For many people, the run up to Christmas casts aspersions of all things cosy; lazy evenings in front of the fire, cups of hot chocolate to warm the soul, the acknowledgement that it’s officially socially acceptable to change into your pyjamas the moment you get in from work…
It’s easy to see, then, why the idea of trekking around an unknown city in sub-zero temperatures might not appeal to all. It certainly didn’t appeal to the old windbag who traipsed into my office early one morning a few weeks ago. She was regaling my (by far more patient) colleague with tales of her former travelling days and happened upon the topic of an Eastern European jaunt that had gone awry.
“Whatever you do girls,” she barked, with an air of superiority. “Don’t ever book a trip to Budapest in December.”
I spluttered, nigh on inhaling my coffee. For you see, not even twelve hours before, I had booked my flights to that very city on that very month, and had press commitments which could not go ignored.
Naturally, I had to ask why.
“Well Dear,” she replied, pulling her shawl around for dramatic effect. “It’s the cold you see. It gets right into your bones. Horrible place.”
And just like that, she had dismissed a city based purely on temperature.
It did little to put me off. I’d been looking to venture into Eastern Europe for years, and had lost count of the number of friends who had recommended Budapest for its beauty, history and culture. I loved the idea of visiting in the winter, and was fortunate enough to be invited out by the local tourist board, along with my wingman Fraser, to see first-hand why the city was the perfect place to visit for a winter getaway.
It was an opportunity too good to turn down. Perhaps it’s the old romantic in me, but I couldn’t see what wasn’t to love about a city which promised hilltop castles, thermal pools and wine which averaged at 75p a glass. Throw in a chance of snow and I’m sold.
And so off we went. What we found didn’t disappoint. If anything, I think I’m still in a state of mourning having returned. Budapest at any time of year would be a beautiful place, but during December had all the ingredients necessary to produce the ultimate winter feels; dusty pink skies and deep dark nights, streets which glistened with Christmas lights, buzzing markets and a frosty air which beckoned gentle snowflakes at any given time…It was the perfect place to ignite the festive spirit and I would implore anyone looking for an alternative Christmas jaunt to add it to their list. Not convinced? Here’s 13 reasons why you should visit Budapest in December:
There are less tourists around
Despite having plenty on offer throughout the winter months, it seems that many still prefer to visit Budapest during the walm, balmy summer. One of the advantages of this is that the city is much quieter, and you’re less likely to find yourself contending with crowds. There’s something quite peaceful about wandering around an unknown city with uninterrupted views and at times, only the cold wind to keep you company. For us, the temperature added to the atmosphere; to quote my affable companion, “Budapest wears the cold weather like a glove.” Which leads me on to my next point…
You might find yourself caught in a flurry of snow
What better way to frame those holiday snaps than with a little dusting of snow? Although the weather can be hard to predict in December, temperatures in Budapest rarely reach higher than a couple of degrees. It’s the beginning of Hungary’s snowy season, which makes it all the more special if you find yourself caught in one of the first flurries of the year. I’d given up hope on seeing snow during our trip (we were there in early December), but as luck would have it, we stepped out from dinner on our last night to a gentle tumble. There’s something particular magical about watching grown adults stop in their tracks and stare up at the sky with childlike wonder in their eyes. I like to pretend I played it cool, but I’m not sure Fraser would agree.
The wine will be a’mullin!
Nothing warms the cockles quite like a mug of piping hot mulled wine. Thankfully the Hungarian equivalent, forralt bor, does not disappoint. You won’t have to wander far in the city to find yourself enticed by the aroma of the sweet, spiced bevvy. Though the stalls at Vorosmarty Ter did a good brew, our favourite tipple actually came from a wee stand at the bottom of the Buda Castle Furnicular. It’s hard to say which was more punchy, the wine, or the view over the Danube below.
