I am not sure if it happens the other way around as well, but many people mistake Bucharest for Budapest and there have been hilarious stories over the years caused by this confusion, like an entire bus of supporters missing a game because they arrived to Budapest instead of Bucharest or refugees simply jumping off a train when they found out it was headed to Bucharest instead of Budapest.
The truth is that, apart from the fact that Hungary and Romania are neighboring countries and the names sound a bit alike, the two cities are extremely different. And after spending one month in Budapest, I’ve decided it’s time for a face-off in order to pick a winner. So read on if you’re interested to see who I think wins the battle of Budapest vs. Bucharest!
Things to see
Since both cities are the capitals of their countries, you can imagine that there’s a ton to see in each. However, without a single doubt and without having to think about it for too long, Budapest clearly wins this battle as the city is absolutely beautiful. Especially in the central area (but throughout the entire city, in the end), each building is unique and looks just like a work of art. The architecture is beautiful and you should prepare for some neck strain because you’ll be walking down the streets looking up at the amazing buildings. For us, it was an absolute joy to simply walk down the streets and enjoy the architecture.
Even though Bucharest has its own share of charming, old houses and buildings, their number is limited compared to Budapest and most of the things you’ll see are the recent communist blocks that look horrendous. It’s true, Bucharest started rehabilitating these buildings and therefore they’re adding some uniformity and remove the chaos a little bit, but you still can’t compare them with the works of art in Budapest.
Without actually counting them, Budapest also wins when it comes to the number of attractions and other things to see apart from the regular buildings: from a beautiful zoo to an amazing Margaret island with huge pools and water fountains that “dance” on the rhythm of the music, to impressive castles, monasteries, churches and museums, the Hungarian capital has a lot more to offer. Of course, this makes sense as they were a huge empire as opposed to Romania who didn’t ever really get it going.
Things to do
I have already shared an article on the top things to do in Bucharest and I am glad I don’t have to write one for Budapest as well, because the list would be a LOT longer.
Literally, there is always something happening in Budapest and there are so many hidden (or not so hidden gems) that you can’t help but love it. Their central area with the ruin pubs offers way more entertainment options, restaurants and charming shops than Bucharest does in the Old Center. In Bucharest, you can probably walk around the old center in 20-30 minutes and see everything it has to offer, while in Budapest it might take you a couple of days. Also, the restaurants in Budapest in the central areas, as well as the pubs, are trying to lure you in with different themes and eye-catching designs that it will take you a lot more to check them all out.
As I said, there is always something happening in Budapest: on numerous occasions, we simply went out for a walk to end up at a concert, a festival of some kind (the beer festival was a pleasant surprise, where they had huge meat smokers there for delicious food and absolutely amazing beer!), street dancing and much, much more. There is indeed a lot happening in Bucharest as well and you certainly won’t get bored, but the amount of things Budapest has to offer is almost intimidating.
The fact that there is a lot more to do in Budapest than Bucharest also has to do with the way higher number of tourists and expats visiting or living there – but in the end, the “why” matters less than the fact that this is the reality: there’s a lot more to do in Hungary’s capital, for all ages.
I don’t speak any Hungarian (well, I did learn some basic words like “Hello” or “Thank you”), so I might be wrong, but I have the feeling that I am not: the people living there are way more polite, probably more educated and I’d dare to say better than what you can usually see in Romania. I also believe that it’s the influx of tourists and the high demands that the ones in the Western countries had, but the effect was amazing and I can’t wait to see the same in Romania.
Everybody is extremely polite in Budapest and customer service is brilliant (even though they have their rotten apples as well). They are extremely organized, they seem calmer and they appear to enjoy life more, they don’t seem to always be shouting and upset, they don’t have the bad habit of staring at you like Romanians do and their system of values seems to be different.
When using public transportation with our 3-years old son, for example, even if I was the one holding him (usually carrying him in a sling), there was always – ALWAYS – at least one person offering me their seat. The record was set when three people – a MAN and two OLD LADIES – got up and almost started to fight against each other as to which seat we should take. In Romania, you’re lucky if somebody even bothers to offer you the seat and you will never see a man offering his seat to another – even if he’s carrying three hundred kids. Same goes for old ladies.
Also, Romania has a different mentality, probably thanks to the horrible values of the (fortunately declining in popularity) manele music and the communist era. Even though I didn’t understand Hungarian, I am pretty much sure that they don’t address each other as many Romanians do: “boss” (and other similar, high-rank sounding stuff), “Godfather” and again many untranslatable stuff: words that should make the one you’re addressing feel like a richer, more powerful person than they actually are. Romanians are also less polite that Hungarians, they actually have a different posture and walking style (as if they’re always carrying a rock weighting a ton on their shoulders) and seem less happy than their Hungarian neighbors. This is, of course, a generalization: fortunately many of the younger people in Romania are different or are at least starting to change, but it seems that our neighbors started this process faster.
So overall, based on my first impression and minor interactions with people living in Budapest, I’d say that I prefer them better.
The cost of living
Although I didn’t get the chance to find out the costs of all the monthly expenses in Budapest, most important being the utilities one has to pay, from what I’ve seen, the cost of living appears to be very similar to that of living in Bucharest. Food prices, clothes, services and entertainment at least are similarly priced – maybe a little higher in Budapest.
For example, a monthly public transportation pass in Budapest is 9,500 Forints (both metro and busses), which makes it 30 Euros or about 135 lei. A similar monthly pass in Bucharest costs 120 lei (27 Euros), but you actually have to buy two passes: one for metro trips and one for buses. So in theory, if you know you’d only use one means of transportation, you’d pay less (the monthly metro pass is 70 lei and the bus pass is 50 lei). However, assume that you would need both.
What I know for sure costs a lot more is medical care (at least at private clinics). I checked out the prices at Medicover (since there’s also one in Bucharest) and prices seemed to be double in Budapest. And since they’re both private clinics, at least in theory, they should offer about the same quality.
Overall, I believe that the cost of living would be higher in Budapest compared to Bucharest, but still nowhere near to the Germany/France/UK costs.
My personal opinion
I personally loved Budapest. I loved it the first time I visited it last year for just a few days and this year, after spending one month there, I fell in love with it even more. It is not a perfect country, of course, and the fact that I was the tourist there and didn’t understand the language probably saved me from getting some of the more negative aspects, just like living there for a month as opposed to the few years I lived in Bucharest did. But overall, my personal opinion is that Budapest is better than Bucharest and the slightly higher cost of living is totally worth it.
I judging it, of course, as a place for raising a family: I personally had the feeling that it would be better for my son to grow up in Budapest than it would be in Bucharest. I had the feeling that I would feel better there than I would in Bucharest. However, I am sure that just one month of living in a country doesn’t really show you all the cons and it’s possible that I only saw the things that were better. However, on this matter, my wife agrees with me too and also considers Budapest better than Bucharest.
I have to add an important note, though, because there are many people who are considering retiring to Romania. In that particular case – when you don’t really care that much about night life, about a million restaurants with different themes and just 1,000 are enough, when all you need is just a slower paced living at decent standards and good costs and the education of a young kid or grandson, Bucharest might be just as good – probably even better if we consider the fact that it is cheaper. You will surely find great people in Romania (or Bucharest), you will surely find highly educated individuals and people that you will have a lot in common with, people with high moral standards and a healthy set of values, as well as an active expat community.