I first visited Budapest exactly twenty years to the day of my most recent visit. Communism had been gone for only three years and Budapest was ditching the old Socialist restrictions and emerging as a great city. Scarily, on this trip in 2012, -the agent who checked me into my hotel this trip had not even been born when I made my first visit.
Today, Budapest is definitely part of a free market economy. I have now been to Budapest five times since my first starry eyed visit and this city remains one of my all time favourites!
Aesthetics: 9.5 out of 10
UC guides say Budapest is the ninth most beautiful city in the world. I would concur and almost three million tourists come to see for themselves, every year. Centred on the Danube River, on the left bank is Buda with its spectacular castle and stunning hillsides. On the right is Pest which is built on flatter ground and full of commercial buildings, churches and apartments built over 300 years. The region has been inhabited in one way or another for close on 2000 years. The two cities Buda and Pest united as Budapest in 1873.
Eighty percent of Budapest’s buildings were destroyed or damaged were destroyed by the Germans, Russians ,British and French in World War Two with most of the damage occurring in a few short months. All five bridges spanning the Danube River were destroyed. Some of the rebuilding of Budapest was not done well by the former regime who were keen to do away with some aspects of the past. For example Buda Castle was effectively gutted.
The city today is divided into numbered districts, just like Paris. There are 23 Districts numbered clockwise in widening circles. Downtown Budapest districts have lower numbers (I., II.), while outer Budapest districts have higher numbers (XXI., XXII.). The middle two numbers in a Postcode indicate the district number. For example 1138 is a zip code of an address in the 13th (XIII) district.
Liveability 7 out of 1o
The greater Budapest area has 3.3 million people with the city proper being home to 1.75 million.
EIU’s quality of life index ranked it as the most liveable Central/Eastern European city . Forbes ranked it as “Europe’s 7th most idyllic place to live” . The Mercer Quality of living index places Budapest 74th in the world.
An average annual salary is $US14, 177. The taxes in Hungary are very high. The Big Mac index says that at July, 2012, a McDonald’s big Mac is $US3.42, about the same as an hour’s wage. The theory goes onto suggest that the Hungarian Forint is undervalued. Restaurant meals set me back $US7 to $US20. A takeaway meal from a local food stand cost around $US3 to $4 including drink. International Fast food chains are more expensive. A cup of Coffee around $US1.40 and a bottle of wine between$US3 and $7. I bought amazing champagne for $US8 a bottle. Intercity train and bus rides cost around $US6 to $US10.
Temperatures drop to -4c (25F) in January and climb to 26.5C (80F) in July. Humidity is high. According to an EU study of 25 European cities, Budapest is second from last in air quality. Only Bucharest was worse. Cutting back on this pollution would mean 19,000 deaths could be avoided while almost two years could be added to life expectancy.
Hungary is the 46th least corrupt countryin the world.
Culture: 9 out of 10
As a result of the city being ruled over by the Mongols, Turks, Hungarians, Germans and Russians over hundreds of years, it is very rich in diversity of art, architecture, music and food. For example. there are over 200 museums in the city . Visit four a week and it would take a year!
Restaurants and cafes serve an impressive array of high quality delicious tasting foods.
Crime: 10 out of 10
Budapest has a very low crime rate. There is supposedly significant pickpocket activity in some parts of the city. Locals will warn you to be careful at night in the outlying parts of Districts VII (Erzsébetváros- Jewish quarter) VIII (Józsefváros- the poorest district in Budapest) and IX (Ferencváros).
When I first came to Budapest in 1992, people warned me abut the taxis. People still warn of rogue taxi drivers with lots of anecdotal stories. No one I talked to had had a first hand experience of a bad taxi driver.
There are now homeless people congregating at key subway stations around the city. I also saw beggars at the entrances of many metro stops. There was none of this 20 years ago. They are not dangerous.
