With amazing nightlife, stunning architecture, delicious food, and wonderful locals, Budapest quickly stole our hearts and became one of our favorite big cities in Europe (and probably even the world!).
Honestly, we could both see ourselves living here for a while because there are so many things to do in Budapest, and lots of them are free (or cheap!). Budapest has character, history and is quite affordable compared to many other European cities.
If you’re planning travels to Hungary or anywhere in Eastern Europe, you must visit Budapest. We'll explain why we fell in love with this city and how you will too with the top free and cheap things to do in Budapest.
Fun fact about Budapest: The city that we all know of today was originally two separate towns called “Buda” and “Pest” which are divided by the Danube River. These neighborhoods each have their own vibe.
Buda = West side of the river, this is where the castles are! More hilly and green, more residential, trickier to navigate public transport.
Pest = East side of the river, more lively nightlife, lots of restaurants and cafes.
1. Enjoy the lookout from Fisherman’s Bastions
From this vantage point, you’ll get a great vantage point of the Danube River and the Hungarian Parliament building, but you won’t be alone. The Fisherman's Bastions are one of the most visited spots in Budapest. The views are fantastic and the people watching ain’t bad either! Wander around the nearby streets and you’ll find plenty of cute cafes for an afternoon coffee or beer.
2. Visit the Buda Castle
Built first in the 13th century, but expanded upon until the 18th century, the massive Buda Castle is home to the National Gallery and Budapest History Museum. The courtyards and the grounds are free to roam around 24/7, but you enter you need to buy a ticket.
Local tip: While you’re the the castle, there is a stand at the bottom near the road and it sells langos, deep-fried dough that you top with cheese and/or meats, and sour cream
3. Take a Free Walking Tour
If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you know that we love free walking tours and try to take advantage of them wherever we can. Try to take a walking tour the first day of your visit so you get an idea of the layout of the city and its history.
The tour in Budapest, while not the best walking tour we’ve been on, gave us insight to the city and brought us to many of the main sights and attractions.
We were also surprised to learn that there are also specific tours offered in the Jewish District and one that delves into the Communist history, so if you’re particularly interested in those topics, you can join those free tours as well.
Note: Although it’s called a FREE walking tour, the guides rely on your donations for their salary. You can pay them based off your satisfaction as well as your budget, but try to at least give a small amount for their time!
4. Explore the Ruin Bars
We've discovered that big cities aren't usually our thing. We typically like smaller towns better, but there are a few exceptions. Budapest is one. We could seriously live there. One of our favorite nights was spent bar hopping to Ruin Bars (or "ruin pubs") around the Jewish Quarter.
Budapest is famous for its ruin pubs (or ruin bars). These once abandon buildings, stores, or lots of land are converted into eclectic bars, typically with many rooms and interesting decor. In each new room you enter, some ruin bars have different music such as house, techno, or classical jazz.
The good news for those on a budget is that there’s no cover and the drinks are reasonably priced. Have a few drinks ahead of time if you want to save money, but even at the most popular of the ruin bars we found the drinks to be reasonably priced at 600 Ft ($2 USD) for a nice dark beer.
There are a few popular Ruin Bar "tours" organized by some of the city's big hostels. It would be a good way to meet people if you're traveling solo, but we gathered a group from our hostel and went on our own. There's really no need to join a tour group and pay the €15 fee for a "free" watered-down shot. Our favorite ruin bars were: Szimpla Kert, Instant, and Kuplung.
Local Tip: Be sure to visit Szimpla Kert in the morning when it turns into a farmer's market. Definitely a trippy experience to buy local jam in the same corner you saw people raving the night before!
5. Picnic on Margaret Island (Margit Island)
Pack a bottle of Hungarian wine (read #16) and head to Margaret Island, which you can reach by tram or on foot. With plenty of paths and grassy space, this is the perfect place to lay out your blanket, play Frisbee or soak up the sunshine.
Watch the Musical Fountain show at 10:30am, 5pm, 6pm, 7:30pm, or 9pm. And if that water is tempting you, head to the Palatinus Beach & Outdoor Pools (adult admission: 2,400 Ft to 2,800 Ft ($10-11 USD)) which is less than half the price of the famous Szechenyi Thermal Baths.
