Budapest in winter is nothing less than amazing.
Ever since my trip to Austria during the Holiday Season in 2017, I decided to explore a new country in Europe every Christmas. The magic of the festivities is best felt while walking on the charming cobbled stone streets, lit with fairy lights, huge Christmas trees, embellished with snow and delightful advent markets. In 2018, I chose Budapest to spend my holidays as it seemed to have everything that is perfect for the Christmas season - vibrant markets serving delicious food, hot wine, streets with stunning medieval architecture that are best explored on foot and the chill in the air that only makes it more authentic (yes, I love the cold!).
I spent 4 days here which seemed just the right amount of time, with a little extra to explore cute Hungarian villages not too far from the city. Here's my suggested itinerary for Budapest in winter - a great mix of historical, cultural and festive experiences. Oh, and of course, the nightlife!
How cold is it in December?
Although it wasn't snowing (a few flakes here and there don't really count), it was chilly in Budapest in winter! Thermals, woollen socks, and warm, comfortable shoes are definitely recommended. Layer up, it can be very windy; a warm beanie, gloves and neck warmer will help.
Day 1: Explore Buda
If you don't already know this, Budapest is formed of two former independent cities - Buda and Pest, which were united in the late 19th century and today, the two parts are on the opposite sides of the river Danube and are connected through several bridges, one of which is the famous historical Chain Bridge. While Pest is on flat terrain, Buda is rather hilly.
Hike up the Gellért Hill
Thanks to the hilly terrain in Buda, you can be rewarded with some extremely gorgeous views of the city and the river from several vantage points. One of these is the Gellert Hill. However, this place is not only a popular viewpoint, but it also has historical significance. Named after Hungary's first missionary who was thrown from the top of the hill by pagans as rebellion, Bishop Gellert's statue is now erected on the hill and can be seen from afar.
Gellert Hill is a great place to start your tour of Budapest as it provides you with a bird's eye view of the entire city. It helps you place all the important sites laid out right in front of you like a map! The climb up from the Elisabeth Bridge, although a bit steep in places, doesn't take more than 20 min, with a quick stop at the statue of Bishop Gellert (known as the Gellert Monument), all the way up to the citadella where you have the Statue of Liberty.
If you wish to, you could explore the museum at Citadella (for a fee), which I chose to skip. Also, if you prefer not to climb, you can take a bus to the top.
Buda Castle Hill
If you walk over towards the Chain Bridge, you'll find yourself right in front of the funicular that'll take you up to the Buda Castle. Alternatively, you can climb the Royal Steps that'll lead you to the New-Renaissance Garden and from here, you can take an escalator up to the castle.
Although it was originally built in the 13th century, the current version of Buda Castle is an 18th-century Neo-Baroque style structure that was destroyed from the inside during WWII. However, most of it has been restored now and converted into several museums (Hungarian National Gallery, History Museum and National Library) which can be visited for a fee.
I'm not much of a fan of museums, to be honest, so I planned to skip them and just walk around, exploring the cobbled stone streets lined with 17 - 19th-century houses. I happened to arrive at the Presidential Palace right when the changing of the guards' ceremony was beginning so I stood there to watch that. Although not as dramatic and large scale as the one at Buckingham Palace, it was interesting to watch the routine and how beautifully it was choreographed.
From here, I continued my walk towards the Trinity Square to visit Matthias Church, a distinctly Baroque building that was established initially in the 11th century in Gothic style but went through several architectural upgrades since. It also served as a mosque during the Turkish rule. The church is named after King Matthias Corvinus who was married here. A building that is as impressive on the inside as it is on the outside, Matthias Church looks brilliant when it is lit up at night so if you're here late evening, I'd suggest you stick around to enjoy some amazing night views of not only the church but also Fisherman's Bastion and Pest, across the river.
Right across from the church is the famous Fisherman's Bastion. With a very unique architecture that combines neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque styles, Fisherman's Bastion's white-walled structure looks straight out of a fairytale. It was built in the early 20th century and was guarded by the Fisherman's guild, hence the name. The viewing platform provides gorgeous views of the river Danube and the architectural masterpieces lining it, including the Parliament Building and the Chain Bridge.
