TAN will post occasional “Transit and Travel” articles about other cities. This is the first of a three part series covering Budapest, Prague and London and some of the transit options and issues in these cities .
If you are interested in reporting on transit in other places, please let us know. Articles about your transit experiences are very welcome. Contact us at TransActionKC@gmail.com
Report by Janet Rogers
Budapest, Prague and London were the heart of my recent trip to Europe.
Budapest, Hungary. (city population 1.7 million, density 8,395 per sq mile, metro population 3.3 million–KCMO density 1,408 per sq mile) The cities of Buda, on a hill west of the Danube, and Pest, on the flat plains to the east of the river, were joined together in 1873 to form Budapest. We stayed in the Castle Hill district of Buda, the traditional center of power for Hungarian kings. There are lovely little streets, Buda Castle, St Matyas Church and major museums in this area. Castle Hill also has a magnificent view of Pest.
Pest is the home of the current Hungarian government with significant sites, activities and the Vaci Utca, a street which is the heart and soul of Budapest. Both Castle Hill and Vaci Utca have been pedestrianized so they are great for walkers.
A combination of public transit and walking is the best way to get around Budapest. Driving is the least desirable method since there are few parking places, traffic is terrible and there is a maze of one-way streets. There are riverboat services in the summer and tourist sightseeing boats much of the year. Some buses and subway stations are wheelchair accessible but the trams have a steep step.
The number 16 bus stopped by every 10 minutes or less outside our hotel. These small 20 seat buses dart everywhere and take you directly into the main square, Erzsebet Ter, in Pest. Pest has lots of interesting sites including the House of Terror, which chronicles both the Nazi and Russian occupations. The Jewish Great Synagogue is the largest in Europe and was not bombed in WWII since the Nazis used it as a headquarters and the Allies wouldn’t bomb it because it was the center of the Jewish ghetto. Make sure to see the tree size Holocaust Memorial built like a menorah with the names of holocaust victims on the metal leaves.
All of Budapest’s bridges and 80 percent of the buildings were bombed or damaged in WWII. Budapest was rebuilt to retain it’s pre-war splendor. There are numerous monumental buildings and not one skyscraper.
The Hungarian Parliament opened in 1902 and is one of the finest Neo-Gothic buildings in Europe. The Parliament and St. Stephen’s Basilica are the tallest buildings in the city. There are some Soviet era stark block style buildings but just ignore them.
From Castle Hill people often choose to walk down the long flight of steps then walk across the Danube on the Chain Bridge into Pest. On the return journey there is a funicular to take you back up Castle Hill.
Our hotel gave us a free one-day pass on the HOP ON HOP OFF city tour bus that weaves through Budapest. This city is spread out so this tourist bus is worth it, if you get a reduced price, to get your bearings early in your visit. It includes a taped commentary between stops in 16 languages. The Hungarians are extremely helpful and most of them, especially the younger adults, speak English.
Budapest has a rich heritage in transit. Their subway is the oldest one on the continent, only two years younger than London. However, the whole Budapest subway system (METRO) was electrified before London converted one line. Londoners were still choking on smoke. There are three subway lines and a fourth to open soon.
The original yellow subway line, completed in 1896 with three carriages, goes directly up Andrassy Street, the main boulevard with designer shops, the magnificent State Opera and Hero’s Square. We went to a matinee at the State Opera, a Neo-Renaissance masterpiece completed in 1884 when money was not a problem.The interior is a study in opulence and grandeur and rivals any other opera house in the world. With state subsidizes it is far less expensive to go to a full opera than a short concert in the churches. There are tours of the building if opera isn’t your thing.
Budapest Transport System (BKV) has a mixture of buses (258 routes), subways (METRO-3 lines), trams (30 lines), commuter trains (HEV-4 lines) and rubber tire trolleys (trolleybuses-15) and it works together very well.
The actual tourist coaches, which we didn’t ride, are huge Mercedes Benz buses, very elegant and full of Russian tourists.
Good transit should make it easy to reach important destinations and Budapest does an excellent job meeting that demand for the locals as well as tourists.
One evening we attended a concert at the magnificent St. Stephen’s Basilica. Our bus stop was about three blocks away and numerous people were walking to their destinations alone in central Pest, including young women.
In Budapest and London, taxis and bicycles are allowed to share the bus lanes.
Using the transit system is easy if you take a few minutes to become familiar with the Hungarian names and don’t try to use maps that convert to English. The system uses little paper tickets that have to be purchased in advance. Passes and tourist passes (Budapest Card) are available but you need to use them a lot to make them worthwhile. The subways usually had several guards standing around to watch that you have a ticket and punch it. However, a lot of people risk riding the buses/trams for free since enforcement is erratic (you will get a fine if caught without at a ticket). The fares were raised a few years ago and a lot of people stopped paying. The system is losing a lot of transit revenue. BKV estimates 10% of riders don’t purchase a ticket. It looked to me that everyone had a ticket for the subway but few had tickets on the buses/trams.
There are ticket punches on the buses/trams but hardly ever used. The buses/trams have no way to count ridership since people are allowed to enter at both the front and back doors without punching a ticket or swiping a pass. BKV intends to purchase fare boxes and get swipe cards some time in the future. Due to limited funding the system is struggling to modernize both the vehicles and the fare collection system.
Transit is easy, plentiful, clean, frequent and a good buy for us, even if expensive to locals. Make sure you either buy tickets (single or in a book) or buy a pass in advance. Tickets are available many places including metro stations, newsstands, BKV kiosks and post offices. There is no transfer policy.
Here is a very interesting blog about the transit system from the Budapest Survival Kit.
Next stop, Prague.
Photos by Bill and Janet Rogers, except for the funicular