It’s weird to think that back in New Mexico, I would be almost half-way through the semester, and here in Austria, I haven’t even started all my classes yet. The semester officially started last week, but it turns out most of my classes don’t meet until this week. I had two classes last Wednesday, but the rest of the week was free, so I decided to take a trip.
I opened up Google Maps, and zoomed out until I could see the surrounding countries. To the east of Austria, I saw Hungary, and next to the big black dot that indicated the capital city, I saw Budapest. I started googling pictures of Budapest and things to do in Budapest, and a few hours later, I was looking at train tickets. I was set on going to Hungary.
I’ve travelled alone a few times before. I took a day trip to LA to get my Austrian visa, I spent a day wandering around London during a long layover, and I’ve gone by myself to meet friends and family in many different countries. I’ve never gone anywhere alone, though, just to experience the place for more than a day. So this was my first time!
I think my main concern was safety. I hear all these horror stories and I’ve seen the movie “Taken,” and that’s always what I thought of when I thought of a girl traveling by herself. But after doing a lot of research, I did not find even one solo female traveler that said safety in Budapest was a concern.
Don’t get me wrong, you have to be careful and you always have to be conscious and aware. I always take those precautions, though. Watch for pickpockets in crowded areas, keep your stuff secure while you are sleeping on trains, don’t go down dark empty alleys, don’t go out with some guys you just met and get inebriated, etc. It really is common sense stuff.
From someone who carries pepper spray at all times in Albuquerque, uses the police escort service to get back to the dorms from the library late at night, and who is constantly looking around and on edge whether filling up gas or simply walking to my car after getting groceries, I felt 100% safe and secure at almost every single point of my 3 day excursion.
And with that, I’ll talk about my trip.
I live right next to the train station in Graz, so on Thursday morning, I grabbed my backpack, walked less than five minutes, and got on a train that took me directly to Budapest in less than five hours.
It looks kind of eerie, right? There was no one else on the train for the first few stops, but as I was falling in and out of sleep, I noticed more and more people getting on. Within a couple of hours, we had crossed the Hungarian border, and the train came to a complete stop.
This was probably the most worried I got on the entire trip. I checked my ticket, and it said the train was direct, so I didn’t understand why it had stopped moving and everyone had gotten off. I looked around, and everything was written in Hungarian. I also thought about exiting the train to ask for help, but I didn’t want the train to take off without me.
I was getting pretty worried looking around inside the train and outside the windows to see if I could find anyone to help me. Then all of a sudden, I heard a familiar sound behind me.
“Excuse me,” a woman asked me.
It was English! I turned around and I realized she had the Hungarian ticket master next to her. “Do you speak English?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I replied, and before I could say anything else, the Hungarian ticket master took a breath and started rambling in Hungarian. It wasn’t just a simple question, it seemed that he was explaining a situation to me because he kept talking for a few very long seconds.
He must have thought I would be able to translate from Hungarian to English for them, which I would have never been able to do, but I was thankfully able to do the next best thing.
I looked at the ticket master confused, and he slowly started realizing I didn’t speak Hungarian. There was awkward silence between the three of us until I looked back at the ticket master and asked, “Deutsch?”
He nodded enthusiastically.
His German actually was far from perfect, but I was able to understand that the lady was asking him if she was on the right train. I was then able to let her know that she wasn’t. After the lady’s question was answered, I asked whether I was on the right train going to Budapest, and he informed me that I was, and that the train would be departing again in another fifteen minutes.
I sat down, relieved. I used German a few more times on my trip as well. I learned that many of the older generation Hungarians speak some German, while many of the younger generation speak some English. When someone didn’t speak any English, they usually knew at least a little bit of German, and that’s how I was able to communicate in Hungary without knowing a single word of Hungarian.
Once I got to Budapest, I started making my way to my hostel. It was in a great location right in the center of the Jewish Quarter, which is where all the action is. I took the subway and walked a few minutes down a crowded and vibrant street where I found my hostel tucked away in a corner between a convenience store and a kabob stand.
The hostel was really nice. I had roommates from Iran, Australia, and England, who were all there traveling around either for a few days like me, or as part of a longer Europe trip. I had paid a little extra to get an all girls hostel room, but it was still less than 20 euros per night. I was surprised at how affordable it was because it was a great location and a very nice, clean hostel. It wasn’t until later that I learned it’s because Hungary is actually a very poor country. The average income is about 600 euros per month, which means for people from places like Western Europe or the United States, everything in Hungary is really cheap.
I initially arrived at the hostel a little too early to check in, so they handed me a map and a flier for free walking tours, and told me they could hold my backpack for a few hours until the room was ready. Usually when I go places, I’m with other people so we wander the streets, we get something to eat, or we go to a couple museums. Most of the time, I don’t go on organized tours because it’s usually overpriced and I have found it boring in the past.
I figured I’d give these walking tours a shot because I didn’t have any other plans, and they were free. The tour guides make their livings entirely off tips, so you aren’t required to pay at all if you don’t want to (although they did such a good job I don’t think anyone actually didn’t tip). They also had a slogan on the brochure that said “come as strangers leave as friends,” so I thought maybe I’d meet some people to hang out with, and I did!
