Rather late, this is a trip report from our Thanksgiving trip to Budapest. Many thanks for all of the posters who answer questions and are so helpful!
Rather late, this is a trip report from our Thanksgiving trip to Budapest. Many thanks for all of the posters who answer questions and are so helpful!
November 17-23rd, 2012
My daughter and I headed for the airport on the afternoon of November 17, 2012. Originally planned as a family trip, life intervened and it became another “Mom and teen Trip”. That was fine with us, as we travel well together and cover a lot of ground easily. We got an early flight from Philadelphia to Frankfurt, and it arrived early, at 0550, allowing us enough time to transfer to our Lufthansa flight to Budapest. Frankfurt is quite the transfer, so do prepare to have enough time. For some reason, we cleared passport control twice, once when arriving and then when we transferred to our connection. There were significant lines, but they moved pretty quickly. Typical German efficiency. Pleasant flight to Budapest and we arrived at 0920.
My first problem was acquiring money. There were ATMs in the arrival hall and after a few unnerving attempts, I finally was able to acquire 40,000 florint, which is only about $200. Despite warning my bank in advance, the machine kept denying me any higher amount. Enough for a taxi ride, but not much afterward. Okay, a problem to be dealt with later.
I had emailed an enquiry as to availability to Mamaison Izabella, the hotel recommended by Albert, our future host, since his B&B was booked our first night. They confirmed that they had a room available and with the “early checkin” that I had requested. I am a needy sort, when it comes to that. Good thing I travel in low season! Upon Albert’s recommendation, we found Fotaxi, and took that to Mamaison. About 7700Ft. No funny stuff, albeit rather crazy driving, and I generally don’t blink an eye, since I am in Italy a lot. The driver was channeling Mario Andretti big time. Mamaison is a nice apart-hotel. We had a great room, complete with living room, kitchenette, bedroom and bathroom. I could have stayed there the entire time and been happy, but it was a lot more expensive, and Albert’s turned out to be a trip maker. We had our nap, yay, and then woke up at about 1530.
We had to go and get money again. The nearest square was Oktogon, where there are quite a few banks. We encountered ANOTHER recalcitrant ATM, which also wasn’t giving me more than 40,000Ft, but as it did so in the same day, I figured I could deal. Trying to make hide and hair of my map- the Budapest Knopf guide that I special ordered at $30 for, because I like them that much, wasn’t going well at first, so after about two tries, we managed to get our 72 hour metro/train/ tram passes. Despite my earnest “Bezoul an ghoul” we received a frosty reception from the ticket lady. I would have bought them from the machine, but I thought my daughter qualified for a slightly cheaper ticket. Not so.
We took the metro to Vorosmarty Ter, (square) where we walked right into the Christmas market that I had been looking for on the map. It was a pretty market, lots of neat stuff. We had our dinner of Sausage, Paprika chicken and fried potatoes there. I had delicious Gluvhein and my daughter had mediocre hot chocolate. We discovered that Budapest didn’t do hot chocolate very well, but their Gluvhein is excellent! We wandered around, and went into St. Stephens’ cathedral, where there would be a free classical concert that evening! The teenager was decidedly unenthused. We saw a bit of the cathedral, mass was going on, and I would have stayed for mass, but they had cordoned off the pews and I felt awkward about jumping the ropes. We couldn’t have communion anyway, we’d just eaten, so we said a prayer and left. We walked toward the Danube and encountered another cordoned off spot. We were waved away by Budapest policemen, and then it became clear why, there was a children’s choir singing on the Szcenyi bridge, complete with camera crew. We listened for a while and then I spotted the Tram #2, so we hopped on and rode that back an forth. Budapest really is beautiful at night all lit up. We made our way back to Vorosmarty Ter and the Christmas Market again. We looked around some more and then decided to go back to the hotel. Jumping on the metro again, I misjudged the map and we went two stops past our stop of Vorosmarty. Oops. No matter, we just walked back to Mamaison. The architecture along Andrassy is quite nice and the night was cold, but not overly so. Mamaison had a little fridge with beer and soda, so we acquired such and went up to our room. I read the guidebooks and studied the map for the next day, and the teenager surfed a bit on the free wifi. We slept great, each of us having our own down comforter, and awoke at about 0900 to make it down for breakfast at 0930. The buffet breakfast at Mamaison is 12E a person. It was fine, the coffee was made via machine and just okay. Checkout was at 1200, so we finished eating, packed up our suitcases, and then went out. I had thought to go to the Terror Museum, but I forgot that the museums are closed on Mondays, so we took the metro to Hosaks Ter, or Heroes Square and explored there for a while. The square is impressive, and it’s fun to examine all of the statues of Hungary’s past. Make sure to admire their mustaches! The ice skating rink is already active, and we watched rather impressive skaters on a Monday morning! We explored the outside of the castle, said hello to Anonymous and enjoyed the pretty park. We found George Washington and the Button. For some reason, we do not have pictures of the Button, because I decided it was probably the logo for the company across the street. It was next to a parking lot and just didn’t look like a historic sculpture, so we didn’t bother taking a picture of it. It was getting close to 1200, so we hopped back on the metro and returned to check out of Mamaison Izabella and transfer ourselves to Kapital B&B. The staff at Mamaison is very nice and we had a very nice stay there. I just think that it is a bit expensive. It ended up being $180 for the night, however, that was a last minute booking, and if you book in advance, I think the rates are much better. I will, however be alert for them in the future for potential places to stay, as they are ideal for a family.