Transit: 8 out of 10
One of the (few?) benefits of the Communist era was the preservation and expansion of the tram (street car) and trolley bus system as well as construction of a second and third metro line to complement the city’s 100 year old metro line (the oldest in continental Europe). As a result Budapest has some very best and busiest transit systems in the world with trans and trams running every few minutes. Some of the buses, trains and metro cars are the exact same ones that were running when I was here 20 years ago -and the Soviet style cars looked old then. They are being slowly replaced with slick new vehicles. Also, a fourth Metro lineis being built. You can also ride a cogwheel railway, a funicular, and chair lift.
The ticketing system is still the one from the Communist era and involves punching a ticket or showing a pass. A single ticket costs 320HUF . A Day Card is 1550 which is really good value especially if you combining it with a ride to or from the airport which requires two tickets. Ticket inspectors target tourists, according to reports by other travellers. Sure enough, loaded up with luggage, I was surrounded by five who demanded a fine of 8000 HUF (around $35) for incorrectly punching my subway ticket. Of course, I was innocent but its hard to argue with people who could only say “Problem! 8000 Forint). It was the only negative incident in my travels. I never got targeted when I was travelling without luggage. NB I asked for and got a receipt.
Signage on vehicles and in stations and at bus and tram stops is brilliant. Many of the buses and trams also give you next stop information in English and Hungarian.
Getting to and from the airport by public transit is a little tricky but not impossible. Terminal One has a railway station right next to it. Unfortunate the air terminal is now closed and the new Terminal 2 several kilometres away. A bus connects the airport railway station, Terminal 2 and the nearest Metro station: Kőbánya-Kispest. Service is very frequent.
Trams 2 and 19 run along the river and have stunning views.
Vibe: 9 out of 10
The Verdict: 86.6%
On my city ranking, Budapest has a rating of 8.7 out of ten. Out of the 173 cities of over 100, 000 people I have visited, it comes in at 13th. This is slightly ahead of Reykjavik, Iceland and just below Montreal, Canada and Chicago, Illinois, USA.
My Budapest Top Twenty
Ideally, give yourself a week in this city
- Walk along the Danube on the Pest side so you have a view of Buda. Start at the beautiful Parliament House. Try and include Margaret Island -stunning island in middle of Danube
- Explore Castle Hill and Buda Castle (Várhegy). Take the funicular up and walk down- you can easily spend a whole day here
- House of Terrors (Terror Haza). This was the centre of the both the Nazi Secret Police and then the Communist equivalent, Educational, sobering and challenging. Is this whats happening in North Korea? How can we stand by?
- Budapest Great Synagogue and Jewish Quarter. I recommend these tours.
- Central Market Hall (Központi Vásárcsarnok)
- Chain Bridge – my favourite bridge in Budapest -The lions at each of the Chain Bridge were carved in stone by the sculptor, Marschalko János.
- St. Stephen’s Basilica & St Stephen’s Square
- Boat Trip on Danube – yeah very touristy but must be done!
- Andrássy Avenue-Opera House and Shops
- Hungarian National Gallery (Magyar Nemzeti Galéria)
- Hungarian National Museum (Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum)
- Music in Budapest- the amount of quality music performed in this city is astounding -and tickets are cheap internationally
- Béla Bartók Memorial House – house of the famous musician
- Budapest History Museum
- Statue Park – Hungary under the Communists was filled with statues of Lenin, Stalin and other”heroes of the revolution”. It did not take long for them to disappear from the city streets in 1989. The question was: “what do do with them all?” Answer: Put them all in a park.
- Gellert Baths opened in 1918, one of a series of spas across the city fed by 118 natural springs. These spas are so prolific that in 1934, Budapest was awarded the supreme title “Spa City“. Today there are 50 spas and public pools.
- Heroes’ Square and City Park -World Heritage Site commemorating Hungarian culture and history
- Children’s Railway- started by the Communists as the Pioneer Railway, this train line is operated almost entirely by kids
- Buda Hills and Budapest Chairlift
- Vaci utca – a pedestrianised shopping area