Budapest, Hungary Report of what it's like to live there - 02/03/20

Personal Experiences from Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, Hungary 02/03/20

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

This was our second tour. Prior to this, we were posted in Khartoum, Sudan.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

We are from the northeast US. Surprisingly, there are not many direct flights to Budapest from the east coast of the US. LOT Airlines recently began a non-stop flight from JFK. However, LOT is not on the Fly America Act, so you will likely be transiting through one of the European hubs if coming from Washington DC. We went via Amsterdam, but there are lots of options.

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3. How long have you lived here?

We lived in Budapest for two years. Way too short!

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Diplomatic mission.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

The Pest side has primarily apartments and the Buda side has houses and some apartments. Most families choose to live on the Buda side because it is closer to the international school. However, the commute to the embassy can be lengthy from Buda (45+ minutes), especially if you are relying on mass transit. Many of the apartments on the Pest side are within easy walking distance of the Embassy (fewer than 15 minutes) or within easy access of the tram, metro, or bus. Our apartment was fantastic! Spacious, with three bedrooms, one block from Parliament and two blocks from the Danube. Grocery stores nearby and tram under a 5 minute walk. Our elevator would break down sporadically. All apartments we visited were very nice.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Contrary to what we (and many people) thought, Hungary is not “eastern European cheap.” In fact, it’s not even in eastern Europe; it is in central Europe. The prices for groceries and other items was, however, very reasonable. If you are willing to price shop and buy local brands, you will find the city very affordable. There are some American brands available, but they are expensive. Tesco, Prima and Spar are the most numerous and popular grocery store chains. You’ll have no trouble finding fresh produce, and Hungary is a meat-centric country, so lots of pork, chicken, beef, and duck to satisfy the meat lovers in your family. Did I mention bacon? The stores will have an entire bacon SECTION. This was quite exciting for us, coming from a Muslim country where pork was not available.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Almost everything is available with a little searching in Budapest. Quality, especially of paper goods, can be less than you would like, though. I did often have trouble finding certain baking-related ingredients, such as brown sugar and baking soda. Cough drops, REAL ziplock baggies, and REAL aluminum foil are good to ship.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

The restaurant scene is fantastic. We are beer aficionados, and searched especially hard for craft beer establishments. Budapest has a growing craft beer scene, so our options improved during the tour. There are many Hungarian restaurants, of course, and also many other ethnic food choices (Italian, Mexican, etc). Hungary is a big wine-producing country, so you’ll find extensive wine lists at many places. There are definitely higher-end restaurants for special occasions. I know there are food delivery services that many expats used, but we never did, so I cannot address that.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

We had no issues and we did not hear of anyone else who had trouble.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

You will use the pouch and DPO. Diplomats ordered regularly from services such as Amazon, Walmart, and Target, to name a few.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Quite a few diplomats had housekeepers and nannies. Housekeepers would sometimes do grocery shopping and cooking as well. We didn’t have a housekeeper, so I cannot comment on the rates.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The Embassy has a large and well-equipped gym that diplomats can use for free. There are pools available throughout the city, including on Margit Island, and some people who liked to swim joined those. There are lots of yoga studios. I attended a weekly English-speaking yoga class at a local studio. Very reasonable—about US$8 per 75-minute class. There is a jogging track around the perimeter of Margit Island that is popular with locals, but easy for anyone who lives nearby to use.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Yes, credit cards are widely accepted. In fact, some festivals (Budapest has more festivals annually than there are weeks in the year) take only credit cards. ATMs are widely available and safe to use. There is one inside the embassy that I would use frequently simply because it was convenient. Occasionally I used one at a bank on the street.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

The CLO has a list of churches that have masses in English on a regular basis. Not sure about synagogues or mosques.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

As usual, it’s good to have some basic phrases. When I used them, it would often lead to the other person responding in rapid-fire Hungarian, which of course I did not understand! But I guess I must have been convincing enough! The embassy offers language classes for free to diplomats. I used Google Translate if necessary when out and about.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. Sidewalks are often uneven and in ill-repair, making walking difficult. Entering stores and other establishments often requires a step or two up. Some trams have high steps you must climb to get inside, and not all buses are equipped for wheelchairs. It would be a challenge.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

