Budapest Rebounds

New Yorkers — I mean the dyed-in-the-wool, old-school, real New Yawkers — are fiercely loyal to their city, in good times and bad. Sure, today it’s all family-friendly Times Square and trendy Tribeca eateries and artsy-hipster Brooklyn. But I remember a time when Times Square was one big seedy sex shop, muggers outnumbered tourists on the subway, and the city was hard to love. And yet, New Yorkers cling to a strange nostalgia for that old, unlovable metropolis.

I have a similar nostalgia for Budapest. It’s easy to be head-over heels for Budapest these days:


But on my first visit, in 1999, the story was very different. Budapest was grimy and intimidating. Hulking, soot-covered buildings loomed over exhaust-choked highways. Everything was dirty. And the people — with their bushy mustaches and impenetrable language — seemed gruff and shell-shocked.

Only after returning home did I realize that, of all the places I visited on that trip, Budapest had really gotten under my skin. It wasn’t just that Budapest had “potential.” It was a great city all along. It was just going through a rough patch — and you had to work a little harder to appreciate its greatness.

That trip began my love affair with Budapest, which continued as I began to guide Rick Steves tours there, and researched and wrote the Rick Steves Eastern Europe and Rick Steves Budapest guidebooks. I found Budapest unique in how, no matter how often or how long I visited, I always left wanting more. With each visit, my Budapest “to do” list got longer, not shorter. It still does.


After a few visits, I began to relish the little slices of Budapest life. I got giddy walking through the grimy underpasses that sprawl beneath major intersections. Each one was a thriving delta of infrastructure where the subway system flowed up broken escalators into snarls of trams, buses, and cars. Standing still in a mosh pit of commuters, I was surrounded by ramshackle food stalls, panhandlers, and confusing signage…a happy ant in a busy anthill. Inhaling a pungent mix of sweet pastries, diesel-tinged subway exhaust, and stale urine, I felt alive in a way that only travel makes you feel.

I’ve long used Budapest as my barometer of someone’s travel chops. If a person is turned off by Budapest…well, I’m not saying they’re a “bad traveler.” I’m just saying I probably won’t plan a trip with them. But if someone comes back from Budapest raving, I know we’re in sync. I remember once, co-leading a tour with a Czech guide who was born and raised in Prague, I finally confessed: “You know, I like Prague, but I have to admit…I like Budapest even more.” “Of course!” he said, without hesitation. “Of course you do. I do, too.”

But the Budapest litmus test is less useful than it once was. Budapest has fully transformed itself. Once a diamond in the rough, today the city is a sparkling gem. Grandiose, late-19th-century architecture has been scrubbed of grime and returned to greatness. Check out these images — taken just a few years apart — of the glorious Széchenyi Baths complex in City Park:



Back on my early visits, even the city’s “showcase” walking and shopping street, Váci utca, was pretty glum:


But today — while it’s so thronged with tourists that I can barely stand to go there — at least it’s gorgeous:


At the same time, the transit system has been overhauled, revamping the old metro stations and building several new, futuristic ones.


Those seedy underpasses? They’ve been fully renovated. International chains have elbowed out the mom-and-pop vendors, and the signage is now crystal clear. (But deep down, I miss the old chaos.)

Meanwhile, the city has undertaken an ambitious master plan (funded largely by the EU…are you paying attention, Brexiters?) to re-surface and pedestrianize many formerly car-clogged streets and squares in the city center. It has been a smashing success.




And Budapest’s stately Parliament building — once surrounded by a ramshackle square of broken concrete, overgrown parks, and ragtag monuments — has been polished and completely relandscaped, leaving it gleaming. Before:




It’s clear: Budapest — so hard to love for so long — is finally coming into its own. And, while I may miss some of its old rough edges, there’s no doubt that today’s Budapest is a city that anyone can (and should) enjoy. My next few posts will introduce you to various facets — beyond the obvious tourist traps — of my favorite European capital. It has some of Europe’s best nightlife, bars, cafés, and creative ways to simply hang out. It’s the undisputed best foodie city in Eastern Europe (and, for me, is one of the best in all of Europe). Its thermal bath culture is a prefect mix of relaxing and culturally enlightening. And its current political reality is fascinating and instructive.

Stay tuned…and prepare to be surprised by one of travel’s best-kept secrets.


10 Replies to “Budapest Rebounds”

  1. Cameron, Budapest has been on my list for awhile. I’m happy to know that it is now on the schedule for next fall (along with Croatia).

