As seen from a foreigner’s perspective
Whenever we travel, we always do our best to fit in with the locals. We never quite achieve that, I’m sure, but we try. We hate being thought of as annoying foreigners who don’t know or don’t care about local customs and are just getting in everyone’s way.
If you’re taking a trip to Budapest, here are a few rules of etiquette — some written, some unwritten — that you’ll want to pay attention to.
Rule No. 1: When in Hungary, carry coins (and use them whenever possible).
When paying with cash, use the smallest possible denominations. Most of the smaller shops in Budapest don’t take credit or debit cards, so you’ll need to have bills and coins handy. Many Hungarians carry coin purses with them and try to pay close to the exact amount due. If you pop into a shop to buy a bottle of water for 99 forint, you’ll get seriously dirty looks if you try to pay with a 1 000-forint bill. And God help you if you don’t have anything even that small.
Rule No. 2: Stand to the right side of the escalator.
Without exception, escalators in Budapest have traffic lanes: The left side is for walkers, and the right side is for standers. If you’re on the long escalator going down into the M2 station at Blaha Lujza tér, for example, you’ll probably get asked (probably with a nice “elnézést,” but possibly not) to move over if you’re standing on the left side of the stairs. This rule applies whether you’re going down or coming up, and it’s as applicable at the shopping malls as it is in the metro stations.
Rule No. 3: On weekends and holidays, board the bus through the front door, and have your pass or ticket in hand.
In the downtown core on weekdays, you can board the bus through any door you want. But on weekends (or any day of the week, if you’re on the outskirts of town), you’ll have to board the bus through the front door. Upon boarding, you’ll need to show the driver your pass or validate your ticket before finding a seat. The digital display on the front of the bus will flash “Felszállás az első ajtón,” or “Get on through the front door,” alternating with the name of the bus’s final destination. If you happen to board through the wrong door, the driver usually will immediately play a pre-recorded announcement (in Hungarian, naturally) reminding you to board through the front door and to show him or her your pass.
Rule No. 4: Give up your seat on public transportation to the elderly or those with children.
People might crowd in front of you to board public transportation, but almost without fail they’ll give up their seat if you’re elderly or traveling with kids. Signs on board most trams and buses mention reserved seating for these types of travelers, and Hungarians are good at honoring this. The one exception is probably the 4-6 tram during rush hour, when it’s just too packed to play musical chairs. They’re quite kind toward kids in general, actually.
Rule No. 5: When eating, keep your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right.
Europeans have a thing about silverware. They’re consistent about holding their forks in their left hands and their knives in their right. The fork is for eating, naturally, and the knife is for cutting and for scooping stray food onto the fork. Nobody will complain if you hold the fork in your right hand, but if you want to look like you know what you’re doing, copy how the Hungarians eat.
Bonus: Because Hungarians are Europeans, they also count like Europeans — instead of holding up their index finger for one, their index and middle fingers for two, etc., they start with the thumb to indicate one. To order one pastry in the bakery (I know, who does that? Just humor me), hold up your thumb, not your forefinger.
Rule No. 6: When entering or leaving a small shop, greet the shopkeeper.
The keeping of this custom will vary from store to store, of course, but in general, shopkeepers will greet you as you enter and leave their establishment. It’s only polite, then, to respond in kind. If it’s daytime, saying “Jó napot kívánok” (“I wish you good day”) will suffice for a greeting. Upon leaving, “Viszontlátásra” or its less formal (but easier to say) version “Viszlát” will work. Note: Many Hungarian shops — toy stores, in particular — employ a few extra people to follow you around the store. They’re not being rude, they’re just… watching. Give them a smile and keep shopping.
Rule No. 7: Let kids be kids.
When it comes to children, Hungarians have a healthy understanding that kids will be kids, and when they need to go potty, they need to go potty. It’s not uncommon to see a child duck off behind the bushes at one of Hungary’s myriad playgrounds to make use of nature’s bathroom. It also doesn’t raise eyebrows when people change diapers or breastfeed. During summer months, children also will run around in their underwear, enjoying the numerous public fountains and just generally being free. Note: Parents make up for their lax attitude toward summer clothing by bundling kids in layer upon layer of clothes in winter. If a Hungarian deems your child to be under-dressed for the cold, you’ll hear about it.
A few bonus tips:
- Greetings: You might have heard that Hungarians greet old friends by alternating kisses on each cheek. This is true, and you do see it fairly often among Hungarians. Visitors don’t need to worry about this too much, though. Random strangers aren’t going to come up to you and greet you this way. And if you do form some deep friendships here, they’ll be good at teaching you what to do.
- Grocery stores: Grocery stores are almost always one-directional, meaning you’ll need to enter through a turnstile and exit through the payment lane(s). It’s a good idea not to enter a grocery store unless you’re planning to buy something. But on the occasion that you do need to exit without a purchase, just stride out with purpose, and you’ll be fine. Some bigger stores do have security guards posted at the exits, but it’s unlikely that you’ll get searched unless the security sensor buzzes. If a store has carts, you’ll probably also need to deposit a coin into the handle before you can use it (you’ll get it back when you’re done). One exception is drugstores like DM and Rossman, where carts are free to grab.
- Coffee shops: If you’re planning to drink your coffee in the shop (“itt“) instead of taking it to go (“elvitelre“), you might get asked to sit and wait for them to bring you the coffee before paying. It’s common to pay for your coffee when you leave the shop, rather than when you place your order. By the way, there is some amazing coffee in Budapest. Here are our favorite places.
- Restaurants: We’d heard before coming to Hungary that customers should almost always seat themselves in restaurants. That’s not exactly true. Like most places in Europe and North America, how you’re seated depends on the restaurant itself. In general, you can find your own seat in most lower-end restaurants, but in more expensive places, you’ll probably want to wait for someone to direct you to your seat.