I will confess right off: I made a mistake with this journey. In trying to save money I limited the trip to three days and two nights; that is not enough for a city with so much to offer as Budapest. My first clue that Hungary was impressive came just inside the border from Slovakia; the first small train station was quite pretty. Next the train tracks paralleled the mighty Danube River, here known as the Duna. Massive stone castles perched on high bluffs over the river intrigued our historical curiosity.
In the city itself our apartment —Travel Tip: We find apartments are better value and more spacious than standard hotel rooms; always for three or more nights, in this case for two— was in the Ferencváros neighborhood; a minor borough to the city but bustling with fun places to visit and in which to eat and drink. I should also point out that Budapest has an excellent transportation system with extensive underground Metro and interlinking trams. Again to save money I bought one 24 hour pass for the first day and another for the last day, planning on walking in between.
After a brief rest in the apartment we hit the pavement to start exploring, just strolling along the streets towards the river. We admired the architecture which is a different style than Prague; it is called the Hungarian National style and uses more peaks and arches as well as glazed tile roofs.
Later we found ourselves on Vaci utca, the street noted for sidewalk restaurants. We tucked into an early dinner of Hungarian food then ambled along the river embankment as the sun set and the lights came on; very romantic. Each bank is lined with impressive buildings and linked by attractive bridges.
For those who like night life I hear that Budapest has plenty. This is easy to believe because we saw a great many stylishly dressed people of all ages. The average person here appears noticeably more concerned with fashion than in Prague but perhaps less so than in Italy.
The next morning we got an early start for an ambitious hill climb up the back side of Castle Hill, the pinnacle of Budapest viewpoints. However, we were soon lost and after a few steep stair climbs sought help from a lady at a bus stop. We made a new friend as she got on the bus with us and showed us where to get off. It was well worth the trouble when we saw the interesting and impressive structures of Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion and the Royal Palace in addition to the panoramic views over the city on both sides of the Duna. By the time we were heading down to the river we were four hours into a guided walk that was slated for ninety minutes.
After walking across the old chain bridge we toured the lobby of the majestic Gresham Palace Hotel—19th century on the outside; 21st century on the inside. This hotel makes us want to see the movie Grand Budapest Hotel. Though the architecture in the movie is from the Czech town of Karlovy Vary where we also toured the five star lobby.
Travel Tip: Whenever we are near a world class hotel we tour the lobby and public areas for a free exhibition of interior architecture and art works. We try to look like we belong but are obviously gawking. We have never been questioned. Just don’t dress like a street person.
My next dose of elegance was number one on my “must do” list: the mineral baths at Szechenzi. This Baroque complex is very extensive but only a portion was open so I found it difficult to navigate the warren of corridors even with their map. I soon learned to not rely on attendants who say they speak English but give wrong information. Instead I watched where other people were going and followed them to find the hottest bathes. You can’t miss the large open air pool which is famous for Chess players spending the whole afternoon playing in their bath.
The next morning started with another stroll along the river embankment and ended at the fantastic Great City Market. The travel guru Rick Steves recommended the lángos available there so we ate one; this Hungarian specialty is deep fried bread served with your choice of topping either sweet or savory.
Thus fortified we took our time with more casual site seeing and a leisurely late lunch before deciding it was time to pick up our luggage and mosey back to the train station. We had plenty of time to catch our train but I had forgotten our 24 hour transit pass was soon to expire. It was still valid when we entered the Metro but was 10 minutes past time when we exited at the train station. Sure enough there was a team of inspectors checking everyone who exited and we were stopped. The two burly ladies claimed to know only one English word: Pay! Plus they would only accept the hefty fine (40 Euro) in Hungarian forint which we had very little of. It was an ugly scene but I ended up leaving my wife as a hostage while I ran up into the station to find a bank machine, jumped the queue there and ran back and waited while they laboriously wrote out the receipt. We felt very badly treated as senior citizen tourists. Later in investigating an appeal I discovered the inspectors are a private contract company; legally nothing would have happened if we had said No and walked away. Instead we continue to carry a sour spot for this beautiful city and its wart of a fine collection system.
But we have and shall return to this majestic city.