Budapest

In my recent jaunt through the countries that are the best value in Europe, I spent the last of it in one of my favorite cities: Budapest. Last time I was there I was using it as a base to explore other parts of the country, but this time I just stayed put and soaked up the atmosphere of Buda and Pest.

Imagine visiting your local wine bar and ordering three different varieties from assorted regions, being served by someone who can explain the climate there and what awards that vintner has won. The chalk board list behind the bar has over 100 wines by the glass to choose from and there’s something for every taste. The interior is elegant and the location is perfect, right across from a busy pedestrian plaza fronting the city’s huge historic cathedral. It’s the kind of place you could linger for hours, but how much is it going to cost you when the bill comes?

$8.50 with tip.

That’s what I spent at the best wine bar in Budapest. For three glasses that took my taste buds on a terrific ride, from three distinct wine regions of Hungary.

I bring that up first because it’s emblematic of the appeal of Hungary. This is not the ideal bargain backpacker city and it’s thronged with tourists that are firmly in the middle of the pack budget-wise. After all, the Hungarians consider themselves “Central Europe” and they are right next to expensive Austria. They’re on the Danube, with docking river cruise ships a defining feature of the waterfront. So this is a value destination, but the best deals are for those on a vacation budget rather than a shoestring budget. Think “value” more than “cheap.”

As I write this though, Europe is a financial mess and Hungary is doing worse than many others. It’s part of the EU, but is not on the euro, so when that currency falls, the forint often falls even more because of domestic problems. You can currently get 230 forints for a U.S. dollar. I can’t promise you that’s going to last, so keep exchange rates in mind if you land on this post later—I’m writing this in mid-2012 and used 220 to the dollar for my calculations.

Hotel and hostel prices in Budapest

Budapest is a very popular city. There are bargains in hotel prices, but they’re more like getting a Four Seasons room for under $350 than finding a great budget room for $15. The sweet spot of choice is between $60 and $100 a night, where you’ll often find 40 places or more to choose from on sites like HotelsCombined or Expedia. But I strongly advise using Hotwire, because that’s when you see the true bargains. Searching mid-July prices right now, there are 3-star hotels for under $35, 4-star ones for under $45, and one 5-star one listed for $67!

Real estate has historically been pretty cheap here, so there are probably at least 50 hostels to choose from. Expect to pay between $12 and $18 a night for a bed in a dorm room, which is certainly better than most countries west of here in Europe. Check Hostelbookers.com, where there’s no booking fee.  Internet is free at every hostel and most hotels 3-star or less. Many include breakfast, where you’ll see plenty of protein on the trays.

Food and drink prices in Budapest

If you’re a tourist on vacation, Budapest will feel like a terrific bargain come dinnertime. Sure, you can spend $200 each on a 6-course tasting menu at the city’s finest restaurant if you want, but you can normally have a very fine cloth-napkin dinner with wine for $15. If you eat at more humble places, a soup will be a dollar or two and main dishes range from $3 to $7. For my last dinner in town, for example, I had soup, a paprika pepper stuffed with ground pork, bread, and two glasses of house wine for under $10. I walked down the street and got a $1.25 strudel pastry that was terrific.

Hungary

If you buy things in the market for a picnic or self-catering, prices are at the low end for Europe, say a tad more than Bulgaria but a lot less than Germany. You can get rolls for 10-25 cents each or a huge baguette for a dollar or less. Get 100 grams (around 1/5 of a pound) of good cheese for a dollar, 100 grams of good local sausage for $2, and a jar of pickled veggies for another dollar or so.

For a buck or less, you can generally buy 100 grams of any of these things in the market: raisins, peanuts, sunflower seeds, banana chips, or dried apricots. For a buck or less you can get a kilo of seasonal fruit or peppers, cabbage, potatoes, radishes, or carrots. I saw a big bunch of white asparagus for about a dollar when I was there. How much do you pay for that in your local farmer’s market?

As in most of the old Iron Curtain countries, alcoholic drinks are the real bargains. (Some say alcohol is what really fuels RyanAir’s business: all those Western European residents flying to cheaper cities to get wasted on cheap booze.) The weekend streets of Pest are filled with hen and stag weekend revelers buying $1-$2 beers in the pubs—less at happy hour—and shots of palinka for even less. The latter, which is distilled liquor make from plums or other fruit, ranges from 50 cents for the rot-gut versions to $3 for something refined you can sip before dinner. Almost anywhere though you can get a small glass for around a euro, straight up or in a cocktail.

coffee pastryHungarian wine should be known around the world, but the Soviet occupation days seriously hurt its reputation and the recovery will be a long one. So for now it’s one of the best bargains in Europe. Sample a lot of it here and you’ll be glad you did. You can find a decent bottle in a store for $2, something quite good for $4 to $8. If you spend over $10 you might end up with something from a “winemaker of the year” who has adorned local magazine covers. In general, get reds from the south or Eger, whites from Lake Balaton, and dessert wine from Tokaj.

This once being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, you can get a killer coffee and pastry here just as you can in Vienna—but for literally 1/4 the price. After you do a double-take at your low bill in a wine bar, finish with a coffee and dessert for another nice surprise.

Transportation prices in Budapest

My biggest negative surprise in Budapest was how expensive the subway has gotten for locals. The cheapest ticket (5 stops or less) is a dollar but a longer one is $1.50. A 24-hour pass is $6, a monthly one $45. If you get the local Budapest card—see the end of this post for a giveaway—unlimited subway rides are included.

BudapestA taxi from the airport to the center is around $35, but going the other way it’s half that. In general you can get around the center in a cab for $2 to $5.

The locals are bike-crazy and a lot of the main avenues have marked bike lanes. Some hotels and hostels have loaner bikes available, but you can also find rental kiosks with prices from $5 for four hours to $9-$12 for 24 hours.

I rode a cool narrow gauge Children’s Train on the Pest side of the city when I went on a tour with a Budapest Underguide. That was $6 one way, half for students. We took the chairlift down that mountain and that was around $3.

Museums and attractions in Budapest

This is not a city where you want to go on a whirlwind sightseeing tour unless you’re using the Budapest card. That gets you a discount of 10-50% and free admission to a few (like the zoo). The card is 3900 forint for 24 hours, or about $18.

Otherwise, some attractions and museums are free, like the Fisherman’s Bastion and the cool central bank visitor center, which is a money museum. Others, like the depressing but fascinating House of Terror Museum, cost money but are worth it. That one’s $9. The popular Memento Park, with all the old communist statues, is $7. The public baths Budapest is famous for are also going to cost you. Non-locals pay $16 for an unlimited time of soaking and steaming at the major ones.

Win a Budapest Card!

The Hungarian Tourism people covered some of my expenses in Budapest as I am writing a feature story on the city for another publication and updating my book. They gave me two Budapest Cards but I only needed one. So courtesy of Hungary Tourism, I’m giving away I gave away a free 24-hour Budapest Card that’s good until March of 2013 to Josh A. of Louisville, KY. He”ll get unlimited local transportation and loads of discounts on attractions and restaurants. Congrats Josh—have fun!

Thanks to all who commented below to enter, telling me when you’re going, what attracted you to Hungary, and where you live.