operaház)
The famous Hungarian State Opera House (Magyar Állami Operaház) on Andrassy ut in the center of Budapest. Unfortunately we did not have time for a tour of the Opera House as we arrived in the evening, shortly before a performance was due to begin. However we did manage to pop inside the foyer and it was beautiful. Even though it is not the largest opera house, or the oldest, the Hungarian State Opera House is famed for having some of the best acoustics in the world.
Under the arches of the entrance to the Hungarian State Opera House, the ceiling is made of marble with gold decoration.
The Opera House also looks beautiful at night and is decorated with the statues of many great Hungarian composers such as Franz Liszt. The Andrassy Avenue is almost never quiet and even at night it is still busy with cars and taxis.
Inside the Cafe of the Alexandra Bookstore in Budapest. Slightly more fancy than your local Starbucks!
Saint Stephen’s Basillica (Szent István-bazilika)
The beautiful Saint Stephen’s Basillica (Szent István-bazilika) at night. Due to regulations, no building in Budapest may be taller than 96m (315ft) tall, and both the Hungarian Parliament Building and the Saint Stephen’s Basillica are exactly 96m at the tallest points. This symbolises that both political and spiritual thinking are of the same importance.
The Elizabeth Bridge (or Erzsébet híd) as viewed from the River Danube during a late-night river cruise. Thank you to Zoltan in the comment below for correcting me!
A street performer creates huge bubbles for the small crowd of onlookers
Shopping in Budapest using both Forints and Euros
When buying anything in Budapest, one thing to be slightly careful about as a tourist is the complicated dual-currency system which is used in Budapest, particularly tourist areas. Often you will find prices quoted in both Hungarian Forints (HUF) AND in Euros. The official currency of Hungary is the Forint, but many places will accept Euros as added convenience for tourists. However those shops or restaurants will have to exchange the Euros to Forints. Therefore, if you compare exchange rates you will likely be getting a terrible deal on Euros, so it is best to exchange your currency into HUF for yourself, rather than paying in Euros. For example, after one meal out we received our bill in both Hungarian Forints and in Euros, but when we did the maths the HUF price was equal to £51(GBP) and the Euro price was equal to £71(GBP)! The final thing to be careful of is paying for something in Euros and receiving Forints as change. This often happens and you a) won’t be getting a good rate and b) the numbers might be rounded up considerably (and your amount of change rounded down). This isn’t always because of dishonesty – not everybody will have enough Euros to give you change. Plus it’s easy to get lost in all of the conversions. My advice would be:
- Convert your US dollars, GB Pounds or any other currency into Hungarian Forints. Even if you have Euros, convert them. The commission on the exchange will be far less than the extra amount you will pay on everything you buy in Budapest.
- Exchange money only in proper banks. A lot of street vendors in Budapest will give you fake money or worthless Romanian currency
- Use small bank notes only. This is common sense for most travelers, but many people will not take notes larger than 5,000 Forints. You will also get mountains of change and coins which you don’t want.
- Pay in Forints whenever possible because it is usually much cheaper than paying in Euros. If you do have to pay in Euros, pay with the smallest amount possible and check your change thoroughly
- Taxis in particular are said to be notorious for giving Romanian currency or others instead of Hungarian Forints. Again, I’m not implying Budapest is an unsafe place, and we didn’t have any bad experiences with taxi drivers. However, the same principles applies in any foreign country where it is clear that you do not know the local system.
The largest area of confusion for me personally was that the Forint is such a weak currency. With roughly 350 HUF to £1GBP, you quickly end up with huge numbers. It’s easy to make mistakes when you get lots of “smaller” denomination notes and coins in return. It’s easy to forget that a huge handful of 100huf coins is worth almost nothing when you get it back as change from a purchase.
Budapest Central Market Hall (Nagycsarnok)
With the knowledge of the local currency in our minds, we visited the huge, busy and impressive Central Market Hall (Nagycsarnok) of Budapest. It was packed with a mixture of tourists and locals eating and buying food, souvenirs, clothes, jewellery and textiles. Some of the most popular things on sale inside Central Market Budapest are paprika (Hungarian speciality), tinned goose liver and a huge variety of salami.
The Central Market Hall is on two main floors. The majority of stalls selling goose liver, salami, seafood, fruit/veg and other meat are on the lower level. The upper level has one long row of stalls with seating selling Hungarian food and the touristy shops selling textiles, china plates and tourist junk.
Some of the things for sale in the Market Hall:
A huge variety of different paprika – usually you can narrow it down to either sweet style or spicy. It’s a great flavour, but even the “spicy” isn’t particularly spicy. It’s more like a roasted peppery flavour.
Huge variety of Hungarian smokes sausages, salami and cured meats.
I think Hungarian people really do enjoy eating flavoursome meat. This burger was amazing. I have no idea how the meat was marinated, but it was very soft, juicy and full of a slightly spicy, smokey flavour. I’m sure there was paprika in it somewhere of course.
One note about eating out in Budapest is to be careful with service charges added onto your bill. Often services charges are not disclosed on the menu and you might be surprised to find a 15% service charge added to the bill, particularly if you are visiting from a country where this is not common practice. If you pay by card, the European “chip and pin” machines will often ask you if you want to leave a gratuity/tip. Of course, this is up to you but I would check to see how much service charge has already been added to the bill before deciding on any additional gratuities. This even applies to hotel bills, and when we checked out we were presented with a “tourist tax” bill of a nominal amount per person which had been completely undisclosed until that point.
On the last night, we celebrated my birthday. So we went to Sir Lancelot restaurant for a medieval-style banquet. It was great fun and there was traditional music played on a lute to accompany our meal. The food itself was amazing, as you can see below – a HUGE platter of food including beef, lamb, crispy bacon, corn on the cob, creamy mashed potato, chicken on skewers, fresh fruit and a beautiful chunk of tender pork covered with crackling! Fantastic!
However, don’t let the negatives ruin your opinion of Budapest. Most things that were a “problem” (currency confusion, airport taxi driver scams and tourist taxes) are common for tourists visiting almost any country. Budapest is a fantastic city with beautiful varied architecture, fantastic food (lots of meat, spice and rich flavours) and an incredible history. I would definitely visit again in the future.
Thanks for looking at my short trip to Budapest. If you enjoyed the post and think that other people would, please consider liking it on Facebook, tweeting it or commenting below. If anybody knows the identity of the statue or spots anything wrong in my history of Budapest, please let me know!