6. People watch in Gozsdu Courtyard
Stroll along the maze of pedestrian streets in the Gozsda Court as you window shop. Take a break an outdoor cafe or have a beer at a pub and people watch for a bit. This area can be one of the busiest places in Budapest for locals (especially at night) so be sure to take it all in from afar, and don't get lost.
7. Soak in the Széchenyi Thermal Baths
The Széchenyi Thermal Baths are some of the most famous thermal baths in Hungary, if not Europe. Daily entrance costs 5,200 Ft ($20.50 USD) on weekdays and 5,400 Ft ($21.30 USD) on weekends, and you can buy tickets at the door.
Relax out in the sun and dip in the cool waters outside, or venture inside and dare yourself to jump in the pools that increasing get hotter.
If you plan to spend a lot of the day there, be sure to pack a small snack as the food at the baths is a little over priced and there were not really any healthy options.
Most Saturdays, the baths host a SPArty Party (see what they did there...). It's from 10:30pm to well into the A.M. and it is basically a pool party with lights and music. Admission is €50 (€45 for early bird).
We ended up not going to the pool parties because we had too much fun in the ruin bars. But we did hear that the SPArty parties were a big dude-fest and the women we talked to who went said the guys there were a little too aggressive and it made them uncomfortable.
Like we said, we never went so we don't have first-hand experience, but it just didn't seem like our type of thing.
8. Hit up the markets
The mother of all ruin pubs, Szimpla Kert, isn’t just a place to to have a crazy night. That’s right folks, this eclectic maze of a bar hosts live music, displays art exhibitions and even transforms into a farmer’s market each Sunday morning beginning at 9 a.m.
And this isn’t just a few makeshift stalls selling vegetables. No. You’ll find a butcher selling the finest cuts of meat, artisan cheeses, freshly baked bread, jams, mustards and even truffle butter. You can even buy some goods, grab a chair and enjoy live music.
If you’re in Budapest on a Sunday, don’t miss this gem of a farmer’s market. And while we’re talking about markets, this isn’t the only one in town. Here is a list from Culture Trip of the best markets in Budapest.
9. Sunset on the Bridge
Sunsets are always the token free activity in any city, and the sunsets in Budapest are no exception. Wandering along the Danube and cross the Elisabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd), the view is magical. Be sure to stay out until the Buda Castle lights up in gold and casts a reflection in the water below for a great photo. It’s one of our favorite places to take pictures in Budapest.
10. Try Hungarian Goulash
Getting hungry yet? Now it's time to try some proper Hungarian Goulash. This hardy stew is perfect after a long day walking about a city. And you can find it pretty cheap most places. There are many authentic Hungarian restaurants in Budapest that are a great place to try goulash. And it comes in many different varieties: Order it with beef or chicken, and if you're really hungry, try it in a bread bowl.
Foodie Tip: For more food recommendations, check out this Budapest restaurant guide!
11. Coffee Shop Hop
The nightlife in Budapest is great, everyone knows that (well if you didn’t, you do now!). The coffee shops don’t always get quite as much hype, but they are fantastic!
There are all types – from sleek and polished to eclectically unique. If you love coffee as much as we do, hop around, try ‘em all, or at least just peek inside to see how cute they are. And a little glimpse won’t cost a thing!
12. Eat a Chimney Cake (Kürtőskalács)
Although this isn’t free, trying at least one famous Hungarian chimney cake (pronunced: kür-tus-skol-ach) is a must and will only set you back $3 at most. What does it taste like? I’m glad you asked.
You know Panera’s Cinnamon Crunch bagels – soft and crunchy all at the same time? Well imagine one of those bagels got together with a churro, had a little too much wine and had a delicious baby... That baby would be the chimney cake! The best one we found was at Molnar’s Kurtoskalacs. And yes, Kurtoskalacs is the name for this fine, fine dessert in Hungarian!
13. History lesson in the House of Terror
This is another unique museum in Budapest. The House of Terror contains exhibits about the fascist and communist regimes in Hungary during the World Wars. It also is a tribute to the victims of those regimes.
We did not go to this musuem because of lack of time (and we had just come from Poland and visiting Auschwitz), but the museum has great reviews and admission is only 3,000 Ft. ($12 USD).
14. Visit Szentendre Village
This quaint artisan town is just a 40-minute metro ride out of the city center, so it makes a great day trip. Meander through the cobblestone streets, enjoy an ice cream along the ride, strike up a conversation with one of the many artists, or visit the craft market (and we've heard they have an incredible Christmas Market).