You can swim beneath the stars
To many, the idea of dashing semi-naked across an open courtyard in sub-zero temperatures to bathe in an open-air pool might seem like utter madness. And to be frank, it is. But my God, is it fun! One of the quirkiest facts about Budapest is that below its surface, there’s a labyrinth of hot springs boiling away. Cue an abundance of naturally-heated thermal pools and artfully sculpted bath-houses. If you only have time for one, make it the Szechenyi baths in the heart of City Park. The largest medicinal bath in Europe has been drawing in bathers since 1913, and despite its popularity is an absolute must-do when you’re in the city. Inside the historic yellow building, you’ll find a maze of plunge pools of varying temperatures, and it’d be easy to whittle away a good couple of hours daring each other to hop in and out of the cool baths for comic effect. Really though, you’re going to want to spend time in the outdoor bath. Where else in the world could you lie back beneath the stars and watch as your breath rises in steamy plumes while your body is engulfed by the warm waters below? This is sheer wintry relaxation at its best.
The markets are perfect for a spot of treasure hunting!
Throughout December Budapest becomes home to several Christmas markets, and these are the perfect place to pick up some handmade stocking fillers. For local crafts, pottery, clothing and baked goods, head along to the main square at Vorosmarty Ter. For atmosphere, check out the one in front of St Istvan Bazilika; if you time it just right, you might even catch the amazing light display!
The Chimney Cake
No, I do not feel bad about dedicating a whole section to chimney cake. Not even in the slightest. What’s not to love about freshly rolled, cinnamon-infused, pistachio coated, bigger-than-your-heid conical loveliness?
You can go ice skating in front of an actual castle!
There are several ice rinks which pop up across Budapest throughout December. None boast a setting quite so special as the one in City Park. Overlooked by Vajdahunyad Castle (which looks like it could have come straight from a Bram Stoker novel) this is the kind of postcard-perfect mise-en-scene which should have you booking your Ryanair flights faster than you can say “make mine a goulash”.
You can escape the cold in one of the city’s ruin bars
It’s no secret that Budapest has faced its fair share of turmoil. Over the years its face has been scarred by war, and several of its notable buildings and bridges have been decimated and rebuilt time and time again. Among the many lasting symbols of the city’s tenacity are its ruin bars; located predominantly throughout the old Jewish Quarter, these bars and beer gardens have emerged in the remains of derelict buildings and abandoned courtyards. Many are still open-air, and despite the temperatures, are open all year. Szimpla Kert came highly recommended (and did indeed look ridiculously cool), but alas, on a Saturday night, the queue to get in ran the length of the street. Instead, we sought shelter in the Yellow Zebra bar across the street, a cheeky little cellar bar which also offered bike tours. To the sober clientele, one would hope.
“They say it changes when the sun goes down”
One of the main things which can worry people about a Winter getaway is that there are so few hours of daylight to enjoy the city. In Budapest that’s no bad thing. Things change when it gets dark in Budapest. The sky becomes an inky black. Prominent sights such as The Hungarian Parliament Building, Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion begin to glow as the floodlights take effect. The Danube sparkles with reflections from the car lights going over the bridges and Christmas markets twinkle merry away. For the best views of the city, I’d head up to the Fisherman’s Bastion at twilight (around 4pm in December) and watch as the daylight fades across the city below. It’s pretty darn special.
You might catch Santa!
With various Christmas fares across town, there’s plenty to keep big and little kids alike entertained throughout December, from craft-making days to puppet shows. Better still, if you’re in town on December 6, you might even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Joulupukki (that’s Santa Claus to you and I) at Vorosmarty Ter.
It’s the perfect place to catch a show
During the summer months, Budapest is known for its outdoor concerts. During the Winter, it’s time to get cosy with an indoor show! There are lots of traditional performances across the Christmas fares, and for atmosphere alone, it’d be worth checking out one of the organ concerts at the beautiful St Stephen Basilica. Sadly the Hungarian State Opera House will be closed for renovations until 2019, but you can still catch a classical ballet such as The Nutcracker at the Erkel Theatre, which is smaller, but equally lovely.
