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Laws and Customs in Budapest

October 27th, 2021

 

When in Hungary, do as the Hungarians do! To make your trip as smooth as possible, we would like to walk you through the most important laws and customs of Budapest. Some of them are important to consider when you are planning your trip, some are just cultural bits and pieces that might be good to know before you arrive - hopefully they come in handy!

 

Laws

Let's start with the most important: the Hungarian laws about drinking, smoking, using drugs, and being (too) loud.

 

Budapest Laws about Drinks and Drinking

budapest bar

Firstly, let's debunk an urban legend: Drinking on the streets of Budapest is NOT permitted. This doesn't mean that people don't do it all the time, but the police have the right to fine you for it!

Usually, they don't stop people for drinking a beer quietly in a park or walking with it, but sometimes they do. So if you see a police officer coming, lower your drink and keep it on your other side. If you are drunk and obnoxious they will definitely stop you!

The drinking age in Hungary is 18 and there are no special regulations for lower or higher alcohol content drinks. The stores and bars will ID you - not at every purchase, but anytime they have any doubt, so keep your ID with you.

Buying alcohol might be restricted not just by age but by time of day and location. A couple of districts in Budapest regulated the “alcohol selling hours” of the grocery stores. These laws are district regulated and change frequently, so if you are in doubt about your area buy your drinks before 11 pm!

Furthermore, if you are considering renting a car you must know there is a zero alcohol tolerance for driving! They take it really seriously, so, yes, not even a sip of beer ... Rather than take the risk, just sit back and let someone else take the wheel! Call a taxi, or better yet, check out this beer bus, where you can drink unlimited beers while taking in the sights of the city!

 

Budapest Laws about Smoking

Hungary has some of the strictest laws about protecting non-smokers from passive smoking in the EU. We have a complete ban on smoking in public indoor areas, on and around public transportation, and around playgrounds.

This means it is strictly forbidden to smoke in a tram or bus stop while you are waiting or walking through an underground underpass with your cigarette lit. 

The Hungarian government has restricted the purchase of tobacco products. They are only available in special nationally run tobacco stores, so don't expect to get a pack in a grocery store or a gas station. The tobacco stores are easy to spot and they are all over town with great opening hours, so you don't need to worry about finding one.

 

Hungarian Laws about Drugs

Fom the standpoint of the Hungarian government , drugs are a big NO !!  In Hungary consumption and possession of drugs are illegal, with no exceptions. There is no classification of drugs in Hungary, so being caught with the smallest amount can result in heavy fines and other punishments. 

Street dealers in the party areas will try to sell you drugs, but most often those are fake, so don't spend your money on tea leaves and baking soda;)

 

Budapest Laws about Noise

quiet rules budapest

There are no citywide regulations on where and when noise is allowed. There are guidelines, but even apartment houses can create their own internal regulations. The law is "someone who unreasonably causes noise that is likely to disturb the peace of others or the natural or protected natural value, commits a misdemeanor."

Obviously it's up to everyone's discretion to decide what is too noisy, but if police are called you can end up with an official warning, a fine payable on the spot, or even with an official police report. 

Budapest offers innumerable amazing bars and clubs that are soundproofed to make sure you don't need to worry about anything. Please consider that your vacation time is someone's regular workweek and don't take the party to the streets! Need help finding cool places to go out? Take a pub crawl and let the guides lead you to fun bars with a famous club at the end!

 

Important: It is compulsory to always carry an ID card on you and the police can stop and ID you at any time. This doesn't happen all that often, but you will need ID to get alcohol or to get into clubs, so just make sure you have it on you at all times.
 

Trip Prep


Public Holidays

There are a couple of Budapest customs to consider when you are planning your trip to Budapest.

When you are picking the dates of your trip you may want to take into consideration Hungarian public holidays. On our public holidays no shops (other than 24-hour ones), banks, government offices, or post offices are allowed to be open.

Some restaurants and bars choose to close as well, but this is rare in the touristy downtown area. While certain “everyday places” are closed there are many places featuring special programs, street festivals, and / or free exhibitions on these special dates, especially on Hungarian national holidays.

hungary holiday on bridge

 

Legal holidays in Hungary are the following:

Hungarian Holidays
January 1 (New Year's Day)
March 15 (Anniversary of 1848 uprising)
Easter and Easter Monday
May 1 (Labor Day)
Pentecost / Whit Sunday and Monday
August 20 (Anniversary of the founding of the Hungarian State)
October 26 (Anniversary of the 1956 Revolution)
November 1 (All Saints' Day)

December 24 (half-day holiday)

December 25 & 26 (Christmas)

 

On Hungarian National Holidays , most national museums and important buildings are usually free to visit ! They might be a bit crowded or you may have to stand in line for entry, but many times they even offer special programs for visitors.

