When I think of my favorite cities in the world, Budapest is now on my top 5. Easy. It does help that we had a killer time there: A stranger lent us his BMW motorcycle for the day (and gear), we saw the best (and longest) firework show, we met up with friends, and they took us to an awesome “ruin pub”.
And as if I need reasoning, I could have a decent list of why it’s the ideal city:
- Beautiful architecture
- Nature – a hilly and green city with a river running through it
- Interesting history and culture
- It’s cheap
- Easy public transport
- All the hotels a travel hacker could want
- Yada, yada
But then there is “feel”. A certain romance a city has, that many other western European cities cultivate. This, mixed with a certain intrigue that other eastern European cities have is what draws me into Budapest. I feel like I’m at home and yet exploring at the same time.
Here, I’ll share our experience, photos, and then some miles and points tips.
Two motorcycles, two countries
So yea, on the train to Budapest a man I sat next to in the food cart (it’s like paying a Euro extra for a drink that comes with first class seats) asked me what I wanted to do in his home city. I told him that we like to see the countryside but didn’t have a lot of time, but ideally would rent a motorcycle. He pretty much on the spot offered us his.
Two days later we were on a train out to his house on the top of the mountain outside of the city. Constantly when we travel I have the feeling that life is a funny thing, and this was one of those times. Meeting a stranger to ride his motorcycle in a strange land. And I’m not too sure about the directions, but we seem to do fine in these situations.
And that’s what happened. Well, he borrowed his son’s crotch rocket and I took his giant BMW and we strolled around Hungary and Slovakia. We met at his place up in the mountains, which was awesome in itself. And when he took off blowing by cars despite the downhill descent, I knew I was in for a rush. I can confirm that both bikes go very fast.
The hospitality of people floors me. I also think that people appreciate others being genuinely curious about knowing a history they hold close.
The longest freaking firework show of my entire freaking life
That night we took the train into town and hiked up one of the hills in the city over looking the river. The perfect spot really, overlooking the center of the city and where the fireworks originate on the river. It was a national holiday – Saint Stephen’s Day. Anyways, we sat on a hill and waited for the show to start around 9pm. And when it did, it didn’t end.
I’m not kidding you. It started and was awesome, so naturally I turned on my little video camera. I put that sucker on my knee and watched. After 20 minutes it ran out of memory on the SD card. No joke. So I got out the iPhone and switched that to video and started recording. You can have a 20 minute firework video without the grand finale!
Yea, then that ran out of batteries after 5 minutes. People were leaving at this point. A mom and kid walked down the hill to find a bathroom and came back after a bit. No other firework experience from China to New York is this freaking long.
My local friend said it used to be an hour long but they cut back for budget reasons. An hour? It’s awesome, don’t get me wrong, but an hour is a bit much.
A friend who I met in Charlottesville is dating a girl in Budapest and was there on one of his longer summer visits. She had musician friends playing at a ruin pub. “A what pub?” It’s exactly what it sounds like, a building that was in ruins is now a pub. It’s super hip and like no pub I’ve seen (not that I’ve seen a lot). It was multiple rooms on multiple floors. Concrete and decorated with things you would expect to find in soviet ruins.
Packed with people we made our way to the local band singing traditional songs. It was a pretty sweet experience. The place we went was Szimpla (website here).
Around the city
The fact of the mater is, with or without these experiences, we would have loved Budapest. It’s gorgeous. Overlooking the river from a castle and looking at the beautiful architecture. Wow.
Basically, west of the river is hilly. East of the river is flat and what I would consider downtown.
The castle and church on the west side of the river (up by the Hilton) are a must but hardly where I would spend all day. Although, this is the best view of the parliament building, which is one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Europe. It’s not actually built in the baraque period, which is a bit of a buzz kill, but it’s still worth the view.
There is a boat used for public transport too that goes up and down the river. This may be worth it for the views as well.
If you use the InterContinental as your starting point, or call that city center, just to the north east of there is one of my favorite parts of the city. Grand old buildings and a happening lunch and night life. The food is well priced, and the people are out late.
This city is great for hotel options. Let me go over how I’d go about booking hotels in this city:
- BRG a free night at the IC Budapest.
- Radisson Blu for 9,000 points. 2nd night free with Club Carlson card.
- BRG the Hilton if it’s at $96. You’ll get it for $46. Gold members should get lounge access, which overlooks the river.
- BRG the Hilton Westend if it’s at $74. You’ll get it for $24.
- The Le Meriden is only 10,000 SPG points.
My opinion on the hotels:
- The IC isn’t a stunning luxury hotel but it’s a great hotel from location to service. It’s on T&Ls top 500 hotels this year.
Location: It’s the best Overlooking the river, the bridge goes across to the Royal Palace and it’s in city center.
- Didn’t step foot in the Le Meridien but it’s because I can’t justify 1 night for the price of an AA domestic flight when I can get the Radisson Blu for 9,000 Club Carlson points.
Location: Super ideal. Very central, just not on the river. In some ways, more ideal than the IC.
- The Radisson Blu is indeed cheaper but it is… dated. I’m being kind here. It is really dated. The standard rooms are simply 2-3 star hotel quality. But the Deluxe rooms they seem to give Gold members are much nicer and huge. Ours had a view of the street too. Great upgrade all around, still not a great hotel.
Location: still in the city center. It’s a great location to get out and explore my favorite part of town. It’s about as far out as I would want to go though. I’d prefer to be slightly closer to the river.
- The Hilton I hear is slightly dated but nice. When I go back and if I get a BRG I’ll stay up there for a night.
Location: a great tourist spot to see the touristy castle. I’m not sure I would want to spend all my time there. But still beautiful, like I said.
- The Marriott, from the outside it looks like it needs a redoing. Unfortunately it’s a category 6 and I can’t use my cat 5 cert. No go for me.
Location: Also on the river, just slightly south. I’d favor the IC but same same.
- The Hilton Westend; Location: on the same road as the Radisson Blu and closer to the river, but further north than I would want to be. Similar to the Radisson but I may slightly prefer the Radisson. Same same though.
That’s too much detail on where, so I won’t go over every hotel.
Personally, we stayed at the IC and Radisson Blu. The IC for free (BRG) and the Radisson Blu for 9,000 points for two nights. We did that twice. So 18,000 points for four nights. I find this deal really hard to beat. It’s basically 4,500 points a night for a (really old) Radisson Blu in a decent location. The hotel has some prestige in the city too.
However, I can not stress enough that the standard rooms are 2 star hotel rooms. That being said, for an extra 4,500 points (13,500) you can book a Business room… which I think is the room we got. Plus, it comes with breakfast.
We may or may not go back this month, again. Yet, I’m really thinking about looking into a month somewhere downtown. I imagine it would be a perfect place in the spring.