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Budapest, Hungary: An Introduction
Budapest is composed of two cities: Buda and Pest, divided by the river Danube.
Buda is hilly, made of rock and trees, with small houses, small pedestrian streets and some antiquities (Matthias’ Cathedral and Royal Palace). This area is very nice, but quite empty when the sun goes down. It has become predominantly an area for tourists, with high prices and poor food quality. Buda is nice to visit, but not a good place to stay/sleep.
Pest is flat, lively, vivacious, with a pulsating urban life full of shops and historical cafés. It also houses the city’s major public buildings: the Saint Steven’s Basilica, the Opera House, the Parliament and the Great Market Hall. This is the best place to stay. In Pest there are 2 main areas: Vaci utca and the Opera district. Vaci Utca is the most famous pedestrian street of Pest, full of shops and restaurant. This area is very nice during the day, but a little bit empty when shops close.
Oktogon / Opera district / the Basilica area is, for me, a much more authentic place. This area is full of big firm shops (Prada, Gucci, Nike, etc.) and some very good restaurants. Lizts Ferenc Ter is full of open bars and restaurants. If you would like to drink a nice tea in a cool atmosphere, I suggest to go inside the Karma Bar, at the very end, where there is an arabesque room with low sofas.
Budapest is easy to visit: 3 metro lines, buses, trams and 1 funicular. Ticket controls are everywhere. The tickets have to be authenticated always before a trip: so if you change metro line, you have to use another ticket. I suggest you buy a pass to avoid problems. Buses, trams and trolleybuses run daily from 4.30 a.m. until 11.0 p.m. All three Underground lines connect at Deák tér Station.
If you only visit Budapest for a few days as a tourist, you may find the following lines particularly useful:
If you stay longer, it's worth it to buy a public transportation map at any BKV ticket office.
If you intend to travel a lot (and you probably will), travel cards are far less expensive than single tickets, as you should validate a new ticket when transferring (also between metro lines). In 2008 most useful tickets and travel cards for tourists include the following:
Single Ticket for Budapest transportation
Taxis are very cheap and efficient. I suggest you use “Zona Taxi*” from/to the airport 0036/1/365-5555 (about 20 Euro) and “Taxi 2000” for downtown trips 0036/1/200-0000. The better way (safe and cheap way) to catch a downtown taxi is to call them at their phone number. They speak English. The counter starts when the customer enters the taxi.
*Note: In 2006, Zóna Taxi won the right to take passengers from Ferihegy airport. Line up at the taxi stand to receive a written quote for your fare, then pay it when you arrive at your destination. This system is designed to eliminate unjustified price hikes. The taxi fare will vary according to your destination, or zone.
The Hungarian cooking is typically made of goulash soup (they usually start with a soup), then a lot of meat: beef, pig, even game, and paprika. Typical and good Hungarian Restaurants are:
For the international cuisine, I recommend these Italian restaurants:
All these Italian restaurants have very high quality food and made by Italians. The prices are a little bit expensive, though, for the Hungarian standard. There is also a very good Argentinean restaurant: Pampas Argentine Steakhouse in Vahmaz Korut 6 - Phone (+36 1) 411 1750 www.steak.hu and an exceptional Indian Restaurant: Salaam Bombay in Mérleg u.6 - (+36 1) 411 1252 www.salaambombay.hu. I suggest you book restaurants in advance during high season.
Hungarian wine is very good and of high quality: Kekfrankos, Bikaver, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. A good wine bottle should have the words minosegi bor (quality wine) or kulonleges minosegu bor (first quality wine). Some good names of wine companies are: Tiffan, Bock, Demeter. The best red wines come from the Villany and the Szekszard regions, while the best area for the white wines are Lake Balaton and Samlo.
For dessert, no doubt: Tokaj édes (sweet).
Good wine bars are everywhere in Budapest: I remember a very nice wine bar (I don’t remember the name and the exact address) in Raday Utca where it was possible to eat tapas and drink very good local wines.
A special note for the Cafés: do not forget to eat a cake in the most famous pastry store of Budapest: Gerbaud Café. Esthehrazi cake has been nominated the best cake (although it depends the personal taste). It was the Queen Elisabeth preferred cake. Jegbufé Café is cheaper and more authentic, where all the Hungarians eat their cake standing on the window shop. The best solution for a quick break.
Tips are usually given: 10-15% to the hairdresser, waiter or taxi driver, Huf* (local currency) 10-20 to the newsagent and Huf 50-100 if served at the petrol station or to the porter, depending on the service. Sometimes tips are included in the restaurant bills. To tell if the tip is included in the restaurant bill: you need to check the bill. If the service is included, you will see a separate line with service that is normally around 10% before the total is given. If it’s difficult to understand, simply ask the waiter if the service is included.
*The local currency is the Hungarian forint (HUF). Some big hotels and important restaurants may accept Euros or US Dollars, but not a very good rate. It is recommended to exchange the foreign currency. I suggest to exchange the currencies at the foreign exchange office downtown (not at the airport!!). Some good offices are in Oktogon Square and in Terez Korut; terrible rates are offered by Interchange offices. Before exchanging your currency, I always suggest to ask how much you get for 100 USD/EURO so to understand if the rate and exchange conditions are really good (sometimes they show, in big signs, the "selling rate"; that isn’t the buying rate). Another good and convenient way of taking HUF is using the debit cards at the ATM machine.
The weather is quite good for the major part of the year, apart from winter time (December and January) when sometimes the snow covers the streets and the roofs, giving to this wonderful city an unreal and fantastic atmosphere. For me, Budapest in winter is marvelous!
Budapest is full of places to enjoy nature: the best Thermal baths are Gellert, mainly for the architecture of the building, and Szechenyi, bigger baths with more and various pools (my favorite baths). Do not forget a bathrobe and a towel for the thermal baths, which is a very common practice of all Hungarians.
© Paola Nori, 2008
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