First of all, let’s get one thing clear: It’s pronounced Booda-pesht. Folks’ll be impressed if you manage to get it right. Secondly, Budapest is a wonderful Eastern European destination. While still being fairly popular with travelers, it’s far from overrun like Prague or Amsterdam. The wide streets and eclectic walkways provide ample space for wandering and exploring and the city’s combination of old and new strikes just about the perfect balance. We spent far too little time there. So, basically, in a nutshell, Budapest is worth a visit. And to prove it, here are some of the things you can do for free (or really cheap) in this city of duality.
Getting Around Budapest
A major train station and comprehensive bus and tram routes make the city super easy to navigate.
Buses, trains and trams: Public transport is cheap in the city at 350 HUF (Hungarian Forint or Ft) or about $1.40 for a single ride or 530 Ft ($2.15) for a transfer ticket to jump from metro to bus to tram. You can also get travel cards for unlimited trips in a set number of hours. But be wary of the ticket machines located near stations: they don’t give change. It’s often easiest to purchase a ticket book from a local convenience store. Buying a ticket on board will cost a bit more. Buses, trains and trolleybuses operate on the honor system, and while we never saw officers checking tickets in cities with similar structures (Berlin and Prague), at least once there was an officer manning a Budapest station to make sure riders were following the rules, so don’t risk it.
Bike share: MOL Bubi is the city’s bike share program. It’s not the cheapest we’ve found in Europe, but it’ll do. For 500 Ft ($2.00) you can get a 24-hour “ticket” (1,000 Ft for 72 hours) that allows you unlimited rides up to 30 minutes. Use the bike longer and you’ll pay a bit more. There’s a 25,000 Ft refundable deposit, too.
Walk: Budapest is a totally walkable city. It’s pretty flat and no matter where you are there are always interesting sights or buildings to appreciate, so try taking a stroll instead of spending on a bus ticket. You’ll experience more.
Free Things to Do in Budapest
Put your wallet away. These are things that don’t cost a dime.
Marvel at Parliament: Budapest’s parliament building is probably the most impressive I’ve ever seen. It’s built in my favorite architectural style (neo-gothic) and massive, to boot. And when you’re finished straining your neck to take in all the brilliant details or the stone structure, take a snap in front of the Budapest letters, too. And on October 23, it’s free to check out the inside.
In Memorium: Right outside parliament is a staircase that goes down into the ground instead of up. Beneath the hustle and bustle of the street, you’ll find a mini-museum about the massacre of October 25, 1956, and Hungary’s challenging struggle for independence. It is a haunting display that reveals the bleak points in the city’s history. Nearby is another downward-leading staircase that has old bits and pieces of important structures like the Parliament building on display.
Shoes on the Danube: This memorial to the Jews that were murdered, shot into the Danube River, is chilling, to say the least. A vision of all shapes and sizes of shoes left behind, marking the spot where they were murdered and sent to watery graves, is a solemn reminder of the devastation the city suffered during WWII.
Gallért Hill: You’ll find the Citadel on top, but the walk up is just as inviting. Not only is it quite the hike, a myriad of sprawling paths and trials offers dozens of ways up, down and around the hill. You can see the Cave Church cut into the side of the hill (which costs extra to enter), a great view of the city, and there’s a pretty killer playground with trampolines and super slippy slides about halfway up. Take a break and have a play!
Buda Castle: It costs to enter the interior of the castle, but it’s worth the trip just to have a stroll around the gardens and along the tops of castle walls.
Vajdahunyad Castle: On the east side of the city there’s another castle. Again, there’s a 1,600 Ft admission fee for entry into the museum and tower, but it’s located in lovely Varosliget Park, so gardens and cool architecture make it worth the walk. Also, see if you can find the bust of Bela Lugosi that somebody randomly placed in a little alcove some years ago!
Heroes Square: Right next door to that is Heroes Square, complete with a towering monument and pillars commemorating all the people who gave their lives for the country’s independence.
