What a picture-perfect scene: the rosy-cheeked locals rush down the beautifully lit up streets in carefully layered clothes and warm tea in their hands enjoying the time of the year when everything slows down a bit. The crisp air is filled with the unmistakable aroma of winter spices cooked into poppy seed rolls and chimney cakes. And Budapest in december does what it does best: promising you an unforgettable experience of festivals, ice-skating in a fairy-tale setting, Christmas markets and magical tram rides that only this city can offer.
Whilst Hungarian summers are long and hot, winters could be crisp and snowy, however life in the capital never stops. There is still plenty to do during the winter months when the city shows a completely different side of itself. Ready, steady, go and get ready for a magical experience in the Hungarian capital.
What to explore during December
1. Be enchanted by the magically lit streets
Big cities like Budapest start celebrating the festive period with lighting up the streets and turning their inner city into a little fairy-tale village and Budapest is no exception.
From the first day of Advent for an entire 6 weeks the city is lit up by over 1 million tiny lightbulbs from the 5th district across the old town. The most important and most beautiful routes you want to take to experience the magic of the streets is Vörösmarty Square (that also accommodates the most famous Christmas market in Budapest), Váci utca and the surrounding smaller streets, Erzsébet Square, Parliament Park, Andrássy Avenue between Bajcsy-Zsilinszky street and Oktogon, Liszt Ferenc Square, as well as Batthyány and Clark Ádám squares.
2. Warm up in a World-famous cafe
The coffee culture in Budapest has recently grown into a lifestyle so stopping for a coffee or hot chocolate in one of the artfully decorated cafes is a must. It is also a great way to retreat from the cold streets and warm up before continuing your journey.
Zsolnay Café is a little oasis on the busy Teréz körút, located in the Radisson Blue Beke Hotel. It’s the perfect place for a warm-up hot drink, a romantic bottle of champagne or even a late-night cocktail with friends. The pastry assortment takes the place to another level which also includes lactose- and sugar-free options. Just recently refurbished the café with a gorgeous interior is open from 8 am to midnight catering for all meals and drinks of the day. What’s even better is they offer 50% discount during Sunday lunchtime!
New York Café has lived through many eras, political systems and historical turning points. Still, it has always been reborn, sparkling and occupied by those who longed for its comforts: artists, members of the nobility and commoners alike. At the turn of the 20th century the New York Café was the most beautiful and the most beloved coffee house in Budapest. Today both the café and the famous New York Bar is open for guests to enjoy a coffee with their loved ones, a cosy get-together with friends or just to hide-away from the crowded city centre.
Despite Bedő house is in the heart of the city, just a stone-throw away from the Parliament, only a few people know about it which makes it a lot less touristy than other popular places. This house, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful one of all, and the little café inside will totally enchant you with its 1900’s décor and art nouveau architecture. Stop here for a coffee to escape not only the weather but the whole century.
3. Don’t miss the Christmas markets
The famous Christmas fair on Vörösmarty Square is the oldest, richest and the most spectacular of all the Christmas markets in Budapest. The Crafts Market is open from 9th November all the way to 29th December after which the food stalls remain open until 1st January 2019 – perfect for a New Year’s Day cure and a last sniff of Christmas. Around 100 stalls are waiting for you to visit them, set around the Christmas tree that is decorated with different colours each year. From gulash and stuffed cabbage to grilled sausages there is a wide selection of local food you can enjoy. Not a surprise that the market puts a great emphasis on food and wine which is truly Hungarian way to celebrate any occasion.
The market is admission free and it is open daily from 10 am to 8 pm.
Special opening hours apply on the following days:
Dec 24: 10:00 – 14:00
Dec 25: 10:00 – 18:00
Dec 26: 10:00 – 18:00
Dec 31: 10:00 – 22:00
Jan 1: 14:00 – 22:00
Location: Vörösmarty tér, district V., M1 underground (yellow line), M1, M2, M3 metro lines: Deák tér station or tram 2 Széchenyi tér stop: a couple of minutes walk from both stops.
We would be holding our big guns back if we didn’t mention the local’s favourite market. Set in the most gorgeous part of the inner city, St Stephen’s Basilica’s Christmas Market is the one not to miss.
At half past 5 from Monday to Sunday 3D festive lights are projected on the walls of the Basilica with accompanying melodies. This year special 3D glasses with which you can view the animation are available on the market. (The show can be enjoyed without wearing 3D glasses.)
