I first considered visiting Budapest after reading Tim Leffel’s blog (Tim is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations: 21 Countries Where Your Money is Worth a Fortune). I didn’t pay much attention to the date it was posted and decided it would be my big fall trip thanks to a college graduation present I was ready to cash in.
The first thing I noticed during my pre-planning (I do much less than you would expect) was that there was an impressive amount of hostels listed on HostelWorld. 83 to be exact, as of this posting. As a comparison, Paris only has 15 listed.
It turns out that it’s rather simple to set up a hostel in a converted apartment and many people are taking advantage of it and the increase in tourism that Hungary has been experiencing over the past decade or so. Both hostels I stayed in were pretty small but modern, clean and well run. You can’t ask for much more than that.
One of the things that I always consider when traveling is how easily I can survive on a limited budget. Budapest was advertised as the secret budget destination in Eastern Europe and your money could go a long way. Part of the EU, yet still clinging to their currency, the Hungarian Forint, the dollar was said to go much further than elsewhere in Europe. In some ways, Budapest lived up to this claim, but in others, it exceeded any expectation one could have for larger, more popular European cities.
For instance, the average price of a hostel bed was around $15-20 which is certainly acceptable for Europe and much cheaper than Paris or London. A day at the enormous and beautiful Széchenyi Baths was only about $10 and a full guided tour of surprisingly tight caves ran around $25. I wouldn’t expect any of these to be much cheaper and they were all worth the price.
Then came the food. For some reason, food was incredibly expensive. I can’t recall spending more on a meal in any country, city, or state… anywhere. My guidebook recommended a restaurant around the corner from the hostel I was staying at which offered traditional Hungarian meals for around $5-7. It had been a year since the guidebook was published and the restaurant owner must have gotten wind of his literary mention. It’s a common occurrence along the typical tourist trails for hostels, hotels, and restaurants to increase their price once they get a nod in a guidebook, but what I experienced was much higher than anyone could expect, and not only for the places that were published. In Budapest every normal restaurant, regardless of the area it was in, charged at least $20 for a typical meal. The bargains were actually on the heavily trafficked tourist districts in Pest which all offered set “tourist” menus. The downside was that they were very small and left much to be desired. Even a stop in a Subway chain for lunch cost me about $10 for a 6″ turkey sandwich. The price of food was bewildering, to say the least.
While Hungarian cuisine is definitely highly recommended, there is much more to Budapest than overpriced restaurants luckily. Budapest is a very beautiful town with beautiful castles across the Danube River and great architecture across the entire city. A great day can be had by simply walking around the city with no destination taking in the sights. Heroes Square and City Park give a taste of history and nature that helps you quickly forget about the hustle and bustle of Budapest’s busy city streets. Don’t forget that Budapest is Hungary’s center of culture and home to both art and history museums like the House of Terror which reminds visitors of atrocious crimes that occurred during Hungary’s Stalinist regime and WWII.
One of the most impressive things about Budapest though was the amount of people who speak great English. Obviously it’s in response to the tourist boom, but it’s impressive how friendly and willing to chat most Hungarians are especially seeing how this country was completely communist less than 20 years ago and experienced very little tourism. Things have changed though and tourism has become a huge source of income for many businesses in Budapest.
If you want to explore the rest of Hungary (or go to just about any neighboring country) nearly all the trains in Hungary run right through Budapest. I managed to head south three hours to Pécs which is one of the larger cities in Hungary, yet very small when compared to Budapest. You can cross the entire town on foot in about 15 minutes but it’ll take you an entire day stopping at the many sights like modern art museum or the Mosque Church. The later is quite impressive. In the 16th-century the Turks built a mosque with the stones of a ruined church. When the Turks were forced out of Hungary the mosque became a church again but kept the classic dome and still retains several touches of Moorish design. There are even a few scribbles of Arabic around the church that can be found if you keep your eyes open.
For what it’s worth, Pécs also had the best food I experienced in Hungary and at much more reasonable prices.
For more photos from my trip to Hungary, check out the set on Flickr.