Hungary is one of those countries which conjures up a distinct image, but is just obscure enough to keep it off of many top destination lists. It is a country with a rich history spanning over 1000 years, with invasions by the Mongols in the the 13th century, conquering by the Turks in the 16th century, allying with the Germans in both World Wars, followed by domination from the Soviet communists until 1989. The country has since become an amazing place to visit, and is certainly one of our favorite places in Europe.
Our Hungary Itinerary:
Budapest – 4 nights
Eger – 3 nights
Pécs – 3 nights
Budapest – 1 night before flying to Czech Republic
During our trip, 272 Hungarian Forints (HUF) were worth $1 USD.
-Low cost decent lunch = ~500-1,000 HUF (~$2-4)
-Mid range bottle wine = 1,000 – 2,000 HUF (~$4-8)
-Restaurant dinners for two = ~2,500 HUF (~$9-10)
Wages and prices are very low, so traveling here is very inexpensive. Despite the cost, Hungary is far from a third world country. Tap water is perfectly drinkable. We always felt safe. There is relatively reliable public transportation throughout. In many ways, our trip to Hungary has felt like the most authentic experience we have had in our travels. We drank wine with local producers who spoke no English, and got a free two hour ride from Eger to Budapest with one of our hotel owners. We were also blessed with kindness on many occasions including free sewing repairs and friendly advice on how to navigate the city and stay away from tourist traps.There are two following posts discussing our stays in Eger and Pécs. For our Hungary trip as a whole, we averaged $92.71 in total expenses per day for the two of us. This includes all accommodations (always private rooms), food and transportation between and within each city. Due to the low cost of living, we ate out more often and tried more wines than in previous countries. For our trip to date, average costs per day have dropped to $288.52, down significantly from the $409 average after our first stop in Iceland.
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We started our trip in Hungary by crossing into Budapest from Austria. This city is the main hub into the country by both plane and train. We took a direct train from Vienna on OBB, the Austrian rail network. This is an easy 2.5 hour non-stop train which cost €39 per ticket (roughly $45). We did not pay the extra €6 per ticket for a seat reservation, which had seemed up until this point like a total waste of money. We learned an important lesson on this trip, though. We were traveling between two major destinations around the European summer holiday in tourist high season. The empty trains we had been experiencing throughout Austria were a thing of the past.
We had friends travel from the US via Munich to meet us in Hungary for the week. We scheduled to meet them on the same train in Vienna and they “thought” they had been holding a four seater with a table for the ride to Budapest. None of us realized that most of the seats on the train were reserved by savvy locals, and our group along with every other foreigner was quickly ejected from the seats they had grabbed and pushed into the aisle. It was one stupefied mass of confused fools with their huge roller bags preventing all movement. We ended up standing for a portion of the trip. As we learned the hard way, an illuminated seat number indicates a reservation. That said, all other Hungarian inter-city train connections went smoothly but this route was definitely in high demand.Essentially all train networks travel through Budapest. We had to pass back through as we moved around the country, which made travel more time consuming. The main train station in Budapest is a short metro ride or around a 20-25 minute walk to the old town area east of the river. We stayed next to the Astoria metro stop, near plenty of restaurants and supermarkets. This spot allowed for an easy walk to most of the attractions, but kept us a block or two out of the total madness closer to the river and the blocks around St. Stephens Basilica.
At the beginning of the trip, we did a free walking tour to get our bearings and catch up on some history. The capitol of Hungary is Budapest. This is also the largest and most famous city in the country but there is so much more to experience that is not as well known. There are are over 20 mostly smaller wine regions dotted throughout, each with their own typical varietals. There are mountains in the southern portion, and a lake region in the west. While Budapest holds 20% of the population of 10 million, the vast majority of people are scattered throughout smaller towns and rural areas.
Between WW1 and WW2 Hungary had lost several parts of its territory. The Nazi’s had promised to return those areas to Hungary during the second war, so Hungary sided with Germany against the Allies. It became apparent during WWII that this promise would not be fulfilled and the Hungarians did not want to continue as an ally of Nazi Germany, but it was too late to change sides.
The city has been shaped by the country’s involvement in the war, and the post war Soviet occupation. Many buildings were lost in the bombings, and later replaced by communist style “function over beauty”. This creates a strange mix of amazing architecture intermingled with drab depressing structures.
We visited many amazing amazing sites, including St. Stephens Basilica, Fisherman’s Bastion, the Chain Bridge, Elizabeth Bridge, Parliament, Liberty Statue, and the Castle District. We paid the 600 HUF to get to the top of the Basilica, which provided an impressive view of the area, and then an additional 200 HUF to get inside the church.