Grab your unique mug of mulled wine alongside with roasted chestnut and warm and hearty street foods (well beyond sausages) and enjoy the lights, the tastes, the spirit.
The market opens 23rd November and remains open until 1st January 2019.
Mon – Fri: 11:00 – 22:00,
Sat – Sun: 10:00 – 22:00,
December 24.: 10:00 – 14:00
December 31.: 10:00 – 22:00
4. Keep the mulled wine mug
When in Hungary, tasting mulled wine is unmissable. This heart-warming drink has become one of the must-haves of the Christmas markets where you’ll be almost overwhelmed with the wide variety of mulled wine selection (white, red or even rose!). For a little deposit you’ll get a customised annual addition mug which you can refill with your next choice. A great little touch that you can keep the mug as a piece of memory of the famous Hungarian Christmas market (or if you decide to return the mug you’ll be of course refunded with the full deposit).
On top of all this, Budapest is such a cool city it even offers Mulled Wine Tasting River Cruises for €25.
5. Take the magical winter tram
Hop onboard tram line 2 during the festive season for a unique and fairy-tale-like way to explore the city. The streetcars are lit up from the early afternoon, around 4 pm with over 35.000 white and blue LED lights that creates a stunning visual experience as the tram slowly strolls alongside the Danube. Even better that the journey is available with regular public transport tickets and passes, and in addition to tram line 2, several other lines across Budapest will be lit up, including tram 4, 14, 19, 47, 50, 56A, and 59.
Tram 2 is the most popular amongst all as it operates along the Danube Promenade on the Pest side with the most beautiful sites of the city.
The Winter Tram runs from early December to late January. Important that there is no service on December 24th and 31st.
6. Go ice skating at Europe’s largest natural ice rink
Budapest is geographically blessed in many ways, but this is perhaps one of biggest ones: once the freezing cold is settled in, the City Park’s boating lake freezes over and turns into Europe’s largest ice skating rink. What a treat that is! However, there is even more to it: the magical surrounding of the baroque Vajdahunyad Castle will swipe you off your feet. Literally.
In its official name, City Park Ice Rink’s (Városligeti Műjégpálya) skating area has been expanded to 12,000 square metres (130,000 sq ft) and it has a standard ice hockey rink as well. The skating rink was home of the 2012 European Speed Skating Championships.
The opening hours of the ice rink can change day by day in the winter season, so the following hours are an average general guide for the opening times.
Monday – Friday from 9 am to 1 pm, break, then reopens from 5 pm to 9 pm
Saturday from 10 am to 2 pm, break, then reopens from 4 pm to 9 pm
Sunday from 10 am to 2 pm, break, then reopens from 4 pm to 8 pm
Christmas Opening Hours
December 24: Closed
December 25: Open as usual (10 am – 2pm, 4pm – 8pm i.e. with a break between 2 pm and 4 pm)
December 26: Open as usual (10 am – 2pm, 4pm – 9pm i.e. with a break between 2 pm and 4 pm)
7. Try the classic chimney cake
Have you ever heard of a barbecued dessert? Yes, that’s right.
Chimney cake (kürtős kalács) is a true Hungarian legend that makes people addicted for hundreds of years. Chimney cake has a perfect crisp exterior and a soft inside making the most delicious dessert for the cold winter evenings. What’s even better it is coated in cinnamon and sugar. Yummy.
Hungary has recently experienced a culinary revolution and the famous chimney cake is no exception: the pastry is now available with an unlimited variety of sweet and savoury fillings or toppings.
In the 13th district Töltött Kürtős reimagined the pastry as a giant ice-cream cone and filled it with vanilla-flavoured ice-cream. Meanwhile, Street Cakes on Andrássy Avenue is there to make everyone dream come true and create chimney cakes according to each customer’s individual cravings.
8. Warm up in thermal water
If you’re really struggling to warm up even after your well-deserved mulled wine or coffee, we know where to go. Hungary is famous for its thermal water so you’re at the perfect place to spoil yourself and warm up in the cold winter. Thermal water is high in calcium, magnesium, and hydrogen carbonate and is best to ease joint pain and arthritis and improve blood circulation.
Housed in a neo-Baroque palace in Budapest’s City Park, Széchenyi Thermal Bath is Budapest’s largest thermal bath complex. Built in 1913, the spa is home to 15 indoor pools and three huge outdoor pools of different temperatures – which you explore even during the cold winter months. It is open year-round, and you might catch some of the locals play chess on floating boards at the edge of the pool come rain, shine or snow.
