They said we couldn’t do it. They said we shouldn’t do it! But we’re doing it anyway. Yes, we’ve arranged the ultimate ‘Central European Party City’ head-to-head: Budapest vs Prague. We’ll give you some facts and figures, we’ll give you side-by-side comparisons, we’ll suggest some of the unique highlights, and of course we’ll show you some awesome photos.
And if you read this through to the very end, we promise that we’ll reveal the winner. It may not be the winner you expect; it may not be the winner we expect, but we’ll definitely give you an answer.
So read on, as we discover which city wins in one of Europe’s most hotly-contested battles: Budapest vs Prague!
Budapest vs Prague: Which Is Better?
Not so fast! In our view, both cities are awesome places to visit, and we’d be happy to spend a week in either of them (or even better: a week in one, immediately followed by a week in the other!) But we promised to compare these two side-by-side before we revealed the winner, so that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Read on….
Budapest vs Prague, Round 1: Entertainment
By entertainment, we mean the cultural experience – museums, festivals and concert halls. A quick count shows Prague has about 35 museums to visit, whereas Budapest has approximately 50. Of course numbers aren’t everything, and each city offers a very diverse range. Budapest has the interactive Metal Art Gallery, a Chocolate Museum (with free samples!), the magical House of Houdini and the well-named House of Terror; Prague offers the Gallery of Steel, the tactile Museum of the Senses, a museum dedicated to film SFX and the infamous Sex Toys Museum (over 18’s only).
Every city has it’s noteworthy festivals, and both Prague and Budapest are well-known for their diverse offerings. Prague hosts its famous Czech Beer Festival in May featuring over 100 varieties of beer including 70 home brands. Budapest, not to be outdone, showcases approximately 250 brands at its own Beer Festival a month later. In the summer, Budapest holds the Danube Carnival, a colourful celebration of Hungarian folk culture And in a similar vein, Prague boasts the ‘Bohemian Carnevale’ between February and March.
For many people, the big Music Festivals are the main reasons for visiting. The most famous in Budapest has to be the ‘Sziget Festival’ in August, with well over half a million revellers enjoying headline acts such as Arctic Monkeys, Gorillaz, Muse and Rihanna. And if you’re into EDM, house and hip-hop then there’s the massive ‘Balaton Sound’ festival in July.
A late-starter to the festival scene, Prague has put itself on the map with the ‘Let It Roll’ Drum & Bass festival at the end of July. Featuring over 300 artists across 8 stages, it’s regarded as the place to discover the best new D&B producers, and its opening ceremony is pretty awesome. At the other end of the music spectrum, ’Metalfest Open Air’ in June, just outside Prague, is heavy headbanger heaven. Remember to bring ear-plugs!
Last, but not at all least, are the many opportunities to lose yourself in classical music. In Prague you’ll enjoy the Rudolfinum, home of the Czech Philharmonic and famous for its intimate Dvořák Hall. For a grander feel, Smetana Hall at Municipal House is home to the Prague Philharmonic. Budapest also boasts a proud classical heritage and the jewel in the crown is the world-famous Liszt Academy, founded by Franz Liszt himself in 1907. On the other side of the Danube is the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall famed for its superb acoustics and for hosting some of the best orchestras and soloists in the world.
Our opinion: Both cities certainly offer superb entertainment venues and a wealth of cultural variety, but the Sziget Festival and the Liszt Academy just edge Budapest ahead.
Round 2: The Dining Experience
Once you get home, one of the things people will always ask you is “how was the food?” Well in both of these Central European cities, you can safely say it’s cheap, plentiful and mainly meat-based. Common to both cities is goulash, which is a stew made with seared chunky beef (or sometimes pork) and vegetables. Dating back to the 9th century, when it was the staple meal of shepherds, today there are as many variations as there are restaurants.
In Prague (where it’s called guláš) they like to lace it with beer and serve it with bread dumplings. In Budapest, where gulyás is the national dish, they love to add paprika and accompany it with small egg noodles (csipetke). Our personal favourite is gulyás cipóban, which is served in a hollowed-out bread roll. Once you’ve finished the soup, you eat the bread which retains all the flavour. As they say in Budapest, the taste is finom!