I had remembered to email Albert and ask him for directions to Kapital from Mamaison Izabella. One of the many wonderful things about Albert is that he never says “it’s really simple”, like anyone else would when something really does turn out to be simple, no he gives great directions and in a really kind manner. Kapital is basically around the corner, but for an anxious tourist it’s “take a left out of Mamaison, walk to the end of the street and turn left. Halfway down the block on your right, is a yellow building, number 30. That’s my building, just hit the button for Kapital”. Easy peasy! As reported, Albert schleps your bags up the stairs for you, which is great. The B&B is very nice, very clean and has a modern décor. Albert explains everything about getting into the building, the locks and etc. The kitchen where breakfast is served has a stocked communal fridge, included in the room rate. Fanta at will for my daughter! I availed myself to the fresh fruit each evening. It really was like having one’s own apartment in Budapest, but with a very nice, helpful host. For warmer months, the terrace looks wonderful. It was about 30-40 degrees F while we were in Budapest, so not much outdoor café for us. Albert spent a good deal of time with us, asking what we planned to see and giving wonderful information. We asked him about the “button”. Flummoxed, he really couldn’t figure out what we were talking about. Nevermind. This was the day that I had planned for Szecenyi Baths. I had read reviews of both Szecenyi and Gellert Baths, and the former’s were pretty good, the latter’s were abysmal, and Szecenyi was easy to get to from our location, so that was where we were going. In the reviews, it is often cited how confusing the pricing, entry and getting around the baths. Well, I agree, but I had Albert. He gave me all the information I needed, and then went so far as to bring it up on Google Earth to show me exactly how to get around! Very impressive. And that’s when we found out that the “Button” is actually an hourglass monument. I think we gave Albert quite the chuckle.
Anyway, with his help I was able to get us into Szecenyi Baths easily. We bought the cabin, which is a misnomer, and probably should be translated as “pre 1940s closet”. If you’re not a shy sort, I see no real reason to get a cabin, other than it might be more secure for your stuff? The cabin was upstairs, while all of the shower facilities and locker rooms etc are downstairs, so afterward, when you’re cleaning up, it’s not really convenient. We quickly showered off as we were returning to the B&B for a real shower and clean up anyway, but if you’re going out after the baths, you may want to opt for a locker, just for ease of usage.
Anyway! Albert had graciously lent us towels, which we got soaked in no time. (It was lightly raining) The baths are fun, especially the outside. There is one outside bath with a swirl, which is entertaining, and kids would really like, and the other one is nice and warm, at about 37-38C. We stayed in that one most of the time. It’s mostly tourists in the afternoon, and then in the early evening it resembles an aquatic pick up bar. The inside baths are dominated by old men, and one of them particularly smells like dirty socks. There’s a really nice hot one as well. I did look for the saunas, but as referenced, all of the signage is Hungarian, and we think that we wandered into the mens locker room. FYI, Noi is female. Should have acquired that knowledge sooner. . . Anyway, it seemed like everywhere we went was male dominated and my teenager was mortified by our non eventful trip to the male locker room and didn’t want to chance running into any naked men, so wasn’t particularly willing to go very far afield. So we went back outside. They have a bar! Fanta for the teenager and a beer for mom. I don’t know if you’re allowed to perch your drinks at the poolside, but we did. Most pleasant! We had some nice conversations with other tourists. We were chatting with a very nice Ukranian girl when four young American guys, seized on her use of English and moved in. She didn’t look unhappy, so we just sat back and enjoyed the show. We met an American couple who were in Budapest for the beginning of their river cruise, and enjoyed chatting with them. We spent about three and a half hours at the Bath, and left at about 1730. It was growing more crowded and definitely younger. We returned to the B&B, cleaned up and got ready for dinner.
