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August 23, 2006

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                            BUDAPEST, HUNGARY

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Jó napot from Budapest! Hungary is the fourth and final stop of my jaunt through Central Europe. Not only am I touring with my childhood friends Matt and Mike on a very special trip, but Mike is getting married – and I’m the best man! Last week (here’s the link to the archives) we left off in Vienna, Austria, where we had only a couple of days to explore. In Hungary we had almost a week, so if you’re interested in checking out this beautiful city, hop on board! Our train is leaving, and Mike is waiting at the altar. If you’re in a hurry or have ADD, don’t worry; there’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week’s story.

Budapest is just a 2 hour and 50 minute train ride from Vienna. Because we traveled to multiple countries we used European East Pass, which we bought before we left the States from (I wrote about that at length a couple off weeks ago). However, purchasing a one-way ticket for this portion of the trip from RailEurope costs only $59.

It was quite emotional when we arrived at the Keleti (Eastern) international railway station. Watching Mike’s fiancée Henrietta run down the platform with tears in her eyes to greet him was almost like a scene from a classic movie. You can’t blame Henrietta. She’s originally from Hungary, hadn’t seen Michael for a couple weeks, and was so excited to share her country with his family and friends.

Before leaving the station I used the ATM machine to get some Monopoly money. The Hungarian currency is called the Hungarian Forint (HUF), and it comes in big bills. The current exchange rate is $1 = 216 HUF (I use for my currency converter). Hungary is not on the euro yet – they hope to be in 2009, or shortly thereafter.

My first impressions of Budapest did not start out well. First, the taxi drivers -- as in most Central European countries -- are crooks. When we stepped off of the train they all seemed so friendly to help with bags, but they were like hungry dogs as they waited for American passengers. They can spot us a mile away. We’re in a new place, and are not sure of local currency and customs. Can you believe they wanted $100 for the 10-minute drive to the city? If we didn’t have Henrietta to find a legitimate taxi (it even took her some time), we would have had to pony up or lug our oversized bags on public transport (metro, bus, tram, trolley). Those would’ve been the way to go if we packed light, because each of those modes of transport cost only 125 HUF ($0.55). TIP: To arrange a legitimate taxi, call City Taxi (tel. 36-1-211-1111) when you arrive, or have your hotel do it. They will send a driver. I hired City Taxi to pick up a friend at the airport. They charged only 4,500 HUF ($20) for the 20-30 minute ride. That’s at least half what an airport taxi would charge -- and they even held up a sign at arrivals.

With the bad taste of the sleazy taxi drivers fresh in my mouth, I soon learned that was only an appetizer. A few hours later we got scammed badly. This brilliant ripoff was so good, it fooled even seasoned travelers. I feel foolish, because on paper I should’ve known better, and it could easily have been avoided if I just read the US Embassy’s Budapest Advisory page. But looking at the bright side, this scam could’ve been a whole lot worse, and it taught me a valuable lesson. More importantly, it can be shared to save others. It’s a long story, but fortunately my friend Matt wrote about his experience. His account is both accurate and funny. It can be found on this page. (The short version: Don’t trust any girls who approach you -- and read the US Embassy Advisories before leaving home.

Budapest is made up of three cities: Buda, Pest and Óbuda. In 1873 they officially merged into Budapest. The city’s main attractions and most expensive hotels lie on the banks of the Danube River. Most of the hotels are in Pest (the flat side of the city, also known as the Right Bank). On the other side of the river is Buda, the Left Bank and the hilly side with Castle Hill (regarded as the most beautiful part of the city). Óbuda is located outside the city center north of Buda, and is not as interesting as the other two. Eight bridges link Buda and Pest -- five of them in the city center. The most famous is Széchenyi Chain Bridge. It’s called the Chain Bridge because the roadway is suspended from what looks like a huge bicycle chain. It was built in 1849, and rebuilt exactly a hundred years later (after the Nazis blew it up). The Chain Bridge is not even close to as beautiful as the Charles Bridge in Praha, but on summer weekends it shares some of the same excitement when it is closed to automobile traffic. That’s the best time to walk across, see beautiful views and sample local music and inexpensive food, in what looks like a small fair on both sides. To better understand Budapest, including its 22 districts (called kerülets, abbreviated as ker.), check out this link to Budapest review.

