First impressions of Budapest

Budapest museum of etnography

One of Budapest’s gorgeous historical buildings: the museum of etnography, across from the parliament.

Today marks the one-week-point of my stay in Budapest. It’s not an impressive milestone, and so far I could have just been here on vacation. Nevertheless I thought it worthwhile to share with you my first impressions of my new home town.

  • Budapest is positively gorgeous! While it’s not quite London or Paris, it certainly measures up to the likes of Prague or Barcelona. Walking around in the city center (District V) instills in me a feeling of grandeur. The fact that my apartment looks out over the Danube river with a splendid view of the parliament building, which is lit up magnificently at night, doesn’t hurt either.
  • This city has one of the most fine-grained public transportation networks of all the places where I’ve been. There are buses, trams, metro lines, and trolleys, that connect pretty much every spot in the city. And then there are some ‘odd’ forms of public transportation to reach more exotic areas: boats, a funicular, a cogwheel tram, and a chair lift. The one downside of this hodgepodge of transportation means is that you need a new ticket each time you transfer from one vehicle to another.
  • The city is surprisingly well-organized and clean. Perhaps it’s just my expectation of a slightly gritty city with a Eastern-European feel to it that has been proven wrong. But the cleanliness and level of organization of the city almost give me the sense that the Swiss held office here for some time (they never did). Roads are separated into car lanes, bicycling lanes, and pavements. Everybody respects the traffic rules… even pedestrians wait for a red light when there is no traffic coming.
  • Budapest is not as cheap as I had expected. While rents are lower than in most European capitals, this advantage is mitigated when you’re looking to rent a furnished apartment for a period less than one year, speaking fewer than three words of Hungarian. I think I’ll save about 35% on rent compared to what I was paying in Barcelona, the last place where I lived. Supermarket prices are about the same as in the Netherlands. A cheap beer in a bar goes for about $1.50, which is cheaper than most places in Europe (save Prague). A simple meal in a restaurant costs between $7 and $14.
  • The bar scene can be described as quirky. Of course there are the famous ruin pubs, loved by locals and tourists alike. (For those who don’t know what a ruin pub is: it’s a bar, or sometimes multiple bars, housed in an old abandoned building, usually centred around a courtyard. For decoration and furniture they drag whatever looks interesting in from the street, including old car wrecks.) But there are plenty of non-ruin bars, which seem somehow a merger between pub, museum, student home, and music studio. Going out for drinks can be quite interesting here.
  • The Hungarian language is quite the challenge. I knew that it’s considered one of the most difficult European languages, so no surprises there. For some reason the Hungarians use ‘sz’ instead of ‘s’, and a word is not a proper word unless it has at least two accent marks on it. Yet, as in most places, a little knowledge of the language goes a long way. If I can greet someone with a friendly “Szia” (or the more formal “Jó napot”) and say “Köszönöm” instead of “thank you”, I get treated well and with a smile. That being said, most younger Hungarians speak English just fine, so my question “beszél angolul” usually gets answered with a modest “a little bit”, after which a normal conversation in English ensues.
  • You can drink the tap water. It’s clean, tasty, and fresh. Yay!
  • Finding an apartment is harder than I thought. But more on that next time…

So far I’m pretty impressed by Budapest. I don’t regret my decision to move here. I just hope that the weather will pick up, since it’s been raining about half the time since I got here.

One disclaimer is perhaps in order. I’ve mostly confined my exploration so far to the more central areas of the city (districts I, II, III, XIII, VI, VII, VIII, and V). Of those areas most have been as described above. The exceptions are district VIII and about half of XIII, which are more industrial or run-down. It is quite possible that the outlying districts would paint a different picture. That picture will have to wait until I’ve spent more time here. My first impressions of Budapest have been very positive.


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