One of the other nice things that Albert does is detail on a map restaurants that he recommends. Albert’s background includes being a chef, so it was kind of funny, because he wrinkled his nose at our previous night’s dinner at the Christmas market, so we figured we should do better for our next night. We ended up at Menza. It has a nice ambiance and my daughter had lit up, because it was the one place that Albert mentioned, had schnitzl. My children LOVE schnitzl, having discovered it on a previous trip to Garmisch, Germany. So we had to go to Menza. We shared a goat cheese salad, very good. I tried the Ghoulash, which is basically beef stew, folks. It came with spaetzle and wasn’t bad. I also tried a glass of white Hungarian wine. I changed to a beer. The beer was good. All told, a salad, two entrees, a soda, beer and a wine and it was about 10,000Ft. We passed on dessert, because we had another plan, not too far away!
The Alexandra Café is definitely a place to go for dessert. They have lots of different cakes and it is lovely to sit and look at the ceiling. I ordered hot chocolate, and my daughter had a fruit tea, having not been impressed by her hot chocolate at the Christmas Market. Unfortunately, Alexandra’s hot chocolate is about the same. Oh well, the cake was good. I had a strawberry cake and my daughter had a very good chocolate cake. One thing to know about the Alexandra. The bathroom is down an elevator into a basement and while a nice bathroom, the whole thing made me uneasy. This was probably because I had allowed my daughter to go by herself, and she got stuck in one of the stalls, which wouldn’t open. Avoid the stall to the right. Anyway, I was furious with myself for allowing her to go by herself, frightened that she got stuck and had to make her way free and then to see that it was in a quiet basement? I hate it when I am stupid. She hadn’t been gone long at all, but the things that can happen in seconds? Geez.
Full of food and cake, we walked for a while, admiring the architecture and lighted up Budapest. Not too late, we returned to the B&B. Tuesday was major tourist walking day, so we needed a good night’s sleep!
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
After a delicious omelette and great conversation with Albert, we set out for Buda. Taking the metro to Vorosmarty, we then walked across the bridge to Buda. There are trams there, but my guide had nothing about them, and I wasn’t really sure where they went or stopped, so we used our feet. We found the funicular, bought tickets and took the less than five minute ride up to the castle. Let me just emphasize that. Less. Than. Five. Minutes. I wouldn’t do it again, I’d walk, but kids like that sort of thing so . . . At the top are the castle grounds, a museum and such. We explored the castle complex, took a lot of pictures and walked along a pretty walkway overlooking Buda. It was a sunny day and meandering along suited us fine. We stopped at a nice café in the vicinity of Fisherman’s Bastion. My daughter had a huge lemonade and I had a beer. Our waiter was a nice fellow and tried to help us find St. Elizabeth’s church, which I mistakenly thought was in Buda. We finished our break and walked to Fisherman’s Bastion. What a beautiful place and amazing views! From there we visited St. Matthias cathedral. They warn you when you buy a ticket that the church is under construction. Familiar with this phenomena all over Europe I really didn’t think that “construction” would be a factor, but when they say construction in Hungary, they mean it. Over half of the church is scaffolding and tarp. Dusty and dirty, they still had a path cordoned off to show you as much as they could. I am sure when it is finished it will be amazing. This being our first real Eastern European trip, I was taken by surprise by the neglect that the churches have suffered. It makes sense, given Communism’s hostility to religion, however like many things, I had forgotten the effects and the deprivation imposed on those in its clutches. St. Matthias and St. Stephens were the only churches that we were able to enter, the rest were always closed.
Buda is quite beautiful and quiet. We saw kids getting done with school and walked down a great pathway of staggered steps. I had considered staying on the Buda side, and while pretty, I was glad that we stayed in Pest, otherwise we would have spent a lot of time traveling to Pest and back. We walked a lot exploring Buda, tried to see another church, but it was closed. I tried to figure out how to use the tram to get close to the top of Gellert hill, but the Knopf guide had nothing on the tram, and it was getting to be late afternoon. We hopped on the metro, went the wrong way and ended up somewhere. . . The nice thing about the pass is you can go back down and hop back on. We ended up on the Pest side near the Parliament. I never got my act together to schedule a tour, so we contented ourselves with seeing the outside. As we walked around, we found a sculpture of a man sitting, his hat in his hands and knees up. He is the spitting image of my daughter’s grandfather, so we got lots of pictures of Pop Pop in stone! I knew the Shoes monument to Holocaust victims was nearby, so we made our way to that. From Parliament, you kind of have to walk along the river past the shoes and then back to them, as it is not accessible from both sides. It is a moving place, I don’t know if my daughter really understood it until I showed her the baby shoes, and then it really seemed to come home. It’s enough to bring anyone to tears.
