Budapest is big, sprawling, historical and entertaining. The city is split by the Danube, which runs along the base of the mountains. The Buda side is built on large hills, while the Pest side is flat. It's a fun city with lots to see and do, but is not as conveniently compact as Krakow or Prague. What struck me most about Budapest was the young people--they were the most openly amorous I've seen. Also, many of the Hungarian/Magyar women are strikingly attractive. This made things somewhat awkward--I knew I shouldn't stare, but not staring was difficult.
Hungary was also where I left beer country and entered wine country. There was still beer available, but it wasn't as good as it was just a little to the north. Fortunately I also like wine, and there were to be many interesting wine opportunities in the months ahead.
I got a tiny single room, about five feet by nine feet, in Hostel Diaksport for about $12 a night. The hostel is about two miles from the central area of Budapest and two blocks from a metro station, and was the most convenient cheap accommodation I could find.
On my first day I walked around enough to get oriented and toured the Hungarian State Opera House. It is not as prestigious as the Vienna Opera, but the building interior is stunning. I consider it the most beautiful I've seen. Not staggering in scale, just incredibly well done, and according to the Opera House guide, among the best acoustics in Europe. That night's performance was Carmen and tickets were still available. I got a balcony seat, up high but central and near the front of the balcony, for about $10. I then bought the ugliest tie I've ever owned in the gift shop, which only carried ugly ties, went back to the hostel and got cleaned up. I returned to the beautiful Opera House to watch Carmen from my excellent seat wearing my ugly tie. I don't like opera when I don't know what's going on, but I know the plot to Carmen and remember the English translation to some of the songs. It wasn't the greatest performance of Carmen, but a good performance that I enjoyed. Of course for the next two days I couldn't get the "Love is a Gypsy Rose" tune out of my head.
You'll have to take my word for it on the beauty of the Hungarian State Opera House, or go and check it out yourself. I was only able to get an exterior shot.
The next two days I went to the Buda side of the river and toured Castle Hill. There are some interesting buildings there and some good views of Pest across the river. Here is the nineteenth century Neo-Gothic Mathias Church; a statue of Saint Stephen, Hungary's first king; Pest and the Parliament building; Pest and the Chain Bridge; and a shot looking down the Danube with a partial view of Margaret Island. Last is the statue of the Turul, important in Magyar creation mythology, outside of the Palace.
I ended the first day in Buda at the House of Hungarian Wines. This is a wine store with a liberal approach to tasting. You pay for a tasting glass-I don't recall how much but it wasn't expensive-then you wander around the store looking for open bottles and helping yourself. There were many bottles to taste--my taste buds and brain cells gave out long before I could get to them all. Here's a shot of the interior, plus what Budapest looked like when I left.
The next few days in Budapest I went to museums, strolled the tourist area in Pest around the Danube, and checked out restaurants and bars. Restaurants in Budapest have very reasonable prices and serve huge portions of good food. I like restaurants like that.
What is now Budapest was once a Roman camp on the frontier of the Roman Empire. This camp had grown into a significant city, most of which is now buried under modern Budapest. North of Budapest was a smaller settlement, Aquincum, that has been partially excavated. Here is a shot of the settlement, a close-up of the remnants of the Roman floor heating system (engineers like that kind of stuff), and the second century A.D. military amphitheater. At one time it could seat 15,000 people and had gladiator competitions. Some of the seating remains but the competitions have gone downhill.
Remember the statue of of St/King Stephen, Hungary's first king, who was crowned in the year 1000? Below is the Basilica of St Stephen, which was finished in 1906. Following that is the view of Budapest and the Parliament from the top of the Basilica, a shot of the interior, and a casket containing the right hand of St Stephen. You see a lot of pieces of saints when you travel around Europe.