The ride from the train station (and the airport) made it seem like the city really isn’t that nice. However, once we got closer to our hotel, which lay on the banks of the Danube River, the entire feel of the city changed drastically. The view from my room was breathtaking – especially because the sun was setting. A few minutes later, when the sky got dark, lights lit up the city’s main attractions and the view became magical. For the best views, head to Gellért Hill. Go up once during the day and again at night, to see both perspectives. Don’t miss the Citadella (tel. 1-365-6076, also on Gellért Hill. It was built by the Habsburgs in the mid-19th century. I didn’t go inside to see its museum, budget hotel or restaurant because I was so mesmerized by its exterior. A short walk away is the statue of St. Gellért and the Liberation Monument. Both also offer views of the city. For more info visit

The Marriott hotel is listed as 5 stars. Although it was very nice and comfortable, it wasn’t quite worthy of that listing – particularly when compared to the 5-star Four Seasons a few blocks down the street. That might change, however, because the Marriott hotel just began a total refurbishment, to be completed by the end of 2007. What I liked about the hotel is that all 362 guest rooms overlook the Danube in the heart of Budapest (on the Pest side). The service was good, the elevators were fast, the lobby was plush and the hotel had high-speed internet (6500 HUF = $30 a day, or 1.900 HUF = $9 an hour). Off-season rack room rates start at $190 a night, but you can find cheaper prices on the internet (ahem… The HUF 5900 ($27) American breakfast buffet is not included. Budapest Marriott Hotel, Apaczai Csere Janos u. 4., Budapest, 1052 Hungary; tel.: 36-1-266-7000.

we had too many meals (including delicious goulash dishes) to list. You won’t have a difficult problem finding good local food. My two favorite restaurants were converted boats that no longer cruise, but are still located on the Danube River with great views.

Spoon Cafe & Lounge is just a few blocks from the Marriott, directly across from the Inter Continental. My favorite dish was definitely the cold Strawberry soup. It sounds nasty, and I was never a fan of cold soup, but I tried it. It was so ridiculously good I went back a second time. You have to love the Hungarians for mastering cold fruit soups. On a hot day they hit the spot. I don’t think anyone makes them better than the Hungarians. The menu is in both Hungarian and English. Spoon Cafe & Lounge, H-1052 Budapest, Vigadó tér, Pier 3; tel.: 36-1-411-0933.

The other place was the A38 Ship restaurant. Once a Ukrainian stone-carrier ship, this has been turned into a popular club and restaurant. For lunch I had another tasty cold soup. This time it was plum, and boy was it tasty! Don’t get me started – I’m starting to get hungry again! The menu was unique, and the service was good. The A38 Ship restaurant, tel.: 36-1-464-39- 46; email

You can’t miss the legendary Gerbeaud café. Built in 1858 and remodeled in 1997, it’s just a few blocks from the hotel and a block in from the Danube. This café serves delicious coffee, pastries, appetizers and ice cream. They boast they are the largest, most traditional and most famous café-confectioners in Europe. Gerbeaud House, 1051 Budapest, Vörösmarty tér 7.; tel.: 36-1- 429-9020.

There are so many attractions to see in Budapest, and each could have a book written about them – but I can’t do that. I’ll just briefly list and describe the ones I visited -- and I highly recommend a good guidebook. I used Frommer's Budapest & the Best of Hungary, but there are plenty others to choose from.