We spent some time walking along the river and then spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a restaurant that Albert recommended. It was at this time that I decided to try the TA app and my iphone acting as GPS. Others have praised this app, but it led us woefully astray. I ended up using the Knopf guide after much turning around, back tracking and frustration. We had walked ourselves silly by the time we found the restaurant and then the menu didn’t appeal to us! Argh. Exasperated, we got back on the metro and returned to the Oktogon area. I was able to find a friendlier ATM that allowed me 70,000 florint! We found a bakery with good sandwiches, a market with beer and drinks and hobbled back to Alberts where we collapsed for the evening.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012.
The following day was Wednesday, our last full day in Budapest, and we decided to go to the Museum of Art at Hosaks Ter. After a nice breakfast with lovely conversation and information from Albert, we hopped on the metro and arrived at Hosak’s Ter quickly. We spent the morning at the museum, it has a fine collection. We revisited the statues on the square and then hopped back on the metro. The previous evening, we had seen in passing the Great Market, but at the time we were too tired to explore. At various spots in Budapest we’d looked for souvenirs, but we hadn’t found anything that really appealed to us, and they were rather expensive. Using the metro once again, and then the tram, we made our way to the Great Market. Another neat place and good for souvenirs, although I have never paid $12 for a keychain before. Ahh well, it’s vacation. After a brief break at Alberts we walked to the Terror Museum where we had a light snack at their café before doing the tour. I had been advised by another guest at the B&B to borrow Albert’s copy of Rick Steve’s guide to bring along for the tour. That turned out to be good advice, and the guide does a great job explaining everything as you tour the museum. The place sent chills down my spine, as the memories of the Cold War came rushing back. I lived in Europe in the late 70’s and early 80’s and what I had forgotten came back quickly. Hungary has suffered so much, and going from the Nazis to “liberation” by the Soviets. . .The propaganda room is surreal. For me, that museum was a “not to miss” of Budapest. That evening we were on our way to another restaurant, but opted for a pizza place close to the Alexandra. The pizza was excellent and the service very good. We walked a bit and then retired to Albert’s where we borrowed a movie and relaxed.
Thursday, November 22, 2012. Happy Thanksgiving!
This was our last day. With Albert’s help we found St. Elizabeth’s. As it turned out, it wasn’t far from our B&B and we walked there that morning. St. Elizabeth was my daughter’s confirmation saint, so we had to visit her. You could walk into a vestibule, and peer through a grille at the interior of the church, but alas, another church closed. I am starting to get used to this, as we experienced a lot of “closed” churches on our Bruges trip the previous year. So different than Italy and France where all of the churches are always open. Our flight to Munich was at 1300, so we needed to return to Albert’s for our taxi. Albert arranged the taxi for us, and advised us that we could wait upstairs until the taxi driver called, but I got tired of prowling around, so we went downstairs to wait. Albert helped us again with our luggage and kept us company. What a great host, I am so glad that we stayed with him on our trip.
The ride to the airport was uneventful, as was our Lufthansa flight, as always excellent. We arrived on time to Munich and made our way to one of my favorite hotels in the world, the Kempinski which is located right at the airport. We would stay the night there and take our flight home the next day. I prefer a peaceful transition home and I like the Munich airport for leaving Europe. There was a Christmas market in the square of the airport and Munich airport has a great grocery store. We checked in, dropped our things and went to acquire our picnic dinner that we love to have, and then made use of the great pool and spa of the Kempinski. What a lovely way to spend Thanksgiving evening! I was able to upgrade us home the next day and that was lovely. We had a great trip.
