Budapest is a cosmopolitan capital and as such has many similarities with cities in western Europe. However, there are some cultural differences - such as the etiquette for tipping in restaurants - that you should bear in mind. Beyond that, here are some pointers to help you get the most from your visit - at the best prices and with the least hassle.
Eating and drinking
- Many restaurants offer great value, daily lunch menus, and you can easily enjoy a three-course lunch for under 2,000 forints. You can, for instance, have lunch at the much-loved Menza for just 990 forints.
- An evening meal at Gundel will hit you very hard in the pocket, but head here on Sunday between 11.30am-3pm for a more affordably priced set brunch. Eat as much as you like for 6,400 forints.
- Smoking is common in Hungary and many restaurants still permit smoking (with a token no-smoking section in the same room - which is rather like having a no-weeing section in a swimming pool!). However, things are improving, and some places have now banned smoking completely – including Govinda (www.govinda.hu), Két Szerecsen Café (www.ketszerecsen.hu) and Panoráma (inside the Danubius Hotel Gellert).
- Some restaurants include a service charge and others do not, so check the bill. You should tip around 10% if you feel the service is merited. Do not leave the tip on the table - this is considered rude. Instead, tell the waiter or waitress how much you want to pay in total when settling the bill. If you say ‘thank you’ as you hand over the cash, the waiter will assume that you do not want any change.
- Hungary is famous for its coffee culture and there are countless coffee houses dotted around the city. My favourite is Gerloczy; it lacks the long tradition of some of the city’s classics, but it’s elegant and ambient, and in summer the shady terrace is a lovely spot.
- If you like a cake, you’re in the right place. Hungarian patisseries and coffeehouses offer a wide variety of sweet things, such as the Dobos, Esterházy or Rigó Jancsi cakes. The most-famous spot to enjoy a cake is Gerbeaud in Vörösmarty tér.
- If you fancy a seriously naughty snack, hunt out a lángos. A heart attack on a paper plate, the lángos is a huge circle of deep-fried dough topped with garlic sauce or sour cream or cheese - or indeed all three! You’ll find them on sale at streetside snack shacks, festivals or markets.
- Another snacky favourite is white bread spread with goose fat and sprinkled with raw red onion. OK, it doesn’t sound great, but it tastes delicious! They are on offer at many no-frills bars; good luck with ordering – it’s called ‘zsíroskenyér hagymával’.
- Clubs normally have happy hours when drinks are offered at a discount. Some clubs offer free admission to women (and to men before a certain time). Dokk Café (www.dokkcafe.hu), for instance, is free before 11.30pm, and a nominal fee applies afterwards.
- When planning your transfer from the airport to the city centre, it’s tempting not to look beyond taxis or the airport minibus. However, you’d do well to consider the train, particularly if you are arriving at Terminal 1 (200 metres from the station). It’s simple, quick and very cheap - just 365 forints - and takes you to the central station of Nyugati.
- Pre-booked taxis cost considerably less than those hailed in the street. Save a taxi number in your phone; even allowing for any roaming charges, you’ll still be saving some dosh.
- Public transport is free for EU citizens over the age of 65. Keep your passport with you as proof of age if challenged by a ticket inspector.
- A single transport ticket costs 320 forints, so if you are going to be taking several journeys in a day – and you don’t want a Budapest Card – then it’s cheaper to buy a travel card. These are available for 24 hours (1,550 forints), 72 hours (3,850 forints) and one week (4,600 forints). You can also get a daily family ticket for 2,200 forints. Alternatively, a book of 10 tickets is available for 2,800 forints. Check the excellent Budapest transport website (www.bkv.hu) for full details.
- Be sure to validate your transport ticket in the relevant punching machines (at the platform entrance of metros and on board trams, trolley-buses and buses). There are regular checks by inspectors, particularly at metro stations, and fines are steep for those whose tickets have not been validated.
Sights and attractions
- There are several sightseeing boats offering trips up and down the Danube. However, commuter ferries also ply their way along the river as part of the public-transport system, and as such you can board one of these for a river cruise at a fraction of the price. Ferries run between May 1 and August 31; details can be found at www.bkv.hu.
- You will often be entitled to a refund of part of your admission ticket to thermal baths if you leave within a certain timeframe (usually two hours). There are also reduced ticket prices for admission in the middle of the afternoon, within three hours of closing time.
- It is free to enter the major museums on Hungarian national holidays (March 15, August 20 and October 23).
- A visit to the Parliament is free for EU citizens, so be sure to take your passport with you when visiting the ticket booth. Note that you can only visit on guided tours, which depart at set times during each day.
- For a really cheap day, consider hitting the hills. There are some pretty spots for walks, picnics and bike rides, and the Cogwheel Railway, the chairlift and the Children’s Railway are all fun ways to explore the area.
- Be aware that the summer heat means that theatres (and the Budapest Opera House) are closed in July and August for the summer season.
- Productions at most theatres are staged in Hungarian, as you’d expect. The Merlin Theatre (www.merlinszinhaz.hu) puts on English-language plays, and there’s the occasional drama or comedy in English at the National Theatre (www.nemzetiszinhaz.hu). However, tickets sell like hot cakes, so do check their websites and try to order tickets in advance.
- A Budapest Card (available for 48 hours or 72 hours; www.budapest-card.com) entitles you to free travel on public transport, as well as a range of discounts on admission to museums and galleries, on purchases at some shops and restaurants, and on some sightseeing tours. However, be sure to do your sums. If you are only planning to visit a few museums and are not going to make much use of public transport then it might not be worth the cost. EU citizens over the age of 65 and students with international cards should check particularly carefully as they are already entitled to a range of discounts. You can pick up a booklet detailing outlets offering discounts to holders of the Budapest Card at Tourinform offices.
Other useful tips
- Hungarian is one of the world’s most difficult languages, and Hungarians are rather proud of this fact. They certainly appreciate it if you can learn a few basics - such as ‘yes’ (igen), ‘no’ (nem) and ‘thank you’ (köszönöm).
- Public toilets are few and far between in Budapest, and even if you manage to stumble across one you will need to pay a charge (of 100-200 forints) and may not find it particularly inviting. You might prefer instead to stop at a coffee shop for a drink, and to make use of the facilities while you’re there.
- Just to ensure you avoid any embarrassment by walking through the wrong door, the gents are marked with ‘férfi’ and the ladies with ‘női’.