Are you thinking about moving to Budapest? What are the pros and cons? What is living in Budapest like? Is it really that affordable? Is it safe? We doubt there’s one correct answer to any of these questions, but in this post we’re sharing our experience about living in Budapest.
We’ve grown up in the Hungarian countryside, and – other than a few day trips – our connection with Budapest started during those 3 years we spent working as part-time interns in our university years. We don’t really count it as living in Budapest though as we commuted between Budapest (where we worked) and Szeged (where we studied), spending half a week here and the other half there.
After we graduated we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for a year. I won’t start about that now, so fast-forward one year: we moved back to Hungary. To Budapest. We spent more than 6 years there before starting another chapter in our lives, and we experienced our capital city as young adults, then as newbie parents.
Our perspective is Hungarian. This country is our home, Hungarian is our native language. It means we know much more about social and political issues than we’d like to, but it also means that we saw how Budapest changed in the past 10 years. So let’s see the good and the bad.
Pro #1: Amazing historical center
If you see the city center of Budapest with the eyes of a tourist, it’s among the most wonderful European cities. And its beauty doesn’t cease to amaze if you live there. We couldn’t get bored of the view of River Danube with Buda Castle, the Hungarian Parliament and the nine bridges. The panorama from Gellért Hill where we walked up in every season. The lovely streets of Buda Castle District. Or the magical Christmas markets. Budapest has impressive architecture and vibrant cultural life with lots of festivals and events throughout the year.
Con #1: The grey Budapest
However, when you live your daily life in Budapest, you’ll see the ugly face of the city, too. Dirty metro stations. The smell in the underpasses. Abandoned streets, trash, bus stations with broken glass, homeless people. Districts full of grey concrete buildings built in the Communist era.
On one hand, these problems exist in any city that’s large enough. Ugly Socialist architecture is typical in every country that once belonged to the Eastern Bloc. Nevertheless, you’ll face them in Budapest. While we didn’t see the panorama of the Danube every day, we saw the rubbish in the metro stations. That’s one reason that we liked Budapest more when we stopped commuting so often.
Pro #2: Hiking in the city
If you live in Budapest, you don’t even need to leave the city if you want to go hiking. You bet it was a huge plus for hiking addicts like us!
The Buda Hills offer countless forest trails for hiking and biking. Some of the most popular ones start from Normafa, Csillebérc and Hűvösvölgy, and you can easily reach them by public transport. We often spent sunny weekends hiking in the Buda Hills in any season. They were also the first trails we’ve done after Tomi was born as they were relatively easy and close to our home.
Then there are Gellért Hill and Margaret Island, the two green oases in the heart of the city. They’re just as popular among locals as among tourists.
Though the Pest side is often looked down upon, because it lacks scenery, bird watchers will like Lake Naplás and Merzse Marsh. And the island of Csepel (also not known by most visitors) is home to the loveliest nature walk along River Danube: Kis-Duna Educational Trail & Kolonics Görgy promenade.
Con #2: Cars
Like most European cities, Budapest was built before cars – yet it has too many today. Parking is an issue, especially in the city center, but in many outer districts, too. Historical houses in the center don’t come with garages, so street parking is the only option. Whether you live there or drive there for whatever reason, you’ll find parking a challenge. You’ll also find driving in the center a challenge: heavy traffic any time of the day and lots of one-way streets.
On the bright side: public transport is excellent, so you don’t need a car to get around in the city. We used public transport for commuting and in general most of the time, but occasionally we had to drive through Budapest, hence we know: if you want to hate Budapest, drive as much as you can in the city.
In addition, heavy traffic makes the bridges and the shore of the Danube hard to enjoy. Could we get one of the bridges for pedestrians, please? And why can cars get closer to the Danube than pedestrians?
Pro #3: Hiking in Danube-Ipoly National Park
Another great hiking opportunity which was on our doorstep while living in Budapest: the trails of Danube-Ipoly National Park. Picturesque Rám-szakadék Gorge, Prédikálószék peak with the view of the Danube Bend, Spartacus Trail and Déra Gorge in the Pilis Mountains. Julianus viewing tower, Nagy-Hideg-hegy and Csóványos peaks in the Börzsöny Mountains. We enjoyed these trails and many others as a couple, then as a family of three with our little boy. We found them especially impressive in the fall!
Most of these trailheads were not even an hour drive from our flat – and that’s only because we lived on the other end of Budapest, in District XX. We were not the only ones who loved this nature getaway to Danube-Ipoly National Park, the trails and picnic areas are flooded with families on any weekend when the weather is acceptable.
Cons #3: Attitude in general
I know, you can’t say anything about people in general. I’ll say it nevertheless: people in Budapest don’t have a helpful attitude, nor much patience. You might not notice it as a tourist, but you’ll notice when you live there and do things like using public transport in the rush hours, standing in line for anything or getting stuck in your car in the traffic jam.
Needless to say, we have lots of friends, colleagues and ex-colleagues in Budapest who are kind, friendly people. But we don’t expect a random stranger on the street to help us with anything. (Thank God, Google Maps is there for directions.)
Pro #4: Great base for exploring Central Europe (& Europe)
We liked living in Budapest as travelers. It’s a great base to take amazing road trips in Central Europe, and Budapest also has cheap flight connection with most European cities, and even some places in the Middle East and Northern Africa. (Not in the times of COVID, but otherwise…)
We often took weekend hiking trips to the High Tatras, explored several lesser-known, amazing parks in Slovakia (like Little Fatra and Great Fatra National Park, or the Slovak Paradise), and we often visited Vienna and its surroundings on weekends. We had wonderful road trips in Austria, Slovenia, Czechia, Croatia or Romania. We flew to many European cities, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a week or two.
