7 weird things in Hungary: the look on the Magyar country by a first time visitor from Poland

Low-rise in downtown of Budapest

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First of all, I have to admit that this list is strongly subjective. It is mainly based on the differences I noticed between my home country, Poland, and Hungary. It is not to be confused with the list of bad things, in contrary, it is rather a list of cultural and everyday life differences. Most of these I realized during my very first visit. Like Hungarians don’t like clinking glasses when they drink beer, or the skyscrapers are missing of Budapest downtown.

During next stays in the country, I observed some other peculiar things and meanwhile got used to the things from the list below so that I don’t mind them anymore.

The list of most surprising thing during my first visit to Hungary

The last name comes first

When Hungarians introduce themselves to you, they will say the last name first and only then their first name. Also when they introduce, you most likely won’t be able to get what their last name is not to mention how it is spelled, because spelling is very unintuitive. One could say that even the spelling rules are exactly opposite to the rest of the world. For example, sz /ʂ/ is pronliklilikes /ˈɛs/. As a Polish native speaker, I most often can’t recognize what vowels are used. For instance, a and o sounds the same for me. And the letter o comes in four different variants: o, ó, ö, ő.

Rude to pour more wine into unfinished glass

Pouring wine to a not emptied glass is an offence
Pouring wine into a not emptied glass is an offense.

When you already get introduced to some Hungarians, you will probably end up drinking with them. The national drink is pálinka. It’s the strongest thing Hungarians like to drink. They’re so proud emphasizing its strength. But in the shops, you can’t buy anything that is stronger than 40%. Comparing in Poland where supermarkets sell 95% spirit and many drinks above 70% of alcohol it’s not so impressive. Beware though that homemade pálinka might be up to 60% (which still isn’t that strong for me who was a student in Poland ;)). Anyway, the paragraph was supposed to be about drinking wine.

By far, wine is the most popular drink. When drinking with Hungarians it’s generally easy to offend them. You can do it by saying that pálinka is actually not that strong. Or when offering them wine. As far as I know, it’s the only nation that doesn’t enjoy the refills 🙂 At least not when they didn’t finish their wine in the glass. If you pour more wine to the glass that is not yet empty, the Hungarian owner of the glass will be offended. And why is it offensive? The wine was drunk also on funeral feasts. First, glasses of all the guests are filled with wine, also the deceased gets his own glass. When the first round of wine is consumed, the next comes. The mourning people get new wine poured into their glasses, while the deceased one gets more wine to his/her glass. Can you see it now? Only the dead person gets more wine to his glass when it is not yet empty.

Rude to clink beer glasses (and I know why)

Clinking beer glasses is dangerous thing to do in Hungary
Clinking beer glasses is dangerous thing to do in Hungary.

Even if you drink beer, you must be careful. Do not clink beer glasses with Hungarians. It will be again very rude of you. The reason for that comes from history. Austrian generals clinked their beer glasses to celebrate the execution of the 13 Martyrs of Arad in 1849. Since then Hungarians vowed not to clink the glasses for next 150 years, but many people extended it to the present days.

Products from abroad

Foreign products: even yogurt is brought from Poland or Germany.
Even yogurt is brought from Poland or Germany.

Speaking of beer, there is a quite big variety of Hungarian beers in the shops. But if you wanna buy something else, you will most likely end up buying things produced abroad. Almost all the grocery items come from abroad, many of them from Poland. The same with cosmetics, even toothpaste. The most surprising items that are made in Poland and sold in Hungary are yogurts and sour cream. Wouldn’t expect such basic products being hauled hundreds of kilometers. By the way, the strongest beer I’ve seen in Hungary was made in Poland 🙂

District heating is rare in the center

After meeting the locals and shopping for food and beer when you reach your accommodation you will notice that even if the apartment is in the middle of the capital city, there is no district heating or central heating systems in the majority of the downtowm area. This affect not only the heating, but the hot water distribution as well. Usually, the water is warmed up when the tap is open either by gas or by electricity. I’ve encountered some of the gas heaters where one needed to wait more than two minutes to actually have warm water running from the tap. This was very surprising for me as I got used to always warm flats and having access to hot water immediately.

