Hungary’s culture stretches back more than a millennium, with local traditions that have endured to the present day. Even just a cursory knowledge of these Hungarian customs can mark out a first timer from a well-versed visitor. From handy phrases and puzzling pronunciation to the code of conduct for Budapest’s thermal baths, never put a foot wrong in the land of Magyars with our essential guide to the rules and rituals of Hungarian customs.
Hungarians have several ways to greet each other, with formal terms reserved for elders and strangers, and a more relaxed set of vocabulary to say hello to friends and family. For polite situations, a “Jó reggelt” (yoh reg-gelt) will do for good morning; “napot” (nah-poht) for afternoon; and “estét” (esh-tet) for evening. On the more relaxed end of the spectrum, “szia” (see-yah) for “hi” and “sziasztok” (see-yah-stoke) for “bye” are the colloquial forms.
Hungarians love a good chat, but a couple of topics are off limits, especially while being entertained in a Hungarian home. Steer clear of politics and sport – these are considered controversial, especially if you harbour opposing views.
Hungarians have certain rules and superstitions regarding gifts. For floral offerings, present a bouquet with an odd number of flowers – but not 13, which is considered unlucky. An arrangement with an even number of blooms is only ever offered to the deceased. Avoid lilies or chrysanthemums, which are associated with funerals, and, depending on the occasion, red roses, which suggest passion.
Gifting wine from the Old World can be construed as insulting as Hungarians are very proud of their own country’s wine-making heritage. A safer bet is a box of luxury chocolates or a fine liqueur.
Most waiting staff in Budapest can speak English, so dining out in the city is a Hungarian custom that’s very easy to master. However, every effort to learn the local language is appreciated. Flex your linguistic skills and order with “szeretnék egy…” (se-ret-nayk eh-dj), which means “I would like a…”. When it’s time to pay up, request the bill with “a számlát kérem” (aw sam-lat keh-rem).
Cheers; saluti; prost: Toasting in any country is a simple affair, but in Hungary, it’s a little more complicated. The Hungarian word for “cheers” is “egészségedre” (try saying that after you’ve had a few) but it should never be used with the clink of beer glasses. Legend has it that when Hungary’s 1848 revolution against the Habsburgs was defeated, the Austrians celebrated with a toast of beer. Since then, Hungarians have refused to say “egészségedre” with ale.
In Hungary, tipping is appreciated but not mandatory. It’s standard practice to tip between 10 to 15 percent but many establishments include a 12.5 percent service charge so check your bill when it arrives. If service charge is included, there’s no need to leave any extra.
When you’re out and about in Budapest, get to where you need to go with: “Hol van a…?” (hol vahn aw) meaning “Where is the…?” Listen closely for the directions: “balra” (bawl-ra) is left, “jobbra” (yohb-ra) is right and “egyenesen” (e-dye-ne-shen) is straight ahead.
When entering a store in Budapest, the shopkeeper will generally greet you. Return the courtesy with a friendly “Jó napot kívánok” (“I wish you good day”).
Many of Budapest’s smaller shops don’t have credit card facilities so always keep loose coins and notes of lower denominations to hand. It’s expected to pay for small items with exact change so avoid whipping out a 2,000 Forint to buy a packet of mints.
Punctuality is highly valued in Hungarian culture so, if possible, arrive about 10 minutes early for any meetings.
Blessed with abundant thermal waters, a good, long soak at Budapest’s bathhouses is a must-try Hungarian custom. When visiting, observe these rules of thermal bath etiquette:
The changing rooms at Budapest’s bathhouses can be confusing for the uninitiated. Choose between a locker or a cabin. If you require more privacy pay for a cabin when purchasing your ticket, however most locals don’t bother with this – the locker has plenty of space in which to store your belongings.
Before entering any bath in Budapest, duck under the shower – washing before bathing is compulsory.
Nude bathing is not allowed so always wear your bathing suit.
Hungary’s rich history stretches back over a thousand years, and with that come centuries of Magyar folklore and tradition. Here are the loveliest ones…
The pre-Lent festival of Farsang combines the Christian tradition with ancient pagan rituals. Starting on the day of Epiphany on 6th January and ending on Ash Wednesday, this incredible carnival time is a Hungarian custom that’s marked by decadent masquerade balls and parties across Budapest. Food plays a big part in Farsang, in particular the szalagos farsangi fánk (carnival doughnuts) that you’ll find in bakeries and street food stands.
The arrival of spring is an important time for Hungarians and is always celebrated with festivals in towns and villages where folk and gypsy song and dance performances can be enjoyed and traditional crafts can be bought. The Budapest Spring Festival is the country’s most prestigious event showcasing the sounds of local artists and esteemed jazz, classical and opera stars from around the world. Spread across 40 venues, Budapest Spring Festival blooms across the entire city for its two-week duration.
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