I was in Budapest for 100 hours. The first two nights, I settled in at the Park Inn by Radisson, which is 5 kilometers north of the city center. That room was the biggest I have seen so far on my world tour. There is a massive area free of any furniture. My two nights also have a plain complimentary breakfast included, and I have seen a Slovakian youth ice hockey team at the hotel.
Although I was unfortunately scammed out of $12 by my lone taxicab ride in Budapest, the bright side is that I discovered there is a gigantic Tesco Extra immediately behind my hotel. At the end of my second night, I bought a bunch of junk food. This grocery store was as large and clean as any I have ever seen. Under this Tesco roof was a salon and several other stores. Bizarrely, there was a separate convenience store, despite there being a massive grocery department. The place was overwhelming, even for this American who is used to supersized grocery stores. It had everything one could ever want. Having been traveling constantly and in the middle of city centers, it has been more than two months since I have seen a normal grocery store. Seeing the selection and paying rock-bottom prices was like an oasis in this frozen city. Everything was modern, even the many checkout counters. I saw a large bank of eight self-checkout kiosks.
The first day, I walked more than 15 kilometers all around the city. I stopped into several cafes and Starbucks to access Wi-Fi and thaw from effective temperatures as low as -13 °C. It has been years since I have spent this many hours in weather this cold. The standing temperature is tolerable, but the wind is biting. I do not have full winter clothes either, layering several t-shirts with a sweatshirt and a peacoat.
I seem to say this with every city I visit, but it is true that Budapest is aesthetically magnificent. It has elements of Paris, Praha, and Wien, in terms of architecture, walkability, and the width of the avenues. The prices are extremely similar to those of Praha so everything is affordable, even getting scammed by a taxicab driver. Much of the architecture is quasi-Gothic and medieval. The buildings are low to the ground, with the tallest being the Parlament.
The Danube River bisects Budapest into two sides. Buda is on the west side. Pest is on the right side. Most of the tourist hotels and walking happens on the Pest side, but Buda is worth visiting too, with the charming Castle Hill. Wien sits on the Danube River too, but I never saw the water there because it does not bisect the city like it does here in Budapest. I can imagine how pleasant it would be to walk along the water, which I have done for a few kilometers, but the wind is brutal. I have crossed at least three of the bridges, which I like using in all of Europe.
As in Praha, I ate a healthy, fairly luxurious meal for less than $15. Budapest is modern and clean, like Praha. The only thing that is dirty are the Budapesti metró subway trains, which may be the oldest system in the world. The outside of the trains are dirty, but the inside is cleaner and better than New York subway cars. Each fare is $1.34. Like everywhere else in Europe, there is a system of honor validation. However, there is usually an employee checking the validation, which defeats the purpose of the honor system! I have also observed the fastest escalators in the world in Budapest. I have always noted that escalators need to be much faster, as they run at the same speeds as when they were first introduced. No other technology runs at the same introductory speed. Some of these escalators are so fast that getting on one is not too different from hopping on an already accelerating treadmill, without the benefit of a gradual warm-up.
My first full day in Budapest, I trekked more than an hour to the Pálvölgyi Cave. I was given instructions to use public transit, but the infrequency and waiting for buses made that option unpalatable so I walked and saw parts of the city I would not have otherwise, climbing a decent hill on the way. The weather is well below freezing. I crossed the Danube River using four different bridges, and the views are majestic, although the wind can be biting.
My cave tour cost only $23. I have never been caving, and although this was introductory, some of the passages seemed so tight for a beginner. I am extremely slight of build, and I felt like I barely squeezed through some crevices. We were down there for more than two hours, getting to 50 meters below the surface. I imagine we actually did not cover much distance since one can only go so far on all fours, or crawling on one’s back and stomach. There were eight of us and the English-speaking Hungarian guide, Loti. Loti was one of the fastest speakers of English I have ever heard.
At one point in the cave, we all turned off our headlamps to imagine how dark it can get. I thought of the occasional mining accidents where people are trapped for days. The psychological burden would be crushing, not to mention the physical aspects of oxygen, water, and food. It is also the closest to claustrophobia I have felt. There was an energetic 10-year-old kid, and he was caving quite easily, owing to his small size. We all hit out helmets on the rock quite often. The spaces were extremely tight. The cave is also extremely dusty. You could see dust particles in the light from the headlamps. It was a unique experience that I would recommend. Several times, the guide would point to a spot in the wall, and say that we were going through there, and I did not even see an opening until we got closer. The cracks seemed impossible small, yet somehow we fit with enough force and friction. I wonder how people even discover these caving paths though since they are not naturally formed for human passages. There are some crazy caving fanatics in the world.
On the caving tour, I met several French people in their 20s, with whom I would spent hours each of the following days in Budapest, including New Year’s Eve and Day. Their language skills were impressive, spanning beyond the normal Romance family into Asian languages. I was happy to use a lot of French after meeting this group of people.
We stopped at several cafes and restaurants. I did a lot of walking around Budapest but not too many tourist attractions. I wanted to ice skate in the big city park and take a public thermal bath, but I simply did not have enough time. On December 31, we walked on the Buda (West) side of the city, up and down Castle Hill. There is some spectacular architecture and of course, the postcard views of the Danube River and the Pest side. We went to Parliament one day for the French-speaking tour, but all the times were sold out in every language. Who knew that Parliament Building tours were so popular? One would be wise to reserve in advance. The tour must be great because there is always a surprising crowd for it. The building is gorgeous, in a Gothic Revival style.