I just got back from a trip to Budapest, and I'm in love. An elegant, reserved city which has largely been spared the sort of shrill touristy excrescences that have cheapened many other Central European cities. I saw a performance of Haydn's "Creation" at the devilishly ornate Art Nouveau Franz Liszt Music Academy, wandered through many peculiar neighborhoods, saw an organ recital in which teenage students at Hungary's National Organ School (located in the St. Matthew Church on Castle Hill in Pest) tossed off difficult pieces by Liszt and Durufle with perfect aplomb, visited the 'Terror House' commemorating Hungary's miserably eventful 20th century, hiked through the cool, leafy Buda Hills, spent hours inside cavernous world-class museums (the Museum of Fine Arts boasts 7 El Grecos, including the late-period Annunciation and Disrobing of Christ), toured Bela Bartok's home, and ate delectable pastries and Hungarian food. In Hungary, meat is a condiment, and few organs or animals are off-limits. This is no country for vegetarians.
I also wondered at Hungarian, technically part of the Finno-Ugric family but which, to an untrained observer, resembles a sort of lavishly-beumlauted national idioglossia. Whenever I land in a new place, I study the language carefully, and try to get to a point at which I can make an educated guess what word -- or sort of word -- will come next after having read the first 4-5 words in a sentence. But no matter how hard I tried, the next word in any Hungarian sentence was completely unpredictable. In fact, the next letter in any given Hungarian word was unpredictable.
But now to an actual piece of practical travel advice. After performing my official duties in a dull luxury hotel right next to the (shudder) pedestrian zone, I moved to a much cheaper digs, the Broadway Pension on Nagymezo street. Budapest has a problem: inside the city, there are hostels and luxury hotels, but cheap hotels are hard to find, unless you want to stay several km outside of the city center. I happened upon the Broadway Pension randomly, while strolling through neighborhoods near Nagymezo street, and was pleasantly surprised. It's called Broadway because it's located on a wide, leafy avenue which hosts 5 or 6 theaters. The room air-conditioning units work majestically, once you figure out how to use the remote control. This is important, given Budapest's hot, moist summers. The rooms, located on the 3rd floor of a building which is actively being renovated, are large and clean. There's no accursed minibar to tempt you, just a refrigerator, and plenty of shops and supermarkets nearby to buy beer, water, and whatever else you might need.
Most importantly, the location is perfect -- there's no better place you could possibly stick a hotel. The Broadway is right next to the Music Academy and several theaters, and boasts cheap eateries, funky student bars, used book and poster shops, and coffehouses and museums galore. In 3 minutes' walk from the pension's front door, you're at a subway or a tram station that will get you anywhere you want in Budapest in half an hour, at ridiculously cheap fares. Budapest's mass-transit is a wonder to behold. Buy the Cartografia map of Budapest (3 euros) at any bookstore, and then get a package of 10 orange subway/tram tickets, and you're ready to go. Don't forget to validate the tickets, because there are inspectors at every station. Hordes of them, just hanging around in their blue shirts. They don't actually seem to be doing very much, so I suspect this might be one of those job-creation wheezes that are designed to help ease the long, painful transition from socialism.
As for the pension, there's no office as such -- the hotel is run out of a dental-implant office with which it's mysteriously connected. One dental-office employee, Attila Nagy ("Attila the Great") speaks very good English and is friendly and helpful. He'll protect you from the "jackals" in Budapest's notoriously corrupt taxicab racket, and issue your breakfast tickets, which get you a simple meal at the nearby Ket Szerecsen (roughly, "Little Darky" -- look at the logo) cafe, a place frequented exclusively by locals outside the main tourist season. The 'gypsy toast' with sour cream is worth a try.
The only drawback to the pension (depending on what you consider a drawback) is the 24-hour doorman service. This is provided by a rotating series of ancient, hunchbacked men who look like retired coal-miners and who smoke incessantly in a tiny office just inside the building's main door. If you come back after 10-ish, you have to ring the bell, and whichever senior citizen is on duty hoists himself laboriously from the grimy cot in the office and lumbers to the front entrance door where, with much groaning and wheezing, he reaches down to the floor-level lock and unlocks the door. You may feel guilty about this, but the doorman seems to take it all in stride. Especially if you tip him.
There you have your travel tip for the day (no, I'm not getting paid for this). Visit Budapest, by all means, and stay at the Broadway Pension. And bring plenty of tip money. Pictures to come.