Travel Prices in Budapest, Hungary

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.


Comments
  1. Cosi

    This is great!!! Thanks for showing the breakdown :D

  2. Steve J

    Don’t forget the variety of all-you-can-eat-and-drink brunch options for $10-15 USD-equivalent per person. In fact, I never had a meal in Budapest that I didn’t have reverse sticker shock when the bill came! It truly is a great bargain city in Europe.

    As for the attractions, the public bath houses can not be beat. Sitting in an 80C sauna for as long as possible before plunging into an ice bath is an unforgettable experience.

  3. Sara HS

    This post could not have come at a better time for me. I live in New York City and am scheduled to visit Budapest for a week at the end of July/early August. I have heard from a number of friends that Budapest is a fascinating city and has been towards the top of my “bucket list” of places to visit for a while. I found an amazing airfare of less than $650 from NYC to Berlin (one of my all time favorite cities) for July and decided it was a perfect opportunity to spend a week in Budapest and a week in Berlin. I was excited to explore Budapest before reading this post but am looking forward to my trip even more now.

  4. John

    Great stuff man! I was in Budapest last summer and I had a wonderful time. Wish I could have stayed longer for sure. I would say it takes at least a week to do Budapest right and I only had less than two days there!

    I would love that card but I am not planning on going back for a couple years :/

  5. Grace

    Awesome! My boyfriend and I quit our jobs and are backpacking on a one year around the world trip. We are five months into it. We’ve hit Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India, Hong Kong, Macau, and now we are in China. Your website was crucial during our planning phase and we keep checking in on it throughout our trip. We’re are currently at the Dragon Back Terraces in southern China which, surprisingly, has wifi! We are working our way up to Beijing.

    1. We will be flying from Beijing to Budapest on July 13. We had to book our tickets out of Beijing for our Chinese visa and we chose to start Eastern Europe in Budapest because we heard it was beautiful, cheap, and had good food. It’s also a good place to start for us to hit Greece, Croatia, and Turkey before moving down to Africa.
    2. Backpacking for a year means we gotta be conscious of our budgets. We chose Eastern Europe over Western Europe because it’s cheaper. And Hungary was always on our radar because everyone who has been to Hungary raves about it. We just met two Belgian guys who were telling us how awesome and affordable it is. One guy described the food to be as good as Italy, but for a fraction of the cost. When I read your comment about the wine for $8.50 I almost died because I have really missed good wine, cheese, and ham on our travels.
    3. We’re from Vancouver, Canada, undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful places in the world. We love it, but we love travelling more!

    We would love, love, love to be the lucky recipients of those cards. It would really help our ever expanding budgets. We’re also keeping a blog on our travels (theviewfromouroffice.com) and can post about the places we have been to using your cards! Fingers crossed and thanks for all the useful info!

  6. Ellen Funk

    Don’t put us in the hunt for the free card. Just wanted to say, we love Budapest, and will be going back for the 5th time in Oct. 5 wks this time. Renting an apt close to Margit Island and tram lines. We love it for the cost and the fact that there is always something to do and see. My dream would be to stay from 1 Jan to 31 Dec some year. That way, we wouldn’t miss a festival. We now get the 7 day transport card which pays for itself after just a few rides and you don’t have to worry about having correct change for a ticket machine nor stand in line at a window. We even found a church with an English mass on Sat evenings. We are retired and live in the US Midwest.

  7. Aggie

    Hi I’m visiting Budapest for the first time on the 7th July!
    I am meeting two friends there who are travelling from Manchester!
    I live and will be travelling from Belfast!
    This is our first stop to soak up a bit of culture before we embark 3 days later to serbia and the much awaited Exit festival :)

  8. Marcello Nobrega

    Thanks for this post! Very good to hear about the ‘value and not cheap’ prices! I’m living in London and I am scheduled to fly out to Budapest on the 13th July. There, I will be volunteering at one of the top football (soccer) academies of Vasas SC, a very successful team. I’ll be living in the Adagio Hostel, right in the centre of the city, until i fly home on the 29th. A travel card will come in handy for me to get to the academy, which is a half hour drive from the hostel. I hope I get it!
    Thanks again for this very helpful post!