As well as goulash, each city has its own signature dish. In Budapest you should try lángos – a popular street food – which is a deep-fried dough rubbed with garlic and salt then topped with a generous splash of sour cream. For an authentic local experience, buy it from the Great Market Hall in Pest and ask for the grated cheese topping.
In Prague, the locals’ favourite street food is the Obložené chlebíčky (literally ‘garnished breads’) which are open-topped sandwiches served as appetizers, snacks, a light lunch or for breakfast. So pretty-much whenever you fancy one! The original chlebíček, first offered from a local deli in 1916, was served with a slice of Prague ham, Emmental cheese, salami, hardboiled egg and a slice of tomato, on a bed of white bread and creamy potato salad. Nowadays the toppings are too numerous to count, but what is still most important is the presentation and arrangement of the ingredients. Each one is little work of art!
As for restaurants, there seem to be a million in each city! We can’t list them all, so we’re going straight to the top. In Prague, the number one Czech restaurant is the Michelin-starred La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise. With a menu based on a 19th-century Czech cookbook, one sitting comprises between 6 and 11 small courses of authentic local dishes with a modern twist.
In Budapest there’s one experience you shouldn’t miss, and that’s dining at the New York Café, known as ‘the most beautiful cafe in the world’. And it really is! Don’t expect it to be cheap (a decent meal for two with wine and dessert will set you back about £100), but do expect to feel like a film star!
Our opinion: Food, more than almost anything else, is totally subjective. As the saying goes: ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison.’ Whether you go for the fine dining option, a cosy family-run restaurant or on-the-go street food, both cities have an amazing range of mouth-watering options. So we’re going to call this one a draw.
Round 3: Beaches
“Wait a minute,” we hear you cry, “that’s not fair – neither of these cities has a coast!” That may be true, but they still have great beaches. Budapest, for example, has the beautiful Lake Balaton. At just over 600 square kilometres it’s the largest lake in Central Europe. Surrounded by vineyards and the fortresses of Szigliget, it stretches almost 50 miles and the shallow depths make it ideal for families. It’s the venue for the annual Blue Ribbon (Kékszalag) sailing event, and in the summer it hosts the Balaton Sound music festival with floating bars, campsites and chill-out zones.
And recently Budapest got a nice surprise: in 2017 the organisers of the Sziget Music Festival decided that they wanted a beach to compete with the rest of Europe, so they built one! It’s called Lupa Beach and it’s split into two areas: the cheaper Bay Beach and the more expensive Premium Beach. With beautiful white sand, bars, restaurants and watersport rentals, it’s a popular way to go suntanning in the heart of Europe.
Prague also boasts several man-made beaches, in fact there are so many that you’ll forget you’re in a land-locked country. Vlatava Beach (Pláž Vltavy) is right in the heart of the city on the Vlatava river. It’s not exactly sandy, but it’s a great place to relax and watch the ducks and swans float gracefully by whilst you take photos of the almost-too-beautiful Charles Bridge. Zlute Lazne is another city beach, this one with real sand, and you’ll often bump into locals suntanning whilst they eat a quick chlebíčk during their lunch break.
45 minutes outside of Prague you’ll find the Lhota Lake beach (Jezero Lhota). One of seven sandy lakes surrounding Prague, this is our favourite with a border of lush pine forest, clear sandy-bottomed water and all you could ask for in local amenities. There’s also a fenced-off nudist beach if you’re looking for an all-over tan.
Our opinion: Budapest has Lake Balaton, which makes for a great day trip, but Prague has seven similar lake resorts to choose from plus the amazing views from the inner city beaches along the Vlatava. For sun-seekers and beach bods, Prague is the clear winner.
Round 4: Cost of Living
We never get tired of telling people how cheap it is to visit Central Europe. The Numbeo Cost of Living Index, which bases its data on New York City having an index of 100, gives Prague an index of 44 and Budapest is even lower with an index of 40. If we compare these two cities with London, rather than New York, we see that, for example, rent in Prague is 63% cheaper and a massive 75% cheaper in Budapest.
