Okay, so it was 2005, I was about halfway into my solo backpacking trip in Europe. I was curious about going to Budapest but did not at the time feel brave enough to stay there because I really did not know what it was about. For whatever reason, Budapest seemed so foreign to me. So while I was perfectly comfortable traveling around its neighbor Austria speaking just a little German and perfectly comfortable traveling around the Czech Republic, speaking no Czech I was not ready to bite the bullet and travel to Hungary. Until I realized that it was about a three hour train ride and I had an unlimited rail pass. I could leave Vienna at 7:00 and arrive in Budapest at 10:00, spend the whole day there, check out Budapest and leave at night, getting back to my hostel in Vienna at a reasonable hour. So I did it, and fell in love with Budapest.
Budapest has great public transportation. But something to note and something I found out the hard way is that you cannot buy tickets on public transportation. You can either buy tickets at ticket counters by the metro, but only at major metro stations, newspaper kiosks or vending machines. Hungarian is very different from other western European languages so it is important to know the word for the ticket offices Jegypénztár or else you might walk right by them like I did. The best tram ride is tram No. 2. You get a very good view of the Castle Hill, the Parliament, the Danube and the beautiful bridges over it. Another cool public transportation you can take is the metro line 1 or m1. This is the second metro line in the world and the first in Continental Europe. Again, like the ticket office you need to look for the Hungarian word to find it, földalatti, which means underground. Make sure you print a metro map before going as well as a tram map which I admit is a very confusing map. Budapest’s public transportation has a little higher learning curve then other cities, but it is still very easy to use.
What to See
For spending just a day in Budapest, I recommend staying around the banks of the Danube. You can see many of the major sights here and not have to leave the central area. Budapest is originally two cities, Buda which is on the west side of the river and where the hills are and Pest which is the east side and is the flat area. Taking tram #2 once you get to the area, the first place you want to start is the Hungarian Parliament. This is a beautiful building and when Parliament is not in session you can tour it. Make sure to see the Hungarian Crown Jewels which were kept at Fort Knox during the cold war until Jimmy Carter gave them back.
When crossing the Danube to go to Buda hill you are going to want to cross over using the Chain Bridge. This is the first permanent bridge that connected to the two sides although it was damaged in WW2. It is also special to come at night and see it lighted up. It is a short walk from one side to the other where you can take the funicular up to the castle hill.
After walking across the Chain Bridge, you can either walk or take the funicular up to the castle hill. I recommend taking the funicular because I am a sucker for funiculars. You can catch it right after you cross the bridge. You might want to only buy a one way ticket so that you can take the bus from the castle to go to another part of the town.
The Buda Castle Hill is a highlight of Budapest. I recommend walking around up there. There are great little shops and many sights. Matthias Church which is over 700 years old is up there and is beautiful inside and out.
The second main sight is the Fishermen’s Bastion. The Fishermen’s Bastion is only about a hundred years old, but it looks really old. It is a monument to commemorate the fishermen who protected Budapest. This has the best view in town. You can pay to go on top of the lookout, but it is free to go on the main level and really, the view is exactly the same.
Not to far from the Fishermen’s Bastion is the Royal Palace. Home of the Hungarian and Austro-Hungarian royalty and historically a palace starting in the 13th century, for many the palace can be a disappointment. Strip of its beautiful interior by the Nazis and later the Russians, the palace is now a Budapest history museum and art gallery. I really enjoyed the statues that surrounded the palace. They were very unique.
After you have finished up at Castle Hill, head back over to Pest and walk down Andrassy Avenue. There are great cafes, shopping, beautiful buildings and the great Opera house. Under Andrassy street runs the M1 underground, which is the oldest metro in Continental Europe. This area is a great place to walk around, enjoy the city, get some dinner and really experience Budapest.