5 things to know before you go to Budapest

Flying to Budapest with Ryanair

If you’re planning a trip to Budapest, there are numerous low cost European airlines that will get you to the beautiful Hungarian capital for the price of a regular train ticket. For example, I flew to Budapest from Prague last summer, for as little as 18 euros for a return ticket! So, with a bit of luck and planning in advance, you should be able to score a cheap flight ticket to Budapest as well.

1. Getting to the city centre from the Budapest airport (H2)

Airport shuttle

Once you’ve landed at the Ferenc Liszt International Airport, the easiest way to get to the city centre is to catch the Airport shuttle bus, 100E. You can buy a single way ticket on board for 900Ft (app. 3 euros). The bus will stop close to two major metro stations, Kálvin tér en Deák Ferenc tér, getting you to the very centre of Budapest in about 30 minutes.

Another, even cheaper option, is to buy a regular bus ticket (350Ft), either from the vending machine or the bus driver, and go by the regular city bus 200E. This bus will stop several times along the way, and will therefore take a bit longer to get you to the city centre. Depending on where you stay and how much you want to save J, I’d compare both options and choose accordingly.

Public transport in Budapest

Overall, if you’re travelling on a budget, public transport is your best friend. Luckily, both sides of Budapest are pretty walkable, and you might not even need to use public transport that much. Besides the metro, which is as quick and effective as anywhere else, you might want to ride one of the cute yellow trams at least once. The plus side is that you’ll get to see much more of the city, and you can hop off wherever you please.

If you are heading a little outside the centre, for example to enjoy a day at the famous Széchenyi baths, the easiest way to get there is taking the metro. Depending on where you stay, you can get on the metro line 1 at Deák Ferenc tér, and after about 15 min hop off again, right at the Széchenyi Bath stop. For this trip, you’ll need a single regular metro ticket (350Ft), which is easily obtained from any of the vending machines down at the metro station. If you travel by metro, keep your eyes open and camera ready, since some of the stops are seriously beautiful!

Budapest yellow tram
Have you seen the colourful trams in Budapest?

2. Best time to visit

In 2018, over 30 million tourists (!) visited the Hungarian capital. A year later, Budapest was named the Best European Destination of 2019. It is no surprise that the Hungarian capital continues to draw a growing number of visitors – while still relatively affordable, it has a plenty to offer to any type of traveller.

Speaking of the number of tourists that flock to this beautiful European capital every year, especially in the summer, I believe it is important to keep in mind there are a number of events contributing to these huge numbers. Arguably, the biggest of them is Sziget, a week-long eclectic music festival held on one of the islands of the River Danube. Starting out as a small student festival, Sziget has been growing in popularity ever since and welcomed over 530,000 visitors last year.

When NOT to go

So, unless you’re actually coming to town for this particular event, I’d say the one time of the year I’d definitely avoid travelling to Budapest is the 1st or 2nd week in August, when the music heaven and tourist hell break loose. Even though the amount of visitors allowed to Sziget has been capped to 90,000 a day, it still contributes to bigger crowds, noise and day-drinkers everywhere. Sziget 2020 will be taking place from 5 till 11 August 2020, so…can’t say I didn’t warn you J.

Logically, you have to be prepared for the fact that the must-see places all around Budapest, such as the fairytale-like Fisherman’s Bastion, will be extremely crowded during high season. If possible, try to avoid the summer season (July-August) altogether for your visit, as both the crowds and average temperatures become unbearable – Budapest was hit with over 40 degrees heat wave last summer.

St Stephen's Basilica Budapest
Crowds in front of the St Stephen’s Basilica

Another popular, yet busy time to visit Budapest is the time around Christmas. Even though the winter wonderland season in Budapest surely is charmingly beautiful, the long lines of tourists waiting to be served a chimney cake and mulled wine are not. Plus, many tourists get unpleasantly surprised by the (very) low temperatures during winter. So unless you enjoy freezing your butt off together with thousands other tourists, why not opt for shoulder season and enjoy the mild temperatures and smaller crowds instead?

3. Language (H2)

Basic phrases (H3)

I believe that every responsible traveller attempts to learn at least a couple of basic words and phrases in the language of a country they are visiting for the first time. It is a sign of politeness and respect for a culture different from yours, but also a great way to people’s hearts, which can (sometimes literally) open doors that would remain closed otherwise.