Another way to look at this is the cost of specific items, such as a can of Coke or Pepsi. In London this might cost you £1.50; in Budapest or Prague the same can will only cost you £0.85. That’s about 40% cheaper. We’ve waded through all these statistics and we can tell you that, on average, consumer prices in Budapest are about 15% lower than in Prague. Restaurant prices in Budapest are actually higher, but only by an average of 1.35%, so feel free to splash out on a high-class meal in either city.
Our opinion: If you were going to rent an apartment for a few months then Budapest would definitely work out a cheaper in the long term. But for a short visit, there’s practically no difference in the ‘bang for your buck’, and so this round is a draw.
Round 5: Quality of Life
In some ways, quality of life can be linked to cost of living. We’ve already seen that the cost of living in Budapest is 15% cheaper than in Prague, but if we look at the average monthly salaries – about £650 for Budapest and £1000 for Prague, we can see that the quality of life in Budapest, at least as it relates to finance, is actually a lot worse. In fact another published statistic, called ‘Local Purchasing Power’, is about 29% higher in Prague than in Budapest.
But although having a job, and therefore money to spend, is important, it isn’t the only thing that affects the quality of life. We need to look at basic human needs such as healthcare and sanitation, life expectancy, access to education and technology, personal rights, public safety and freedom of choice (and remember that Hungary and the Czech Republic were Soviet-controlled communist countries until the late 1980s). In a 2020 survey of 77 countries, the World Population Review put the Czech Republic Quality of life at number 23 and Hungary at number 42 (and, in case you wanted to know, number 1 was Denmark.) In a different 2020 survey, the cheerily-named Global Happiness Report, Prague placed 44th out of 169 cities and Budapest was way down at number 103. (Aarhus, in Denmark, was top yet again).
Our opinion: We can’t argue with statistics, especially if a bunch of different reports all give broadly the same result. The quality of life is undoubtedly higher in the Czech Republic, so it’s a win for Prague.
Round 6: Getting Around the City
A good transport system is the lifeblood of any great city and, as you’d expect, both Budapest and Prague have excellent public transit infrastructures. Budapest is one of the largest cities in the EU, at 525 km2, but it rarely takes more than 30 minutes to get from where you are to where you’re going. Most people including locals use the trams, buses and trains which are cheap, clean and efficient. In fact less than 30% of locals own a car, which tells you something about the quality of the transport system. The metro runs under the entire city and was the first underground train system in continental Europe. It even has UNESCO world heritage status.
Probably most popular are the trams, with the number 4 and 6 the most used (the number 6 service runs 24 hours a day). There’s even a bar called ‘4 and 6’ in honour of the trams that stop nearby! The whole Budapest transit network is run by one company, BKK, so passes cover all forms of transport, including the ferries that criss-cross the Danube. A 24-hour pass will set you back 1,650 Forint, which is just over £4.00. Taxis are cheap (the Bolt app works just like Uber) and we’ve found the drivers to be very friendly.
Although not much smaller than Budapest (496 km2 vs 525 km2), Prague’s main attractions are concentrated in the old town which is mostly pedestrianised, so the best way to get around town is to walk! That being said, Prague has an excellent transport system almost identical to the one in Budapest, with the addition of very cheap 30 and 90-minute tickets.
A newer option common to both cities is using Lime e-scooters, which are becoming an increasingly common sight throughout Europe. The convenient thing about Lime is that you can pick up a scooter anywhere you find one, and leave it anywhere you want (with a few exceptions). You’ll need to download the app and pay a one-off fee, but then you’re just charged on a per-mile basis. As long as you follow the rules it’s a cheap and easy way to get around, and it’s also great fun!
Our opinion: Tram or metro, bus or scooter: getting around both Prague and Budapest is cheap, easy and hassle-free. This one’s a draw as well.