Of course, regulating the temperature of such water is also fun when the slight movement of the tap’s handle, makes it either freezing cold or burning hot. As my wife says there are apartment buildings that have district heating, but we have never stayed in such. She doesn’t say anything about warm water though so I assume the water is always heated up individually in each apartment. Of course, I can have a very biased sample as we stayed only in few different locations during our visits to Budapest.

No skyscrapers in Budapest

Low-rise in the downtown of Budapest
Low-rise in the downtown.

Now time for the landscape of Budapest. Another surprising thing for a city with about 2 million inhabitants. There are no high buildings at all. You will find neither skyscrapers in downtown housing offices nor apartment buildings higher than 16 floors. Surprising again if you come from Poland where the highest residential building has 52 stories while there is many with over 20. The tallest building in Budapest is Parliament building which is 96 m high. In Warsaw, the highest building is 237 m high. If you compare further, the highest structure in Poland is 359 m high and in Hungary, it is North Buda Thermal Power Station smokestack which is 203 m high. The highest office building in Budapest is only 20 stories and 73 m high (Pension Payment Directorate). The highest residential building is Újpalotai Toronyház with 18 floors and height of 71 m.

Fenced out, not sandy and paid beaches

Typical beach in Hungary: Velencei lake (Velencei-tó)
The typical beach in Hungary.

But why to come to Hungary in the summertime? Definitely not to spend time in the city. It’s a good time to be outside Budapest that some people consider extremely hot during summer months. Where to go? Hungarians love spending time around their lakes, including their most famous lake Balaton. By the way, its name comes from Slavic languages and means basically mud lake 🙂 The name says it all, so if you expect clear water, it’s not the best destination. Also, the name of Budapest comes from Slavic languages, but it’s another story. Now back to the lakes and another water bodies.

Balaton is probably also very sensitive topic so if you don’t want to turn your Hungarian friends into your sworn enemies, don’t correct them that Balaton isn’t, in fact, the biggest lake in Europe (even not in Central Europe) as many of the Hungarians say. But now really back to the topic. The shorelines. When I was told by one Hungarian that we will go to a cool beach on the lakeside, I expected something that I got used to in Poland. Trees, grass and sand and a nice entrance to the water. Instead where I ended up was a beach on Velence lake. It was a narrow strip of grass with about five tiny trees providing shade. The shore was covered with concrete and to enter water one has to walk on metal stairs. At least there is some sand on the bottom of the lake when you go away from the rocks protecting the shoreline. Not exactly the beach I imagined. But later it became my favorite beach in Hungary as it was one of very few which wasn’t fenced out and nobody charged a fee to enter it. If you go to Balaton most of the beaches are surrounded by a fence and you need to pay to enter the area. However, it doesn’t give you anything as there is still no sandy shore. My wife defending the country says that the paid beaches have free toilets and cleaner shore. The Velence lake beach has free toilets too, so the trash free shore can be the only advantage of the paid beaches, but even the open beach wasn’t dirty in my opinion.


7 weird things in Hungary: interesting habits and observations about local life

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6 thoughts on “7 weird things in Hungary: the look on the Magyar country by a first time visitor from Poland”

  1. Laszlo Veszpeller

    The article got me curious enough about the topics that I will do some further research. I was born in Budapest, but never considered the fact that part of why the city is so beautiful is the absence of skyscrapers.

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  4. Interesting read as I am also Hungarian and my boyfriend is British. I was sad to learn Balaton is not the biggest lake in Central Europe. What is it then? You are absolutely right, I think all Hungarian people adore the lake and we don’t take negative comments easily on it! 🙂 I myself have many fond childhood memories about it. 🙂

  5. Pasaportesindestino

    Wow! So many interesting facts!! Im sure I will read this post again before I go there. Thanks so much for sharing!

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