    Thank you for the beautiful images, (mental and otherwise)!

  2. Really enjoyed this post. I’ll be visiting Budapest this November and am looking forward to seeing some of these sites. Thank you.

  3. Thank you, Cameron. Was in Budapest in May for 4 days. If everything works right, I’ll be back to stay for a month. A most wonderful city! There is so much that I didn’t see and do. And, yes, the food scene is amazing!

  4. We visited Budapest 7 years ago and loved everything about it. The people are friendly, the city beautiful and the sights just amazing. We hope to return.

  5. My wife is Hungarian and we have a second residence, after Vancouver, in UjPest which is the end station for metro line 3. Biking is much improved over the years and about 90% of my route downtown, which takes 30 minutes, is along off road and separate bike paths.

    Lots to love about the city

    1. Romai Part (Roman riverbank), which is just across the Danube from us, is a collection of about 30 to 40 eating outlets … I say outlets because they all give a view out over the river. You bike right thru it on the way to Szentendre.

    2. Hospital in the Rock, constructed under Buda Castle by 1939 and used by medical staff to tend the wounded during the Soviet siege in 1944-45, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It opened as a museum in 2008.

    3. Kiraly Thermal Bath – a 500 year old Ottoman Bath which didn’t get the same renovation as Rudas and thus cheaper and less touristed.

    4. Josefvaros. The center of Jewish life before the holocaust when Jews constituted 23% of the city population. 600,000 Hungarian Jews, the second highest number in Europe after Poland, were butchered during the last year of the war. The Synagogue is the largest in Europe and “Ruin Pubs” – like Szimpla Kert – are an interesting eating experience.

    5. Get out an hike in Buda Hills or take a bus up the Danube to hike some more in the hills around Domos.

  6. Hi Cameron, Budapest has been my favorite city since 2009. Love it and cannot get enough! Luckily I now live in Europe so the visits will be more frequent! I enjoy reading your books and discoveries of the city…. so keep up the good work and happy travels!

  7. My husband and I (US citizens) have lived in Budapest for the past seven years. The city has certainly improved during that time as somewhat of a showplace for Central Europe — and I agree, far more appealing place to visit than Prague. BUT, cosmetics cannot hide what you can find is you look closer — rampant political corruption, historical myopia and distortion, reduced civil rights, and Fascist Sympathizers running Parliament. Hungary is a perfect accompaniment to this newsletter’s other topics on Brexit and History for Tourists. The EU rhetoric: “keep out of our country, but keep EU money flowing in; Hungary for Hungarians” (as they leave in droves). On history: “Let’s ignore it, re-write it, and rehabilitate former Nazi and Arrow Cross sympathizers.” By all means, visit that newly scrubbed Parliament but look for history re-written in its new WPA-style statues. While you are there, don’t overlook the perfectly dreadful Szsbadsag ter where guards must protect the WWII “victims” monument while they can now open up the Soviet War memorial on the same square. Tours won’t take you to the “Shoes” memorial at the water’s edge – perhaps the most poignant and accurate of all monuments anywhere. Believe me, calls for a return to the Pre-Trianon borders are alive and well in Hungary (and visible in Budapest). And while you are at it, you can still enjoy the gritty metro stops if you avoid the new Metro #4. Line #3 still retains the Soviet-era cars if you can stand the heat in the summer – the repair of which is a current scandal of Swiss bank account proportions. The mentioned Vaci utca is only for river cruise passengers; locals avoid it like the plague. Come, but come with your eyes open and your minds alive for what the guides don’t say. The bottom line on Hungarian psyche is, as we like to say, the result of the country that has not been on the winning side of a war in 500 years.

  8. Am sitting on Lanchid this morning at my hotel & I just had to gives my thumbs up for Budapest. My husband & I have been in Hungary now for 2 weeks & have found the country very charming & beautiful, we spent a week in Heviz, thermal resort area south of Budapest & found it quiet, friendly & very enjoyable. Then we met a Hungarian friend who took us to Villany wine country for some great wine & beautiful scenery. We are now finishing a 3-day stop in Budapest before leaving on a river cruise. We have enjoyed every minute of the country & once we got the taxi crooks worked out, we have enjoyed Parliament, the House of Terror, Chain Bridge, Hungarian food & wine. Will return.

  9. I will be in Budapest for two weeks in October, after spending a week in Prague. I’ve been reading everything I can about Hungary, and I already know that I am not going to want to leave!

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