Round 7: Accommodation
If you’ve read our cost of living comparison earlier on this page, you’ll know that your money can go a long way in Central Europe. So prepare to be pleasantly surprised at the quality of rooms you can afford. Whether you’re a backpacker on a budget or looking to flash some cash, both cities will happily accommodate you.
No-frills youth hostels start from about £9 per night and most are right in the heart of the city. £18-35 per night will usually get you an entire apartment with at least two beds, free wifi and a well-informed local host. Move up to the £50+ bracket and you’ll get a terrific hotel room or luxury apartment in a prime location. As always it pays to shop around – a few hours spent on the net can result in massive savings.
Our opinion: Both Prague and Budapest offer a great range of hotels and apartments to suit every budget, with prime locations available at surprisingly reasonable rates. Once again, we declare this round a draw.
Round 8: The Nightlife
We’ve left this ‘til last, because for many people nightlife is what these cities are all about. Prague’s nightlife is centred around the Old Town and, because it’s a relatively compact area, the streets are always jam-packed. Budapest’s night scene is a lot more spread out, so you can often find places that are less crowded.
Whilst both locations offer an impressive number of bars and clubs, Prague is somehow more sophisticated. The AnoymouS Bar serves secret menu cocktails against a ‘V for Vendetta’ backdrop (with masked bartenders), whilst the beautiful people can be found at Cloud 9 on the top floor of the Hilton, sipping expensive designer creations. For lovers of rum, the Hemingway Bar offers over 200 aged varieties and even some replica absinthe. And don’t forget the beer: craft beer, micro-brew beer, Bavarian beer and of course the world-famous Pilsner Urquell.
Budapest is a favourite destination for Stag parties, and you’re sure to meet crazily-costumed groups on a pub crawl, looking for their next shot of palinka. There are also plenty of Wine Bars in town, such as Kadarka which offers over 160 Hungarian wines (we know, we counted them!) And if you want a clubbing atmosphere try Akvarium, which is built right underneath the fountain in Deák Tér, or check out the Szechenyi thermal baths, which at night transforms into a massive bath party with top EDM DJs.
But the most popular locations, for tourists and locals, are Budapest’s famous Ruin Bars (romkocsma). Built inside dilapidated industrial buildings that were abandoned after WW2, these bars are filled with mismatched furniture, bizarre decorations, graffitied walls and the odd crashed car or two. And they’re just impossibly cool. The most famous is Szimpla Kert, previously a stove factory and now a mecca for every tourist under the age of 105. There are 8-10 others in Budapest, all with their own unique themes, but no-one knows exactly how many, or where they are.
Our opinion: The people you’ll meet, the photos you’ll take, the drinks you’ll drink and the money you’ll save will all ensure a memorable night in either city. This is a tough call, but for us the ruin bar experience is just too unforgettable. For nights to remember, Budapest is our winner.
Budapest vs Prague: The Conclusion (and The Winner!)
Prague is an amazing city. Walking around, you can’t help but feel you’re in a real-life Disney movie, and that Cinderella’s carriage will be just around the next corner. The Charles Bridge, the Old Town square and the entire Castle District must be some of the most iconic views in the whole of Europe, if not the world. During the day music from Mozart and Dvorak fills the air, mouth-watering meals await you on every table and refreshing beer flows like water. At night the streets are like one big party, with clubs playing every type of music and bars selling every type of drink. And everything is just so conveniently close to everything else. After a few days there, you feel like you really know Prague.
Budapest is an amazing city. The picturesque Chain Bridge, the views from St Stephen’s Basilica and the Parliament Building at night are breathtaking, and a riverboat cruise on the Danube should definitely be on everybody’s bucket list. And just like in the Czech capital, the city buzzes during the day and sparkles at night.
But, compared to Prague, Budapest somehow feels much bigger. Two or three days doesn’t seem long enough to get to know Budapest that well – there’s always another experience that you need just one more day for. If we had to pick one city to spend a long weekend in, it would definitely be Prague and we know it would be great. But we said at the start that we would give you a clear winner, and so our choice has to be Budapest.
Of course you could always spend seven days in Budapest, hop on a train and pay a visit to Prague for a long weekend. Now that’s a holiday!
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