Memorial to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence: While you’re over in that direction, hit of this ominous monument. It’s eerie and gleaming in the sun, sharp and striking. Hungary’s history often gets overlooked in American history classes; this work of art makes it impossible to ignore.
Margaret’s Island: Take a stroll on this lovely island in the middle of the Danube. It’s free to get to the island, just walk over on Margaret Bridge and relax on the grass under a shady tree somewhere. Maybe next to the fountain or the Japanese Gardens.
Cheap Things to do in Budapest
Spend a little, experience a lot. Budapest is cheap!
KuglerArt Szalon: This little gallery is set up in a homey space and dedicated entirely to Roma (gypsy) art and culture. It’s about 620 Ft to enter, but it’s the only thing like it in the city and not overrun with visitors. It’s worth the hunt to find it.
St. Stephen’s Basilica: Technically it’s free, but the church requests a donation upon entry. Suggested donation is 200 Ft, but you can drop in whatever you think is fair. Once inside, marvel at the detailed craftsmanship and artistry, but don’t forget to head to the back where you can drop in another small coin (or follow somebody else who will drop one in first) to light up the box that contains the severed hand of St. Stephen himself. It’s a weird story, but the hand gets carted around the city once a year in a parade. Admiring the exterior of the impressive cathedral is free, of course.
Tour Parliament: The view from the outside is free, but if you want the inside scoop, you’ll need to take a tour. It costs 2,400 Ft for EU residents, 6,000 Ft for everybody else, but on October 23, a national holiday, it’s free and open to the public.
Take a “Free” Tour with Free Budapest Tours: Yes, technically it’s free, but you are more or less expected to give a donation at the end to help pay for the guide’s time and expertise. That said, feel free to give whatever you think the tour was worth! You might just learn something.
Visit some Museums: Among the interesting and popular museums you can visit in Budapest is the Terror House (3,000 Ft), Hungarian National Museum (1,600 FT), and The Museum of Fine Arts (which unfortunately is currently closed until fall 2018). Many are free for students or EEA residents under 26 at least one day a month. If you don’t know what an EEA resident is, don’t worry about it: you’re not.
Cheap eats in Budapest
So much cheap food. So much.
Trdelník: Or kürtőskalács. These are a traditional Hungarian food. While not typically vegan, they are a tasty vegetarian sugary treat; like a cinnamon roll cooked on a revolving stick and served up in a hollow, pull-apart street snack. Don’t buy one in the city center, though. Those will run you about 900, while stands on the outskirts of the central district are only 200 or so.
Great Market Hall: Also known as Central Market Hall. If you want to stock up on fruit, veg, or meat, this is the place to be. The upper stories are reserved for souvenirs, but you’re likely to find better prices on the same items elsewhere.
360 Bar: This has to be one of the coolest rooftop bars in the city. It rises far above surrounding buildings, so you get a great view of Buda, Pest, and the river in between. Plus, a nice bar, comfy and swanky seating and food drinks make it a cool place to be day or night.
Csendes Létterem: This quirky cafe serves up a mean latte. But be careful not to spill it down your front when you’re trying to take in all the weird stuff on the walls. It’s definitely a unique space.
Istvanffi Burger: Ignore the unpronounceable name. This small chain serves up veggie burgers and chunky fries for cheap! Like, as little as 790 forint! That’s $3.15! There are multiple vegan patties to choose from, some of which are gluten-free, and everything is tasty. So fill up!
Govinda: A pay-by-weight buffet affiliated with Hare Krishna. It’s simple food, but cheap, warm and tasty. There are several locations to make it extra convenient.
Vega City: Some items in this vegan, cafeteria-style restaurant are priced individually (like burgers), and some are priced per weight. Pick what you want and eat up (including dessert)! Prices are reasonable and the food is fresh and tasty.
Have any of your own fave hot spots in Budapest? Share ’em! Seriously. We’d go back in a second. Wander on!
Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. alishamcdarris.com