Hi, I'm Diana, I'm 19, and I'm a travel junkie. I also have overly-worry-prone parents, so most of my traveling is "committed" without their knowledge. So if you're in my situation, do read on!
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Why Budapest, of all places??? All of my friends wanted to know. Truth is, the airline Lufthansa was having a "fly-together" special, meaning that the price of tickets was significantly lower if you flew with a friend to select cities. The select cities included all the classics, of course, like Paris, Rome, London, Amsterdam... and Budapest. Now, honestly, why would you want to go to Rome when you can go to Budapest for relatively the same price (little did we know at the time, but it turned out much, much cheaper than had we gone to Rome or Amsterdam or a similar place). We were intrigued that the language was totally not related to any languages we knew (Hungarian is Finno-Ugric. I'm fluent in Russian and Ukranian, my friend is fluent in Spanish. Unfortunately we severely lack the Finno or the Ugric skills). So we bought our tickets, bought a course-on-tape, and that was that.
Speaking of the course of tape... speaking as a responsible person, I would recommend that you do purchase one and spend at least a couple of hours prior to departure (or heck, even on the plane or during your layover) studying such useful phrases as "I need to buy a tram ticket" and "where's the bathroom?". Speaking as Diana, who under the sham of responsibility bought a course-on-tape, but then kind of forgot to listen to it, I was still perfectly fine. So getting one is totally up to you.
Accomodations Budapest has very good (and very cheap) hostels. We stayed at the Backpack Guest House in a double for $13 per person per night. I greatly recommend that place for its friendliness and convenient location, but I'm sure other Budapest hostels are great as well.
Public Transport Once you get off the plane, your best bet is probably taking the airport minibus to whatever hotel or hostel you're staying in. It's about $15 one way, but worth it. If you're staying for at least a week, get a week pass for public transport. It works for the Metro, trams, and buses. Otherwise, you have to buy one-time use tickets, and then punch them with a special puncher on the tram or bus. It's essential that if you go that route you actually punch your ticket. Otherwise, you'll get a fine. Do try to get a week pass, though. The one-time tickets can be a pain.
Fun thing to do: take the yellow line of the metro. It's the oldest, and it's the one that'll take you to Heroes' Square. Riding on it is almost like riding a fun carnival ride, complete with sounds.
Touristy attractions I just got done saying that Budapest is not "touristy". It's not. Even its tourist attractions are not touristy, especially in the winter (when we went). These have been covered a million times by a million other people, so I'll be brief. Go to Castle Hill. Take the Funicular on the way up, and be sure to take the labyrinth tour. Don't worry, the labyrinth tour is inside. It also has a nifty wine fountain. Heroes's Square is beautiful, and home to Statue of Anonymous. Take the yellow Metro line to get there. Visit Great Market Hall for your souvenier needs. Very cheap, and you can bargain!
Clubs, Discos, Bars The club and bar scene, as any local will tell you, is very fickle. A club will be "cool" for a month, and then it'll be over. So whatever advice I give here will probably be useless in a month's time, so I'll be more general than specific.
Disco is still popular in Budapest. So chances are, if you go to a club, they'll play disco music. Don't be discouraged, and embrace this leap in time! Where else would you be able to boogie to ABBA and current Brit pop and Brit rap in the same place? And if it's not Disco, then it's probably techno. Also quite an experience. If Cha-Cha-Cha is still open, go. Even if it's uncool. It's in a Metro station. Yes, I said "in". Go just for the experience, and if it's bad, you can always leave and go somewhere else, as it's very conveniently located to a dozen other similar places (though none in a Metro station).
Wine is usually cheaper than other drinks at bars. It's also quite good. Try Bull's Blood (Bicave or something similar), a dry red. Another drink to try is Palinka. If it's not on the menu, it doesn't mean that the bar doesn't have it. If it is on the menu, especially on the front page, run away! You're in a mega-touristy place. Here's the thing with Palinkas. It is very Hungarian, perhaps overly so. This is what granny uses to get drunk. Bars are embarrassed of this, and so don't put it on the menu. If you're granny wanting to get drunk cheaply and quickly, you can order it, though. There are apparently lots of different types, like Plum, Peach, and Pear. I tried the pear flavor, and if you ask me, it was pretty vile. But try it anyway! Even if you hate it, the waiter will think you're cool.
Food Food is cheap and good. Try the stuffed mushrooms, stuffed potatos, and grilled red pepper. Can you tell I'm a vegetarian? If you're looking for less plant-based food, Hungary is definitely the place to be, too. Try the Shashlik, even though it's not intrinsically Hungarian. Back to the red pepper. It's awesome, and it's also the funny red spice you'll find next to the salt and pepper shakers. Try it on some buttered bread. Mmmmmmm...
Tea, coffee, and pastries are all excellent and cheap. Try lots. Buy some tea at the grocery store and take it home. It's awesome. Pickwick is particularly recommended. A note about ordering coffee: Hungarians don't understand the concept of skim milk. My friend tried ordering coffee with skim milk about a dozen times before she finally gave up. Ask for milk instead of cream if your soul so desires, but don't ask for skim. "Kavet" means coffee. "Zhir" means fat. Oh, wait, don't say "zhir". It won't help you, anyway.
So how did my parents not find out? Well, that bit took planning. More planning than we spent on learning the language. Since I went in the winter and only for a week, I told my parents that I was just going back to school a week early. My parents live in Mississippi; I go to school in Connecticut, an hour from New York City. They did not question.
I bought the tickets with my credit card, the one my parents don't get the statements for. Once in Hungary, I bought a phone card at the post office (this is important. Don't buy one from the gas station or a grocery store. You will get ripped off), and called my parents every night from a pay phone down the street from my hostel. It's important that you find a quitet pay phone. I then told them about all the wonderful things I saw in New York with my friend (at least I didn't lie about her), and later about how much fun I was having shopping for coursebooks at the bookstore (I'm not kidding). Again, they did not question.
Well, what reason did they have to question, though? I called every night, I e-mailed (my hostel had a computer, and there are also lots of internet cafes), I did not sound suspicious. During one call, when I was running out of minutes, I asked my friend to burst into the phone booth and say, "Hey, Diana, let's go to dinner! It's Taiwaneese night in the dining hall!". There's no such thing as Taiwaneese, and of course they made fun of me for that one, but that made it all the more believable. So as long as you don't give them reason to question your whereabouts, they have no reason to.
Passport stamps If I get caught, this will be why. My passport now has a Hungarian stamp and a "readmitted to the US" stamp. But then again, my parens have no reason to see my passport, so that's not really something to worry about. You can always pretend to have lost the passport (to your parents, not to immigration).
Last notes. Take lots of pictures! Bring lots of film! Film is ridiculously expensive there, so don't buy it there. Don't be afraid to speak English. Most people understand it quite well.
We pretended to be from Canada... don't know if this was going too far in the way of safety, but it certainly didn't hurt. Hungarians don't hate Americans, but just to be on the very safe side, you can pretend to be from Canada. I mean, really, who hates Canada?
If you go in the winter, bundle up. Layers, layers, layers. I wore 4 pairs of socks a few of the days.
You don't need a lot of clothes. We both had only small carryon-sized bags, and dealt just fine. Bring Shout wipes. You never know what you'll end up spilling.
I went in the winter, the less-touristy season. It was beautiful nonetheless. The snow looks positively enchanting. I heard that spring is also a great time to go.
A note about deception. Yes, it's horrible, irresponsible, and bad. This advice is for those of you who have already made up your mind to go that route. Knowledge is never bad. What you do with that knowledge potentially is.
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