Thoughts and perceptions:
I almost decided not to write a trip report of Budapest. While it was a great trip, and everything went very well, our accomodation was perfect, weather was good and nothing was crowded, despite its beauty, for us, there was something sort of depressing about Budapest. My daughter concluded that Hungarians “aren’t friendly” but that is an unfortunate simplification. Whenever we engaged in any real conversation with Hungarians, they were unfailingly kind and helpful, with a few exceptions, but that is everywhere. I think that I felt acutely foreign without even a rudimentary cache of Hungarian phrases. I did try, using kozonum, Allo and at worst, Bezoul an ghoul, but it didn’t seem to help. When I would try to communicate using gestures, and not asking if they spoke English ( I really hate doing that) it just seemed to annoy them. I was really unprepared for the residual effects of Communism on the people of Hungary. As stated, this is our first foray East and therefore we haven’t encountered the intense lack of what I can only term as joy for life before. For us, Hungarians made the Germans look ebullient. I had read that Hungarians do not smile much, and that’s true, neither do they respond to smiling tourists. There is very little signage in anything but Hungarian. In the metros, there are hand -done EXIT placards, otherwise the exit sign is in Hungarian, which is fine, I do not expect to see English in another country, however it does make it challenging at times, and I really would have spent more time hammering down key phrases had I known just how much I would need to know the word for “female”. Life felt hard there, and I felt more like a foreigner there than anywhere in the world so far. I am always very careful when I travel with my child, but I think I was particularly so on this trip, and it’s ironic, because from Albert and my own experience, I would say that Budapest is very safe. I can only conclude that it was the perceptions of the past and the Iron Curtain that had me uptight. Each time we were at a restaurant or café, I had the waiter tip themselves. Meaning they would always briefly put down the change and then say something like “okay” and then they’d walk off with it. In each case, the bill had already included a service charge. I would figure it out, but it still kind of shocked and then amused me. I would have tipped them again anyway, but perhaps they weren’t sure? I think that Budapest is going to be a premier destination some day. It has everything, but it needs a bit of husbanding to become optimally tourist friendly. I am ruefully amused that perhaps I was privileged to see Budapest before the “masses hit” a la the descriptions of Prague. I also realized after returning home that Budapest was a lot more of a bargain than I realized. I don’t know how I was doing my conversions, but I over-estimated my costs and when I looked at my withdrawals I was struck by how much more I received for the dollar than anticipated. I also returned home with 70,000 florint.
Would I go back? I really don’t know. It was a very nice trip and there were things that I did not get to see, like Gellert Hill and the Statue park. It certainly was an important trip and one that has had me thinking the longest. At the same time, it’s proved to act as a cautionary tale of sorts, in that my travel buddy daughter isn’t as keen to go back to Eastern Europe right away. When I broached the idea of Krakow in early 2013 she responded “I need a happy place first”.
As always, these are our experiences alone, and thus shouldn’t be taken to offend, rather they are just a recounting of our trip. As for Hungary and whether it is “Eastern Europe” I recognize that as a point of contention. So far, it is as East as we have been.
Fotaxi is a booth at the airport. You tell them where you want to go, they give you a ticket, and you give that to the driver. It is an easy and transparent way to get from the airport to town.
There are ATM machines in the arrival hall of the airport.
For kids, Hosaks Ter and the park near it would be a great place to explore and picnic in good weather. If you skate, the skating rink looks great.
Szecenyi Baths was also a “not to be missed” part of Budapest. All you have to do is make sure to use the back entrance, across from the circus looking structure, say “Kabin” and they will know what you want. There is a slightly lesser charge for the second person in the “kabin”. Take flip flops, some kind of cover-up and a towel. I brought swim caps just in case, but you only need them for the lap pool. There is a cafeteria and a bar. I never did find the saunas, but apparently they are there. Walk carefully as it’s easy to slip.
The metro is really good, and the 72 hour pass was perfect for us. In the summer and early fall I am sure that I would walk more, but I also have to squeeze a lot into my five day vacations, so often I will use a metro just to save time. Budapest’s was perfect, and the original metro line along Andreassy is pretty to see, as are the cars.
Sunday nights at 8pm St. Stephens has a free concert, mass I think started at 6pm.
Unless you really like funiculars, I would pass on the one to the castle. Get the exercise and walk up.
Hungarian beer was very good.
Hungarians are nice people, but they require effort. Try to spend some time engaging them, when I did, I found them to be interesting and kind.
Hope this helps someone have a great vacation. Budapest is a beautiful city.
What a great trip report! Thanks for posting. I'm planning a trip there this summer and think it will be helpful.Edited: 10:57 pm, January 07, 2013
Thank you for your trip report. I really enjoyed reading it.
interesting report PW and thank you for posting
one thing that visitors from overseas must remember is that service is very european in budapest
I like it like that ,but its completely different to the americas
I love walking into a dennys or pancake house in the states and the server immediately smiles and chats away like you are old friends
that doesnt really happen in europe
I have to say It has improved loads in over 10 years of us traveling but there is still a language barrier in the wrong places
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