Rosy-cheeked urbanites navigate the sparkling streets of Budapest, taking deep breaths of crisp air filled with the aromas of spicy mulled wine and freshly baked chimney cakes – this is an ordinary scene from the Hungarian capital during wintertime, when the city dons its festive finest and welcomes merry crowds with a range of thrilling attractions, spanning fairy-tale Christmas fairs, stirring exhibitions, illuminated tram rides, and rowdy New Year’s Eve revelry. Even after the holiday season, we may still go sledding or ice skating, and many city eateries celebrate love on Valentine’s Day.
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Go ice skating
Whether you’re a pro or just experimenting with your ice-skating skills, a range of rinks are opening up across town for graceful gliding during the winter months. At City Park we can perform stunts amid scenic settings on Budapest’s most expansive frozen surface found in front of the century-old Vajdahunyad Castle, and those who want to avoid lines at the ticket office can buy their passes online. The Arena Ice Terrace doubles as an open-air discotheque on Friday and Saturday evenings, when local music masters spin discs from 6pm to 11pm, while an ice bar treats revelers with various street food and drinks. Those who hold tickets to one of the events at the Palace of Arts can use the outdoor rink set up in front of this contemporary cultural center free of charge, while across the river, as part of the District III Advent Fair, Óbuda’s Main Square offers complimentary glides for anyone who is young at heart.
Feel the festive vibe at the city’s Christmas markets
Budapest is becoming a top destination to visit during winter for its magical Christmas fairs, which persistently make headlines in leading travel magazines for their special selection of Hungarian artisanal products, mouthwatering local meals, and sparkling appeal. The Vörösmarty Square Christmas Fair is one of the city’s most iconic holiday bazaars, with numerous timber stalls lining the majestic plaza, where local craftsmen sell traditional merchandise like handmade wooden toys, colorful ceramics, or metal products made on the spot by a local blacksmith. Standing in front of a sacred backdrop, the Advent Feast at the Basilica offers intriguing Hungarian handicrafts, handheld street-food treats, and lots of high-spirited programs, like light-painting shows projected on the Basilica’s façade, or a free ice-skating rink for children. The Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace welcomes merry crowds to their in-house Christmas Fair, set inside Budapest’s most sumptuous Art Nouveau edifice, where guests can browse through select Magyar-made products ranging from delicate crystals to design bags to scrumptious local wintertime treats.
Enjoy exhilarating exhibitions
Budapest’s best museums offer diversely delightful displays to visitors all year round, including during the winter months, when spending time indoors certainly becomes more appealing. Located right next to Budapest’s iconic Heroes’ Square, the Kunsthalle presents a selection of masterpieces from the time of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy by displaying oversized paintings portraying ordinary landscapes and prominent people of the era, including emperor Franz Joseph and Sissi, the Magyars’ beloved queen – “The First Golden Age” is on view through March 12th. The Museum of Ethnography presents a real Yuletide-themed spectacle for Christmas by showcasing a set of nativity displays from 100 years ago that served as objects of religious devotion in Hungary and abroad (December 5-January 8).
During December 15-February 19, works of internationally renowned contemporary Magyar painter Attila Szűcs are on view at the Ludwig Museum – the exhibition demonstrates how the artist blends traditional painting techniques with modern visual phenomena. Available to view through January 8th, the “1 Day in Budapest” display at the Mai Manó House highlights the city’s liquid attractions in high-quality images by 17 photographers, all analyzing the relationship of water and Hungary’s capital, while visitors to the Ferenc Hopp Museum of Asiatic Arts can immerse in Oriental textile items as they admire exotic fabrics at the museum’s fresh exhibition called the “Nagas, Birds, Elephants” (on view through May 1, 2017).
Stroll the illuminated streets of Budapest
During the festive season, many of Budapest’s major roads and streets are festooned with bright Christmas lights, and cruising along these floodlit thoroughfares feels like we landed in a winter wonderland: Andrássy Avenue becomes a shining attraction with thousands of vivid bulbs adorning the roadside trees along the city’s most prominent lane; throughout most of the year, Budapest’s Grand Boulevard features alternating scenery of dilapidated street-food stalls and lavish hotels, but while traversing the semi-circular path aboard tram 4 or 6 nowadays, we are provided with the sparkling experience of intriguing holiday illumination enhancing the road; and a sumptuous glow awaits visitors at the Fashion Street Christmas market, with creatively shaped lights suspended from above to form various objects, like a stiletto heel, a gift box, or a slender Christmas tree, all juggling a fine balance of gold and white tones.
Hang out in artsy coffee shops
Retreat from the chill outside to Budapest’s artfully decorated cafés, which often serve as hangouts for the local community. Found within one of the city’s most splendid 19th-century edifices, the New York Café of the Boscolo Hotel Budapest makes your jaw drop with its lavish settings, boasting gilded splendor, marble linings, and ornate wooden surfaces – a place that was frequented by local writers during the belle-époque era, and is now also a major tourist attraction. Live piano tunes fill the spacious Lotz Café inside the Alexandra Bookstore on Andrássy Avenue, a historic hangout enhanced with sumptuous pictures by renowned Hungarian painter Károly Lotz, portraying scenes from Greek mythology. On the opposite side of the road, the Hungarian State Opera is now complete with a majestic café that offers a time-transcending journey to the Austro-Hungarian Empire with its overwhelmingly gold-and-black color scheme. Located on Buda’s cultural main street, Hadik was once (and still is) a regular haunt for famous Hungarian writers, and now with a revamped interior this established literary venue welcomes visitors with a blend of historic charm and modern style.