There are plenty of museums to warm up in
Roman roots, Hungarian revolutions, Nazi occupations and Soviet takeovers. It’s fair to say that Budapest is awash with history. As you walk the streets with its ever-changing architecture, it seems that every twist and turn takes you on a different path through the city’s past. Much of the city’s story is somewhat murky, and it’s hard to imagine that only a few decades ago much of it was still in the grips of a fascist regime. The city is peppered with great museums, from the Hungarian National Museum to the labyrinth of caves under Buda Castle. If I could recommend any one though, it’d be the House of Terror on Andrassy Avenue. The former base for the Arrow Cross Party and the AVH is an imposing building, and today serves as both an exhibit to the city’s Nazi and communism occupations and also a memorial to the people incarcarated, tortured and killed within its walls. Its a dark place for sure, and the underground cells will have you longing to see daylight, but it’s also hugely informative and really creatively presented. It’s a sobering experience, but one which will help you understand the transformation that Budapest has had to go through in order to get where it is today.
It doesn’t get much more festive than a Christmas cruise!
Seeing the city from the comfort of a cruise boat is always going to be a treat, but for those of you lucky enough to be in town over the Christmas holidays, you might want to check out Budapest River Cruise for their range of festive specials. There are Christmas cruises throughout December (including the 24th, 25th and 26th), all promising slap-up meals, expertly chosen beveradges and live music as you take in the view of the city and enjoy the local commentary. Sadly we didn’t have time to fit in a cruise during our whistlestop tour, but I’d imagine that it must be pretty amazing at night with the city all lit up. Just remember to wrap up warm!
The important facts
How to get there…
If you’re coming from the UK there are countless cheap flights with Wizz Air, Ryanair and Easyjet all leading the race.
The city’s fairly well-connected for trains, with popular routes from cities as far afield as Prague, Paris, Zurich and Berlin.
The Danube links several Eastern European cities, with regular ferries running to Bratislava, Vienna and Prague.
Is Hungarian Forints, which, for the record, are not always easy to get hold of! I’d recommend ordering them in advance through your local Bureau de Change just in case. We went through Sainsbury’s Bank and were able to order them to a nearby store for collection at a good rate. Always a bonus if you can pick up your mince pies at the same time.
It’s worth noting though that several places in town do accept Euros; handy if you’ve just hopped across from a neighbouring country!
How to get around…
Budapest is lovely for exploring on foot, but it is vast and the Buda side in particular is quite hilly! If you’re short on time but determined to cover a lot of ground I’d recommend getting yourself a Budapest Card which gives you access to free public transport on the buses and metros, as well as discounted (and sometimes free) entry to many of the main attractions. Cards vary from 19 – 37 Euros, and can cover 1-3 days depending on how long you’re in town for. You can grab one online in advance from The Budapest Festival and Tourism Centre or buy one from the various collection points at the airport or in town.
Be wary of taxis. We got one each way from the airport (mostly because we were so short on time!) and were charged double the rate going in to town, despite having bought from the official Fotaxi rank. A ride from the city centre to the airport should cost around 7000 Forints (22 Euros/20 Pounds), but it cost a flat, non-negotiable, rate of 17,000. Fotaxi? More like Faux-taxi…
Where to stay…
For ultra comfort and convenience…
We were lucky enough to be treated to a superior room at the Radisson Blu Beke on Terez krt. The Danube, City Park, Opera House and House of Terror were all within 15 minutes walk from our front door, and the historic architecture of the building was lovely.
For something a little cheaper…
The Aventura Boutique Hostel comes highly rated, and the local rates on Airbnb are great if you fancy a wee homestay!
So there you have it. Thirteen reasons why Budapest is the perfect place to get your festive fix. Have you been to Budapest before? What would you recommend doing during the winter months?
This trip would not have been possible had it not been for the support of GotoHungary, The Budapest Festival and Tourism Centre and Radisson. I’d like to thank them all for their generosity. As always, my opinions are my own.
Extra kudos goes to Fraser, whose bag boy skills were exceptional, and whose tolerance to my love of Feliz Navidad knows no limits.