Once again, I recommend staying here until the sunset as the place lights up beautifully at night and the views of the city from the top at night are some of the best you'll ever see. The Parliament Building, one of the most iconic buildings in Budapest, is visible directly in front from here and the night views are dramatic!
Secret tip: A cafe/ restaurant on the top of one of the towers of Fisherman's Bastion has outdoor seating with superb views. Even in the winter, this is a good place to enjoy a cup of hot chocolate or hot wine.
Dinner cruise on the Danube
I highly recommend you to take a cruise on the river Danube. Although there are several options available (cocktail cruises, dinner cruises, etc), I loved the experience I chose - a dinner cruise with Hungarian folklore performances by Silverline Cruises.
This 3-hour cruise included a 4-course meal with drinks, a band of musicians with Hungarian folk dancers in their local costumes and unparalleled views of the Hungarian Parliament building, Buda Castle, Chain Bridge and Gellert Hill (apart from other iconic riverside sites) at €85. Although it was freezing, a little tour to the upper deck to get some amazing pictures was something I could not resist doing!
Recommended hotel to stay in Budapest: Novotel Budapest Danube
Day 2: Explore Pest
Start your day by visiting the historical Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. The synagogue's compounds include a Jewish Museum, the Heroes' Temple, the Jewish Cemetery and the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park. Although it is rare to have a cemetery next to a synagogue, during WW II, more than 10,000 people died in the vicinity of the synagogue which led to the building of the cemetery in its compound. There is a charge of €15 to visit the synagogue.
The Jewish Quarter (behind the synagogue) is a great place to walk around by yourself. If you're into museums, the Jewish Heritage Museum could be something that would interest you. You'll come across several kosher sweet shops and restaurants as you explore the surrounding area - such as the Kazinczy Street, home to another smaller yet authentic synagogue.
As you walk, you'll soon hit Andrássy Avenue, often referred to as Hungary's Champs-Elysee. A wide lane replete with classy 19th-century homes and palatial facades, boutiques, bars and cafes, do pop into one of the cosy ones for a great breakfast or simply some hot wine to beat the cold.
Walk to St Stephen's Basilica, the largest church in Budapest which also holds the sacred mummified hand of St Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary. In December, the courtyard of the church is turned into one of the largest Christmas Markets in Budapest.
As you continue to walk towards the river, you will cross the Budapest Eye, a Ferris Wheel similar to the London Eye (but nowhere close in terms of its magnitude) which could be yet another way of getting some good views of the city from a vantage point. Finally, as you reach the riverside, you will see the grand Hungarian Parliament Building, the third largest parliament building in the world. This iconic building is a key addition to your itinerary for Budapest in winter due to the sheer magnificence of its architecture.
If you would like to visit the Parliament Building, it is only possible to do it through a guided tour. This can be booked online (best to do it in advance during peak seasons), lasts for about 45 min and costs about €17.
As you exit the Hungarian Parliament Building, you will see as you walk towards the Danube one of the most moving memorials in Hungary - the Shoes on the Danube. 60 pairs of rusted period shoes cast out of iron, in all sizes, belonging to men, women and children pay tribute to the Holocaust victims who were gathered on the banks of River Danube in 1944 by the brutal Arrow Cross Militia, forced to strip naked and then shot in the back at close range, for their bodies to fall into the river and be washed away with no signs.
From here, head to Vörösmarty Square, the heart of Budapest downtown. A popular public square that hosts a range of concerts and events throughout the year, this is also where you will find the most important and popular Christmas Market in Budapest. During the summer, this is a great place to shop, try some local foods and just enjoy the great vibe. During the holiday season, the square transforms into an open extravaganza, with food stalls selling the famous 'Chimney Cakes' or Kürtőskalács, hot wine, roasted chestnuts and kolbász (smoked sausages).
At night, head to Gozdu Udvar, a very unique place that is buzzing in the night. A passageway that once connected the courtyards of several residential buildings, it is now home to several pubs, open markets, and restaurants and a great place to mingle with the locals. Located in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, it is one of the favourite hangouts of the locals as well as tourists and is quite a lively place in the evenings.
If you visit on a Saturday, you can catch the crafts and vintage market here from 2 - 8 pm.
Day 3: Explore Pest
There is a lot more to explore on the Pest side of Budapest in winter.