On these dates, there are quite often cultural programs on the streets and for this we have sections of the city closed to traffic, transforming downtown streets to pedestrian zones. (Tip: always pay attention to the information boards, as above-ground public transportation lines might be redirected.)

 

August 20 - St. Stephen's Day

The most important of the dates listed above is the 20th of August. This is the celebration of our first king, Stephen, and of the founding of the state of Hungary.

Life in Budapest completely changes for a couple of days around this national holiday: street festivals take over downtown, the river banks and the castle area. National museums and the Parliament are free to visit. And fireworks help us celebrate our first king on the night of the 20th. The whole city celebrates Hungary and Hungarians for a couple of days, so if you want to have the most intense cultural experience then this is your time to visit!

These celebrations change the city, so if you would like it in Budapest as it is on postcards, consider that the streets don't look as they usually do. The festival in the Buda Royal Palace area has a paid entry fee, so you can't just freely walk around there on those days (Tip: go at night, things are still open but they let you in without a ticket!).

A few small shops and restaurant owners decide to close for 1-2 weeks in August around this holiday, but this is not typical in the downtown area. Overall, this is an amazing time to immerse yourself in Hungarian culture!

 

December 24 - Christmas Eve

The other day when local customs often catch visitors by surprise is the 24th of December. In Hungary, we celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, and as it's a family holiday every shop / bar / restaurant closes by 4 pm at the latest (even 24-hour grocery stores)!

You can always find a bar in the “ruin bar district” that stays open to gather everyone without families in the city and those who want to celebrate with friends after their family dinner.

Most of our celebrations are on Christmas Eve so by the 25th restaurants, bars, 24-hour grocery stores, and Christmas markets slowly open back up again. Malls and regular stores stay closed for the 25th and 26th.

This is an excellent time to sip some mulled wine in the Christmas markets while admiring the lights, go ice skating on the lake in the City Park, and then warm up in a nice museum! The streets are quieter and often snowy - an excellent background for your pictures!

 

May 1 - Labor Day

May 1st, our Labor Day, comes with special programs in Budapest and in the countryside alike. On this day we celebrate life, combining customs of ancient pagan spring celebrations and the international workers' day.

In Budapest's parks, you will find many festivities going on with live music on large stages, vendors, and on many places with carnival-like setups. In the countryside, you can witness the standing of a May-pole and other folk traditions. (Tip: another perfect time for folk customs is Easter).

If you would like to enjoy both, don't worry! The festivities in Budapest usually extend a couple of days and some museums offer special programs for those who want to see folk traditions but don't have time to visit smaller towns.

 

Packing

refillable water bottle

So, what should you pack? Keep in mind that in the summertime we rarely use AC, and even if we do, we don't cool public buildings too much. In the wintertime, on the other hand, we heat buildings warmer than is customary in northern European countries or in the US.

When picking your place to stay consider that some buildings have central heating which cannot be controlled from the individual apartments, and it is only in the last couple of years that people started installing AC. So if you are sensitive about the temperature you are sleeping in, check with the host and pack PJs accordingly.

The tap water is safe to drink, so you should pack a refillable bottle with you! Some restaurants and coffee shops are happy to refill your bottle even if you don't purchase anything there. This is signaled by a “Refill” sticker on their window or door (Tip: download the Refill App which helps you find these spots, not just in Hungary but all over the world!). 

 

Culture Shock

When you get to Budapest you will definitely find some of the customs here unexpected, so let us gear you up for some of them:

 

Bars and Clubs

budapest atm

Hours

Before we get to the weird customs here is one you will be happy about: Budapest has no legally mandated closing times for bars. So the party can definitely go beyond dawn and you will notice 24-hour bars as well!

 

ATMS

In Budapest, many places are still cash-only and we rarely have ATMs inside the bars. You might have to walk a couple of streets to take out cash from a large bank chain's reliable ATM if you don't have any on you.

 

Toilets

You often need to pay to use the restroom, so always have some coins on you. In smaller places, where bathrooms are free for paying customers, they might keep them locked from unwanted visitors. In these places, you need to ask for the key or the code at the bar.

However, due to a law enacted in 2021, bars / restaurants that have a late night licence (they are allowed to be open past 12am) are required to offer free toilets to everyone - paying customer or not! Many have a sign on their door saying "Free Toilet."

 

Re-Cup

An environmentally-friendly custom that is growing in popularity lately with downtown bars is the Re-cup! This is part of the movement to reduce the plastic waste produced by partiers. The cup has to be purchased with your first drink, so expect your first bill to come out higher than the price of your drinks.