There were several different types of tours including everything from urban art tours to bar tours. I took two of these tours during my time in Budapest, and each were about 3 hours. The first one I did was a general Budapest tour, and the second one was a tour about the communist times in Budapest, which I did on the last day I was there.
I did the general tour of Budapest as soon as I arrived, which gave me an overview of the Budapest area. Budapest was originally two cities separated by the Danube River. The city Buda was west of the river, and Pest was east of the river, but in the late 1800’s they were united as one city, which has since been known as Budapest. Budapest is pronounced Buda-“pesht“, by the way. They don’t like when people say “pest” because it’s not exactly a nice word in English. The Pest side is where I stayed. The energy levels are higher, and it’s where all the hostels, bars, and restaurants are. It’s also very flat when compared to the hilly Buda side. The Buda side is known as the “fancier” side. It’s where the famous Fisherman’s Bastion and the Buda Castle is.
Here is the view from the Buda side over to the Pest side.
And some more pictures from the top of Castle Hill on the Buda side.
Although we didn’t get to see everything on the walking tour, the tour guide gave us a lot of suggestions on where to go and what to do. On the tour, I learned about some of the main highlights of Budapest.
**The Great Market Hall**– A big two-story indoor market with food on the bottom floor and other goods (souvenirs, clothes, etc.) on the top floor that is open everyday from early morning until late afternoon. It was really nice until around midday when it got super crowded and I could barely move.
The tour guide also mentioned the **Thermal Baths**, which I didn’t have a chance to visit. They are supposed to be really beautiful, and there are even some Turkish baths from when the Ottomans were in Hungary.
I also learned about **The Ruin Bars**, which are really cool bars throughout the city with a very interesting history. During communist times, the government, which owned most of the buildings, was running out of money to maintain them. A lot of the buildings were in such terrible condition after the Russians left, that it would have cost more to renovate them than to knock them down. Well, a few artists bought the buildings for a very low price and did the minimum needed work to transform them into super cool bars and pubs. I went and checked one of the most famous ones, Szimpla, with a couple of girls I met on the tour.
Here is what the outside looked like:
And then on the inside:
I had a lot of fun with my friends from the tour (here we are above), and I even met up with them again the next evening at the **New York Cafe**! It’s a very nice cafe that actually has some Hungarian foods and desserts despite the name. I also really enjoyed the hot lemonade. I’m not entirely sure what was in it, but it was delicious.
The guide also suggested other walking tours, specifically the one about communism, which I did on my last day in Budapest. I learned a lot about the history of Hungary on this tour. For the past few hundred years, Hungary has constantly been occupied and then “liberated” by the Ottomans, the Nazis, and then most recently, the Russians. The Russians introduced their communist regime, which the Hungarian people are still recovering from today. Hungary has only been a democracy since the early 90’s, which is really crazy to think about. Most of the time when we study history, it’s events that have occurred before our lifetimes, but most adults in Hungary remember the communist times very clearly because they lived through them. They lived with several other families in one apartment, they were constantly worried about spies and the secret police ratting them out, they had limited opportunities to travel outside other communist countries, and living conditions were terrible. In theory with communism, everyone is supposed to be equal, but the government was running out of money while still trying to maintain a certain quality of life for the people, and a better quality of life for the “more equal” heads of government. We were also told on the tour about **The House of Terror**, which is the building where the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi Party was during World War II, and the Secret Police during the communist era. These headquarters were transformed into a very interesting museum.
The communism walking tour, and especially The House of Terror, was a lot more serious and dark than the overview of Budapest walking tour, but I’m glad I went. I learned a lot of history, and a lot about communism that I unfortunately didn’t really learn much about in school. I took world history once my sophomore year of high school, and all I remember is Thomas Paine wrote “Common Sense.” The tour really made me appreciate history and how important it is. Maybe I didn’t learn enough about it in school, but the good thing is it’s never too late to learn now.
Being in Budapest was really fun because even though I was alone, I never really felt like I was. I had a really good time getting to know the friends I met on the first tour I went on. I had an interesting talk with my roommate who felt an identity crisis as an immigrant from Iran, and I talked to my other roommates about the differences between life in England and the US. I even met a nice French girl on the communism tour who was working in Germany, and we walked the streets and hung out for a while too. Probably the most bizarre thing that happened, though, was I ran into my neighbors from Roswell one of the nights. We went on a nice river cruise and dinner with them that evening and it was really nice to catch up with them (what are the chances, right?)
The one day I spent almost entirely by myself, was because I wanted to. I wanted to go exploring and shopping and to sit in a cafe for 3 hours without anyone pressuring me to get up. I got some new boots while shopping around, tried a lot of pastries at the market, and just had some time to myself to think. It’s nice that my classes haven’t really started, so there’s nothing that I’m supposed to be doing. It seems like my whole life I’ve always had something to be stressed about, but I had absolutely no worries in Budapest. I just let my mind wander wherever it wanted, because for once it had no where to be.