That said, I knew exactly one word in Hungarian before arriving to Budapest, thanks to a friend I met on holiday. It was the word köszönöm (pronounced ‘kew-sew-newm’), meaning thank you, and it might well be the most useful word you can learn in this otherwise complicated language.

Luckily, not all phrases are that difficult to pronounce, as some bear a significant phonetic resemblance to English. Take ‘szia’, for example, which is pronounced ‘see-ya’ and it can be used both as (informal) hello and goodbye. Easy, right? If you want to learn more, I can whole-heartedly recommend the following guide from The Culture Trip.

Place names

When it comes to place names in Hungarian, they are a whole next level confusing. I have to admit that at first, just seeing some of the names written in Hungarian on Google maps triggered a slight anxiety attack. How on Earth am I supposed to remember where I’m going, and pronounce it in case I need to ask for directions?!

The thing is, every perfectly normal (read: English) place or proper name is translated to Hungarian, which is why something as innocent as Elizabeth Square (the one with Budapest Eye) is called Erzsebeth Tér in Hungarian. It becomes easier once you start seeing the pattern, though (‘tér’ meaning ‘square’, ‘sziget’ meaning ‘island’, etc.), so I recommend practising with Google maps a bit before you go.

Café Spinoza, Budapest, Hungary
Wonder what they sell in here?

4. Safety

Let me begin by saying that I’ve travelled to Budapest solo, spent two lovely days mostly walking on my own (even at night), and not once felt unsafe. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick to a number of basic safety rules. For one, try not to carry large sums of money with you, or – god forbid – count your cash out in public. Of course, the ‘big sum of money’ is a relative term, as I was never quite sure how much cash I actually carry (quick maths has never been my strong point). But just to be safe, I kept about half the cash I brought with me in the hostel locker. Whatever you choose to carry around with you, always be mindful of pickpockets, though, and make sure to cover your pin code when people stand close to you. The same goes for e.g. your camera equipment or your smartphone – keep it safe in your backpack.

One of the negative aspects I’ve noticed while in Budapest – even though it didn’t make me feel less safe – was the large number of homeless people sleeping out in the streets during summer months. As I headed off on a coffee hunt early in the morning every day, oftentimes it was literally just me and the homeless. Luckily, I wasn’t bothered by any of them once, as they mostly seemed either hungover or too tired to beg for money. But it did make me feel uneasy, more because of my soft heart than because of any potential threat.

Where to stay

If you want to stay safe and have a pleasant experience, I think it is a good idea to check the area where you’re planning to stay. Even if you’re not familiar with the neighbourhood, it is usually enough to use your common sense and read a couple of hotel reviews. Personally, any mentions of street noise and/or night disturbance are an immediate dealbreaker. I opted for one of the hostels close t the Jewish Quarter and the location was optimal. If you want to have a bit more privacy, there are a plenty of affordable airbnbs in Budapest, so you should have no problems finding a safe place to stay.

Streets of Budapest
Quiet, empty streets of Budapest early in the morning

5. Mistakes to avoid

One thing that I’ve learned the hard way is that booking in advance is necessary in case you want to visit the beautiful Hungarian Parliament building. And I’m talking weeks in advance, not days. The Hungarian Parliament only offers guided tours, divided across a number of slots and different languages per day. For obvious reasons, English and other popular languages (Spanish and French) tend to get sold out pretty fast.

When booking your ticket, pay extra attention to the language of each slot (there are quite a few tours each day offered in Hungarian and even in Hebrew, which could admittedly be fun, but…no.) As for myself, I booked my ticket about a week in advance, and I might or might not have been forced to book a German tour (even though I speak barely any German). Luckily, I was able to eavesdrop on the English group tagging along, making the most of my visit after all!

Guided tour of the Hungarian Parliament building
Don’t miss out on the guided tour of the Hungarian Parliament

You don’t want to miss out on a stunning place like the one pictured above, do you? Overall, the beauty Budapest definitely stole my heart and I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who loves architecture, good food and impressive viewpoints all around the town. If you want to make sure you don’t miss any of the highlights Budapest has to offer, check out my detailed 3-day itinerary here. Enjoy your trip!

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