Every major city that plays hosts to tourists typically has some version of a tourist card, usually a combination transportation + admissions to some of the most popular attractions + discounts to other attractions / activities / restaurants. Google and you’ll
find online forums debating the value of these cards (some may have intangible benefits like allowing you to jump a long line at a popular attraction) or whether they’re simply a waste of money (forcing you to see things you really don’t want to see or wouldn’t otherwise visit, just to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth).
This was my dilemma in Budapest for the 3.5 days I’d be there. Online forums seemed to lean towards the Budapest Card being a bad deal, but throwing caution to the wind, I went ahead and got the 48 hour card. Here’s how things broke down:
Transport: Budapest has a decent but aging transport system with wicked fast escalators. I’m talking lose-your-balance-if-you’re-not-careful fast! Metro and tram cars seem to be from the Soviet era with creaks and groans and a shrill buzzer to announce departure – I found it annoyingly charming. The card includes unlimited transportation but I only ended up using the metro / tram 6 times in 48 hours (value of 6 trips: HUF 1820). Notice that every metro entrance has actual people checking tickets. Spot checks on trams were also common.
Walking Tours: The card includes two walking tours, held on alternate days, one of the Buda side and the other of the… you guessed it, Pest side. Originally a Celtic settlement, then Roman, then Turk, the three towns of Buda, Obuda and Pest were finally united to become modern day Budapest (get it? Buda + Pest = Budapest!) in 1873, becoming one of four capital cities located on the Duna (Danube), together with Vienna, Bratislava and Belgrade.
The first walking tour covered the area known as Castle Hill on the hilly, upscale Buda side. While there isn’t really a castle per se, there is a large yet uninteresting Royal Palace, destroyed and rebuilt multiple times in Hungary’s tumultuous history. I was drawn to the Matthias Church with its colorful ceramic tiled roof, soaring Gothic spire and most striking of all, every inch of its interior is colorfully frescoed. (I was able to visit the church interior by attending an excellent classical music concert there one night, highlighted by performances on the church’s huge organ. Good thing I love Vivaldi, because this was the third time I’ve heard The Four Seasons in about a week! Regular admission fee to Matthias Church: HUF 990)
Directly behind the church is Fisherman’s Bastion, towers and terrace with sweeping views across the Danube to the very pretty Parliament building.
The next day was a tour of the commercial, flat, modern Pest side of the river. It’s said that 30-40% of the city was destroyed during WWII and unfortunately, it shows, giving me the feeling that Budapest is the ugly / less attractive step-sister to beautifully well-preserved Prague. However, every now and then you could get glimpses of its former beauty (reportedly rivaling that of Vienna’s in its heyday) in the tree-lined Andrassy Avenue, modeled after Paris’ Champs-Elysee, or the gorgeous Opera House, or the spectacular interior of the regal St. Stephen’s Basilica. At 96 meters tall, it shares the distinction of being Budapest’s highest
building with the elegant Parliament Building. In fact, Hungarians love the number 96. According to legend, a mythic bird dropped its sword here in 896 AD, signifying that the original Hungarians, the Magyars, should settle here. So certain stairwells have 96 steps, domes are 96 meters high, etc.
These two walking tours are included in the card and have a value of HUF 3,000 (~USD 13) each. If you’re a loyal reader of this blog, you’ll know that I love me some walking tours as a great way of getting oriented to a new city.
Included museums: The card included 4 museums for free. I took advantage of the two I thought would be the most interesting: the Museum of Fine Arts (right on the Hosok Tere metro stop, by the zoo and Heroes’ Square) houses works by early Dutch painters as well as surprisingly more contemporary masters like Delacroix, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne and Gauguin. I wasn’t really expecting such a nice collection. The museum building itself is stunning. Depending on my mood, I sometimes like to go to galleries just to be in a quiet place where so much thought has gone into the aesthetics of the space – the lighting, framing, organization. I find it soothing to be in a place simply and wholly dedicated to beauty, well worth the HUF 1,400 entry. Another museum I went to, purely because it
happened to be next to the Parliament Building where the Pest walking tour ended, was the Museum of Ethnography, a haphazard collection of Hungarian folk culture, including rooms and rooms of rugs, etchings and household items. Strangest of all was the exhibition on Amazonian Indians and the collection of stuffed birds (?!?) If it hadn’t been for the Budapest Card, I’m sure I wouldn’t have visited here… (Admission: HUF 1,000). Other included museums are the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery. I was kind of sad that I didn’t have the energy to visit the zoo, also included in the card.
So, if you’ve been keeping track, I used:
Transportation: HUF 1820 (USD 8)
2 Walking Tours: HUF 6000 (USD 27)
1 Museum that I probably would’ve gone to anyway: HUF 1400 (USD 6) + 1 museum that I wouldn’t have
Total value used: HUF 9,220 (USD 41), Total paid for Budapest Card: HUF 6,900 (USD 31). So in this case, the Budapest Card worked out for me. There are various lengths you can buy them for. I would recommend it if you’re into walking tours and if you’re in the city for 48 hours or more.
Just 40 minutes north of Budapest lies the sleepy town of Szentendre, situated on the Danube. An easy day trip to this artsy town (on a real live clackety-clack train!) made for a welcome change of pace, strolling down the cobblestone main street, browsing antique shops, quaint cafes and wine and spice shops. (Sweet paprika features prominently in many traditional Hungarian dishes, like goulash, which does not look or taste anything like the Americanized version! Real Hungarian Goulash is more of a soup than a thick stew). The warm afternoon sun filtering through raucous yellow and orange leaves, passing by old churches and new galleries, quaint jewel-toned houses with peeling paint that looks rustically authentic rather than unkempt, sipping gourmet hot chocolate in the crisp autumn air was a great way to spend the day. And who could bypass a visit to the weird Marzipan Museum, featuring a 2 meter tall Michael Jackson statue made of white chocolate? Or the painstakingly made scenes from folk tales, cartoons and famous people, crafted entirely from marzipan, a paste of almonds and sugar?
That wrapped up my visit to Budapest, The Pearl of the Danube, the City of Spas, the Paris of the East. On my last night there, I noticed every other person on the metro was carrying a bottle of liquor and kids were wearing face make-up. Then it dawned on me. It was Halloween! Judging by the amount of alcohol being toted around, Hungarians must really party on Halloween as the day after, All Saints Day, is a national holiday.
Travel tips:(1) Between the metro, trams and buses, it was really easy getting around Budapest. If you don’t get the Budapest Card, consider getting a transport card. To visit Castle Hill, take a bus or tram if you can to avoid the climb. (2) I stayed at the deceptively nice Budapest Panorama Hotel. Ignore the grubby exterior and the scary lift to make your way up to the third floor to find 12 cheery, spacious and value-priced rooms (Only €39 per night including
an excellent cooked breakfast at the nearby posh Bali Caffe). (3) I found Budapest about 15-20% cheaper than Prague and much cheaper than Rome or Paris. I actually had a difficult time spending USD 50 per day here! (4) There is an excellent shared shuttle system at the airport. Book in person (and receive a10% discount on the Budapest Card) or book online and receive 10% off. It ended up being extremely cheap at about HUF 2000 / USD 10 each way. Lots of shuttles available.