Don’t miss Castle Hill, the city’s most noticeable landmark. The easiest way to get there is to walk across the Chain Bridge and take the funicular (650 HUF = $3). Castle Hill is in a cool medieval neighborhood. It comprises the royal palace and numerous museums, including the Hungarian National Gallery (free) and Budapest History Museum (800 HUF = $3.70). There’s also the Gothic Matthias Church (600 HUF = $2.75), which operates as a museum during the day and has walls painted like Turkish carpets. TIP: If you plan to visit a lot of sights, save some money with a Budapest Card. An adult and one child up to 14 years of age get unlimited travel on public transportation, free or discounted entry to 60 museums and several sights, a sightseeing tour for half price, and more. They are valid for either 48 hours (5.200 HUF =$24 ) or 72 hours (6.500 = $30).

The city’s largest indoor market is Central Market Hall (Nagy Vásárcsarnok). It was built in 1873, and the place is huge. You can find all kinds of fresh produce, meat and flowers there. We bought 1 kilo (2.2 lbs) of raspberries for $3! Go early in the morning when everything is fresh. On the second floor you can buy typical souvenirs, and hot food at a café. Central Market Hall (Nagy Vásárcsarnok): Monday: 6 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Tuesday-Friday: 6 a.m.- 6 p.m.; Saturday: 6 a.m.- 2 p.m.; closed Sunday. Central Market Hall, 1093 Budapest, Vámház körút 1-3;tel.: 36-1-366-3300.

Budapest is known throughout the world for its incredible thermal baths. The two most popular are Gellért Baths and Széchenyi Baths.

The Gellért’s opened in 1918. It’s located inside the Danubius Hotel Gellert, and boasts two effervescent baths, three outdoor pools and eight thermal baths. The indoor pool is famous for its marble columns, tiles and stone lion-head fountains. Its image is reproduced often, including the cover of the Frommer’s guidebook. Admission: 2200 HUF ($10). Danubius Hotel Gellert, 1111 Budapest, Szent Gellért tér 1; tel.: 36-1-889-5500.

Széchenyi spa is the largest medicinal bath complex in Europe. Built in 1913, it recently had a makeover. The bright yellow building looks very nice and the Széchenyi Baths are supposedly the hottest and deepest baths in Budapest. The water is filled with rich minerals, and the spa’s special healing capabilities are recommended for treating rheumatism and disorders of the nervous system, joints and muscles. Admission: 1700 HUF ($8). Széchenyi spa, Állatkerti körút 11; tel.: 36-1-363-3210.

A bunch of people who actually never visited Statue Park told me it wasn’t worth the 20-minute drive. But I wanted to see for myself. I’m glad I went, because as a history major I found the museum park quite interesting. You don’t need a lot of time to look around the place, which was nearly empty of tourists. I saw only two or three, checking out the old Communist-era huge statues that used to be located in the city. They were moved here in 1989, and the park opened three years later. The statues are memorials to figures of Hungarian and international communism, including Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, the Red Army and a bunch more. None of these guys need to be idolized, but it’s important to some people to keep the historical objects on display. If you don’t have a private car I’m not sure it’s worth the visit, because it’s out of the way in the southern part of Buda. Admission: 600 HUF ($2.75). The park is open every day, from 10 a.m. to sunset. Szoborpark Museum, 1223 Budapest, Balatoni Road - Szabadkai Street; tel.: 36-1-424-7500.

Szentendre, which translates to Saint Andrew, is a historic town 21 kilometers (13 miles) north of Budapest. There are a few different ways to get here, but your best in the summer is by boat. It’s an hour-long popular river cruise up the Danube to this touristy historic town, but it’s definitely worth a day visit. Mike and Henrietta chartered a boat; regular cruises cost around 1.785 HUF = $8.25. The charming town has a Mediterranean feel, thanks to Serbians settlers who came here in the 17th century. Szentendre is filled with cobblestone streets, beautiful buildings and many Serbian churches. Today it’s an artists colony, and in between all the souvenir shops you can find lots of museums and galleries.

The rehearsal dinner was at the Promenade restaurant. It’s owned by a Austrian man who takes pride in making his guests happy – that’s the feeling that I got. I know Mike had that feeling too, after dining there a few times. The soup, chicken, fish and dessert were delicious, and the service was excellent. Just watch out for the hot peppers growing in the pots on the table -- and bring bug spray if you’re there after dark. Promenade Restaurant, H-2000 Szentendre, Futó utca 4 – Dunakorzó; tel.: 36-2-631-2626.

