The Hungarian capital is vibrant and beautiful throughout the whole year; however, it definitely has a unique charm in the winter, especially during the festive season. The streets are dressed in glistening lights at this time of year and the alluring scent of roasted chestnuts, cinnamon-flavoured chimney cakes and mulled wine fills the air, as Budapest locals head outdoors to discover the many wonderful fairs, cultural events, the hot thermal waters of the historic baths and other exciting attractions their city offers.
No matter the cold, it is definitely worth bundling up and leaving your hotel room to explore the city centre of the Hungarian capital in the winter. This is especially true for the evenings, when Budapest’s major streets and roads sparkle with bright Christmas lights, filling both visitors and locals of the city with a joyous feeling. Even taking public transport can be an unforgettable experience, as some of the trams are decorated with blue and white lights at this time of year, making you feel like you are travelling in the warm embrace of the festivities of the season. You can take a stroll on the illuminated Andrássy Street under its line of trees, feasting your eyes on the magical scene of sparkling fairy lights covering the branches.
Christmas fairs in the city should not be missed either, with their irresistible aroma of cinnamon, hot wine, roasted chestnuts and other freshly baked delicacies. These bazaars also welcome visitors with their wooden stalls, a wide and colourful variety of Hungarian merchandise, such as ceramics, special honeys, uniquely designed clothes, bags and jewels, candles, handmade toys and other handicraft products. Freshly roasted and baked delicacies are sold at the various food stalls, offering passers-by a chance to gorge on heavenly chimney cakes or such Hungarian specialities as goulash soup or spicy sausages.
The most popular Christmas fair is on Vörösmarty Square with 800 thousand visitors per year. It also holds concerts, puppet shows and workshops the whole family can enjoy, while the Advent Festival located beside the Saint Stephen’s Basilica welcomes visitors with skating lessons for kids or live music among the wide selection of handicraft goods. This fair also boasts one of Central-Europe’s biggest 3D light painting show, with spectacular animations, festive and religious scenes projected onto the Basilica’s facade. Located at the foot of the hill with the Buda Castle on top of it, the Várkert Bazaar also hosts a lovely fair with giant Advent candles, craft workshops and other fun activities, and the Advent Fair at Erzsébet Square (Deák Ferenc Square) is well worth a visit because of its spectacular Christmas tree installation. A large Ferris wheel called the Budapest Eye can also be found here, mesmerising those who take a ride on it with a spectacular view over the city lit up in the evenings.
Those who are looking for more amazing winter adventures should also pay a visit to one of the largest cultural centres of the capital city, the Budapest Palace of Arts (Müpa). Located in a magnificent contemporary building on the scenic Danube bank, this establishment presents a stunning sight and holds an abundance of inspiring events. However, it also has its own Winter Open Air festival with the Müpa Tent that provides concerts, children’s programmes, theatre and contemporary circus performances in December.
Budapest in the winter offers an abundance of gems that will make you feel like you are walking into an enchanted world of fairy tales. One of the most amazing things to do here is ice-skating at the picturesque City Park Ice Rink right next to the romantic building of the Vajdahunyad Castle – it actually turns into a boating lake once the weather gets warmer. This place is truly one of a kind with its magical atmosphere, and it is also the largest and one of the oldest ice rinks on the continent.
However, if you can’t get enough of skating, you can also find rinks at numerous other spots in the city. Just like the one at City Park, plenty of these places are open-air, which allows you to ice-skate under the sky feeling the crisp winter air and the scent of delicacies wafting from the nearby stalls or restaurants. In addition, there are ice rinks for children at most of Budapest’s Christmas fairs, where your kids can enjoy gliding on the ice free of charge.
Relax in the healing thermal waters of Budapest’s many spas
Even though the temperature can drop below freezing outside, in the Hungarian capital it is also possible to enjoy a hot bath under the winter sky. The city boasts numerous historic spas where you can warm your body and soul, and most of them are located in magnificent buildings that are hundreds of years old.
When the chill settles in there is nothing better than taking a dip in steaming hot water to soothe yourself both physically and mentally. One of the most popular places to enjoy such a refreshing bath at is Széchenyi Thermal Bath, which can be found in the City Park, with its steam chambers, saunas and 22 pools. Here you can submerge in the enormous and quite spectacular outdoor pool in freezing weather as well, since it is open all year round, welcoming guests with its steady 38°C/101°F thermal water. The stunning architecture, the majestic statues and decoration of the building are also not to be missed, but the real speciality of the place is the spectacle of chess players in the pool, a sight that has inspired many photographers.
Another beautiful place to take a dip at is the 450-year-old building of the Rudas Thermal Bath. It is even possible to bathe here at night on Fridays and Saturdays, and you can also relax in its unique rooftop pool while admiring the gorgeous panoramic view over Gellért Hill, the Danube and the Pest side of the city. Gellért Thermal Bath is located in a breathtaking building of Art Nouveau architecture, where you can soak in the indoor thermal baths under ceilings decorated with colourful mosaics.
Király Thermal Bath is also located on the Buda side of the Danube, in a building originally built by the Ottomans in the 16th century as a backup bath in case of siege. Also originated in the same century, the Veli bej Spa is the largest Turkish Bath in the city welcoming visitors with 5 pools, saunas and various services. You will also find Lukács Thermal Bath in Buda. This establishment offers a complete spectrum of medical treatments and wellness facilities, as well as a steam room and a chamber with walls covered in Himalayan salt that improves respiration. The hot spring of the thermal bath is rich in calcium, magnesium, fluoride ions, hydrogen carbonate, sulphate, sodium and chloride, which can help treating health problems such as joint disorders or neuralgia, among many others. One of the largest indoor water theme parks in Europe, Aquaworld offers numerous swimming pools and waterslides for those arriving with family or those who seek more adventures, throughout the whole year.
Heart-warming hot drinks in the city centre and winter adventures in the Buda hills
If you are cold from walking around all day, there are many coffeehouses throughout the whole city where you can warm up while enjoying a steaming hot beverage. Many of these places offer a variety of artisan coffees or gourmet hot chocolate specialities, while cosy teahouses welcome you with colourful beanbags and fluffy pillows in imaginative interiors dressed in vibrant hues, as well as a wide selection of teas.
Visitors to Budapest should definitely not miss out on the experience of taking a walk along the Danube – the beautiful banks from Gellért Hill to Margaret Bridge have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you are lucky enough to catch a snowfall while you are in the city, you can also wander around in the hills of Buda. Normafa is one of the must-see places here, not only because of its spectacular view over Budapest but also because it is one of the favourite sledding spots for local families. You can enjoy the merry atmosphere and the sight of children riding on sleds in the snow, with dogs running around, or sledding down the hill yourself if you are up for it.