Later in the stay, we hiked to the Liberty Statue, the last remaining communist relic, which was relocated outside of the main area to a hill top on the west side of the river. This provided by far the most impressive views of the city, and was totally free.
We went up the Fisherman’s Bastion turrets to the coffee shop. Here, the view is free compared to the larger section of the wall which costs 300 HUF to enter. The view is the same and the two areas are located only 50 meters apart. No coffee purchase is required.
We also discovered an amazing way to tour the Danube and see the city from the river for dirt cheap. The city operates a public ferry (BKK) which works similar to the train or bus system to take people to various stops along the river. The cost is 750 HUF per ticket regardless of the length of travel, which converted to roughly $2.75.
We rode on the open air top deck for several miles to the north of the city, and then all the way back down to the southern part. This was a great way to cool down on a HOT day. We did this as an afternoon cruise, but it could easily be done at sunset for an even more magical experience.
Another of our favorite and almost free activities was to watch the sunset over the city from the banks of the Danube. Bringing a bottle of wine or other drink is completely acceptable (which we learned from observing hundreds of college students and confirming with our tour guide). The four of us would claim a spot by the river on one of the benches and share a bottle of Hungarian wine at sunset each night after dinner.
Afterwards, we would watch live music at the riverside bar on the north east part of the Chain Bridge, with the lit bridge in the background. There is no barrier or cost of entry other than the cost of the bathroom entry at 200 HUF. While we were in town, we were given a tip from our tour guide for a restaurant called Fortuna Onkisszolgalo Etterem. This was in the tourist area around Fisherman’s Bastion, but hidden on a second floor and catering to locals. The food is served cafeteria style and is entirely authentic Hungarian fare, with dirt cheap prices. We had some amazing veal and lamb goulash and fried eggplant for 3,400 HUF, or $12 for two people.
We also had to get some minor repairs done on some clothing while in town and dropped by a local tailor. Within 5 minutes, they had stitched up our clothing and would not take any payment for the work. For such a large city, we felt very welcomed.We stayed in Budapest for a total of four nights, providing ample time for exploration. In hindsight, we would have cut out one of these nights or done a day trip to a city in the surrounding area. As previously mentioned, early July is in high season due to the summer holiday, and seemingly everyone was off work or out of school during our stay. Throngs of young people could be found drinking all around town, which seemed to mostly center around the areas were we wanted to be.
We did not visit the geothermal Turkish Baths which can be found throughout the city. These are relics from the distant past during Turkish rule, and are supposed to be very enjoyable. We did end up doing one of these during the next portion of our Hungary adventure when we moved on to the wine region of Eger, which will be discussed in the next post, Hungary Adventure Stop #2: Eger. The cost was significantly less in that city.
What we learned in Budapest:
- Free Budapest walking tours are a great way to orient in this large city.
- The city comes alive at night with the river district lit up. There are street performers throughout the old town area, with restaurants, and bars all open.
- Hang out next to the river at night. It is lively and beautiful with amazing sunset colors. You will understand why it is called the City of Lights.
- Ride the local transport ferry (BKK) for a round trip tour of the Danube. Stay on as long as you want for 750 HUF per ticket ($2.75). BYOB or buy it there for 400 HUF each.
- There are great parts of the city and some run down parts. The economy is still recovering from communism.
- Street food is cheap and delicious. We often paid 500-1000 HUF for a meal, which was between $2 and $4.
- It is customary to tip 10% at restaurants. Cash should be handed to the waiter not left on the table. When paying with card, tell the waiter how much to charge for the total bill.
- We recommend 3 days in Budapest. Consider side trips to the Danube River bend/Szentendre/Vác in the north or Szeged to the south if you have extra time.
- Explore Margaret’s Island by bike. Two rental companies are Donkey Republic (cheaper) and Moi Bubi Bikes.
- Hike the trails up to the Liberty Statue. This provides the best view of the city.
- Hike up to the Castle District and around Matthias Church. Go up the Fisherman’s Bastion turrets to the coffee shop where the view is free.
- St. Stephen’s Basilica is the largest most impressive church in Hungary. Get a great view from the bell tower for 600HUF/pp and view the inside of the sanctuary for 200 HUF/pp.
- Credit card is accepted in many places, but not all. We found that keeping a few thousand HUF in cash on hand was essential. ATMs in Hungary typically do not charge a fee so there was no penalty to visit them often.
- We had heard that Euros (€) were not accepted for payment anywhere. We found this not to be the case, a few merchants had posted a € price which was similar to the cost in HUF.
- Most restrooms outside of restaurants charge 200-250 HUF. There is a reason why most stairwells smell like urine.
- Try the wine produced in some of the Hungarian Wine Regions. Many of these wines and grape varietals cannot be found outside of Hungary. They are cheap and very good.