On September 26, I left Budapest after a wonderful three-month stay. I flew to Bangkok, where I stayed for a week, and then to Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand.
I came to Budapest to lead a web redesign project for the Central European University Library. It was fun to be back in the website design business again after a few years of focusing on mobile apps. (I was web manager for the MIT Libraries for quite a few years). And I enjoyed working with my librarian colleagues at the CEU Library.
Now that it’s late October, I’m finally getting around to writing about what it was like in Budapest! Later I’ll write about my Thailand experiences — I’m also enjoying it here.
Budapest — what I found interesting
I had very little experience of Europe and surrounding regions before I came. I had been to Riga, Latvia (in 1985), and London (in 2006), but other than that all my travels have been to places like Mexico, Canada, Ecuador, Russia, India, and around the U.S. So some of these comments reflect that lack of experience in Europe. I hope to see much more of Europe in future years.
So here’s my random list of observations:
- The buildings everywhere felt tall, majestic, and very, very old to me. (coming from Boston, which feels old compared to other parts of the U.S. — but now Boston seems so new!)
- There are so many different architectural styles and interesting historic buildings.
- The Danube is extremely beautiful. And so are the bridges.
- There are many good spots with amazing panoramic views: Fisherman’s Bastion, top of the National Gallery, and the top of St. Stephen’s Basilica were my favorites.
- It was very hot and humid in the summer this year. (July, August, and half of September)
- There were gelato stands on almost every block, which was appealing on those hot summer days.
- It’s very walkable. I loved that.
- Public transportation is very convenient. Busses run frequently. The metro is fast and easy to navigate. On some lines they announce stops in both Hungarian and English. The metro cars were very clean and modern (compared to some in the U.S. which can feel dingy and dirty!) One type of ticket works for everything, including busses, trams, metro, boats, suburban rail — everything. I bought a monthly pass, which was much more convenient than the 10-packs of tickets you can buy.
I used Uber a couple of times to come home late at night and that was very convenient as well, since the driver automatically gets my location on his smartphone (no need to worry about the language barrier) and the payment automatically charges to my credit card. And it’s cheap (I paid about $3 for a ride within the city).
- Many of the escalators down to the metro are very speedy — much faster than in the U.S.
- There are many cute Vespa motor scooters around. And lots of people ride bicycles everywhere.
- It was easy to get by with only a few words of Hungarian — either people spoke English, or if they didn’t, it seemed that knowing a few words was enough for most interactions in stores and coffee shops — you can understand a lot by context and gesture. There were English language signs at tourist spots and on many restaurant menus.
- People in Hungary don’t seem to smile much. In Thailand people smile all the time.
- Prices are cheaper than Boston for food and public transportation and much cheaper for movies, concerts, and most live events.
- There are a lot of small health food stores, with many imported products from Germany and the UK. It was hard to read labels because many times a sticker in Hungarian would cover the English list of ingredients. Google Translate helped with that. I was shopping and cooking at home most days.
- Drugstores usually have a section of natural food products (boxed items like tea, cereals, and rice). You wouldn’t see that in the U.S.
- You can use your credit card in most shops and stores, except for very small ones that only take cash. I have a credit card with no international transaction fees, and it accumulates points for travel, so I like to use it as much as possible.
- There are many, many good coffee shops with free wi-fi everywhere.
- The internet connection at the university and in my apartment (which was also on the university network, since it was their building), was extremely fast and reliable.
- It’s possible to eat all kinds of food in Budapest: Mexican, Thai, Middle Eastern, etc. Since most Hungarian food doesn’t have many vegetarian options, I enjoyed all the other options.
- Sweets and cakes are very popular and are featured in big display cases in restaurants and coffee shops.
- There is a lot of “hip” culture, like the ruin pubs, “foodie” restaurants, trendy coffee shops, and small design shops. And the Sziget music festival is very fun (though it was very hot on the day I went). I especially enjoyed hearing DakhaBrakha from Ukraine. Here are my photos of the festival (with a couple of videos, if you want to hear DakhaBrakha).
- Food trucks are a thing — reminds me of Portland, OR.
- There is some really good street art on the sides of certain buildings.
- There are many independent movie houses and it’s possible to see quite a few movies in English with Hungarian subtitles, and a few in Hungarian with English subtitles. I enjoyed going to Urania National Movie Theatre and Művész. You can find websites that list the English-language screenings.
- There are a lot of used clothing stores and thrift shops.
- The Esceri Flea Market is amazing and fun to wander through. It’s like a trip through the early 20th century. See more photos in my album on Flickr: Esceri Flea Market.
- There are many bookstores. Print books are still very popular. Alexandra Bookstore is in a beautiful building with a very ornate cafe on the second floor. And there is a good English-language bookstore near Central European University, called Bestsellers.
- The street signs on the sides of buildings are pretty and ornate.
- There are lots of interesting fonts and typefaces used on signs and Hungarian has a lot of accent marks on the letters.
- They seem to use a lot of exclamation points on signs and advertisements! Everywhere!!
- Budapest is definitely a hotspot for digital nomads. There is an active Facebook group (Budapest Digital Nomads), and I went to a meetup and met other digital nomads — that was really fun. Now some of those same people are here in Thailand and we’re meeting up again.
- It was great to see that in spite of right-wing, xenophobic politics, there is still plenty of remembrance of important events in history. The Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial commemorates those who were shot by Nazis in WWII. The Holocaust Memorial Center is worth a visit, and the old Jewish quarter has memorials, showing the boundaries of the ghetto during WWII. Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, has several statues and memorials around town. The apartments I lived in were named after him.
- I was there during the waves of refugees coming into Hungary, especially at Keleti train station. It was great to see Hungarians organizing to provide food, water, and free wi-fi. A group from the university I was working at managed the free wi-fi project at the train station. See photos of the project on their Tumblr blog: Wifi charging initiative at Keleti. Scroll down to the posts from September for the best photos.
So during July, August, and September, I had a great time and enjoyed Budapest very much! It’s a very beautiful, livable city, with lots of arts and culture. There is a lot more that I didn’t see, especially in the surrounding area. Next time I come, I hope to avoid the hot, humid weather by choosing fall or spring for my visit.
In case you’re going to Budapest, here’s one of my favorite sites for finding out about places to go and things to do: WeLoveBudapest.com.
I feel lucky to be a digital nomad and able to combine online work with slow travel, so I can experience a place for longer than I would on a quick vacation.
Here are a few more photos of beautiful buildings.