Pros #4: Older houses has lots of issues
Before moving into our own flat in a relatively new condominium, we rented places in different districts. We experienced some of the housing problems many locals complain about, and one of them is the general bad condition of old houses. The problem is not only that they’re often not maintained properly, but they were built in a different age and for a different lifestyle. Plumbing and heating problems are quite common, and they’re not easy to solve, especially if you’re only a tenant.
You can look for newly built condominiums, but the majority of the houses in the city center are old (yes, those impressive historical houses that are more wonderful to look at than to live in), the new apartment complexes are typically built in the outer districts.
Pro #5: Parks
Budapest has lots of parks! Margaret Island, Népliget and the City Park (Városliget) are the largest, Olimpia Park (near the Parliament), Kopaszi gát (near Rákóczi Bridge) and Millenáris Park are among the newest ones.
Both Buda and Pest have their own romantic corners: Károlyi-kert on the Pest side and Városmajor on the Buda side. Buda has some smaller, but pretty, recently redesigned parks like Mechwart liget or Feneketlen-tó. Orczy-kert in Pest has its own little adventure park inside. You also find lots of green space on Erzsébet Square, Liberty Square and Kossuth Square.
Népsziget in District XIII. or Kolonics György promenade in District XXI. are a bit out of the center, but also less busy, and they’re the best places to kayak on the Danube.
Con #5: Smoke
We smelled a lot of smoke while walking on the streets, waiting for buses, sitting in the outside eating and drinking areas of restaurants and bars – despite being non-smokers. Hadn’t we visited so many other cities in the world, we wouldn’t have even noticed this. But people in Budapest (and in Hungary) smoke a lot, and they do it in public places.
Pro #6: There’s a lot to do with kids
Since Tomi was born, we’ve seen Budapest with different eyes: the eyes of a parent. I was lucky to be full-time with our son in his first two years, and we explored lots of goodies that Budapest offers for families.
There’s an incredible number of playgrounds to start with. Most of them are in excellent condition, and they’re also fenced to protect the kids. Some are specifically for babies, others are for older kids. We loved that green spaces and playgrounds are within easy reach anywhere we go inside the city, because we could combine our errands with some fun for Tomi. Oh, and I shouldn’t miss fountains either.
All the buses, trams and metros are attractions on their own right to my vehicle obsessed little toddler, but we could also take the Children’s Railway from Hűvösvölgy to Normafa through the Buda Hills.
Older kids will enjoy the Budapest Zoo or the Palace of Miracles. Tarzan Park is a family park that offers fun water playgrounds for the whole family. With teenagers you can try some of the escape rooms in the city center. Countless spas and baths await both kids and adults.
Con #6: Air pollution
We’re especially grateful for the mountains and hills nearby, because air in the city is polluted. On calm winter days you can even see the smog. And sometimes we just felt we wanted some fresh air. You can say that many big cities cope with this problem, but that still doesn’t make it okay.
Is Budapest safe to live?
Our answer to this is a very short and confident yes. Public safety in Budapest has only improved in the past 10 years. If there’s any crime, it’s mostly petty theft, violent crime is very rare. The most crimes happen in the center, in District V, VI, VII and VIII, the most touristy districts. And they include vandalism, theft and fighting between drunk tourists, as well. As long as you don’t flash your valuables (and don’t leave them visible in your car), you don’t need to worry.
District VIII was infamous as the least safe district in the city for decades. Not anymore. The old, often abandoned and dangerous houses have been bulldozed, and new condominiums were built, public spaces were redesigned and renewed. The look and feel of the area has completely changed. Some parts of it – like the Palace District or Corvin District – are actually among the prettiest areas of Pest. It still has some smaller streets that need improvement, but then, every city has some streets that you better avoid.
We used public transport in the city quite often, during the night, too, and I often used it alone – as a woman in her twenties, thirties -, but we never worried about our safety. I could walk home alone from the nearest bus station to all the apartments we lived in, even in the middle of the night, and it didn’t feel unsafe.
What’s the truth about the cost of living in Budapest?
It depends on your salary. Westerners consider it a cheap city, Hungarians consider it the most expensive one in the country. We won’t give you numbers here, because lots of other sites are specialized in estimating living costs in certain cities, and it’s hard to be accurate, anyway.
Prices heavily depend on your situation and lifestyle. And whether you find Budapest affordable or not depends on your education and skills that determine the job you can get.
Housing is expensive, but we know that the situation is worse in many other European cities. Services in the city center are often priced for Western tourists, and many locals can hardly afford them. Sadly, it’s the case with many attractions, too, like the famous historical thermal baths. The past 1.5 years of COVID showed it clearly how heavily Budapest depends on foregin tourists and their money. We’d like to hope that this realization triggers changes that make the city more the home of locals than a fancy attraction for tourists, but we don’t see it happening.
It’s getting prettier each year
We remember Budapest from 10 years ago, and we know it today. It’s getting prettier, no one can deny that. Abandoned areas were torn down and renewed. Countless public spaces, playgrounds and parks were redesigned and renovated. Several coworking spaces opened as Budapest has started to be a digital nomad hub in Central Europe. (Granted, it’s undoubtedly an affordable place to live if you get Western salary.) Popular European destinations can be easily reached by train or plane. Sure, there are problems – as there will always be. But overall, Budapest is a better place to live now than it was 10 years ago.
However, we couldn’t say we felt sad to leave it. We rather felt it’s time to move on. We didn’t escape Budapest, but chased a different dream that took us far away, to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Have you ever been to Budapest? What are your impressions?
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