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Budapest on a Budget: A grad student perspective

Hi! I’m Sophia, a 23 year old graduate student. I traveled to Budapest on a budget and had an incredible time. Though I only stayed for 3 full days, I managed to check off many of the must-do’s on my list. Let me describe to you the experiences that I’ll never forget.

First, some general tips:

  1. Get the BudapestGO app and purchase a travel card. They are accepted on virtually every form of public transportation.

  2. Get your Forints ahead of time (around 400 HUF per USD) because the conversion rate at the ATMs is higher and cash is useful. The city is generally not expensive; 4 days worth of groceries for 1 person was around 15$.

  3. If you plan to go out for dinner, which I recommend, try the goulash - it’s delicious!

  4. Don’t drink too many cocktails, they are twice as strong.

  5. Socialize when you go out! There are so many interesting people and memorable stories to be made.

  6. Bring a first aid kit if you’re going to climb up to the roof of your airbnb.

  7. Learn a little bit of Hungarian, or have Google Translate handy.

Some historical context of Budapest - it was once two cities, Buda and Pest, respectively on the West and East side of the Danube river. Being the capital of Hungary, it has strong influences from its time as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, ruled over by the Habsburgs. Also due to its location, Budapest was occupied first by the Nazis and then the Soviets, and it has history reflecting both periods as well as the transition between these two dictatorships.


My travel companion, a friend from college, and I began planning months prior and had bought reservations to a party called “Sparty” at the Széchenyi Thermal Baths. The Sparty happens every Saturday yearound and turns the gorgeous and historic outdoor thermal baths into what is essentially a giant pool party.

If you love to party then indulge your senses there.

The chill of the night is fought off by tasty cocktails, dancing partners, and steam from the bath. The crowd is quite literally a melting pot of many nationalities and tends towards people in their 20s and 30s. I socialized with Germans, Englishmen, Irishmen, Albanians, Australians, Hungarians, and Austrians over the course of the night.

The party also came with dancers and a light laser light show. The fire dancers were almost as mesmerizing as the laser lights shining through the steam. Though I didn’t recognize many of the songs, they were all bangers. As someone who loves water, music, and cocktails, I can’t recommend this party enough.

The Sparty happens every Saturday yearound and turns the gorgeous and historic outdoor thermal baths into what is essentially a giant pool party.

Gellért Spa

But back to the true purpose of the spas. Relaxation.

Tired from travel and hungover from Sparty, we knew Gellért Spa was exactly what we needed. The entry to the spa was around 6500 Forints or 16 USD. The thermal baths, five in total situated around two swimming pools, were stunningly decorated with ornate mosaics and the minerals in the water made my skin feel amazing.

Also available was an outdoor pool/wave pool and a small café. The food was decent and I also splurged and purchased a 45$ massage. I recommend booking massage service as soon as you get there since there were a limited number of timeslots available when I got one. It was the most wonderful 45 minutes my muscles have ever felt. It was probably a normal massage, but I had never had a proper one before and my entire body felt amazing.

I had heard that the Hungarians can be a bit impatient with tourists, but I found the people there to be very pleasant and welcoming. My body and soul felt rejuvenated after visiting the spas. Perfect since we were continuing our exploration of the city that afternoon, evening, and night.

History and Architecture

Leaving the Gellert spa at 2pm gave us enough time to explore the Castle District on the Western half of the city - the Buda half.

There are many beautiful places to view and you can take your pick between the Buda Castle, many art and history museums, the Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias Church, and the Funicular. It’s a beautiful place that you could spend multiple days exploring, but we also wanted to explore the Pest side on the Eastern side of the Danube River.

You can cross the Chain Bridge and walk along the Danube to really take in how beautiful the city is.

We walked through parks and monument squares like Hero's Square and Liberty Square. Walking past the Hungarian Parliament Building was also worth the walk as it is truly a breathtaking piece of architecture (especially during the evening).

I found the people there to be very pleasant and welcoming.

Ruin Pubs

After indulging in beautiful architecture and a rich history, we made our way to the Ruin Pubs for another fun night out. The Ruin Pubs were impressive.

I had read online that they were once home to the Jewish population in Budapest, but the buildings became abandoned during World War II. After a short time, squatters took over the buildings and sold alcohol out of them. Since then, the buildings were turned into pubs in which alcohol is now sold officially.

While there are three Ruin Pubs, we only had time to explore one: Szimpla Kert. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The audience tended younger, more similar to the kind I had described for Sparty. The venue was quite large which I found pretty awesome.

The pub covers multiple stories in what would have been around half a dozen apartments. It very much felt like an abandoned apartment building since the original building structure remained - including windows and doorways.

Written on the walls all throughout the pub were thousands of messages in many different languages, which fit the ruined vibe and they were really fun to read. We had seen so much that day and I would, without hesitation, go back and do the same day again despite knowing there are dozens of other places to explore in the city.

The TL;DR of this - For an excellent day in Budapest go to:

  • Gellért or Széchenyi Thermal Baths,

  • then the Castle District or Hero’s Square,

  • and then the Ruin Pubs.

A couple other places we went on different days were:

  • the House of Terror, a museum which covers the history of the Nazi and Soviet occupations,

  • the Hungarian Opera House,

  • and St. Stephan’s Basilica.

  • Take a walk along the Danube and soak in the city.

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