Get ready to dive into Budapest’s famous nightlife, but prepare to get soaking wet in the process, as this splashing bash happens amid steamy scenes in the city’s famous thermal baths. Sparties are becoming increasingly popular among revelers in the Hungarian capital, where from time to time, the iconic Széchenyi Bath transforms from a wellness haven into a huge alfresco pool party with pounding music and flashing lights, while the sweltering nights out can be enjoyed also at Budapest’s Lukács Bath, all happening even in the midst of winter. To see what’s coming up next and to reserve your tickets for a future event, check out spartybooking.com, while those who are not sure about the protocols of thermal-heated revelries can now learn about the basic rules of safety and decency from this hilarious mini-movie that informs partygoers about what behavior is considered unacceptable inside the baths.
Eat special chimney cakes
Hungary’s traditional sugar-dusted treat called kürtőskalács (chimney cake) has been experiencing a renaissance lately, as these conical pastries are getting reloaded with an unlimited variety of sweet and savory fillings or toppings, oftentimes making these delicacies qualify as hearty main courses. As a pioneer of creating reimagined chimney cakes in Budapest, Töltött Kürtős made the rolled pastry into an ice-cream cone when they filled it with vanilla-flavored frozen delight. Hoppácska on Budapest’s Ráday Street took this new craze a step further and decided to cut the delicate dough into half and top the unsweetened pastry with savory fillings, like piquant Hungarian lecsó, spicy meatballs, or zesty cottage-cheese spread, while sweet versions of the cake are served with smooth chocolate cream or fruit-infused concoctions. Meanwhile, Street Cakes on Andrássy Avenue creates chimney cakes according to each customer’s individual cravings, where everyone can mix and match the sugary fillings and toppings however they like.
If there’s enough snow, go sledding
When the first thick layer of snow blankets Budapest, urban dwellers flock to the city’s sylvan segments to frolic amid the frosty slopes aboard multiple types of snow-compatible conveyances, ranging from ordinary wooden sleds to flying saucers to self-crafted gliding gear. When it snows, Normafa transforms from a hiking destination into a cheerful sledding zone with bundled-up crowds riding down the hillside, while nearby we can see friends involved in snowball fights, families building snowmen, and couples enjoying the panoramic vistas over the city. Those who don’t want to venture so far out of town can go sledding at the foot of the Citadel on Gellért Hill, or in the Tabán park located between the Castle District and Gellért Hill. Those who prefer to stay on the city’s flat Pest side have one option – the single hill found in City Park, not far from the currently closed Kertem club.
Take a sparkling ride across town
Hop aboard the glittering streetcars that traverse some of downtown Budapest’s most scenic paths to provide a fairy-tale city-sightseeing trip to passengers. The retro conveyances serving tram line 2 during the festive season are festooned with thousands of snow-white and blue-colored LED lights, and as the tram glides along the rails it creates a stunning visual experience in the dark, while the interiors of the vehicles are adorned with special Christmas ornaments. A journey aboard these distinct Yuletide streetcars is available with regular public transport tickets and passes, and in addition to tram line 2, similarly sparkling conveyances will pop up along several other lines across Budapest, including tram 4, 14, 19, 47, 50, 56A, and 59.
Warm your soul at special places offering high-spirited drinks
When the weather gets cold, there’s nothing like a strong drink to warm up the stomach and soul, and there is no shortage of hard-liquor havens to visit in Budapest. Hungary’s most traditional liquor is pálinka – a flavorful brandy distilled from myriad regional fruits – and to sample various types of this local spirit, 5 cl provides carefully selected shots on downtown’s bustling . For a tour of discovery for another one of Hungary’s most iconic local tipples, head to the , where visitors are introduced to some (but certainly not all) of the secrets contained in each spherical bottle of , Hungary’s historic herbal liqueur; here visitors can take a tour around the company’s century-old distillery and sample the drink served straight from oak barrels in the cellar. Jack Daniel’s also set up shop in Budapest on the occasion of the brand’s 150th anniversary by opening a pop-up bar on downtown’s Szervita Square, where they not only pour whiskey specialties on the rocks, but also create heavenly cocktail concoctions – but hurry up if you want to visit Lynchburg in Hungary, because this temporary watering hole is set to shut down in the middle of January.
Welcome 2017 with a big bash
Bid farewell to 2016 and ring in the New Year with a big bang, celebrating with masses of revelers at fanciful hangouts in the heart of Budapest. Tütü is a place for those who like partying amid sophisticated elegance and a stylish ambience. Here, all that matters is openness and acceptance, and this primary principle won’t be any different on the last day of the year, when the club throws a bombastic Gatsby-themed jamboree in cooperation with , which serves fine treats for dinner at 8pm before the party starts at 10pm. Those who want to eat their way out of 2016 and devour a blend of delicate dishes originating from various regions of the country will enjoy ’s thematic Made in Hungary festivity on December 31st, offering an all-you-can-eat dinner party to guests. However, almost all of Budapest’s nightclubs and bars stay open on the last day of the year to celebrate, including , , , or – to find out more about the specific programs of each place, check out their websites closer to the date.
Indulge in a romantic feast on Valentine’s Day
With its ever-increasing popularity here in Hungary, Valentine’s Day now marks a significant celebration in the Magyar metropolis, with several charming eateries offering multiple-course meals to lovebirds: couples can enjoy a romantic getaway amid ’s bright winter garden found in the charming Buda Hills; at the , while enjoying regional cuisine, guests can admire the magnificent scenery over the Danube and Pest’s cityscape; is housed in an elegantly refurbished villa tucked away in the Buda Hills, where Hungarian meals are fused with French cuisine; and is one of the city’s sexiest eateries, cooking up mouthwatering Magyar meals and international dishes. Furthermore, ’s rural vibe or ’s rustic settings are ideal wine bars for those who would like to sample glassfuls of aromatic local libations amid a romantic ambience.