This village is not necessarily unknown, and souvenir shops line the streets, but it is charming nonetheless. There are plenty of cute cafes for lazing the day away and hidden streets to get lost in.
How to get there: Take Metro Line 2 to Batthyany ter and then change to the suburban railway Line 5. The transfer is free with a metro ticket, but once you go past Budakalasz stop, you’ll have to buy a suburban metro ticket for 310 Ft ($1 USD). Get off at Szentendre.
15. Walk around the Memento Statue Park
If you’re a history lover, or just have an appreciation for all things weird and quirky, Memento Park will be right up your alley! This park is full of statues from the communist era that were removed from the city center and put in a park with the intention of serving as a reminder of Hungary’s not-so-ancient history, but in a place that isn’t in people’s faces every damn day. Adult admission: 1,500 Ft ($6 USD).
How to get there: Take Metro line 4 to the end of the line at Kelenfold Station. Then take bus 101B, 101E or 150 to Budateteny vasutallomas (Campona). There is also a direct bus transfer from the city, for more info on that, head to the Memento Statue Park website.
16. Taste Hungarian Wines
There are plenty of wine bars and tastings around the city, but if you’re on a tight budget, you can do a tasting of your own, so to speak. Head to the nearest Spar supermarket for a great selection of Hungarian reds and whites at great prices – sometimes as cheap as $4 USD.
Although we usually lean towards reds, we particularly loved the Hungarian Royal Tokaji white wine. We tasted it based on a recommendation of a friend in the wine business (thanks David!) and loved it so much we bought a second bottle (in one day… oops!).
17. Take in the Hungarian Architecture
You don’t have to be an expert to appreciate the architecture in Budapest. There are a variety of styles, and it’s not uncommon to find a neo-classical building next to a modern office space.
Many of the buildings are revival styles, so they were built quite recently taking their inspiration from styles of the past. Three of the most fascinating buildings are arguably the St. Stephens Basilica, Hungarian Parliament, and Dohány Street Synagogue.
Glimpse at the St. Stephens Basilica
Visit the massive square in front of the neo-classical Roman Catholic basilica. It's pretty busy during the day, so head there at night to get a good glimpse of the basilica lit up and the square at peace.
Gaze at the Hungarian Parliament Building
Sitting on the banks of the Danube River and almost across from the Fisherman's Bastions, the Hungarian Parliment Building is a beauitful example of neo-gothic architecture.
Our free walking tour guide told us it was modeled after the British Parliament Building, which I have to say they are strikingly similar (missing Big Ben of course). The grounds are free to walk on and there are a few free exhibitions around the square you can peak into.
View the Dohány Street Synagogue
On our Free Jewish District Walking Tour, our guide led us to the Dohány Street Synagogue. It is the largest Jewish Synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world, only to be surpassed by the Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem.
It opened in 1859 and can seat 3,000 people and costs 4,000 Ft. ($16 USD) to enter if you are not a member of the Jewish community. Although we’ve been told the interior is quite impressive, we were able to get a good glimpse just walking around its exterior.
18. Sziget Music Festival - Island of Freedom
The most fun you'll have at a music festival...EVER!
When we were traveling in Europe during the summer, we really wanted to go to a music festival. We found Sziget, peeked at the headliners, saw that Budapest was in our travel route and bought our tickets. We really didn't know much about Sziget, but WOW were we in for a treat.
The entire music festival takes place on the 108-hectare (266-acre) Sziget Island in the middle of the Danube River. Once you cross over the bridge, you enter a whole new world of freedom.
As long as you have at least a 2-day pass, you are able to camp anywhere on the island for free. Sziget is not just a music festival. There are circus acts, street preformers, art installations, sport challenges, yoga classes, make your own dreamcatcher workshops, spoken word preformances, and free-style didgeridoo shows.
There are things to do all day long and foods to try at all the international food trucks. And then at night there are big preformances and concerts. We went in 2016 and some of the big shows were the Lumineers, Sia, DJ Hardwell and so many more. There are at least 8 different stages so you'll be able to find other smaller shows or preformances too.
We know this is not a free or necessarily cheap thing to do in Budapest, but we couldn't leave it off the list.
How to Get Around in Budapest
The public transportation in Budapest is impeccable. There are 4 below-ground metro lines, 5 above-ground lines, loads of tram lines, public buses, trolleybuses and even natical lines. These all will basically take you everywhere you want to go. And it’s only 350 Ft. ($1.40 USD) per ride.