Mike and Henrietta’s ceremony the following day was at St. Stephen's Church (Hungarians call it the Basilica; in Hungarian, "Bazilika"). The largest church in Hungary, it took 54 years to build – it was completed in 1905. Walking through the oversized doors the first time, I almost wanted to cry. I could not believe how beautiful this place was. I also couldn’t believe my best friend was getting married -- putting serious pressure on me, since he was the last of my high school friends to tie the knot. Even if you are not Catholic, this church is a must visit. St. Stephen's Church, V. Szent István tér 33; tel.: 36-1-317-2859.

Mike and Henrietta’s ceremony was amazing. I love going to destination weddings. Not only do I get to see a far-off land, but I can spend quality time with the bride and groom’s friends and family. It’s not a 4-hour event where I talk only to the person sitting next to me at dinner. This wedding definitely surpassed everyone’s expectations – even his Italian family, who are the toughest critics out there because they didn’t think a wedding outside Italy could be pulled off to their high standards. Boy, were they wrong! They knew it the moment they walked through St. Stephen’s Church, then again when they walked into the Four Seasons Hotel (called Gresham Palace) for the reception. As you can see in the video below, Mike and Henrietta began their new life together in style. And the Four Seasons’ hospitality was the best I’ve ever seen at a wedding. It was incredible -- just like my trip to Budapest.

Here’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Budapest. With high-speed the video takes about 1 minute to load; with dial-up, please allow up to three weeks.

Next week we crisscross the United States, and take a ferry to a very special island.

