As winter descends, Budapest beckons with its warm and friendly vibe. This merriest season of the year is when Christmas markets, festive trams and scenic skating rinks enhance the cityscape. You can also find refuge at a steaming spa or see an enlightening exhibition. If you’re here for New Year’s Eve, the streets come alive with fireworks, honking horns and cheery drinking at cool bars long before the countdown to midnight. Here are the best things to do in Budapest this winter.
Go ice skating
Several ice rinks entice skaters for scenic glides citywide. Considered one of Europe’s most magical, the one in City Park backdropped by fabled Vajdahunyad Castle is the biggest in town. Gear rental is also available and it’s open every day of the week. You can also draw figure eights with a panorama of Budapest at your feet: the Intermezzo Roof Terrace atop the Hotel President is limited to 20-25 skaters at any one time, making it the most romantic place to skate in town. Cool outer-district rinks include the one at the Óbuda Christmas Market and the winding ice corridor in the district of Csepel.
Browse a charming Christmas market
Continually ranked among Europe’s best Yuletide bazaars, the biggest Budapest Christmas market on Vörösmarty tér welcomes crowds until New Year’s Day. Holiday-season merchandise includes Christmas baubles, handmade jewellery and pottery. But here you can also feast on goulash, stews and chimney cake, a sugar-dusted local treat. Meanwhile, a more contemporary Advent fair awaits by central St Stephen’s Basilica, whose façade also serves as a giant screen for a 3D light show. More family-focused holiday markets are set up at central Városháza Park and in the district of Óbuda.
Snap and ride a sparkling vehicle
During this most wonderful time of the year, the city’s public transport also gets all festive. Frequently cited as the world’s most panoramic route, Danube-hugging tram 2 is adorned with white- and blue-coloured LED lights, creating a flashy phenomenon as it zooms between central Jászai Mari tér and its southern Közvágóhíd terminal. Besides this scenic route, similarly glittering conveyances pop up along other lines, including trams 19, 14M, 42-50 and 69. These Christmastime carriages are accessible with regular public-transport tickets and passes. Check this article for more details.
Attend a deluxe movie night
From multiplex movie halls to art-house theatres, Budapest offers many options for enjoying international blockbusters, evergreens and Hungarian-made movies. Cinema fans can also go to a first-class hotel to catch a film this winter. The multiple award-winning Aria Hotel Budapest screens English-friendly movies every Tuesday until March – the schedule includes Casino Royale, The Big Lebowski and Casablanca. Then, over the holidays between 22 and 27 December, the historic Corinthia Hotel is the place to go for classic Christmas-themed movies – on show will be Love Actually and the whole Home Alone franchise.
Try a tasty soup on the go
Drinking hot broth is essential in winter . If you don’t have time to sit and indulge yourself over a big bowl of goulash, across Budapest you can find similarly satisfying liquid delights, savoury or sweet, on the hoof. Pop into Crudo in District V for a thinner type of goulash, visit Rapaz by Blaha Lujza tér for a hearty chicken broth or swing by Ramenka to slurp a hot Japanese concoction in a cup. Then for those following a vegan diet, the curry-courgette or carrot-ginger soup at Tökmag is a must-try.
Learn about pálinka, then take a shot (or two)
Hungary’s famed fruit-based brandy, pálinka, has a special place in local gastronomy and culture. A newly opened venue promotes this intoxicating remedy in a fusion of a shop, museum and bar, offering nearly 100 varieties of the revered tipple deep in party central. The exhibition focuses mainly on the development of distillation and history of Hungarian pálinka, while the bar encourages refined sampling of the finest brands.
Lounge at the Széchenyi Baths
Winter is also the main season for melting muscles in the steaming waters of a Budapest spa. The Széchenyi has the biggest outdoor pool area, kept open during winter, and while it can get packed like sardines around the holidays, soaking in the warming waters, especially when it snows, makes up for any discomfort. You can also book tickets for a spectacular Sparty night on 30 December, when people party in the water to pulsating tunes long after sundown.
See world-class art
Budapest is hosting several major shows this winter, just when retreating to a heated museum is a particularly pleasant experience. World-class exhibitions include a range of attractions from ancient mummified bodies to original drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and figurative paintings by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and other renowned masters of the post-war School of London circle. For photo art, head to the Mai Manó House, where famous tabloid photographer Weegee’s images of urban New York and celebrity culture are currently in the spotlight.
Tour the city with our free Insider pocket guide
Whether you are a first-time visitor or a veteran, our newly released Insider pocket guide for the winter should point you in the right direction. Decked out in cool Christmassy style, this nicely illustrated booklet provides you with a compass to major and hidden sights, the hottest dining destinations, cultural happenings, top spas, cool shops and the best places for a night on the town. Best of all, it’s completely free, so grab your copy at selected locations until stocks last or see the edition online. Similar practical guides published by We Love Budapest cover winter in Balaton and Hungary, both coming soon.
Enjoy a fine treat for Christmas
If you are spending Christmas in Budapest and want to treat yourself to fine food and drinks, reserve your table at a prime hotel restaurant that stays open for special celebratory meals even when most outlets are closed. The charmingly decorated InterContinental offers a Christmas Eve dinner with live music and plenty of wine, then brunches are available on 25-26 December. On the 24th, a set menu and smorgasbord are offered at the Sofitel, whose menu features French- and Hungarian-style delicacies. On 24 and 25 December, a five-course Christmas dinner will be served at the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, while the Kempinski has goose-liver terrine and fillet of John Dory for Christmas Eve.
Watch The Nutcracker
An essential part of the Hungarian theatre repertoire in the run-up to Christmas, The Nutcracker has been recreated in 21st-century style while adhering to classical ballet traditions. It’s staged by the Hungarian State Opera every winter, but due to the ongoing renovation of this historic house of culture, Tchaikovsky’s famed piece is now on show at the Erkel Theatre. Admission is still available for some of the performances taking place between 14 and 31 December, but hurry up to secure your spot, as tickets are going fast.
Ring in 2019 with a party crowd
On the last day of the year, throngs of people pack the streets of Budapest, one of the liveliest cities for New Year’s Eve celebrations. Parties range from family-friendly festivities to elegant galas and wild all-night clubbing. Communal revelry breaks out on pedestrianised Vörösmarty tér, around Oktogon and Nyugati tér. Almost all major bars and clubs are open on 31 December and offer special food, drink, music and dancing for the occasion. New for this year, city transport company BKK have also announced that the red, blue and green metro lines will run all night at this busiest time of the year.
Detoxify at a mobile sauna
From 5 January, a van-cum-sauna will be parked at Valyo Kikötő, a popular summertime communal hangout by red Rákóczi Bridge on the Pest side. Those who submit a reservation on the Valyo website can indulge in a Scandinavian-style session by the river inside this mobile perspiring service that can accommodate six people at any one time. Sessions are divided into 90-minute time slots for 15,000 forints. A changing room, a cold shower and hot drinks are also available.