Discovering Budapest

Budapest Travel Blog

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Wander a little ways off the beaten path when you visit Budapest, and you will be rewarded with a real sense of discovery. An efficient public transport system ��" made up of buses, railways and trolleys ��" provides easy access to the different parts of the city. One of the best things you can do for yourself upon arriving in Budapest is to obtain a map that shows the rail and bus system, a turistajedy card that allows you to hop on and off public transportation, and (optionally) a guidebook to point the way. Then hop on a tram and see where it takes you.

The Danube River divides the Hungarian capital into two parts, defining modern-day Budapest. No fewer than five bridges connect the two sides. The Pest side hums with the busy vitality of a contemporary European city, turning from its ancient ties with Eastern Europe as it races into the embracing arms of Western Europe and the European Union. Nowhere is this more evident than in the traffic-filled streets of the city, where shiny new German automobiles ��" Volkswagens, Opels and BMW’s ��" whiz through intersections alongside older Soviet-style vehicles like Ladas and Zhigulis that refuse to die.

Banks catering to international businesses pepper the main thoroughfares, and their signs and billboards in English and Hungarian point the way to their buildings, with their architecturally updated facades. Do not count on changing money at one of these high profile banks; you may have to spend some time finding a branch of the OTP bank able to handle a currency exchange, especially if you carry travelers checks.

Signs of renovation abound. Many buildings conceal their faces behind scaffolding, while others proudly display the results of their fresh new facelifts. Sitting at a café on a quiet side street, you might notice contractors gutting a third-floor apartment across the street. You might even choose to stay in an apartment that has been similarly renovated, and in so doing find that your choice to eschew traditional tourist accommodations has saved you money and given you a closer glimpse on how Hungarians live.

The streets of Budapest are thronged with young people. Budapest does not seem to suffer the fate of some up-and-coming Eastern European cities: the young, energetic people in Budapest, while obviously aware of and keenly interested in Western culture and wealth, do not flee towards opportunities in the West. Rather, they apply themselves here, tapping their own resources and creativity.

Some may work locally for international firms, like 30-year-old Hungarian businessman, Peter, who represents a major tire manufacturer’s interests in Hungary. He admits to being fascinated by foreigners, and feels obliged to make visitors to his home city feel welcome.

Budapest also attracts business from the surrounding countryside. Next to the river, near the white Erzsabet (or Elizabeth) bridge, a covered market thrives. Natural light filters through skylights in the roof fifty feet overhead, illuminating rows of stalls where farmers and butchers offer their goods to Hungarian shoppers looking for the freshest produce, meats, cheeses and fish.

Others may express their entrepreneurial spirit, like the women who opened Café Eklektika, an artists’ café and piano bar (the customers play the piano) that serves a decent lunch, and hosts a bustling evening drinks crowd, amidst the displayed works of local photographers. The menu invites anyone who would like to put her own art on display, “If you feel you want to show yourself to the world ��" please do so.”

Someone, or several someones, must have taken this as encouragement to use the entire city as their canvas. Nearly all the bridges, subterranean street crossings, and a fair number of building facades have been “decorated” with graffiti. None of it is offensive, some is even artistic, but it does not seem to have been painted with the intention of beautifying the city. Furthermore, there is no evidence that anyone has tried to remove it. Nevertheless, absent any obvious signs of the threat of gang violence one might associate with it, the graffiti art lends a certain charm to the city. It speaks of a society undergoing a stressful but energizing transformation.

The effects of globalization can be seen in Budapest. Doubtless encouraged by the favorable exchange rate for western currency, tourism from western Europe is booming. A host of international hotel chains have gobbled up much of the real estate along the Pest side of the Danube, offering their guests spectacular views of the mostly unspoiled historical districts that comprise the Buda side of the city.

No need to be a guest of one of these hotels, though, to enjoy the beautiful views of the Buda side. Taking an afternoon stroll along the wide pedestrian embankment between the new hotels and the river, you can turn your back on the hustle and bustle of the Pest side and take in the hilly terrain and stately church steeples, domed palaces and grand monuments that make up the Buda side of Budapest, framed between the sky and the lazy, coiling ribbon of water that divides the two sides.

As you walk along the embankment, which is situated several feet above the waterline and set back enough to allow a two-lane road to run alongside the river, you may encounter the odd  (really odd) street performer playing the accordion, singing a rousing folk song. You can amble among clusters of stalls where bright and polite Hungarian vendors offer the usual handcrafted folk art, and where you might even find that authentic boar pelt you have always wanted.

Numerous beer gardens and cafés present themselves for your refreshment, and it would not be a bad idea to have a seat at one as sunset approaches; an outdoor café along the west-facing Pest side of the Danube ��" while not cheap ��" is THE place to be at sunset, for the final rays of sunlight streaming up from behind the Buda hills can be magnificent to behold.

The preferred way for a visitor to reach the Buda hills (castle district) requires you to walk across one of Budapest’s delightful bridges, the Chain Bridge. Two flanking stone lions crouch at each end of the Chain Bridge, which takes only a few minutes to cross on foot. If you pause halfway across, you can take a moment to ponder the importance of the river flowing beneath your feet, as a conduit to the rest of Europe (via Austria). Or you can try to decipher the meaning of the graffiti on the wall.

A funicular railway waits on the Buda side of the Chain Bridge to whisk passengers up to the top of the hill where dowdy old Buda looks out over the more cosmopolitan Pest. The Castle Hill district contains the most notable relics of Budapest’s royal past, including a castle, a church and some recently discovered Roman ruins.

One of the most interesting and probably least touristy things to do while in Budapest is to visit one of the few remaining Turkish baths in operation, all of which are located on the Buda side. The baths feel ancient, and you get a sense of stepping back in time when you enter one. Steam rising from the central pool curls through shafts of sunlight that stream through a multitude of small incisions in the domed roof high overhead. Thermal springs below the Buda hills provide naturally heated mineral water to the various pools and steam rooms in the baths, and the strong odor of sulfur permeates the atmosphere.

The Kiraly bath provides a fascinating cultural experience, because it is attended almost entirely by native Hungarians and the staff speak no English. At a cost of a few forints and an uncomfortable feeling of bewilderment, you can for a short time immerse yourself in a ritual that is still dear to the hearts of many Hungarians.

For those who prefer a more structured, less intimidating bathing experience, the renowned Gellert Hotel offers a Turkish bath geared more towards Western tastes, and boasting some of the most impressive architectural features.

Budapest has taken full advantage of the hydrothermal activity in the region, not only in the Turkish baths but also in creating an outdoor recreation area called Palatin Strand. The Strand, located on Margit Island in the middle of the Danube River, features several outdoor thermal pools, each maintained at different temperatures and bearing the unmistakable odor of sulfur. While the facility cannot compare with American water parks, it does attract a family crowd. Even in early spring when the dogwood pollen fills the air like a memory of winter snow, you will find groups of children splashing about in a watery frenzy as their parents relax in quieter pools.

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photo by: Chokk