Known as the Pearl of the Danube, Budapest is a city, where you can tour grand monuments in the morning, slip into a thermal bath in the afternoon and party in a world-famous ruin bar after sunset. And you can see Hungary’s capital city on a budget, with these experiences that won’t cost a single forint. From markets and mausoleums to memorable hikes and mummified hands, here are 15 of the best free things to do in Budapest.
1. Gellért Hill
The Citadella, the mighty fortress atop Gellért Hill, marks one of the best viewpoints in Budapest, and undertaking the 30-minute hike to the top via a meandering forested path is a great way to spend a morning. Once at the top, enjoy the ace panorama of the city in the shadow of the Liberty Monument, proclaiming freedom throughout the city.
2. The ‘Great Market’
The Nagycsarnok (or Great Market Hall) is Budapest’s largest food market. Head upstairs for the fun stuff: traditional Hungarian folk costumes, dolls, painted eggs, embroidered tablecloths and carved hunting knives; and downstairs to browse speciality food items, from huge bags of paprika powder to kolbász (sausages) and local wines.
3. Ervin Szabó Central Library
Housed in a former 19th-century palace, the Ervin Szabó Central Library invites visitors to take a break from the dizzying-pace of the Hungarian capital and unwind in regal surrounds. Spaces that once functioned as grand dining rooms and living quarters have been converted into a number of truly dazzling public reading rooms. Giant chandeliers dangle above plush armchairs, enticing visitors to spend an afternoon flicking through one of the 2 million plus texts that line the library’s shelves.
4. City Park
Pest’s green lung, City Park is an open space to the east of the city measuring almost a square kilometre. Stroll along the park’s shady paths, past monuments like the hooded ‘Anonymous’, the nameless unknown chronicler at the 12th-century court who wrote a history of the early Magyars. The unofficial entrance to the park is Heroes’ Square, with its landmark Millenary Monument, marking the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian Basin.
5. Margaret Island
This green oasis in the middle of the Danube boasts a couple of large swimming complexes, a thermal spa, gardens and shaded walkways, and is a delightful place to head on a hot afternoon. Even better, its key sights – the ruins of a Franciscan church and monastery, the grave of St Margaret (a miracle-performing princess turned nun who the island is named after) and the remains of the Dominican convent where she took the veil – are all open to the public free of charge.
6. Gül Baba’s Tomb
The northernmost place of pilgrimage for Muslims (especially from Turkey), this ornate tomb and mosque is free to visitors of all faiths. The tomb contains the mortal remains of Gül Baba, an Ottoman dervish who took part in the capture of Buda in 1541. Make sure you remove your shoes before entering.
7. Live music
Budapest boasts a great live music scene. Jazz is on offer in cosy Jedermann Cafe, authentic folk music at Giero, a mixture of genres are showcased in an unbeatable courtyard setting at ELLATOház, and super-cool ruin bar Mazel Tov has a soundtrack to match.
8. Roman relics
The Romans established the province of Pannonia on the site of present-day Budapest at the beginning of the 1st century. Reminders of their presence are scattered throughout the city, including the remains of the fortress Contra Aquincum in Március 15 tér in Pest, and both the Roman Military Amphitheatre and the smaller Roman Civilian Amphitheatre in Óbuda. It’s the most complete Roman civilian town in Hungary and contains both a world-class museum and an open-air archaeological park. There’s an entrance fee but if you just want a glimpse of the settlement, most of it is visible from the street outside.
9. Szimpla farmers’ market
Visiting the Szimpla Farmers’ Market is a good way to visit a ruin pub without spending big at the bar. The market is held every Sunday morning in Szimpla Kert, the oldest and most popular ruin pub in the city. Peruse the local produce on the shelves, from cakes to seasonal fruits, while ogling the eclectic, graffiti-spattered interiors of the bar (you’re likely to remember more of it than the evening revellers!).
10. Castle Hill
You can’t say you’ve visited Budapest until you make your way up Castle Hill. The Sikló funicular and elevator from Dózsa György tér, both charge a fee. Instead, walk up the Royal Steps (Király lépcső), or the wide staircase which goes to the southern end of the Royal Palace from Szarvas tér. While you need a ticket for the museums housed inside the Royal Palace, you can stroll around its grounds and gardens for free, enjoying wonderful monuments and awesome views.
11. Kerepesi Cemetery
This over-the-top necropolis established in 1847 keeps 3000 gravestones and mausoleums. Some tombs are quite moving, including those of actor Lujza Blaha and poet Endre Ady. Here you’ll also find the graves of many who died in the 1956 Uprising and, uncomfortably close, the final resting place of communist leader János Kádár (the man who ordered the execution of many participants in the uprising).
12. Budapest’s rooftops
Bustling Budapest becomes serene when you’re up among the church spires and chimney tops that make up its skyline. Rooftop bars in Budapest come in all shapes and sizes, and while there’s usually no charge for entry, you’ll have to shell out for at least one drink to take advantage of the magical views and mellow vibes these venues are adored for. Kick back with a quiet drink overlooking the Széchenyi Bridge at Leo on the rooftop of Hotel Clark or sway to live DJs at perennially-popular 360 Bar.
13. Basilica of St Stephen
The Basilica of St Stephen is the most important Catholic church in all of Hungary. You have to pay to visit the treasury of ecclesiastical objects on the second floor and to reach the 96m-high dome, but the church itself doesn’t charge entry. Your destination should be the Holy Right Chapel behind the main altar. It contains the Holy Right (also known as the Holy Dexter), the mummified right hand of St Stephen and an object of great devotion.Introducing Budapest
14. Buda Hills
The Buda Hills are the city’s playground, and they’re a welcome respite from hot, dusty Pest in the warmer months. There aren’t many real sights here (excluding the Béla Bartók Memorial House) but with ‘peaks’ exceeding 500m, a comprehensive system of trails (ideal for walking and mountain biking) and no lack of unusual modes of transport (a narrow-gauge railway staffed by schoolchildren, for one) to get there, the hills beckon.
15. Healing tonics
If you can’t shell out for a dip in one of Budapest’s wonderfully atmospheric bathhouses, consider experiencing the purported healing properties of the city’s thermal water, the pauper’s way. Cobble together 60Ft (20 cents) to fill up your bottle at the Drinking Hall; a hot and humid room just below the western end of Elizabeth Bridge. A swig of this warm, pungent water is meant to cure whatever ails you – bottoms up!