Here's our pick of the best free things to do in Budapest, from the city's highest peak to its underground art scene.
For the best views of the city head up to Janos-Hegy, the tallest of Budapest's many hills at 527 meters. At the top of the hill, the Elizabeth Lookout Tower offers free entry and incredible panoramas that will take your breath away (if walking up the 134 steps doesn't). It's said that on a clear day the views stretch to the peaks of the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. The historic tower was built in the early 1900s and is named after Empress Elisabeth, wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I.
Take advantage of a free walking tour of the city and tick off the main sights with a Budapest local. The popular Free Budapest Tour runs twice daily (10:30 am and 2:30 pm) and is a great introduction to the city. You'll explore Buda Castle, Chain Bridge, St. Stephen's Basilica, the Royal Palace and more over the course of three hours and gain handy insights and tips about Hungarian culture and traditions. The tours operate on a 'pay what it's worth to you' basis.
Take to the streets to see some of the city's best alfresco artwork. 'Shoes on the Danube' is a moving tribute to victims (mainly Hungarian Jews) shot into the river by fascists during World War II. The sculpture features 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes on the riverbank close to Kossuth Square. Head to the Jewish Quarter to see colorful murals and street art by big-name artists including Space Invader, or make your way to Filatorigat, Budapest's only legal graffiti wall where you'll see works by up and coming creatives.
A number of Budapest's top museums open their doors for free on Hungarian national holidays (March 15; August 20; October 23). Consider planning a trip to coincide with these dates to take advantage of free admission to the Museum of Fine Arts, the Hungarian National Gallery, the Hungarian National Museum and the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture.
On the 100th day of the year, the annual Budapest100 event opens the door to the city's 100-year-old buildings, many of which are not normally open to the public. Over 50 buildings including residential houses, schools, museums and offices can be explored and free guided tours in English and Hungarian run regularly throughout the weekend (you'll need to pre-register for tickets as numbers are limited on each tour).
Dedicated to Hungary's first king, St Stephen's Basilica is a mammoth neoclassical cathedral that took over half a century to construct. It's free to enter but there's a charge to access the dome for impressive views of the city and it's customary (but not essential) to make a donation on entry.
On August 20 each year, crowds gather outside Budapest's contemporary concert hall to enjoy free jazz concerts in celebration of St Stephen's Day, a Hungarian national holiday. This popular event takes place at Mupa, which together with the Festival Theatre and the Ludwig Museum, forms part of a buzzing cultural complex in a former industrial neighborhood. Many of the gigs are held outside in Banner Square and you can also enjoy indoor jam sessions. The event runs from 5pm to 11pm and culminates with a huge city-wide fireworks display.
Escape to Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube for a peaceful stroll around the lush parkland. Between Arpad Bridge and Margit Bridge, this car-free island is a former royal hunting reserve and features a Japanese garden, medieval ruins, a musical fountain and a thermal spa.
Budapest's annual Belvarosi Festival is a 3-day celebration of live music in the city's 5th district. Enjoy pop, folk, rock and jazz concerts across a number of stages between the basilica and the Hungarian parliament. This family-friendly event takes place at the end of May/beginning of June and features film screenings, dance performances and a number of activities for kids.
The Central Market Hall is a vast three-story neo-gothic building filled with stalls selling classic Hungarian food like kifli (croissant-shaped bread), lángos (a flat savory donut topped with garlic, sour cream and cheese), kolbász (smoked sausage) and körözött (a cheesy spread flavored with paprika, best layered thickly on the kifli). Some of the stalls offer free samples.