Like with every place you visit, there are some you fall in love with instantly and others that you may find interesting, but not necessarily want to revisit. For me Budapest was love at first sight. Located in the Carpathian Basin, Budapest is in every way the centerpiece of Hungary, being not only the country’s political center, but also its most important center of commerce, culture, art and music. The city’s grandiose architecture and rich history, dating back to Roman times, make Budapest one of the 10 most beautiful cities in Europe.
Separated by the River Danube into the Buda and Pest, corresponding to the two major cities of which it is comprised, Budapest is administratively divided into 23 numbered districts written in Roman numerals. The two parts of the city could not be more different, with very distinctly different personalities.
Buda is the more historic part of the city, holding the main attractions in Budapest: the Buda Castle (Budavári Palota), the Fishermen’s Bastion (Halászbástya), and Matthias Church (Mátyás Templom). Located on a hill on the left bank of the river Danube, Buda displays breathtaking panoramas of all the downtown buildings and the famous eight bridges of Budapest.
Pest is the flat, more modern part on the east bank of the Danube. Here is where Budapest really comes alive, where the social life takes place, where all the shops, museums, fancy restaurants, and art galleries are located. Here is where you can enjoy a more modern experience as opposed to the more historical side of Buda. Tourist attractions on this side of the Danube are far more numerous (the Hungarian Parliament building, Opera House, Szént Istvan Basilica, Gellért Baths, just to name a few.
Not more than two miles long and less than half-a-mile wide, Margaret Island (Margitsziget) is Budapest’s recreational park, a lovely oasis in the middle of a bustling city. Here you can enjoy a picnic on the beautiful lawns trimmed with flowers, or cool off in one of the 11 outdoor pools, or even jog on the excellent rubber-coated jogging track around the island (3.3 miles long).
All motorized traffic is banned on the island, but bicycles are available for rent so you can explore the entire area. The island received its name after Saint Margaret, the daughter of King Béla IV, who lived in the Dominican convent on the island. King Béla vowed to raise his daughter as a nun if Hungary survived the Mongol invasion. The ruins of the church and convent are still visible today. There are two hotels on the island, Grand Hotel Margitsziget and Danubius Health Spa Resort Margitsziget, who share natural thermal baths.
Traveling by Plane
Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport (Ferihegy International Airport) is located approximately 25 Km (about 40 minutes drive) from the city center. The airport has three main terminals: 1, 2A and 2B. Passengers go between terminals 2A and 2B on foot, but there is bus service to Terminal 1, which is further away. The major airlines operating flights to Budapest use Terminal 2A, while low-cost European airlines (such as Wizz Air, RyanAir, EasyJet) use Terminal 1 and 2B. Two bus lines operate between the airport and Kobánya-Kispest metro terminal. From there passengers can take the M3 metro towards Újpest Központ to reach the city center. The Airport also operates a door-to-door shuttle service that is very convenient and relatively inexpensive (2990 HUF/person (~10 EUR) for a one way ticket and 4990 HUF/person (~17 EUR) for a round trip.
Traveling by Train
There are three main international railway stations in Budapest providing direct links with other European cities: Keleti pályaudvar, Nyugati pályaudvar, and Déli pályaudvar, and all three of them are connected with the underground metro system. For people who want to explore Budapest by train they offer Eurail Hungarian Pass and InterRail Hungary Pass, for international traveling.
Other Traveling Means
Budapest is a big port of call for many international shipping lines and cruise ships. It can also be reached by bus or by car, but like any big European city Budapest is no exception when it comes to heavy traffic and lack of parking. There are several parking garages located in the center of the city, as well as hotel paid parking, and mall parking. If you plan to drive in Budapest keep in mind that street parking is scarce, expensive, and time limited (3 hours) in most areas.
Getting Around in Budapest
Walking is by far the best way to visit the city, but since there is a lot to cover getting around on foot only may be tiring. Transportation in Budapest is fairly easy and convenient, with choices from the metro, to buses, trams, or taxis. Tickets and travel cards are good for all the transportation means and must be purchased before boarding. They are available at metro stations, tobacco stores or news stands. If you plan to stay in Budapest for longer than 5 days, the travel card is probably your best bet (seven-day travel card – HUF 4,950). Ticket inspectors wear a red/blue armband and a photo badge. They can ask to see your ticket on any vehicle or metro even after you get off, so hang on to it. Hungarian citizens as well as citizens of other states in the European Union over the age of 65 can travel free on Budapest public transportation when they present a personal ID card or passport.
Trivia: there is only one metro system in the world that has been designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that is the Budapest Metro. The system was opened in 1896, making it the second oldest in the world, after the London Underground.
Although a member of the European Union, Hungary does not use the Euro. However, many of the big businesses and hotels in tourist areas accept Euros. The official currency is the Forint (symbol: Ft, code: HUF), which is divided into 100 fillér. Due to the very small value the fillér coins are no longer in circulation. Because it doesn’t use the Euro, Budapest is a bargain compared to other European cities. There are many options for currency exchange in Budapest. You can use ATMs, banks, or exchange kiosks located in tourist areas or shopping malls. Be aware though that the exchange rate may vary dramatically depending on the location, the worst being the airport, train stations, Váci utca, and Buda Castle area. You can get better rates farther away from the tourist areas (there are two very good exchange kiosks located on Szt. István körút, between the Nyugati terr and the Danube).
Safety in Budapest
Budapest is probably one of the safest places to travel in Europe. Although theft incidents and scams have been reported especially in tourist areas, violent crime is relatively rare. Like anywhere in the world, exercising common sense is the best way to avoid being a victim. Taxi scams are probably the most common, because there are several cab companies and each charge different tariffs. Use cabs only if there is no other way to get to your destination. Taxis hailed on the street charge higher rates than those reserved by phone. Beware of “officials” who do not have identification or badges. Bribing is a very common scam even among official policemen. They may try to unjustly charge you with an infraction just to offer you a lesser fine if you pay cash. Never exchange money on the street unless it is an authorized change kiosk.