- 11 Oct 2023 6:45 AM
Habsburg and Turkish influence has left its mark on the city’s architecture and its baths, its coffeehouses and its markets. Yet Budapest soon tells you that you are in Hungary. You fly into a repülőtér, you go out through the kijárat and you then rustle around for your útlevél.
With the exception of Bilbao and Helsinki, few other destinations in Europe using the Roman alphabet will conceal the universal words for ‘airport’, ‘exit’ and ‘passport’ so successfully.
Everything is also signposted in English, of course. In fact, Budapest is a surprisingly easy metropolis to orientate yourself around, with a superb system of public transport and a walkable city centre.
So, having begun to fall in love with Hungary’s capital early on, or having been tempted by what you’ve been told, your first question will be: what’s it like to live here?
In this new series, we first outline the many aspects that make Budapest attractive for any potential expat, consider the downsides, before going into the practicalities of living here, short- and long-term.
View of Pest from Buda
Living in Budapest
The most common one-word description for Budapest according to expat residents here is: liveable. This doesn’t only mean you can get from A to B and then to C quickly and affordably, 24/7, it’s also a relatively safe city.
Girls can happily wander home after a late night out, an observation made by none other than Tom Hanks when describing Budapest. He is one of many Hollywood stars to have filmed here in recent years, movie companies attracted by fabulous locations, highly skilled crews and substantial tax breaks. From a strange backwater lumped in with the rest of Eastern Europe during the Soviet era, Budapest has emerged as pretty as she was in the golden days of her youth in the late 1800s or in the Silver Age between the wars.
Millennium Underground Budapest
Five-star hotels abound, some converted from Habsburg landmarks, Michelin has bestowed stars on several restaurants and few cities match Budapest for quality of classical music. Best illustrated by a revived domestic film industry, the visual arts and contemporary dance, its cultural scene can go toe to toe with Vienna’s, the city to which it is most often compared.
At a more practical level, rents are still relatively affordable – again, when compared to Vienna – and you can easily find yourself in a classic Pest flat blessed with high ceilings and flooded with natural light. No wonder artists, designers and filmmakers like to spend time here, extending their stays for yet another month.
For salaried visitors sent here by their companies, they will often be found spacious accommodation in leafy surroundings, somewhere they might yearn for when their next posting squeezes them into boxy digs in a gated community.
Their children can go to one of several English-language schools in the city or attend a top-class university where tuition is also in English. Hungarian mothers receive the kind of maternity conditions their counterparts in the UK or US can only dream about, a factor to consider if you’re employed by a company in Hungary.
Connectivity is another plus point in Budapest’s favour, with direct flights to all major European destinations, few taking longer than three or four hours due to its location in the heart of Europe. Recent investment in European rail has funded the complete overhaul of Budapest’s two main train stations, and motorways are generally in decent condition.
Jászai Mari square in Budapest
What’s not to like?
And yes, there are downsides to Budapest, too. Neighbours in that Pest block of flats might be annoyingly noisy, particularly if you happen to live in Districts VI, VII, VIII and IX. Parking is often tricky and invariably expensive. Dogs, Hungary’s pet du choix, can leave pavements in a terrible mess, despite readily available rubbish bins and designated areas designed for this not to happen.
Bureaucracy can be problematic and the tax system, for anyone employed or self-employed here, is onerous and byzantine. Setting up a company is often easier across the border, despite Hungary’s low corporate income tax, and for any UK citizen looking to move here, there’s the Himalayan hurdle of Brexit – though that, of course, is EU-wide.
Another barrier, language, is far less of an issue these days in Budapest, a cosmopolitan metropolis where most under the age of 50 speak some kind of English, particularly in the service industry. Hungarian customs may seem equally opaque at first – a solitary island of Magyar civilisation surrounded by a sea of Slavic and Germanic culture, Hungary cherishes and preserves its traditions.
The Duchess Rooftop Bar, Matild Palace
Join the gang
Perhaps a major factor in deciding to live in Budapest for any length of time is the fact that many have had the same idea as you, attracted by the city’s beauty, affordability and accessibility. They’ve come here to open galleries, run lively bars, make videos or write their novel. The expat community here is wonderfully random and quite often fascinating. It reflects the city now called home.
Budapest has given them options that many other European cities couldn’t – this series outlines those options, explains any logistic you may need to consider and points you in the right direction.
This article is part of a series of guides for expats in Hungary published by XpatLoop.com - the leading media portal serving the international community here since January 2001.
XpatLoop.com is a trusted source for news and information in English for expats in Hungary - plus high-value Hungarians - aimed at enhancing co-operation between people, companies and organisations operating in expat-related circles.
Words by Peterjon Cresswell for Xpatloop.com
Peterjon has been researching the byways of Budapest for 30 years, extending his expertise across Europe to produce guidebooks for Time Out and his own website liberoguide.com