Desperate for a getaway, but not so desperate that you’re willing to sit on a plane for 12 hours for a little winter sun? We’re well aware of this conundrum. Luckily for you, though, it’s perfectly possible to have a complete change of scene a little closer to home.
When it comes to destinations which are particularly dreamy in chillier climes, Budapest scores very high on our list. Hungary’s beautiful and bohemian capital is impressive no matter the season, however there’s something extra special about seeing its iconic heritage sites, pretty parks and immense riverside on a crisp, clear winter’s day.
And the best part? You’ll have no shortage of awesome things to do in Budapest during the cooler months…
What to do in Budapest in the winter
Never been to Budapest before? Let us tell you now – it’s an absolute treasure trove when it comes to amazing winter activities. From festive favourites like charming Christmas markets and idyllic ice rinks to only-in-Budapest attractions that’ll definitely keep you cosy when the temperature drops below freezing, here’s how to fill your time on a winter getaway in this handsome city:
Soak in warm waters at a thermal spa
Along with Budapest’s legendary ruin bars, its thermal baths are probably some of the most iconic sights in the city. The entire metropolis sits on top of a huge area of hot springs and bathing in their mineral-rich waters has been a popular trend for centuries.
While they’re open all year round, the Budapest thermal baths in winter are next-level amazing thanks to the fact they’re ideal places to keep warm when it starts to get a little nippy. Essentially the equivalent of giant hot tubs (but without the bubbles), the spas are naturally heated and usually offer very affordable treatments. After all, there’s nothing better than a relaxing massage or rejuvenating facial to get you in the holiday mood.
There are nine thermals baths spread out across the city, each with its own list of benefits. Széchenyi Baths in the middle of City Park is Budapest biggest outdoor spa and it even hosts pool parties (cleverly nicknamed “sparties”) throughout the winter. For something a little less hectic, cross the river to reach the gorgeous Gellert Baths. It’s one of the most beautiful bath complexes in Budapest thanks to its ornate Art Deco interiors and huge glass roofs.
Note that Hungarians are still a little bit old-fashioned, so you’ll find some thermal baths have separate opening days depending on your gender. Check the website of your chosen bath house in advance to see who’s allowed in on the day you’re keen to take a dip.
Wrap up for a stroll around Castle Hill
Regardless of the chilly temperatures, you can’t go to Budapest without soaking up some sights. Begin by bundling up in your warmest coat, pulling on some gloves and getting yourself up to Castle Hill.
Budapest is famously divided by the River Danube and you’ll find this particular hill on the Buda side. It’s where a huge number of heritage sites are located, from Buda Castle which now houses the Hungarian National Gallery to Matthias Church with its multi-coloured (and very photogenic) roof.
Budapest’s skyline is impressive to say the least and you’ll have panoramic views of it if you wander along to Fisherman’s Bastion. The structure atop Castle Hill wouldn’t look out of place in a fairy tale thanks to its ornate turrets and round windows which make ideal places to pose for all your Instagram snaps.
There’s also the option of meandering up the tree-lined pathways of neighbouring Gellert Hill for even better views across Budapest. Be warned though: it’s freezing at the top, so you’ll definitely need full winter attire!
Get in the festive spirit at a winter market
Thought Germany boasted some of the best festive markets in Europe? You’re in for a real treat in Budapest! Hungarian’s know exactly how to celebrate Christmas – we’re talking hot spiced wine, festive bakes, twinkly lights and plenty of traditional gifts.
Budapest is strewn with great markets where you can shop, drink and sample delicious regional delicacies. One of the easiest to find is outside St Stephen’s Basilica – a major landmark in the city which also hosts a nativity scene and carol singers if you really want to get in the Christmas spirit.
For something a bit more local, the Obuda Christmas Market in Old Buda is less hectic and a fantastic place to pick up some genuine Hungarian arts and crafts. Budapest’s permanent markets are also usually given a festive makeover during the winter months, including the huge Central Hall Market in Pest. While worth popping into to soak up its busy vibe and admire its architecture, it’s a little bit of a tourist trap – watch out for scammers and always count your change.
Whichever market you potter down to in Budapest, we dare you to resist the sweet smell of Hungarian chimney cake wafting around the stalls or the prospect of trying traditional Christmas dishes like stuffed cabbage leaves and walnut filled beigli pastries…
Test your skills on the ice rink at City Park
Whether you’re a natural out on the ice or you’re one of those people who prefers to cling on to the side and drag yourself along, ice skating in Budapest is a pretty epic experience. Locals love to ice skate, plus it doesn’t help that there’s an incredible open-air ice rink in the centre of City Park.
The Budapest Outdoor Ice Rink is set up every winter on the park’s boating lake and it’s famous for being the biggest ice-skating venue in Europe! The rink is also very picturesque as it stands in the shadow of Vajdahunyad Castle – a late 19th century fortress built to commemorate the country’s
1000-year birthday. Prices come in at around 3500 HUF (£9) a session – this includes skate hire – and there’s usually a few stalls selling hot chocolate and mulled wine for afters.
If you’d rather skate somewhere smaller, there’s loads of other ice rinks dotted around Budapest. You’ll spot one outside St Stephen’s Basilica and another at the futuristic Bálna shopping centre. Reckon you’re an ice-skating pro? The rink on Csepel Island boasts a cool ice slide and is well-worth the train ride to reach it.
Head to Normafa for some sledding or skiing
We’re all about playing around in the snow and a Budapest winter will almost always see a few flurries. For the best chance of experiencing the city under a blanket of fresh powder, hop over to the Buda side of the city and up to lofty Normafa. The hilltop park is less than an hour by bus from the heart of the city and its elevated position makes it perfect for sledding or even skiing.
Normafa is also fantastic for some childish fun in the snow and you’ll likely see many families building snowmen or making snow angels. If you’re keen to keep ice-cold snowflakes out of your coat, there’s also the option of taking a stroll around the park’s forest trails to soak up wonderful winter scenery and awesome vistas of the entire city.
Grab coffee and cake at one of the city’s coffeehouses
Like many fashionable European cities in the 1800s, Budapest became well-known for its coffeehouses where you could sit back, relax and catch up with your peers over a cup of fresh coffee. They were also the domain of the city’s creatives and some even offered punters free paper to jot down their genius ideas on.
While it’s more likely to be the Wi-Fi that’s complimentary these days, you’ll discover many of Budapest’s best coffeehouses date back over a century and still retain their old-world interiors. Ruzwurm on Castle Hill is the oldest coffeehouse in Budapest and its cream cakes are arguably some of the tastiest in Eastern Europe (order up a slice of the traditional almond cake – you won’t regret it).
Another great spot to keep cosy on a Budapest winter’s day is the rather swish Café Gerbeaud. It overlooks Vörösmarty Square in Pest and has a huge patisserie range to pair up with your latte, including its flagship Gerbeaud cake: multiple layers of soft sponge, ground walnuts and jam smothered in chocolate. Delicious.
Searching for somewhere to enjoy a drink after dark? Many Budapest ruin bars turn into cosy enclaves where you can sit down beside a firepit and sip on mugs of steaming hot spiced wine.
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