You can purchase a card at any station from a ticket machine or a teller. The best deal for travelers moving about the city is to buy a block of 10 rides for 3,000 Ft. ($12 USD). You can also buy daily or multi-day tickets if you don't want to keep track of your rides. You can find more information on the Budapest Transportation (BKK) website.
What to Eat in Budapest
Budapest has a wide range of food. From international cuisines to local specialties, and cheap street food to fine dining, you'll be able to satisfy your cravings no matter what you're in the mood for.
Hungarian dishes to try in Budapest
We've rounded up a list of some must-try dishes that you'll be able to find all around Budapest:
Kürtőskalács (pronunced: kür-tus-skol-ach) - Also know as a Hungarian chimney cake, this cylindrical cinnamon roll is a sweet tooth's dream. I bet you can't just eat one. There WILL be a second.
Langos - Typically a street food, this is a deep-fried dough topped with sour cream and dill and shredded cheese.
Borscht soup - Often thought of as a Russian or Ukrainian dish, you can also find a Hungarian variation. This sour beetroot soup has many variations and can be served hot or cold.
Goulash - This hearty stew has meat and vegetables and is seasoned with paprika. It's eaten all over Central Europe and can vary in recipe quite a bit.
Try a famous Hungarian white wine: Royal Tokaji. Perfect for a hot summer day (or any day, for that matter!)
Hotels in Budapest
Luxury Hotels: Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest - 5-Stars, city center, metro access, spa and restaurant on-site and indoor pool.
Couple Stay/Mid-range: Heritage Home Apartments - Flat-screen TV's, well-equipped kitchen, metro access and balcony views.
Budget Friendly/Social Atmosphere: Boomerang Hostel - Privates and dorms available, free breakfast, great location. common kitchen and shared bathrooms
10 Items to Pack for Traveling in Hungary
Durable Backpack - We carry 40 liter backpacks everywhere we go. Both of our big bags are made by Deuter and we love them.
Packing Cubes - A backpacking staple, these cubes help keep your clothes organized in your bag.
Microfiber Towel - Always good to carry around a fast drying microfiber towel just in case your hotel/hostel doesn’t provide them.
Portable Battery Pack - It’s the worst when you arrive to a new city and your phone is dead. Keep it charged with an Anker Battery Pack, this one can charge your phone up to 7 times.
Bamboo Sunglasses - Tree Tribe polarized sunglasses not only look great, but for every purchase they plant 10 trees.
Steripen - Say goodbye to bottled water. You can sterilize your water right out of the tap with this UV light. We have used ours for years and have never gotten sick off the water.
Kindle Paperwhite - Download all your travel guidebooks onto your Kindle. You no longer have to carry around heavy books that take up space in your bag, and the Paperwhite verison lights up in the dark.
Collapsible Cups - If you’re like us, you will be drinking wine in Europe and these come in handy for picnic lunches.
Lush Solid Shampoo bar - No more worrying about liquid limits. One all-natural bar will last me up to 3 months and they smell great!
GoPro - One of the best ways to capture your travels. They are lightweight, take great pictures and video and they are waterproof up to 10 meters without a case!
Before you book your trip, think about this:
We never travel without travel insurance. It’s never fun to think about losing your stuff or the possibility of a delayed flight, missing a connection, or heaven forbid you get injured while traveling. It’s best to know that you’ll be covered if anything goes wrong.
We have a whole article dedicated to figuring out the best travel insurance for you, but one company we really like is World Nomads. Get a quote in a couple minutes by filling out your information below:
European Train Travel
How are you traveling around Eastern Europe? One way to travel around Europe is by train and the best way to save money on trains is to buy Eurail Pass.
Now to be honest, we didn’t take many trains in Hungary because the buses and ride-sharing were cheaper. However, if you are traveling to multiple countries fairly quickly or traveling to Western Europe, purchasing a train pass might be your cheapest bet. Check out the Eurail Pass prices here.
European Air Travel
Another great thing about traveling in Europe is airfare is so much cheaper than in North America. One of our favorite sites to book flight is Skyscanner.
It’s so easy to use and we found some our cheapest flights using their “Show Whole Month” feature, where you can select your route and it tells you the cheapest days of the month to fly.
Want more information on Eastern Europe?
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