After this each time you go to the bar you need to bring your re-cup back, otherwise you will need to pay for a new one. But don't worry about the extra charge! At the end of the night, you can bring your cup back to the designated area and get your money back or you can decide to take the cup home as a souvenir.

 

Shops and Malls

As you are on vacation you might not think about what time it is - 10 pm might as well be 3 in the afternoon ... But in Budapest, shops are very strict about their closing-times. Shop assistants expect to have everyone out and the doors locked by their posted closing time.

This means that often they stop letting people in several minutes before that posted time. In some places the card machines shut down exactly at closing time so you physically won't be able to pay for your items afterward.

When entering a store you might hear “hello” as a greeting seeing as we use “hello” in Hungarian. The funny part comes when you exit the store: We use “hello” as “bye” too!

Like bars, malls might have bathroom fees too! In some places you get a receipt upon paying the fee which you can use towards purchases in the mall. So look at your receipt before throwing it in the recycling bin. 

Speaking of bathrooms, we should mention: There are no public restrooms! (We do have some in the city, but open and functioning ones are few and far between, and free ones are even rarer.) To battle this problem the “MKKP Pee App” was developed, which marks public restrooms, both paid and free , as well as bars / restaurants where you can use restrooms without any necessary purchase!

The app only functions in Hungarian, but you don't need to be able to speak the language to navigate it: green pins are open restrooms, yellow pins are ones without known opening hours and gray ones are closed at the moment of your search.

 

How to be a Good Neighbor and Friend to Hungarians?

budapest apartment courtyard

Whether you are going to be here for 2 days or 10, in a hostel, hotel, or an Airbnb, you will temporarily be neighbors (and hopefully friends) with us, so here are some Budapest customs that will endear you to the locals!

1. When we get in the elevator we say “hi” and even if we only go up one floor together at the end we say “bye”!

2. We never say “How are you?” as a greeting. If we ask you “how are you?” we actually expect an answer, so if you ask anyone the question expect to listen to the actual honest answer about their health and their feelings.

3. If you are staying in a typical downtown apartment building there is a high chance the house has a courtyard. The structure of the open courtyard amplifies the sound, so they echo a lot, and even when you are whispering everyone can hear everything. This is especially good to know in the summer months when all the Hungarians leave their windows open to cool their apartments down.

4. Each house can make their own rules regarding anything from quiet hours to where you can store your bike or stroller. Each building has rules hanging in the hallway so if you have any questions as to whether you are allowed to lock your bike in the hallway or have a house party, you can ask your host about the house rules of the building.

Also, you might notice something different about Hungarian names. Our last name comes first and our first name afterward. So if you are messaging with your host, looking at names on business cards, or just peeking at your neighbors' doorbell for their name, don't forget this.

 

Tipping

tipping in budapest coins on table

So, what's the tipping culture? 

First, let's talk numbers: As servers and bartenders get paid normal wages, they are not working for tips like in the USA. The usual rule used to be to round up your bill to the closest bigger number. This custom still exists in smaller bars where you get your own drinks from the bar and pay in cash, but we always make sure the amount is not less than 5-10%. 

In bars and restaurants, where there is seated service, the customary tip is 10% . More and more places have started adding this amount automatically to the bill, so make sure to check before you leave the tip. This information is generally stated on the menus as well, but it is not rude to ask the server if the tip has been included when you receive the bill.

Now the “how?”:  In cash-only places, telling the server to keep the change or leaving the actual change on the bar or table are both acceptable and appreciated methods for tipping.

When you are paying by card,  you have to tell the server how much to ring up on your card BEFORE they punch the amount into the card machine. In many countries, you can write the tip amount on your card receipt after they run your card - in Hungary that's not an option. The easiest way to tip, even if you pay with a card, is cash.

 

Making Hungarian Friends

In downtown bars and restaurants, it's easy to make friends with the locals of Budapest. Locals who hang out in downtown bars are open to new cultures, customs, and last but not least, making international friendships. Here are some fun facts about Hungarian friendship customs: 

When we meet a friend we give them one kiss on each cheek. This is traditionally customary between two girls and between girls and boys, but nowadays accepted between two guys as well. If we don't kiss, we shake hands.

Eye contact is everything! If you are drinking with us, always wait until everyone gets a drink. Then we go one by one, looking into each other's eyes saying cheers, and clinking our glasses person by person. As the night goes on we might change to group cheers. 

In Hungarian cheers is “ Health ” (pronounced: Egg-ace-shay-ged-ra) and we will try to teach you this all night until you get it right, or until we get tipsy enough not to care. :)


 

Knowing more about your destination can help a trip go smoothly. We hope that this collection of Budapest customs and laws will make your trip planning easier and your time here unforgettable! Enjoy Budapest!

 

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