When you think of Christmas and winter destinations, cities like Paris, London, Prague or Vienna come to mind. But lately, Eastern European countries have begun to eclipse their Western neighbors when it comes to festive spirit and Christmas destinations. A prime example is Hungary, and more specifically, Budapest.
If you visit Budapest at Christmas time in Budapest you can enjoy traditional Hungarian-style Christmas markets, light shows at St. Stephen's Basilica, fireworks on New Year's Eve, and music and opera festivals with a Christmas twist.
1. Warm up at the Széchenyi Spa
A plan that you can not miss on your trip to Budapest at Christmas is to enjoy a relaxing experience in the Széchenyi Spa. It is an essential activity at any time of the year, but at Christmas, due to the contrast in temperature, you can enjoy a hot bath outside despite the freezing cold. The water vapor will condense and there will be a thick mist around you.
At the Széchenyi Spa you will have the possibility to bathe in a total of 15 indoor pools and 3 giant outdoor pools, try out the saunas and steam rooms, and relax with the massage jets.
And after your bath, you can enter the Palinka Museum, where an expert local guide will take you on a guided tour through the history of this Hungarian national drink. An interactive exhibition where you will have the opportunity to enjoy a tasting.
2. Take a cruise on the Danube in Budapest
On this cruise on the Danube in Budapest, lasting about 70 minutes, you will admire the most popular monuments of the Hungarian capital such as the Chain Bridge, the Parliament and the imposing Buda Castle, among others.
You can also enjoy a voucher for an alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage, including champagne, wine, beer, lemonade, soft drinks or mineral water. And so that you don't miss any detail and learn about the history of Budapest, an audio guide will be available during the trip.
The last stop of this cruise, which lasts approximately 70 minutes, will be Margaret Island, where you can take a stroll.
3. Visit the Óbuda Square
For an authentic Hungarian vacation experience, head to Óbuda Square, located across the Danube River and far to the north. This square and its decorations may seem rather small and modest compared to the larger markets in the center, but stay a while and you'll find that Obuda' s quaint and simplistic charm is exactly what makes it so captivating.
Óbuda Square is also the site of a very special Christmas tree called "The Charity Tree''. Made entirely of wood, it has a hollowed out interior space that is a bit like a chapel where people can walk or sit quietly. Every night during the Christmas fair, it is beautifully illuminated with multicolored lights. Also, in this square the atmosphere is much closer, where families go outside to stroll and buy food in the open air thanks to the various street food stalls.
However, it is not until after the holidays that the Charity Tree fulfills its most significant purpose. When the decorations are removed, the wood from the tree is donated to families in need. According to the designers, the installation represents the importance of the community, as at Christmas it is also important to think of the thousands of Hungarian families who have problems with heating.
4. Budapest Christmas markets
What makes many of the Christmas markets really attractive and outstanding in Budapest is that there is a very noticeable focus on trying to preserve authentic Hungarian folk art, traditions and offering very good quality handicrafts instead of commercial Christmas gifts.
Christmas markets are scattered all over the city center; so I recommend you to describe them one by one, the best place to take as a starting point is Vörösmarty Square. The Christmas markets in the center usually start well before the scheduled dates, even at the end of November. Of course, the best way to enjoy them is visiting Budapest in December.
In these Christmas markets there are several things you can do:
- Buy small handmadegifts.
- Drink mulled wine.
- Eat Hungarian pastries (such as 'Kurtos kalacs').
- Eat traditional street foods (sausages, sandwiches, roasted chestnuts, etc.).
- Have fun chatting and listening to the pleasant Christmas musicals on the market stages.
5. Enjoy the Nutcracker ballet at the Budapest Opera House
Seeing the ballet show "The Nutcracker at Christmas'' is a Christmas tradition that for years has been sweeping beyond the U.S. If you are a fan of musical and expressive art, you will agree with me that a Christmas without this show is a half-hearted holiday. So, if you're visiting Budapest in December, don't miss a performance at the Hungarian Opera. Concerts start in the middle of the month, and the most important performances are reserved for December 25 and January 6.
The Opera House is one of the most impressive cultural venues in Budapest. The famous building, and in my opinion, has nothing to envy to the Vienna Opera. Prices are usually between 8 and 50 euros per person. And admission is completely free for children under 6 years old. For more information visit the event's website.
6. Visit Vörösmarty Square
The Christmas fair as such is experienced in Vörösmarty Square, one of the iconic squares of the city and where there is usually more atmosphere in these festivities. It's also one of the most popular, so be prepared for a square filled with wooden huts and lines of people buying street food.
