• Leslie

Beef with Budapest: Tips and Things To Know Before You Go To Budapest

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

"Europe’s most underrated big city, Budapest can be as challenging as it is enchanting."  – Rick Steves

Budapest is on everyone's travel to do list. It's a hot European destination right now, one of Europe's best-loved city breaks. Among other glowing sobriquets, Budapest is nicknamed the "Pearl of the Danube River" and the "Paris of the East."

Architecturally, the city is a treasure trove, with enough Baroque, Neo-Classical, and Art Nouveau buildings to please everyone. Budapest boasts fine wine, trendy restaurants, ruin pubs, and exotic thermal baths.

I was fully prepared to fall in love with Budapest. And there were many things I loved about it. Here's my guide to the best things to see in Budapest. I'd like to revisit and stay longer to absorb more of its distinct cultural vibe.

But there were also a few things about Budapest that irked me, things you should know before visiting.

the breathtaking Budapest Parliament building

Tips for Visiting Budapest Hungary

1. No Uber and Scamming Taxi Drivers

I find Uber to be uber-convenient, especially if you're in a rush or can't hail taxis easily on the street. And it's a fixed cost and usually cheaper. But Uber doesn't operate in Budapest. The problem is that taxis aren't a great option either.

The taxi drivers in Budapest are notorious for ripping off tourists. We were scammed. We were unceremoniously dropped off at X spot. But we didn't know until the taxi had left that it wasn't, in fact, X spot. We were rather stranded.

Plus, without a meter, we were charged a seemingly staggering fee. Credit cards weren't accepted. And we didn't have cash. It was a rather dour experience.

If you're arriving at the Budapest airport and don't want to take public transport, book a private transfer. It's a safe and popular way to go into town. And you'll have a set fee in advance. Look for a sign with your name.

happy on the Buda side of Budapest, before getting scammed by a taxi driver

2. Cash Not Credit

Budapest's currency is the florint, not the euro. We didn't take out any cash initially, trying to squeak by with a credit card before heading into euro-country. This was a mistake. You'll need cash for snacks, tips, taxis, markets, and your fridge magnets. Otherwise, you likely won't get your gelato or coffee fix.

the Millennium Monument in Heroes' Square -- not a hint of artistry to my mind

3. Heroes' Square is a Dud

I was incredibly impressed with Budapest's Parliament Building. It's just gorgeous, especially when it's lit up at night. But I was left cold by Budapest's other vaunted architectural attraction, Heroes' Square. The square and sculptural complex were built to commemorate the 1000th year of the Hungarian State.

this was my crappy view of Heroes' Square

I just found it heavy handed, bombastic, and meant to intimidate or impress. There wasn't a hint of elegance or understated beauty that a grand square in a capital city should have. And it was far off the center of Pest. Take me to the Place de la Concorde in Paris instead!

Plus, my visit and view were marred by the fact that a massive stage was erected in the middle of Heroes' Square for a concert or festival. There was eye-blighting crap all down Andrassy Avenue as well.

Széchenyi Thermal Bath -- crowded and touristy

4. The Széchenyi Thermal Bath Is A Tourist Trap

The famous Széchenyi Thermal Bath, billed as a must see site in Budapest, is essentially a tourist trap. For the most part, locals don't go there, although you may seem some huddled around the chess boards. But Széchenyi is mostly stuffed with tourists, seems somewhat unsanitary, and, at 20 euros, is rather pricey. Even worse, you might get gropped.

But you've come all this way, so you have to sample Budapest's medicinal baths. Instead of Széchenyi, try Gellért Thermal Bath, where the experience is little kinder. It's housed in a lovely Art Nouveau building, with an open air pool, a Finnish sauna, and various plunge pools. If you go first thing in the morning, it will be less crowded.

my daughter enjoying Gellert Spa

the swimming pool (no lane lines) at Gellert Spa

5. Central Market Is Also A Tourist Trap

I visited the Central Market on what supposed to be a 4 hour food tour. I didn't last more than an hour before peeling off to take my own walking tour of Budapest. The ill-fated food tour started at Central Market, which is touted as a "must see" site in Budapest.

The building is interesting enough, with its pretty tiled roof. But unlike other famous European markets I've recently visited (in Munich and Vienna), there weren't any locals there really. I've since read that it's too expensive for locals, which would explain their absence. I also thought the second floor was just one non-stop tacky souvenir stand.