Happy Travels,
Johnny Jet

*Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

Pictures From

The Trip


Matt, Mike and JJ


Train To Budapest


Henrietta and Mike


Keleti Train Station


$$$ Taxi Drivers Waiting




Cheers to being Scammed


Chain Bridge


Walking Across


Food On Bridge


View From My Room


At Night


Marriott Hotel


My Room


Hostess At Spoon


Strawberry Soup


A38 Ship Restaurant


Gerbeaud Café


Funicular To Castle


Castle Hill


Central Market Hall


Fresh Fruit


Gellért Bath


Széchenyi Spa


Statue Park


No One There


Cruise Up The Danube




Rehearsal Dinner


St. Stephen's Church




Releasing Doves


Party Train



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  • Excellent. Fun, informative and helpful. Dick Cunan - Clayton, California
  • Wonderful series of articles - Vienna is one of my favorite cities and I try to spend 5-6 nights each trip. My next trip is planned for September 17-22. I'm sorry I'll miss the Rathaus concerts. Tom E. St. Louis, MO
  • There's another more interesting way to get to Vienna from Bratislava. It's the fast jetfoil ferry that speeds up the Danube River. Like an airplane inside, it's a great experience. I took it to Vienna last year from Budapest and it stops in Bratislava. Brian (Ft. Lauderdale, FL). REPLYThanks for the email. My friend Matt took the River Boat for me. His story is located on this page:
  • I have been a long time reader and generally feel very informed and appreciative of your reports. However, I have to say I was very disappointed with your account of Vienna. My husband and I went there with our (then 13) year old son last year and found the city to be one of the most friendly, enchanting and cultural cities that we have been to. Your report and account does not give it justice. Even my son enjoyed a Mozart concert and late night dinner at a fabulous restaurant where he was treated with respect. Haus de Music was one of the most fun museums we have ever visited in Europe. Public transportation was easy to navigate and there we had an endless list of things to do. How about waltz lessons, a visit to Schonbrunn Palace and Zoo, the Vienna Opera House or the Spanish Riding School, home of the famous Lippizzaner stallions. Sorry Johnny…but I think you missed the boat in Vienna... Nancy K. Racette - Arlington, VA. REPLY: Thanks for the feedback! I really appreciate it. I agree with you that because I only had two nights there I didn’t get a good feel of the city. I hope to go back and do it “justice” in the future.
  • It is always recommended to have a map with you to avoid unfamiliar lettering/spelling. The letters are in ‘old German’ and are part of the older sections of the city. I’m sorry you ended up eating at a Mexican restaurant in Vienna, esp. since there are so many really exciting ‘in’ restaurants in the city! Example: Oesterreicher in the Museum of Modern Art and The place is usually packed with 20-40 age group crowd and the bar is a great hang-out. You can eat in the bar area from an abbreviated menu at reasonable prices or go to the more elegant dining room in the rear. Reservations recommended for the dining room. Peter K - West Hills, CA
  • Based upon your websites advertisement we utilized Super shuttle whilst on a trip to the US. We would like to let you know that we were EXTREMELY disappointed with the service. As required, we booked with Super Shuttle a day before we needed the service. We booked for Friday 11 August @ 6pm. We were told to be sure we were ready because they would pick us up between 6 and 6:15. At 6:30 I rang their office and was told that we were the next pick up and the driver would be there in 5 minutes. We were not picked up until 7pm. An extra 15 minutes would not be a big deal, but 45 minutes was NOT appreciated. Once aboard the shuttle, there was a young woman in absolute tears. She had booked for 5:15 (she was on Prince St, a short walk from Bleecker-our address-which the driver took 30 minutes to locate) and was not picked up until 6:30. This was on the Friday after the London Security Plot scare which was all over the media. Everyone was told to be at the airport 3 hours before their flight. We didn't get to Newark until almost 8:30 - leaving that poor woman only about 90 minutes. We found the service (should say lack of service) totally unacceptable. On top of it all - the driver was looking for a big tip because he got us to the airport so quickly!!! Being a former New Yorker I found that he missed an exit for the airport, so his service wasn't so hot. He just figured we didn't know any better! We thought you would like this feedback because so many rely on websites like to sort out aspects of their travel requirements. Kind regards, Max & Sherry Lea – Australia.
  • I've kept up with the Frommers letter for some time but somehow missed the Johnny Jet. I have dial up connection, and I'm an old man; don't have the two weeks to download videos, but now I know why that's such a problem. My wife and I have become real Anglophiles, having lived in England a year and trips back before and after. She had always wanted to see the Alps, so one summer we took an Alpine tour including: Switzerland, Austria, Alpine Italy and German Munich. We went for Switzerland, but enjoyed Austria more, where people seemed more laid back, though didn't get far enough east for Vienna. During the mad cow problem in England, we decided on a "heart of Europe" tour. This was our first trip to former iron-curtain country. We enjoyed Czech Republic, and didn't find the rudeness one reader mentioned. Didn't have enough time to fully appreciate it. Vienna, of course, was worth the trip, and we saw parts of Switzerland we hadn't seen before. The 15 minutes in Liechtenstein was interesting as far as it went. I remember the story of the rulers who lived on the hill. Buying stamps was a must, and when I couldn't count my change fast enough in the postoffice, the lady behind me paid the remainder on the stamps! Don't know whether she was being nice or in a hurry, but appreciated it anyhow. The next year we did get back to England and took a Wallace Arnold tour for a week in Devon, and then to Jersey to visit friends we'd met when we lived in Walton-on-Thames. I went to a lot of trouble to arrange the Wallace Arnold trip. We were the only Americans on the tour, which was fun. (We'd traveled with them when we lived in England). Heathrow and Gatwick are bad enough under ordinary circumstances. I wasn't very smart when I scheduled our trip from Chicago to Edinburgh through Heathrow. Maybe a little cheaper -- but a real pain when we could have gone straight through. I've been reading about this in the paper and have commented on the Brits being so stoical about the whole thing and that we Americans would have been whining had it happened here. I digress, of course, but your journal really brought back some memories. Going to Hawaii for 50th anniversary next month, and I suspect our traveling days are about done for. Jon A. Whitfield, Kentucky

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