New York Times journalist Seth Kugel chose an interesting (and let’s admit it, enviable) way to travel. In the column Frugal Traveler, he picks a destination and, before setting sail, puts a daily limit on his wallet and tries to get the most out of this fixed budget.
Recently he decided to give Budapest a try, allowing himself to spend as much as a hundred dollars per day (HUF 22,573 on the day we looked: Editor). While this might seem quite a lot from a local perspective, with the Hungarian monthly minimum wage being barely four times this amount, for the average tourist this is a somewhat tight limitation, considering the need for accommodation and catering on top of the regular daily expenses. If we think about it, a hundred bucks would not last long elsewhere: Kugel mentions that in London it’d buy a night in some third-class motel – and not much else.
Here in Budapest though, he was amazed that he could afford a large, comfy room at the four-and-a-half-star Mamaison Hotel Andrássy and had more than enough left to enjoy the best that Budapest has to offer. With the hotel room paid for and equipped with a weekly transit pass, he had still more than HUF 6,000 left for expenses – and he decided to spend it well.
The city is famous for its thermal baths, so it seemed obvious for Kugel to start off at the Veli bej bath near Margit Bridge that was renewed beautifully by the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God. From what was left he could still get a cheap ticket to the State Opera House to see Johann Strauss’ operetta “The Bat”. The theater was half empty, which got Kugel contemplating about the locals not being able to afford these tickets.
It is hard to decide if this is the sorrowful explanation or if it is a better explanation than the truth being a lack of demand for higher culture. However, for him this only meant that he could move to a better seat, and even though the surtitles’ timing was a bit off, it was a time well spent for him, especially considering the three hundred pounds he would have spent on a Royal Opera House ticket for a similar seat in London.
Oddly enough, his next stop was District VIII, which can equally be a surprisingly great or a bad choice depending on local knowledge and a bit of luck. After doing the compulsory shopping and visiting the Great Synagogue along with several beautiful buildings (thankfully, Budapest has no need to be ashamed about the number of its architectural sights), the night ended with a meal served at Frici Papa Kifőzdéje, in Király utca.
Of course, Kugel’s three-day visit in Budapest would not have been complete without the obligatory wine-tasting and visiting the city’s famous ruin pubs, all neatly fitting into the preset daily budget. The Faust Wine Cellar is recommended in multiple tourist guides, and Morrison’s Liget is an epicenter of Budapest nightlife along with Szimpla Kert, the city’s probably most famous ruin pub.
They are quite the usual choices of tourists who are paying a quick visit to the Hungarian capital, but these places have earned this recognition for a reason. After his visit in Budapest ended with such a good result, Kugel decided to take a shot at the Hungarian countryside as well by spending a weekend in Mezőberény.
It is a delightful sight that the capital attracts more and more foreign visitors and exchange students each year, not to mention that an increasing number of them recommend Budapest in blogs and newspapers. Interestingly, Hungarians are grumbling about the same exact factors that make visiting foreigners frequently return to the country.
To illustrate this, the younger visitors – exchange students, school groups or just friends looking for a good time – praise the city for its quick and accessible public transport, the abundance of ruin pubs with cheap beer on tap and the delicious local food. Sadly enough, a ride on any random public transport vehicle will yield more than enough criticism of the list above overheard from the locals.
This begs the question: is everything this relative or is it the traditional Hungarian pessimism? While of course everything is a matter of viewpoints, to be fair – even if within stricter limits – everyone can enjoy Budapest the way Seth Kugel did.
It took some time for Budapest to be recognised by foreign visitors, not only for its relatively low price range but more importantly for the many ways of fulfillment it has to offer both culturally and culinary. Thankfully, the city is aspiring to be one of the most popular destinations of tourists as the number of visitors is increasing steadily (although slowly) each year.
It seems that the importance of tourism only became recognised lately in Hungary, so let’s hope that Budapest is well prepared for the visitors, because there is nothing worse than a beautiful city with a lot of interesting sights to see being unequipped with the necessary services to introduce the capital to the tourists.