The mass transit is simply outstanding. Trams, metros, and buses are everywhere and easy to use. We navigated the city without a car for two years with no trouble. Sometimes we had to take a tram to a metro to a bus, but we got around. When we were there, you could buy a single $40 monthly pass that was good for unlimited use on all three forms of transportation. A real bargain. When we were getting ready to depart post, we heard rumors that Budapest will switch to a system where the cost of the ride is deducted from the card balance, as many cities use. I don’t know when this changeover is likely to happen. We used only taxis that the embassy recommended. City Taxi is great and you can schedule them ahead of time, such as for a trip to the airport. We did this many times when our visitors were leaving. We also took FoTaxi from the airport numerous times. The typical charge from the airport to Parliament area was $35 (between 700-800 forint).

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

You do not need a car for daily use in Budapest. We did rent a car once to drive to Slovenia for a long weekend, and actually used a local tour company for transportation to some scenic locations elsewhere in Hungary. So car rentals are options should you need one.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, decent internet packages are available. Ours was from T-Mobile and was reliable. Not sure how long it takes to install, as we were in temporary housing when we first arrived. We paid about US$20 per month, a great price.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

We used T-Mobile. Even though there is supposed to be some kind of deal available for diplomats through the Embassy/employee association, we don’t think we got it. In fact, we got a very poor plan and regretted it the entire time. Any calls or texts outside of the T-Mobile system incurred a charge. It was quite an ordeal to figure out how to pay online and have the Tax Authority accept printed out online confirmations for Afas (VAT) reimbursement. I believe we paid about $40 per month for two phones.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

We don’t have pets, but many expats do. Hungarians love dogs. Everyone seems to find good pet-related services with no trouble.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

A variety of options are available. Most expat spouses have embassy EFM jobs. There were also spouses who telecommuted. Working at the international school is also an option for those with the proper qualifications. Some spouses even worked for other companies within the city.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

A section of the DOD office often looks for volunteers for English “chat” sessions with aspiring Hungarian local military. I am sure there are many other opportunities in the city, but I did not participate in any of those.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Formal dress for the Marine Corps Ball only. Dress code at work is business casual. Public places are casual, although the Hungarians do dress when going to a concert, performance, theater, etc.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Exercise the same precautions you would in any large city. Doing that, you can move safely and comfortably throughout the city. I was never afraid walking around Budapest, no matter what time of day or night.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

I am not aware of any particular health concerns. The medical care is generally fair, although many diplomats developed relationships with doctors in Vienna and took the train or drove for appointments. I do not know what conditions required evacuation (evac point is London).

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

There are no air quality concerns as far as I know.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

For food allergies, have a card with your allergy written in the local language to use while dining out.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

None that I know of.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Budapest has four seasons, with a climate typical of southern New England. The winters are not nearly as cold, though, as in New England. Spring and Fall are lovely, with comfortable temperatures.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

In addition to the Embassy presence, there are strong expat communities from other countries as well. Many diplomats joined the Brody Club, where you can meet many expats. Morale is excellent. This city is a treasure.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Lots of dining out, bar hopping, attending the many festivals. Internations is an active expat group that welcomes members.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Yes to all. Nightlife is unending (ruin pubs, music clubs) for singles, couples can dine and explore to their heart’s content, and Hungarians love children, so families will find a plethora of family-friendly city events offered throughout the year. However, I will say it was our experience that many CLO planned events focused on families, so singles and couples might need to create their own excursions (which we did).

