(Much like other Things I Wish I Knew posts, this one’s focused on the lessons learned, in the hopes that they help you on your own trip.)
Budapest has been full of surprises, both good and… odd. Let’s run down a few of them so your trip has more good surprises.
Budapest is a Western European city in an Eastern European country.
Joining the EU in 2004 and the Schengen Zone in 2007 has been good to the Eastern European country. It’s unclear how much of that benefit has gone beyond the capital city, however, and parts of the city are rapidly gentrifying. You’ll see this first-hand if you go on one of Budapest Flow’s tours (reviewed here) or even as you’re walking around areas like the Jewish Quarter.
The central touristy area is VERY touristy.
Specifically, the area of central Pest near the river with many of the beautiful churches and other buildings? Yeah, very touristy. Yes, there’s an Aldi’s grocery store around, but that’s an exception to the rule.
I SAID, IT’S LOUDER THAN EXPECTED!
Finding a quiet moment on the Pest side is harder than expected. From the idiots on loud bikes popping wheelies to the idiots driving modified-to-be-loud cars, quite a bit of the city’s new wealth has gone towards being noticed. The police and ambulance sirens don’t help, and seem tuned louder here than anywhere else I’ve lived.
The local beer sucks. Drink the local wines instead.
There’s still plenty of beer available, and three of the top four breweries are owned by foreign conglomerates. The Hungarian wines, however, start at around 300 Hungarian forint at the supermarket (about $1.14, at about 250 forints to the US dollar). Every bar has a selection, though to be frank I still don’t understand why a deciliter of wine has such a crazy mark-up compared to, say, 500ml of beer…
Yes, you can spend euros across the city, but that doesn’t mean you should.
One euro is worth between 305 and 315 forints most days, though plenty of local merchants are more than happy to take your euro at an exchange rate favorable to them. Plenty of exchange shops are also more than happy to exchange your euros for forints at a more reasonable rate. If you simply must spend euros, look for signs showing at what rate they accept them at, and
It’s still ‘Buda’ and ‘Pest’, to some.
Buda’s to the west of the Danube, and Pest is to the east. Buda has long been the smaller part of the equation, even though Buda Castle and (arguably) some of the better views in the city are on the Buda side.
Public transportation is typically good, and Google Maps gives directions well… with three catches.
That’s great news after some Eastern European countries where Google Maps can’t offer directions. The catch? There’s actually two: you may find yourself needing to walk several hundred meters to the bus stop, and you’ll want to use Google Maps’ ‘fewer transfers’ options to avoid having a three-bus trip. The third catch? For a city that loves to party, the system starts shutting down shortly after 11pm. The night buses are technically functional, but arrive infrequently and may require a transfer or two… It’s almost like the night bus was set up by the lobby for taxi drivers…
Budapest’s metro is another fair way to take in the city, but you may as well call it the Pest metro. Of the four metro lines, only eight stops on two of those lines extend into the Buda side. (I’m not counting the Hév-vonalak, the suburban railway lines, but the trend continues there as well — only one of those four lines is on the Buda side.)
The purple ticketing machines are great, but stock up ahead of time.
Some 300 purple ticket machines can be found through Budapest, and they offer the full array of tickets in nine languages. Pick up a pack of 10 single tickets (no transfers allowed with these tickets, use a new ticket each time you board), or buy as many transfer tickets as you like (one transfer allowed, saves a little vs. buying two single tickets).
Quick pro-tip: If you’re digital nomads sticking around Budapest for more than a month, the monthly pass (at 9,000 forints, or about $36) begins to make sense if you’re taking at least 31 trips in a month, or basically one a day.
There’s little need to try your hand at Hungarian, but the local’s English isn’t as good as other countries.
This is completely unscientific and anecdotal, but I found the English level of people in Belgrade, Sofia, and Budapest to be higher / better. The current theory: the generation of Hungarians currently in their 20’s and 30’s was the first to have cartoons dubbed into Hungarian when they were kids. My Serbian friends recall cartoons being in English, not dubbed into Serbian, so they had to learn English to take in anything that was cool…
Based on my limited and anecdotal experience, almost all of Budapest’s twentysomethings and thirtysomethings have a basic proficiency of English, a slim majority can easily hold a casual conversation, and only perhaps 1 in 4 could be considered fluent.
Watch for wheels of all shapes and sizes.
Quite a few bikes with docking programs are around (like similar programs around the world, they’re rather expensive for what you get), but you’ll also need to watch for Segways, fat-wheeled electric motorcycles like the ones above, beer bikes, and so on…
Budapest has gotten a lot more touristy — whether that’s good or bad has yet to be determined.
It isn’t as overdone as, say, Barcelona or Amsterdam, but locals are getting priced out of the areas they once called home. Since enough of them seem to be gainfully employed and/or benefiting from tourism, having to move or being unable to live in the city center (where everything is more expensive anyway) doesn’t (yet) appear to be a major social issue.
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