After the fall of communism and the withdrawal of Soviet forces, Budapest removed all the Soviet propaganda statues and put them in a park outside of the city. The location is not convenient, but the park is interesting. The Soviets were big on statues of people valiantly charging forward, presumably carrying the worker's revolution to people eagerly awaiting liberation. Of course this kind of liberation usually had to be crammed down the throat of unwilling recipients, but that didn't keep the Soviets from glorifying it. They also liked to present the solidarity and comradeship of the Soviet and Hungarian people. The thing is, most Hungarians didn't like the Soviets or their government.
Finally, in no coherent order, are pictures of a park in Margaret Island, the omnipresent Soviet style apartments, and the Chain Bridge at night.
Budapest is the first place in Europe where people made a serious attempt at conning me. When on Vaci u, a street that is the main tourist strip, I was approached by some of the "Buy me a drink?" women. These are the women who approach single men and ask them to go to a nearby music club and buy them a drink. Their con is described in all the good tourist publications; men who fall for it order drinks without asking the price, then find out the drinks cost hundreds of dollars. If the sucker is short of funds the bar's bouncers will helpfully escort him to an ATM. I must look like a good target because I was approached by four of these women. I politely declined and even showed one of these women a description of the game in the tourist guide. She read the guide but still tried to talk me into the scam. Either she was really stupid or she thought I was.
A more elaborate scam was also tried on me in Budapest. Early one evening after I had left the Hungarian National Museum (it's a good history museum with English descriptions of exhibits) and was walking on Vamhax krt near the Central Market, I was approached by a little old man who said something in an unknown language and started to slowly unfold a city map. I assumed he wanted help with directions and waited for him to open the map. While I was waiting two men in civilian clothes, both about thirty, approached us. One flashed a badge and said something about police and changing money in a loud and commanding voice, and then demanded my passport.
I had been reading ahead in my guidebook and in internet travel sites, and the approach was exactly like a scam described in the Lonely Planet website. This was happening on a busy street while there was still daylight, so I first looked around to see if there was anyone else in on the scam, and to make sure I had running room if needed. Then, without making any move towards my passport, I told them I wanted to see a uniformed police. The man doing the talking looked annoyed and loudly said "Uniformed police! You want a uniformed police? You can go. But don't change money on the street. We are the Tourist Police!" Then he, his buddy and the old man took off in one direction and I headed in the other. They did not want to take the slightest risk of meeting the real police.
I asked at the hostel and was told that Budapest does have Tourist Police, but their job is to prevent tourists from being cheated. They usually don't operate in the area I was in and definitely don't behave like these men. According to my reading, had I given these guys my passport they would have then demanded my money on the pretext of checking to see if it was counterfeit. If I handed them my money they might have palmed some of it while checking it, or they might have kept the money and passport and told me I would have to go to the police station to claim them, or they might have simply run away.
Also according to my reading, this scam started in Bucharest but has spread rapidly. On the internet I read about variations being used from Amsterdam to Turkey. I talked to some travelers in Istanbul who said they had been cheated in a similar scam by "Subway Police" in Prague. When a scam works it spreads rapidly. When in Europe be suspicious of anyone in civilian clothes claiming to be the police, especially if you haven't done anything. Ask for a uniformed police or demand to be taken to the nearest police station, but only on foot. Don't get into a strange car. And don't hand over money, passport, or anything else you don't want to lose.
I e-mailed a description of events to Lonely Planet and they published it on their Web site. I'm proud of that. It's in the Postcards section of their Hungary page. Lonely Planets Web site, "www.lonelyplanet.com", is an excellent source for current information on countries, including details of rip-offs currently being employed.
I have to disagree with the Texas lady in Vienna--Budapest is entertaining, but I liked Prague more. Prague is conveniently compact, and what it lacks in wine it makes up in beer. And while Budapest women are definitely beautiful, I still consider the woman in Prague as the most beautiful. However I certainly wouldn't mind a return trip to Budapest. I had a good time in spite of the ineffective attempts to con me. Besides, cons are the sort of thing that can happen anywhere. The people in Budapest were really nice and the food and wine excellent. I'd like another visit to the House of Wines.
I only made one other stop in Hungary, which was Eger. I went mostly for the wines, but found the town was quite nice.