Friends poke good-natured fun at the way Clyde and I travel: three days in Romania, a weekend in London, Labor Day in Hungary. Fact is, if we wait until we have two weeks to go to Peru, we might not get there for years.
So: we go for a weekend. If we like a place — the way we liked Bilbao, for example — we’ll go back for a longer stay.
My Secret: Hire a Great Guide
Because we often have limited time in unfamiliar destinations, we’ve learned the value of working with a great local guide. Online planning can give you an idea of the sites you’d like to see, the restaurants you’d like to visit, or the things you’d like to do. But a local guide will have a much better grasp of when those sites are open and how to skip the lines, which restaurants cater to locals, and how to transform your plan into an efficient, leisurely itinerary.
Clyde and I knew we wanted to see the standard sites: Parliament, the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Danube, Castle Hill and Buda Castle, St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Matthias Church the garden area around the zoo. We could see on a map where these are. But how do these fit together? What’s the best order to see them in, based on their opening and closing times? Is there a time of day when these will be less crowded with river cruise tourists? And how do you get from A to B?
To get answers to these questions — and to make the most of our limited time in the city — we contacted Andras of MyPersonalBudapest.com. While he was already booked up for the day, he connected us with his associate: a smart, knowledgable young man named Balazs. (Say “Buh-law-sh.”)
Balazs meets us at our hotel (swooping in on his motorbike) and joins his friend, Peter, who brings along his Communist-era Trabant car.
Peter’s Trabant is a small car that prompts big smiles.
After admiring the tiny two-stroke engine and a hot wired air-conditioner that would make any hacker proud, we drive off to see the sights.
Balazs shows off the hacked “air conditioning” in Peter’s Trabant.
Budapest by Car
Balazs and Peter’s tour takes us through all the right neighborhoods, with stops for photos and walks and excursions at all the right places: the Chain Bridge, Castle Hill, the Matthias Church, the Fisherman’s Bastion, the zoo.
Along the way, we notice how Peter’s Trabant delights everyone we drive past, from locals (who still feel a nostalgia for the cars) to tourists (who have never seen anything quite like it). Peter’s car makes everybody smile — including us.
Budapest on Foot
At lunch, Peter drops us off in the Jewish Quarter, but Balazs stays with us, taking us to a Sunday market in Budapest’s best-known ruin bar, a tasty lunch at Karavan (a block of food stalls), a stroll by the Tree of Life at the Dohany Street Synagogue, a walk through Heroes’ Square, a visit to a controversial monument (with a magical fountain), a photo op outside Parliament, and a tour through St. Stephen’s Basilica.
Just one of dozens of sights we took in — without ever feeling rushed or stressed — thanks to Balazs.
Working with Balazs
It’s a fact: Balazs makes every minute of our day better. He’s smart. He’s flexible. He has a dry sense of humor. He’s easy to be with, so you feel less like you’re on a tour and more like you’re just hanging out with a local friend. He knows Budapest the way only locals can know it.
Could we see all these sights on our own? Of course. But we couldn’t see them as efficiently as we see them with Balazs, who gets us from A to B as smoothly as possible. He also gave us tips on how to organize our next day — confirming my choice of the Rudas Baths as the best way to Budapest’s bath culture and reserving a scenic sunset cruise on the Danube for us.
Skip the dinner cruises, but do take a sunset sight-seeing cruise of beautiful Budapest.
Balazs also has a gift for mixing conversation with quick, natural little stories about the history of each place. Instead of lecturing, he brings up significant dates and important facts in a relaxed and casual way. He also shares his personal history: his memories of the Communist period, his family’s life in Budapest, and what it’s like to live in Budapest every day with his wife and two kids.
(He also introduced us to pottyos — a chilled candy bar that’s a lot like a stick of cheesecake covered in chocolate. Why don’t we have these in the States?)
A memorable treat we would have missed without Balazs’ guidance!
So we see Budapest — and we also see Balazs’ Budapest, through his eyes. And that’s something you can’t get from any crowded river cruise bus tour or any guide book.
You Can Do This
Put this personalized tour first on your list of things to do, and you’ll feel right at home in Budapest for the rest of your trip. That’s my little secret for making the most of your time in Budapest: contact MyPersonalBudapest.com and let Andras or Balazs bring Budapest to life for you.