Known as the Pearl of the Danube, Budapest is a real gem of 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.
Despite its regal-sounding moniker, Budapest is also a cheap city to visit, with accommodation and food costs that won’t break the bank. But savvy travellers can go one step further and explore the city without spending 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.
Gellért Hill offers a wonderful panoramic view of Budapest © ZGPhotography / Shutterstock
1. Hike to the top of Gellért Hill
The Citadella, the mighty fortress atop Gellért Hill that never saw battle, 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, the lady with a palm frond in her outstretched arms proclaiming freedom throughout the city. On the way down, those with some change can visit Gellért Hill Cave (600Ft), once home to a hermit with healing powers, or reinvigorate weary legs in the opulent Gellért Baths at the foot of the hill.
2. Cast away to 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.
Budapest's Great Market stocks everything, from fruit and veg to traditional costumes © Fat Jackey / Shutterstock
3. Browse the stalls of the ‘Great Market’
The Nagycsarnok (or Great Market Hall) is Budapest’s largest food market. Though it has been attracting a lot more tourists since its renovation almost a decade ago, plenty of locals come here for their daily essentials. Head upstairs for the fun stuff: traditional Hungarian folk costumes, dolls, painted eggs, embroidered tablecloths and carved hunting knives; and downstairs for speciality food items, from huge bags of paprika powder to kolbász (sausages) and local wines – any chance of a free sample?
4. Stroll around City Park
Pest’s green lung, City Park is an open space to the east of the city measuring almost a square kilometre. Most of its numerous attractions, including museums, galleries, the Capital Circus of Budapest, Budapest Zoo and the Széchenyi Baths, charge an entry fee. But you are free to stroll along the park’s shady paths, past important 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, the city’s largest, with its landmark Millenary Monument, marking the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian Basin.
Gül Baba’s Tomb was built in the mid-16th century and remains a place of pilgrimage © Pelle Zoltan / Shutterstock
5. Enjoy a moment of reflection at 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. His name means ‘Father of Roses’ in Turkish and he is credited with introducing that flower into Europe from Turkey. Make sure you remove your shoes before entering. To reach it from Török utca, which runs parallel to long Frankel Leó út on the Buda side, walk up steep Gül Baba utca to the set of steps just past the building at No 16.
6. Catch some live music
Budapest may be famed for its sprawling, dimly-lit bars and mega clubs but the city also boasts a great live music scene. Jazz is on offer in cosy Jedermann Cafe, authentic folk music at Giero and a mixture of genres are showcased in an unbeatable courtyard setting at ELLATOház. If you have the urge to belt a few bars yourself, try the open mic night at Bela on the Buda side of the Danube or Sixty-Six Bar in Pest.
The remains of Aquincum are just one of the Roman sites visitors can find in Budapest © Estea / Shutterstock
7. Seek out the city’s 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. The latter is close to Aquincum, the capital of Pannonia Inferior from AD 106. 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 (adult/student 1600/800Ft) but if you just want a glimpse of the settlement and the outlines of its big public baths, market, an early Christian church and a temple dedicated to the god Mithra, most of it is visible from the street outside.
8. Knock back a healing tonic
If you simply 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. If you can cobble together just 60Ft (20 cents) you can 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!
It's possible to visit one of Budapest's ruin pubs without having to buy a round © Alicia G. Monedero / Shutterstock
9. Visit a farmers' market in a ruin pub
Spending time in Budapest without stepping foot in a romkocsma (ruin pub) is like a weekend in Paris without glimpsing the Eiffel Tower. But prices in some of these popular dilapidated drinking dens can be steep and bar tabs soon mount up. Visiting the Szimpla Farmers’ Market is a good way to visit a ruin pub without feeling the pressure to spend 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. Work up a sweat in 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 you there should you want to spend a few forints, the hills beckon.
Ervin Szabó Central Library boasts a selection of beautiful reading rooms that are open to the public © Andocs / Shutterstock
11. Hang out in a library in a former palace
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, where giant chandeliers dangle above wooden benches and plush armchairs entice visitors into spending an afternoon flicking through one of the 2 million plus texts that line the library’s shelves. Guided tours are available for a small fee.
12. Walk the steps to the top of Castle Hill
You really can’t say you’ve visited Budapest until you make your way up to Castle Hill. The Sikló funicular from Clark Ádám tér and the elevator from Dózsa György tér, which will whisk you up to the National Széchenyi Library, both charge a fee. Instead, walk up the Royal Steps (Király lépcső) which lead northwest from Clark Ádám tér, 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 the wonderful monuments and the awesome views.
Kerepesi Cemetery is home to 3000 gravestones and mausoleums © Matthew Treadwell / Shutterstock
13. Marvel at the mausoleum of Kerepesi Cemetery
If you like London’s Highgate Cemetery or Père Lachaise in Paris, make your way to this over-the-top necropolis. Established in 1847, some of the 3000 gravestones and mausoleums are worthy of a pharaoh – especially those of statespeople and national heroes such as Lajos Kossuth and Ferenc Deák. Other 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).
14. Head up to the rooftops
Budapest is a joy to wander around, but the city is even more 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.
The Basilica of St Stephen is a sight to behold, as are the treasures it holds © Jiri Sebesta / Shutterstock
15. See a mummified hand in 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 ascend two lifts and 40 steps to reach the 96m-high dome, which offers some of the best views in the city, but the church proper doesn’t charge an entry fee. Your destination should be the Holy Right Chapel behind the main altar and to the left. It contains the Holy Right (also known as the Holy Dexter), the mummified right hand of St Stephen and an object of great devotion. Organ concerts (paid entry) are held here at 8pm, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the year.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.
This article was originally published in April 2015 and updated in June 2019.