Despite the crowds, it's well worth a visit, as it's a great starting point for a stroll to the nearest Christmas markets and even tours of Budapest. At Vörösmarty Square, you can enjoy live music, eat traditional food, as well as being one of the best places to enjoy Budapest at night.
7. Be amazed by an organ concert at St. Stephen's Basilica
One of the most enchanting things to do in Budapest at Christmas time is to enjoy an organ concert at St. Stephen's Basilica, one of the most beautiful neoclassical buildings in the city that will amaze you with its acoustics.
Enjoy authentic classical pieces from Mozart, Bach, Beethoven to Schubert and Vivaldi in a dreamlike setting, with this organ concert of about 70 minutes. You will hear excellent artists and famous Hungarian musicians.
8. Take a ride on the Christmas streetcars
Some of Budapest's streetcars become very festive at Christmas time. These are covered with thousands upon thousands of LED lights, which makes traveling around Budapest a unique experience. The Christmas streetcar lines usually follow the routes of lines 2, 19, 41 and 69.
I recommend you to get on the streetcar line 2, where you will enjoy a scenic ride along the Danube River, an excellent and cheap option if you can not opt for an excursion along the Danube bend.
9. Watch the fireworks on New Year's Eve
While there are no "official" New Year's Eve fireworks in Budapest, many suburban municipalities and local residents hold their own celebrations. The best place to see fireworks is on Gellert Hill on the Buda side of Budapest.
As for New Year's Eve street celebrations, the Váci utca area, Erszebet ter and the Jewish neighborhoods of Budapest will be full of people celebrating New Year's Eve until the late morning hours. Music and food stalls are also usually not lacking.
10. Visit Szentendre
Szentendre is a small and artistic village located about 40 minutes from Budapest, one of the most frequent excursions from Budapest. The village is, saving the center of Budapest, the best place to enjoy these festivities, because in Szentendre Christmas has a lot of value.
The village is full of small and charming museums, as well as stores and galleries, all with Christmas lights. Christmas cheer is easily noticeable in this area. There is a nativity scene in the center, and many of the local artists plug the town with music and recitals. Of course, you can't come here without visiting the Szentendre Christmas Market, one of the most famous in Hungary. It opens at the beginning of Advent, so a visit in mid-December would be ideal.
To get to Szentendre, take the H5 train from Batthyány Tér or Margit Híd to the Szentendre stop. The ride takes about 40 minutes and costs less than 2 euros.
11. Light show at the Basilica of S. Stefano
St. Stephen's Basilica is a beautiful architectural building, but what makes it even more pleasing to the eye is the light show projected on its facade.
You can watch religious stories and traditional fairy tales projected with colored lights, dazzling 3D animations, accompanying sounds, graphic illusions and more. If you are traveling with children, don't miss this experience. The light show takes place every half hour between 4:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. during the holiday season. For more information visit the basilica's website.
12. Taste typical Christmas specialties
Hungarian families often gather at home on Christmas Eve to eat traditional Christmas dishes, such as fish soup, stuffed cabbage, stuffed roast (usually turkey stuffed with chestnuts) and, of course, sweets such as bejglit (dough roll stuffed with a poppy seed filling) or zerbó cake (jam and nut filling). To accompany the food there is no lack of traditional wines such as Kadarka or Tokaji aszú.
I recommend you to try these tasty specialties and some of the indicated places are the Centrál Cafe & Restaurant (one of the oldest cafe-restaurants in Budapest), Gerbeaud Cafe & Confectionery (one of the most specialized places in Hungarian gastronomy).
Christmas temperatures in Budapest
If you visit Budapest at Christmas, you have to know that temperatures can range between 3.4 ° C and -1 ° C on average and January is the coldest month of the year. Also remember that daylight hours are minimal; hence it is not uncommon that most of the activities you will do at Christmas will be with little natural light or in the dark (although, thanks to the Christmas lights in most of the city, you will hardly spend time in the dark).
Sunrise is usually at 7:20am and sunset is usually at 04:00 pm.
Must-haves in your suitcase to visit Budapest at Christmas time
Do not forget winter clothes, wool sweaters, thick pants, ski socks, hats, scarves, winter coats and snow boots or waterproof shoes.
Although hats, gloves and scarves are the best allies for snowy days in the city, do not forget the rainfall, especially in November and February; hence it would not hurt an umbrella and a raincoat.
Is it advisable to visit Budapest at Christmas?
At Christmas the city becomes a magical place, so it is recommended for you if the winter cold does not bother you. In addition, at this time of the year, you can enjoy a Christmas market that sometimes seems like a separate city within Budapest, not to mention the millions of bright lights illuminating every corner of the capital. And of course, a date marked by some of the delights of Hungarian gastronomy.