Budapest’s elegant boulevards and world-famous thermal baths welcome travelers from all over the world – yet some aspects of navigating the city aren’t the most visitor-friendly.
Even seasoned travelers can have unpleasant interactions with ticket inspectors on the tram after incorrectly validating their tickets. One unfortunate recurring story in Budapest is one of male visitors getting scammed by pretty women at shady bars, while crooked taxi drivers can quite literally take unwitting passengers for a ride around the city.
Luckily, the Hungarian capital is a safe place for visitors, and you can easily avoid these scenarios with a little planning and by following our list of things to do – and things to avoid – when visiting Budapest.
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1. Learn a few words in Hungarian before arriving
Knowing how to say “please” and “thank you” in Hungarian goes a long way with the locals. Before your trip, buy a phrasebook and learn the basics of this idiosyncratic language, such as “hello” and “cheers.” One very important tip: make sure you get the accent right on the “é” in “egészségedre” (“egg-ees-sheeg-ed-re”), and don’t accidentally say “egészsegedre” (“egg-ess-shegg-ed-re”). The first means “to your health,” but the other is “to your whole ass.”
Visiting the thermal baths of Budapest, like Szechenyi, is one of the city’s great pleasures © Ungvari Attila / Shutterstock
2. Pack for the pool
Soaking in Budapest’s thermal baths is one of the city’s most treasured experiences, so pack your stuff for swimming, including a pair of flip-flops or pool sandals and a beach towel. You can rent a towel if you prefer not to bulk out your bags, but be prepared to pay as much as 5000 HUF (about US$15).
3. Wear a swimming cap in the bathhouse pools
You can enter the swimming pools at the thermal baths only if you’re wearing a swimming cap, a rule in place to stop stray hairs from clogging the pool drains. Many bathhouses sell swimming caps at the ticket office for up to 2000 HUF (US$6). Note that this rule does not apply to the thermal baths themselves, only to the on-site swimming pools.
4. Bring an umbrella
It’s a good idea to bring an umbrella to Budapest, even in the summer. The city can get sudden heavy downpours, especially in the warmer months.
After a long walk around Budapest, cool off with some ice cream © AzmanJaka / Getty Images
5. Pack comfortable walking shoes (but not sneakers)
Since Budapest is a highly walkable city, you’re going to be on your feet all day. Pack shoes that you’ll be comfortable wearing for hours while you’re out exploring – while keeping in mind trainers will likely single you out as a tourist in an instant.
6. Book tickets in advance for popular museums
If you’re visiting Budapest during peak season, especially in the summer or around Christmas, or have your heart set on seeing a seasonal exhibition, you can skip the long lines by booking tickets in advance. Some popular sites have introduced caps on numbers, so it pays off to plan ahead and ensure you can visit what you want to. If you buy a ticket before you arrive, download it to your phone, show the QR code and walk right in without waiting.
7. Bring forints, not euros
Though Hungary uses the forint as its currency, some hotels, restaurants and shops will accept euros, giving change back in forints. Since establishments can be reluctant to accept large bills (like 20,000 HUF), try to withdraw smaller bills from ATMs. Some cash machines let you choose what bills to withdraw; if yours doesn’t, pick an amount like 9000 HUF or 19,000 HUF to ensure smaller change.
8. Avoid Euronet ATMs
You’ll see Euronet ATMs all around town, especially in bars, but they charge exorbitant bank fees. The convenience is not worth the cost.
9. Download taxi and transport apps
To navigate the city on the go, download the BKK (Budapest Közlekedési Központ) app, issued by the city’s official public transport agency, or CityMapper. For taxis, get a taxi app like Bolt. Note that Uber is no longer available in Hungary.
10. Never hail a taxi
Flagging taxis on the street is risky because some rogue operators rip visitors off by driving around the city or using other tricks. This has been happening less and less in recent years, but it’s still better to call a cab or use an app to order one.
Remember to validate your ticket on Budapest’s public transit © xbrchx / Getty Images
11. Validate your public transport ticket
The ticketing system for Budapest’s public transport can be confusing for first-time riders. The most important thing to remember is that you must buy a ticket before getting on public transport, validate it when boarding, and keep it until the end of your journey. Most tram and metro stops have machines where you can purchase tickets; on the bus, you can buy them from the driver. Check that your ticket has a date, timestamp or punched holes – these mean it’s validated and that you’re good to go. If not, you risk getting caught by a roving ticket inspector and charged a hefty fine.
