While the Four Seasons, Nobu, and other global luxury brands have glitzed up postcommunist Budapest, the city’s soul remains intact. Dazzling architecture, stunning Danube vistas, and grassy parkland offer visitors plenty to do that won’t cost a forint.
Soak up some Hungarian heritage with a pilgrimage to Heroes' Square, established in 1896 to commemorate the country’s thousandth anniversary. At its center is the dramatic Millennium Monument honoring the seven chieftains of the Magyars—the founders of Hungary—and other national luminaries, with archangel Gabriel presiding from aloft a soaring center column.
Completed in 1902, the iconic Hungarian Parliament was built on the Pest side of the Danube—in contrast to Buda Castle, which towers above the city on the Buda side of the river—signifying that the country’s fate is bound not to royalty but to democracy. Admission is roughly 3,500 Hungarian forints (U.S. $16) for non-European Union residents (children under age six get in free), but a panoramic view of the building in all its Gothic revival glory from across the river in Batthyány Square is free.
With its seven towers featuring the seven chieftains of Hungary, the fairy tale-like Fisherman’s Bastion was one of a series of monuments erected for the country’s thousandth birthday. Built on the site of a stretch of stone wall that fortified Castle Hill in medieval times, the neo-Romanesque terrace was intended as a lookout, and today offers a sweeping view of the Pest side of the city and river. A gander from the upper turrets costs around U.S. $3 (kids under age six get in free), but entrance to the seven towers and some balconies is free.
The dome of St. Stephen's Basilica rises 315 feet, the same height of the Parliament building—signifying the country’s balance of church and state (no other structure in the city is allowed to exceed it). A five-part mosaic based on an oil painting of the allegories of the mass by Hungarian artist Gyula Benczur is among the artwork decorating the interior. Entrance to the church is free, but there’s a small charge of around U.S. $2 to climb the 364 steps (or take the elevator) to the observation deck, open April to October. Classical music buffs may want to splurge for the organ concerts (around U.S. $13) held each Monday throughout the year at 5 p.m.
During the opening of the neo-Renaissance-style Opera House in 1884, the crowd broke past security to steal a glimpse of the interior’s gilded, vaulted ceilings; grand bronze chandelier; and paintings, frescoes, and sculptures by a who’s who of 19th-century Hungarian artists. Today, visitors won’t encounter any resistance when marveling at its opulence. A tour cost around U.S. $13, but some performances can be seen for as little as 700 forints (a little more than $3).
Admission to the Museum of Fine Arts on Heroes' Square is reasonable—around U.S. $11—compared to its counterparts around the world, and even more so on the third Saturday of the month, when those age 26 and under can access the permanent collection for free. You won’t find Hungarian art here, but the collection of European paintings, drawings, and sculptures, particularly Spanish works, is extensive. Don’t miss Leonardo da Vinci’s horseman sculpture.
It’s not free, but it’s hard to beat the value—and fun—of Budapest’s Night of Museums, held for one night each June. For the nominal cost of an armband (roughly U.S. $7 for adults; $3 for kids; free for kids six and under), participants can visit more than a hundred museums and galleries throughout the city, including the Hungarian National Museum and the House of Terror Museum between the hours of 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. Transport via the museum bus included.
With an expansive water park, a little zoo, and skates and bikes for rent, Margaret Island is a great escape for kids. The pedestrian-only island in the middle of the Danube has had an illustrious history: Named for the daughter of 13th-century King Béla IV, it was for centuries home to a Dominican church and cloisters, whose ruins can still be explored. The Turks replaced the nuns and monks with a harem during their occupation until the 18th century, after which it became a resort for dignitaries, and later a public park.
One of the first public parks in the world, City Park is home to the romantic Vajdahunyad Castle, surrounded by a lake and partly inspired by a Transylvanian castle. In the winter, the lake becomes a skating rink (think great holiday card photo). Entrance into the courtyard is free, except for festivals. The park has plenty of fun for young tots too, including wooden castles, monkey bars, and slides.
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Colorful Zsolnay tiles cover the roof of the 19th-century Central Market Hall. Inside, stalls peddle Hungarian standards like paprika, salami, and lángos (yeast-based dough deep fried and topped with sour cream and cheese), alongside foods from around the world. “Gastro days” feature a different culinary tradition each Thursday through Saturday. (Open Monday, 6 a.m.-5p.m.; Tuesday-Friday, 6 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, 6 a.m.-3 p.m.; closed Sunday and holidays.)
Get your bearings by climbing Gellért Hill, where the layout of the city—hilly Buda and flat Pest, divided by the Danube—can be seen in all its glory. Named for St. Gerard, who was thrown to his death from the hill by pagans, Géllert is history-rich, with multiple monuments to show for it. Check out the mid-19th-century Citadel (Citadella), built by the Habsburgs after the War of Independence, and the Liberty Monument, commemorating liberation from the Nazis.
The first permanent bridge to connect Buda and Pest, the Chain Bridge is a great vantage point from which to soak up the city scenery, occasional open-air concerts, and fireworks.
Saturday is the liveliest day of the week to scour the vast Ecseri Flea Market on the outskirts of the city. Get there early for dibs on finds like Soviet Army watches and Zsolnay porcelain vases, and don’t be afraid to haggle. (Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday 6 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.)