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4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

Language can be a barrier when making friends with locals. Hungarians are also generally quiet and keep to themselves. I am not aware of any prejudices.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

I did not experience any, but I do not know about others.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

History is alive in Budapest. You can feel it everywhere, see it everywhere, because many significant events were so recent. Much of it is sad (Hungary has landed on the wrong side of history many, many times) but so very important. There is a vibrancy, an energy to Budapest that is intoxicating. You want to learn more, experience more, go deeper. Our highlights included seeing all the famous sites at all times of the day and night (we were addicted to seeing the Parliament at night), exploring local Hungarian restaurants, and finding our favorite craft beer breweries and pubs. If you are a wine aficionado, there are wine regions to explore and new grapes to try. If you can attend the annual Mohacs Festival in Feb/Mar. it will be memorable. A day trip to Lake Balaton is not to be missed. With all the festivals, you will never run out of things to do. A pig so revered it has a festival (Mangalica), donut festival, beer and wine festivals, chimney cake festival, you name it. And, of course, the famous Christmas markets. Hit them all! The musical fountains during the warmer months on Margit Island are a treat.

Low-cost airlines, Wizz Air and Ryan Air, operate out of Budapest. You can fly throughout the region for extremely low prices, as long as you are willing to put up with low-cost airlines. We flew from Sarajevo to Budapest for $12 each. Visit places like Romania and Bulgaria in winter and you’ll find similar airfares. For the true adventurer, you can get a direct flight to Kiev and take a tour of Chernobyl. Most of Europe is just a short (often direct) flight away. As for trains, it is 2.5 hours to Bratislava, 3 hours to Vienna, 6 hours to Salzburg, 6.5 hours to Prague, and 8 hours to Munich. Many people at post drove to nearby Italy (Trieste), Poland, Croatia, and Slovenia. Opportunities to explore central and eastern Europe are endless.

An unexpected highlight came during the World Cup. Big screens were set up at Liberty Park, and games were shown each night. We know nothing about soccer, but sitting among all the fans, having food truck food, and seeing their excitement was priceless. Be part of the party!

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

See comments to #7 above. Our favorite local Hungarian restaurant was Regos Vendeglo, a tiny below-ground restaurant with delicious food and excellent prices. For craft beer, we liked Csakajósör (bring your own food), Legfelsobb, Pater Marcus (primarily Belgian), KEG Sörm?vház, and Bölcs? Bar & Food. Hot Rod Budapest is a blast, as you drive tiny cars around the city (expensive-$100 pp). Create your own scavenger hunt by searching the city for mini statues (https://budapestflow.com/hidden-mini-statues-budapest/), Lehel Market is about as local as a local market gets! Delicious langos and cheap wine in refillable plastic bottles. The wine tasting at Faust Wine Cellar (under the Hilton Hotel next to Matthias Church) is a great experience. You can also take the H5 train to Roman ruins at Aquincum and to the quaint town of Szentendre. The list goes on and on.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

There are interesting antique shops and a large flea market that are fun to visit. Wooden furniture is popular, as is pottery. But I would not classify this as a “shopping post.”

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Outstanding mass transit, easy to explore on foot, affordable, good airport hub for exploring Europe, great food, great wine, beer is evolving, reasonably priced internet, festivals galore.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Nothing is coming to mind.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Oh my goodness—yes yes yes and yes! We only wish we could have stayed here longer. We love to travel, but it’s still hard to imagine that another post will ever top this one.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Hope for a real bagel. Inez Bagels is the closest we found, and that was just fair. Also, no need to stock up on Euros. Although Hungary is part of the EU, their currency is the Forint.

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4. But don't forget your:

Comfortable shoes for walking, backpack and camera. Clothes for all seasons.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Anything about Raoul Wallenberg, Carl Lutz, and Adolf Eichmann. Lots of movies are filmed in Budapest; the city highly encourages this industry. It becomes a stand-in for other European cities. “Red Sparrow” and “Black Widow” are just two of many filmed here. There’s a good Anthony Bourdain “Parts Unknown” about Budapest. A few minutes into the show, you’ll see him near Liberty Square and catch a glimpse of the US Embassy. Rick Steves’ Budapest is excellent, both the book and his half hour show.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

If you get the chance to do a tour here, take it! Then try to extend!

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