When envisioning a winter escape to Europe, images of chalet fantasies on the slopes of the Alps or night skies full of the northern lights cover countless guide books. These are beautiful winter destinations, but for a specific span of time, at the very crest of winter, the rest of the continent is putting on a spectacular show, shining like a beacon during the long European nights. One of the brightest gems shining in that winter darkness is Budapest–a contender for the best place we visited (in winter and overall, really) during our whirlwind adventure through Europe’s Christmas celebrations.
Budapest wears its history like a cloak around proud shoulders, and the heart of the city will charm you so thoroughly that you’ll fall in love with the tatters even more than the glistening post-war additions. The crumbling facades are a testament to a long and rich history, and tell the story of Budapest’s past inhabitants almost like a living museum.
We hopped on a cheap flight from Belgium and landed in Budapest in early December ($12 with checked bags! Thanks, RyanAir!). At this point, we had already enjoyed Christmas markets throughout Scotland, Belgium and Estonia, but we were not prepared for just how fantastic Budapest’s market scene truly is. One thing that’s important to remember: the Christmas markets are open air markets, so dress warmly because you’ll want to be out there at night, when the lights are glittering in the Christmas trees and the beer and gluhwein flow freely. As is true for most of the larger cities, Budapest plays host to a variety of markets (each unique in their own way), and we were lucky enough to visit them all.
Below, I’ve given a quick overview of the main Christmas Market in Budapest:
Vörösmarty Square Market is the largest and longest-running market location, opening in November and closing January 1st (in a pre-Covid world- who knows what the schedule will be this year, but we’ll try to update this once we know for sure!). The market stalls on the outer ring sell homemade items, both traditional and modern, from local artists. The inner section is made up of food stalls, the scent of which permeates the surrounding area, making your mouth water the second you get close to the square. We ended up saving a lot of money by just grabbing dinner from the stalls most nights.
St. Stephen’s Basilica Market is a bit smaller than the market at Vörösmarty Square, but it’s where you can really get a feel for a lot of Hungarian Christmas traditions. There’s an ice skating rink, entertainment every night (both traditional and modern), and a glorious light show on the Basilica’s facade.
Fashion Street (Deák Ferenc) also hosts a smaller scattering of market stalls and Christmas tree installations. While it’s definitely not on the scale of the Basilica or Vorosmarty Square markets, the Fashion Street market is one that you’ll wander into by accident- it serves as a great pathway between the two bigger markets.
There are lots of other markets scattered throughout the city. You could spend an entire day walking around Budapest finding little pocket markets, each one unique. Plus, with different performers and surprises scheduled each night, no two visits to the same market will be similar.
There are a ton of other things to see and do in Budapest besides stuffing your face at the Christmas markets. The tourist attractions vary from towering churches, underground caves and museums, all hugging the Danube River, which is, as promised in the song, gorgeously blue. Just remember to dress warmly if you’re traveling in winter!
Top Sights in Budapest (regardless of the season):
The Chain Bridge: The city is actually split in two by the river, with Buda on one side and Pest on the other. They are joined by bridges stretching across the water, the most famous of which is the Chain Bridge. It was the first bridge to connect Buda and Pest. Originally built in 1849, it was bombed during World War II and rebuilt/reopened exactly a hundred years later. There are now a handful of bridges crossing the Danube, but the Chain Bridge was the first, and was a key factor in uniting Buda and Pest and allowing the Hungarian capital to grow into what it is today.
Fisherman’s Bastion: Located in the Buda Castle district, the Fisherman’s Bastion offers up some of the best views of the city. Opened to the public in 1905, the Bastion was originally built as an extra line of defense for Buda Castle, and the fisherman’s guild from the village below were charged with this responsibility (hence the name!). Entrance is free, there’s a little cafe where you can stop and eat, and the building looks like a fairytale.
Buda Castle: Be sure when visiting Buda Castle to ride the funicular – a strange, outdoor elevator that chugs along vertically to the hilltop. It’s a 10-minute (ish) trip, but worth every second. After your ride, step out into the Buda Castle Quarter. Head into the castle to enjoy the History Museum, Hungarian National Gallery, and even an underground Labyrinth (plus tons more to see and do- check out all the ticketing and tour info here).
Matthias Church: Just past Fisherman’s Bastion, within the complex of Buda Castle, you will find Matthias Church. As a lover of history, this site was heaven. Originally believed to be built in 1015, rebuilt after a Mongol invasion in the 1200s, and then repurposed, reconstructed, or added to over the following centuries, the church’s walls have held some of the most important moments in Hungarian history. The church now serves as not just a place of worship, but an art museum and concert venue as well.
Széchenyi Thermal Baths: Since the Romans settled in Budapest, thermal baths have been a favorite pastime of the city residents. Scattered across the city are lots of options for taking a dip, but the most popular is without a doubt the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, a huge complex housed in a Neo-Baroque palace. Spend some time relaxing in the warm waters, or take advantage of their other services like mud baths and medicinal massages. Check out the prices and book a visit here– a perfect activity for winter travel!
Holocaust Memorial Center: The permanent exhibition in the Center is one of the most profound and educational I have ever encountered. The modern ascetic of the exhibit stands in stark contrast to the actual contents of it, which displays pictures, informational texts, and original documents detailing the rise of Nazism in Budapest and the harrowing experience of the city’s Jewish and Roma population. The museum doesn’t flinch away from the role Budapest’s own citizens played, and I found it to be a brave, unrelenting mirror into the human condition. I would urge anyone to visit this place and learn about this part of history this way- it was honestly the standout experience of this trip.
Shoes on the Danube: If museums aren’t your thing, but you still want to find a way to learn about and honor those whose lives were taken during WWII, make your way along the promenade on the Pest side of the Danube where you’ll find this permanent art installation. It won’t have the same effect as visiting the museum, but the sight of men’s, women’s, and children’s shoes abandoned on the river bank will certainly leave its mark.
Wrap-Up, and Final Travel Tips:
What to Eat: I don’t think any meal was ever so satisfying as the chicken paprikash I chowed down on during our first meal in chilly Budapest. Although we mainly ate our meals from the vendors at the Christmas markets, we did luck into 2 fantastic lunches. Our first meal was at a tiny restaurant on the Pest side called Patkos, where besides the chicken paprikash, we ate steak tartare and a beef stew.
The second lunch was a little more swanky, but not more expensive! We ducked into a hotel restaurant on the Buda side (St. George Restaurant), and enjoyed a lunch special and a bottle of wine that we are still talking about years later- I’ve included it in the pics below in case you want to hunt down a bottle. Plus, check out the chairs we got to sit in while dining like queens!
Tour Tips: We bought a ticket for the Hop On/Hop Off bus here. We don’t usually use these tourist transports, since they can get pricey, but in the middle of winter it was nice to be able to hop on a bus instead of walking. It also came with free tickets for their boat tour, and we took advantage by going at night and seeing the city all lit up from the Danube.
Where to Stay: There are lots of beautiful, boutique hotels to stay while here. We stayed in an apartment rented out by Budapest Holidays Residence. They manage various locations throughout the city and were cheap and easy to use ($125 total for 3 nights!). However, when we got stranded in Budapest an extra night (damn you, Paris protests!), we did splurge on a hotel room with breakfast. Even at the last minute, it was easy to find somewhere to stay.
Have a location or tip that I missed? Drop a comment below to share your expertise so we can all get out there and explore! As always, thank you for every like, share, and comment!