The capital of Hungary, oriented around the river Danube, is replete with architectural and cultural gems.
In the 19th century, Budapest vied with Vienna as two of the most important cities in Austria-Hungary; a powerful empire that stretched across much of Central Europe. World War 1 ended with the dissolution of the empire, and the newly formed Hungary entered a turbulent period of its history, from the devastating World War 2 to a long period of communist repression.
A vibrant city of two million, Budapest has become as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. I had the chance of visiting the city three months ago, and here are 9 things that I found to best encapsulate the city:
- Budapest IS small
On the paper, Budapest, with its 2 million inhabitants, doesn’t sound like a small city. In reality, most of the city’s inhabitants live in neighbourhoods outside the beautiful city centre. While Budapest’s centre is very beautiful, with its many ornate structures and Neo-Renaissance homes, its predominantly residential suburbs are filled with dark, grey concrete communist era apartment blocks. However, while many of these neighbourhoods are safe to explore, there are not many sights that casual tourists would appreciate there anyway.
So, if you’re a tourist, Budapest is small, as a fairly compact city, with most of the attractions located within a walking distance.
- Budapest Metro is one of the oldest in the world
While we in KL await our first ever MRT line to commence operation end of this year (yes, I get it, we already had out first LRT line 20 years ago), Budapest received its first metro line in 1896. Built for the purpose of transporting commuters from Vörösmarty Square to the City Park, the first line of Budapest Metro, a UNESCO heritage site, is an attraction in itself. The line was constructed using the “cut-and-cover” method, so unlike other metro systems in Europe, the Line 1 track isn’t placed very deep underground. The metro stations still retain their original designs, complete with the modernist wall cladding popular during the first half of the 20th century, and the rolling stock isn’t new either, complete with its wooden benches.
- Hungarian food is very hearty, but…
…it’s also pretty bland. Yes, Hungary is very well known for its goulash and its meat stew, and while I appreciate the heartiness, the cuisines aren’t seasoned to fit Asian palates. While westerners might find Hungarian food spicy, Malaysians who are used to our sambal and cili potong may find the spiciness of Hungarian cuisine a child’s play. However, this doesn’t mean that visitors should avoid local food altogether.
I managed to find some good Hungarian restaurants, many of them at least a block or two away from main tourist areas, and they served decent food. Try out their veal stew and fish soup. Prices are also reasonable in Budapest; you may find a two-course sit-down meal in a good restaurant for RM40-50.
Levantine food in Budapest!
- Budapest café scene is not to be missed
Budapest, being one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Habsburg Empire after Vienna, has a well-established café scene. The city’s many cafes were the birthplace of many ideas that shaped the history of Hungary since the 19th century. Poets, writers and intellectuals converged in its cafes, turning them into places where ideas were exchanged and developed.
To experience the life of the 19th century Habsburgian aristocrats, visit Book Café, just off the famous Andrassy Boulevard. The ornate café occupies the top floor of Paris Department Store, which was, during its heyday, one of the fanciest stores in the city. Prices are surpisingly affordable here, with an ice coffee costing around RM10 and a slice of cake RM15; not too far off from your Secret Recipe next door!
- Budapest has thermal baths and hot springs all over the city!
Budapest is traditionally known as the spa capital of Europe, and it’s not hard to see why. The city is dotted with many thermal springs, supplying thermal water to its many baths including the Szechenyi Bath, one of the most ornate bathhouses in all of Europe. The bathhouse, constructed in Neo-Renaissance style, is still a popular hang-out spot among the locals, especially during summer.
If you’re not willing to pay upwards of RM30 for the experience, head to one of the many free communal wading pools in the city.
- Budapest is cheaper than other parts of Europe
Hungary isn’t as economically advanced as its neighbours Austria, Germany, even Czech Republic, so expect prices here to be lower than in these countries. A 3-course-meal in a sit-down restaurant here costs around RM50-70, around 30% lower than in other major European cities like London and Paris. A trip on Budapest metro costs around RM5, and a ride from the airport to the city centre, around RM70 – not dirt-cheap, but still pretty affordable. Uber is quite popular here, and not very expensive either.
Accommodation is relatively cheap. A private room with an ensuite bathroom in the middle of Budapest historical precinct would cost you around RM150.
Hungary still uses Forint, RM 1 = HUF 60
Alcohol is unbelievably cheap in Budapest, which explains the constant flock of stag-party visitors from all over Europe to the city.
- Hungary’s 20th century history is worth peeking into
The twentieth century was a turbulent period in Hungary. The country was led by the fascist Arrow Cross regime just before it was invaded by Nazi Germany. World War Two was particularly deadly for Hungary, with its once vibrant Jewish community decimated to the tune of 90 percent. There is still an ongoing debate on the extent of Hungarian nationalists’ involvement in abetting the genocide.
After World War 2, Hungary was incorporated into the Eastern bloc, and another period of terror ensued. The Museum of Terror on the Andrassy Boulevard, housed in a building that was once used for the detention and torture of Hungarian political dissidents, is one of the major attractions in Budapest today. It provides visitors with an overview of what life was like in Hungary during the communist times.
- Budapest is immensely beautiful
Indeed, it is. To best get a feel of how beautiful the city is, do a stroll along its Danube river promenade at dusk. It’s spectacular. I’ll let these photos do the talking.
- Budapest vs Prague, which city wins?
This is a very common question among travellers keen to explore this part of Europe. Having already been to both cities, I’d say that Budapest is different from Prague in many regards. The buildings in Budapest are grander, the old quarter beautiful, but less polished, and traces of communism can still be felt, to a larger extent here, than in Prague. Budapest also feels larger than Prague.
So, Prague is more beautiful than Budapest, but if you’re looking for a less polished, less Disney-esque urban experience in Central Europe, you may prefer Budapest.
Goodbye, Budapest. Notice their spartan departure gate?