But if you must bring home some paprika or Palinka (vile tasting brandy), this is as good a place as any to make your purchase.

Central Market in Budapest, on a gray morning

not many locals at the Central Market

meat stalls at the Budapest Central Market

6. Tipping in Budapest Is A Mystery

Tipping isn't as customary as in the US. It's unclear who you tip and how much. Sometimes a tip is included in a restaurant bill and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's included, but you're told it's not. I've now read that generally 10% is the standard (not 15%).

It was all very confusing. If you don't want to be confused, check out this guide to tipping in Hungary.

Vajdahunyad Castle -- a beautiful castle that is, sadly, very far from the center of town

7. The Budapest Tourist Attractions Are Spread Out

In Budapest, the attractions are spread out, not conveniently clustered. It's a big, busy city and doesn't have an old town feel. Of course, Budapest can organize itself any way it deems fit. But for the sightseer, that means it takes longer to see the key sites. Just something to consider when planning your Budapest itinerary.

the Hall of Art near Heroes Square

8. The Budapest Museums Aren't That Great

Compared to cities like Paris or Vienna, Budapest doesn't have a compelling museum scene, especially by European standards.

I visited the Hungarian National Museum, housed in a pompous Neo-Classical building, which is a good history primer for Budapest. But it was poorly organized and a bit of a yawn. The Hungarian National Gallery in Buda Castle was better, but still nothing to write home about.

Budapest also seems to have a lot of non-art museums: the Chocolate Museum, the Pinball Museum, the House of Terror, and the Museum of Hungarian Folk Art. These types of museums just don't call out to me, especially on a short city break.

I've read that the Holocaust Memorial Center is excellent. But I didn't have time to get there during my stay.

my appetizer at Liszt restaurant, delicious but I would have preferred a salad

9. Hungarian Food: Where Are the Veggies?

I'm not really a meat and potatoes kind of girl. Fried dough, goulash, and sweet peppers aren't my jam. I'm not used to heavy food or "food babies" anymore.

I know there are a plethora of healthy options in Budapest, but they weren't immediately evident. If you want a salad, you better do some research. Here's an excellent guide to eating your way through Budapest.

the interior of the Budapest Opera House

10. The Famed Opera House Is Closed

I was really looking forward to a tour of the Budapest's monumental Opera House. Especially after learning that it might eclipse the Vienna Sate Opera. But, alas, it was closed. And it has been for years, plagued by lack of funding and other difficulties.

Matthias Church on the Buda side of Budapest, completely renovated in the 19th century

11. Budapest Is Not That Old

Budapest is not an ancient city by any stretch, especially for Europe. Most of its buildings date from the late 19th century. It's more of a modern city with an eclectic mix of architecture, including Soviet era apartment complexes.

Budapest really only got going after the 1867 Austro-Hungarian Compromise, partly negotiated by Budapest's favorite daughter Empress Sisi. With increased wealth, came an urban boom where Budapest tried to emulate and exceed Vienna.

statue of Empress Sisi, installed in Pest in 2018

After the devastation of WWI, many buildings and bridges had to be reconstructed from scratch. All this means that Budapest isn't really vintage, though it has a vintage-y look. This isn't a knock on Budapest necessarily, just something you should know if you love all things authentically ancient and medieval.

12. The Ruin Bars Are Loud and Crowded

Budapest is renowned for its unique pubs in the Jewish Quarter where you can "get ruined." These are cool drinking places in abandoned and dilapidated pre-war buildings. They feature weird interiors with mismatched furniture, eclectic art, and fairy lights.

Sunday farmer's market at Szimpla Kert

The most popular one is Szimpla Kert. I'm not very cool, so didn't visit at night. It's just too loud and crowded for my grandma-like taste. But, fortunately, you don't have to visit just at night. You can stop by for a drink in the day, when it's less crowded. Or, even better, go to their Sunday farmer's market.

13. The Budapest Card Isn't Worth It

Unlike other cities, I don't think the Budapest Card is necessarily worth purchasing. The Budapest Card gives you free entry or discounts at the main attractions and free use of public transportation.

there is a fantastic view from Fisherman's Bastion on the Buda side

But we walked virtually everywhere, and never took the metro. As I said above, the museums aren't that great either. So unless you're hyper structured and plan to visit every single attraction -- rather than wandering around the gorgeous city -- it likely isn't worth the cost.

If you want to have all my tips for Budapest, pin it for later.

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