  9. Josh

    Tim,

    My girlfriend is working this summer in Germany and I’m heading over to travel with her for eight days when she wraps up in mid-August. She’s a grad student and I’m a freelance journalist, so stretching our limited vacation dollars is especially important. We’re spending a few days in Prague to begin but the low price of advance train tickets to Budapest and its relative cheap prices made it a stop we couldn’t miss. We’re looking forward to the baths and some good Hungarian wine after we’ve had our fill of Czech beer.

    Thanks for the offer – I know the card would be a big help in getting a young Louisville, Ky. couple home safely after a night on the town!

  10. Budapest travel

    I really love Budapest, you can find anything you want from classy restaurants to romantic walking paths and everything has got a very special, uplifting feeling about it…

  11. Bob Walls

    I will be traveling to Budapest over the Xmas season to visit the Xmas market as part of my river cruise from Dec 21-Dec 30, 2012. This is one of the places on my “bucket list” for my 65th birthday! I live in Campbell Ohio which is in the old “Rust Belt” section of the country (shut down steel mills) but because of the early years of the mills is a very diverse ethnic city.

  12. Jeremy B.

    You don’t need to put me in the drawing for the card. Been there and had a great time. I just couldn’t resist the chance to say…nice “money shot.”

  13. Sarika

    2012 has been anything but easy on me. I lost my job in Feb, my boyfriend walked on out me in March. Its been over 1 month since I’ve started to pick up pieces of my life and put it back together, the journey has been trying, but there were some people who stood by me through it all. One of them is my sister, she’s younger than me and she’s been my pillar of strength. I have been wanting to do something special for her since a while and over the last 2 months with a new job and some money put away, I’ve been looking at budget vacation options in Europe. With a great deal of internet research, I finally found Budapest! Hard to believe how a place this picturesque could fit into my budget!! I am truly hoping that this vacation will turn our lives around (my sister and mine)! Budapest for us is 2 single independent free spirited girls hoping to go on that dream vacation in picturesque Europe, living up ever single moment of their lives, irrespective of what may go right or what may go wrong! :)
    1) We’ll be travelling in October, just getting the visa formalities completed at this point.
    2) The architectural marvels, so surreal, practically transporting you to a whole new world!
    3) We live in India, I’ve been to Europe before and my sister has traveled extensively across US, so our pact is that I take her to Europe and she takes me to the US! :)
    We’d be over the moon to win one of these cards! :) That would be my first streak of good luck for the year! :)

  14. Zeman

    This is really cool, I actually live in Budapest but I totally agree with you. This is a perfect place for tourists: cheap, good food, nice weather, friendly people. If you plan to visit, have a look at this site to find good apartments for renting from locals:
    http://www.homieplaces.com/apartments-vacation-rentals/Budapest

  15. Kotyu

    If you want to go to thermal spa, the Széchenyi Spa is the best!

  16. Pamela

    Hello….

    I didn’t catch your name on this article but I’ve been dreaming about moving to Europe…Italy is my dream. However, I know it’s difficult being an American. I was interested in your information on Hungary because my grandparents were from there. My grandmother was from Budapest. I have a cousin who’s done a family tree on my father’s side of the family, so I have it pretty well documented. Even though my grandmother lived with me until she died when I was 10 years old, I don’t speak the language. When they came to America everyone was proud to learn English so the language wasn’t passed down to my father and his siblings. Question: Do you think having grandparents from Hungary could be helpful for moving to Europe, even without the language?
    I’ve never been to Hungary, but I hear it’s very beautiful and everyone I know that’s been there loves it.
    Hope to hear from you.
    Thank you,
    Pamela
    Los Angeles, CA

    • Tim Leffel

      Pamela, my understanding is that your heritage would get you citizenship/residency since you have it documented. You would need to learn Hungarian eventually, but that seems to me a small price to pay in order to have open access to living anywhere in the EU after that.

  17. carla cline

    Hi I am going to Budapest at the end of October and then on a river cruise down the Danube. Should I buy hufs with canadian dollars or euros?

    • Tim Leffel

      Neither until you get there. Then use an ATM.

  18. Naomi

    Nice tips:) I had the same experience with Budapest’s museums:) If you are interested in an easy way to find everything you need in Budapest, I can recommend you a free and easy-to-use app called Huny (you can check it on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HUNY-152552281769703/timeline). Also have a navigation system. And the best: you can find what’s open in real time. It was really useful and helped me a lot.

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