Paris and London are dazzling places to visit, but these popular European cities can drain a bank account as assuredly as they can entertain. If you’re willing to travel a bit further afield, and step away from the comfort of the dollar-like Euro, a more affordable Europe still exists – in Budapest. This city teems with attractions and culture, and at a fraction of the cost of its more populous European sisters. Here’s a peek into what you can see and do in this Eastern European mainstay, and for very little money.
Visit the cathedral: Budapest’s largest church is free to visit and offers opulent interiors, as well as an eye-popping relic: the withered hand of the church’s namesake, St. Stephen, inside a gold box. You’ll need to pay a small donation to light it up so it’s visible, but for the photo op, it’s worth it. You can also climb the dome for views of the city for about $2.
See the Parisi Underpass: Blink and you’ll miss the entrance, but this glorious domed arcade is worth a few minutes of browsing and photo-snapping while you’re touring the busy, tourist-filled neighborhood near the river. Grander than the Paris arcades that it’s trying to emulate, and dust-caked from years of neglect, this gem will make you want to come back in 10 years – if only to see what becomes of this stunning space. Free to enter.
Have a drink at the Ruin Pubs: If you’re in search of Budapest’s youthful hipster population (or a bustling farmer’s market, or a creative use of deteriorated space), look no further than its “ruin pubs.” These bars and performance venues are built into the “ruins” of buildings and include indoor and outdoor spaces, found out, and shabby-chic decor. Szimpla Kert is the most popular, and hosts music and spoken word events most nights, plus a rambling farmer’s market on weekends. Most shows, and drinks, cost only a few dollars.
Stop in at the New York Cafe: Don’t bother with the food at this outrageous cafe, which is decked out with so much gold, and so many mirrors, that you’ll feel like you’re in a palace and not a coffee shop. Stay long enough to drink an overpriced coffee (about $5), take lots of photos, and feel like royalty before you set out on the rest of your sightseeing.
Gawk at the Applied Arts Museum: The exhibits – which focus on textiles, furniture, and fashion – are just fine, but the real thing to see is the museum itself. Its Art Nouveau architecture borrows heavily from Indian and Islamic design, creating an otherworldly stew of influences. Tickets cost $13.
See a familiar face: Unveiled in 2011 in Budapest’s Freedom Square, President Ronald Reagan is honored by the Hungarians for his role in ending the Cold War. He faces the U.S. Embassy, with the Hungarian Parliament behind him in the distance. His placement in the square means you’re free to stride up alongside of him for a photo. Free to visit.
Go to the opera: Culture buffs looking to see a show at La Scala in Milan or at L’Opera in Paris will pay handsomely for a ticket, even for nosebleed seats. Budapest’s glittering Hungarian State Opera House offers a more intimate, but no less fanciful, experience than those two, and sells tickets for significantly less. Tickets start at about $2.50, and more-than-decent orchestra level seats can cost as little as $15.
Stay at the Hotel Nemzeti: This 4-star Accor hotel opened in December, 2012 and still feels brand new. It’s located right at a convenient tram stop (Metro: Blaha Lujza Ter) and boasts prices that feel anything but luxurious (about $105-$130 per night). Modern rooms offer a nice contrast to the building’s stately fascade and common spaces.