Start your day by visiting the Heroes Square, located at the entrance of the City Park, at the other end of Andrassy Avenue. BuiltErected in the late 19th century to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of Hungary, the largest square in Budapest is flanked by the Museum of Fine Arts and Hall of Arts on its either side and the Vajdahunyad Castle in the backdrop. The Millennium Monument in the middle of the square with Archangel Gabriel in the centre and the seven chieftains of the Magyar Tribes to its either side is quite impressive.
In winter, the ground in front of Vajdahunyad Castle transforms into a skating rink and its courtyard into a Christmas market. Light music, Christmas foods and hot wine make for a great atmosphere here and the perfect place for a picture, with the intriguing architecture of the castle in the backdrop. The castle was made bringing together several medieval architectural styles together - the Romanesque, Gothic Renaissance, and Baroque. In the summer, an artificial lake surrounds the castle, making it one of the most fairytale-like buildings in Budapest.
Right across the castle, you will find the famous Szechenyi Baths, the most recommended place to visit in Budapest in winter! Although there are several other baths to visit in the city, the Szechenyi Baths are popular because they provide the option of dipping into the hot thermal springs water both in the indoors as well as outdoors with as many as 18 pools, a good arrangement of private as well as public changing rooms, steam and sauna and restaurants, making it a great place to enjoy a relaxing day.
The neo-Baroque palace that houses the baths was built way back specifically for this purpose, as the concept of spa baths goes back to the early Roman settlers through the 16th century Turkish occupiers. The medicinal natural hot springs are the perfect place to be, especially in the cold. A fee of €20 allows you unlimited access to the baths along with a locker.
It is not recommended to spend more than 20 minutes in the hot spring waters at one go as the geothermal waters aren't good for the skin if exposed for long. You can also enjoy the use of steam and sauna while you're there, or massage therapy, grab a bite at one of the restaurants or simply relax in one of the indoor pools.
For more information about the Szechenyi Baths, click here.
In the evening, I recommend you to try out yet another experience that is unique to Budapest - visit a ruin bar. The story behind the name goes as such - in 2001, a bunch of men went looking for good places for cheap drinks. They happened to find dilapidated, unused buildings, half destroyed and with scribbled texts on the walls, and that was the beginning of a new concept - ruin bars. These derelict buildings were converted into lively and buzzing places where locals and tourists come for inexpensive drinks, food and chatter.
One of the most popular and older ruin bars in Budapest is Szimpla Kert, a two-floor space that is chaotic, busy and loud. Several counters serving beers and other drinks, chairs to sit wherever you'd like and walls with graffiti are what you'll find in this intriguing place.
Day 4: Visit a charming Hungarian village
Whenever I travel to touristy places like Budapest, I always take out some time to do non-touristy offbeat things. And because I am not much of a city person, exploring a charming village in Hungary was the perfect plan for me.
What can be better than stepping back into time, visiting a place that is laid back and slow paced, with friendly locals and buildings that look like the ones you read about in storybooks? Located between Budapest and Lake Balaton, Székesfehérvár is one of the oldest Hungarian towns with clean, colourful and traffic-free streets. The cobbled stone streets of the town centre, with cute sculptures strewn across the lanes, souvenir shops and a little Christmas market of its own, and an extremely adorable architecture, Székesfehérvár is easily reachable from Budapest by a train (station: Budapest-Déli). The journey costs as little as €5 and lasts for about 50 minutes.
In the evening, head back to Budapest city. I recommend you visit one of the rooftop bars in Budapest in winter, for the amazing views, vibe and the experience. If you're not a fan of the cold but still like vantage points with unparalleled views, you will love 360 Bar. Their giant igloos keep you warm while still providing a view of the city through the transparent walls.
Enjoy a nice, romantic walk along the river before you head back to your hotel. Budapest is undoubtedly much prettier in the night than it is during the day. All iconic monuments and sites are brilliantly lit at night, making it one of my favourite night-view cities in the world!
Optional: Day trip to Normafa Park
If you're looking for some adventure in Budapest in winter or you're a skiing enthusiast, you might want to head to Normafa Park, a winter wonderland in Hungary that is not too far from Budapest. A great place for hiking, children's activities, skiing and other snow sports, Normafa is best enjoyed when there is snow. Click here to check before you head there to know about the current weather.
Also visiting Prague? Click here to read about 10 things in Prague that you'll fall in love with.