12. Learn how to board the bus
Most of the time, you can get on the bus in Budapest through any door, and there’s no need to show your ticket to the driver. If you have a single ticket, validate it using the onboard machines (if you have a longer pass, keep it on you), and you’re ready to ride. Some buses, however, are front-boarding only. If you notice a bus that opens its front door only to boarding passengers, get in line and have your ticket or pass ready to show the driver.
13. Tip at restaurants
Some restaurants include a service charge on the bill, so it’s a good idea to ask if this is included when paying (it usually appears on the bill as szerviz). If not, it’s customary to tip around 10%. Hungarians often round up the bill and tell the server how much they want to pay, including tips (especially if they still need change back). If you give a banknote that’s more than your bill and say “thank you,” your server will likely see that as an invitation to keep the change.
14. Don’t clink your beer glasses with Hungarians
Hungarians don’t say “cheers” with beers – or at least they haven’t for the past 150 years. When Habsburgs Austria defeated Hungary in the 1848 revolution, Austrians in Vienna celebrated the defeat by toasting and clinking beer steins. As a form of subtle protest, Hungarians vowed never to do this same – and haven’t raised their beer glasses since. You might notice some of the younger crowd forgoing this rule, so if you’re in the company of Hungarians with beer, follow their lead.
Note that this rule doesn’t apply to drinks like wine or pálinka (a local fruit brandy); Hungarians even consider it rude not to look the other person in the eyes and say “cheers” when raising a glass of anything other than beer.
15. Don’t smile too much (Hungarians don’t)
Hungarians are not the smiliest people, and smiling at strangers or while out and about is much less prevalent in Hungarian culture than it is in, say, the United States. Walking around with a big smile on your face at all times will probably make it clear to locals that you’re not one of them. There’s no harm in smiling – but you might just attract a tout trying to sell you a bus tour.
While Budapest residents don’t smile much, it’s considered polite to greet shopkeepers with a friendly “good day” © Fat Jackey / Shutterstock
16. Greet staff when you enter a shop
If you go into a smaller shop, it’s polite to say “Jó napot” (“good day”).
17. Watch out for the Budapest bar scam
Unfortunately, one of the main risks in visiting Budapest is getting ripped off – and there’s one recurring scam that’s a tale as old as time. Male travelers will often be approached by attractive, friendly young women who invite them to a bar. Once inside, the men get presented with a huge bill, along with threats of calling the police if they don’t pay. The moral of the story? Try to resist tagging along with any women who approach you – or at least avoid any bar they suggest.
18. Take precautions with your belongings
Pickpockets are common on rush-hour public transport and in busy, touristy areas. Keep your belongings in a safe place, such as in a money waist belt or in a zipped-up compartment inside a bag, and don’t put your wallet or phone in your pocket, the easiest place for a pickpocket to swipe it from.
19. After midnight, take a taxi back to your accommodations
Budapest’s city center (especially District VII) is fairly nocturnal, and the central districts inside the Grand Boulevard are safe after midnight. If you’re staying in Budapest’s outer neighborhoods, however – such as Districts VIII or IX, beyond the Grand Boulevard – it’s safest to take a taxi to your accommodations if you’re having a late night.
Travelers should be aware of the new LGBTQI+ laws in Hungary © Drazen_ / Getty Images
20. Be aware of the recent LGBTIQ+ laws
Hungary is earning a bad reputation with LGBTIQ+ travelers because of recently enacted laws, such as one making it impossible for trans people to legally change their gender. Another, the so-called “Anti-Pedophile Bill,” draws lamentable parallels between pedophilia and homosexuality and bans LGBTQI+ representation in media available to people under 18.
The good news is that Budapest is more liberal, especially if you stay around downtown. A vibrant population of progressive activists keeps up the fight for LGBTQI+ rights in Hungary, and Pride gets bigger every year, with thousands joining in solidarity. You’ll find many places welcoming LGBTQI+ visitors; Budapest Pride maintains a helpful directory of LGBTQI+ safe and friendly venues.
21. Know how to get medical help if needed
For peace of mind, it’s a good idea to get insurance before traveling. The Hungarian public health system is often understaffed, and it can be hard to find English-speaking doctors or nurses in public hospitals and clinics. Many good private clinics are popular with the local ex-pat community, including First Med and Swiss Clinic. If you need a pharmacy, you’ll find them all across the city center, with a few that are open 24/7.