Gellert Spa is located in the historic Hotel Gellert where the bath offers a wide range of healing treatments such as gentle and stronger massage, thai massage, sauna, steam rooms, pedicure, and several outdoor and indoor swimming and thermal pools of various sizes, an outdoor wave pool and hot tubs. Besides these facilities you can also enjoy yourself at the bathing terrace with a beautiful view on the surrounding Gellert Hill with a beer or a glass of wine or champagne in your hands.
The hotel guests can purchase tickets to the spa for half price.
Party in a thermal spa? = Sparty!
While California dreaming comes with pool parties, Budapest nightlife takes this to another level: taking advantage of its natural features the city turns the thermal baths into the best party venues. Apart from reforming our thousand years old bathing culture, the aim with the combination of Hungarian bathing and party-culture is to create a unique musical and visual world that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Sparty event series has been running for more than twenty-two years and now it is one of the most frequented events of the Hungarian capital with 50-55 thousand visitors annually from 165 different countries. Sparties are held almost all weekends all year round in either Lukacs or Szechenyi Bath.
9. Enjoy the Nutcracker in Hungary’s largest theatre
As the Hungarian State Opera House is closed for renovation until 2019 all their performances, including the Christmas favourite Nutcracker is taking place in Erkel Theatre.
Opened in 1911 originally, the Erkel Theatre is Hungary’s largest theatre building. Its history is intertwined with the golden age of Hungarian opera performance, with such luminaries as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Grace Bumbry all having graced the stage of a building whose acoustics are considered the stuff of opera legend.
10. Get your Christmas shopping sorted
Budapest has a great selection of shopping centres making shopping easy and comfortable. If you don’t feel like walking store by store outside in the cold, shopping centres are perfect for you. Depending on your budget and preferences you can choose from a premium shopping experience to more everyday options, as well as combine shopping with social activities such as cinema or bowling. Taking advantage on the exchange rate you’ll most probably spend less on your purchases in Hungary than anywhere else in Europe.
Arena Plaza is the largest shopping plaza in Budapest at a size of 200,000 m². On November 15, 2007, Arena Plaza opened at the site of an old horse racing track. Arena Plaza has a great number of fashion shops selling designer clothes, shoes, bags and accessories.
Address: 1087 Budapest, Kerepesi út 9.
Getting there: From Keleti Railway station, M2 and M4
One of the newest centres in Budapest with a lovely promenade built around it for casual walks or nice dinners. On top of a great and very wide shopping experience the plaza also offers parking, free wifi, phone charging, baby and mum room suitable for nappy changes or feeding or even a playground for kids. It’s also a pet friendly place.
Address: Futó utca 37-45., Budapest 1083, district VIII.
Getting There: M3 (blue) metro, or trams 4, 6 Corvin negyed stop.
WestEnd City Center
One of the easiest to access is Westend City Center, located right behind Western Railway Station on the Pest side, just 2 mins walk from the Nyugati Palyaudvar tram stop (line 4 and 6). Many shops, cafes, restaurants, a cinema, even an ice rink is waiting for you here so you can easily spend a whole afternoon hunting for great Christmas gift, have lunch, dinner or watch a movie.
Address: 1062 Budapest, Váci út 1-3
When to go
From early November on the weather takes a full turn and changes into proper winter. Shorter days and longer nights, crisp mornings and freezing evenings take over, then in the end of November Budapest turns into a fairy tale winter wonderland. To feel the Christmas spirit and get festive the Hungarian capital is the perfect place from early November to end of December.
You can also celebrate the New Year in Budapest in style and enjoy the steadiness until the end of January while there are less tourists and the city is just waking back up from the festive period. If you’re lucky there is even snow, lots and lots of snow so you can enjoy sledging down the Buda hills as well as the absolutely picture-perfect scenes around the capital.
Weather in December – What to Pack
Cold urban destinations in Eastern Europe will introduce you to a different kind of winter where a very warm jacket, a chunky scarf, a hat and some warm gloves are crucial besides making sure you wear plenty of layers. You’ll move around a lot spending some time visiting outdoor fairs and markets and it may be freezing out on the streets, so you always want to keep warm. However, in museums and cafes you might want to lose some layers and feel nice and cosy.
Where to stay to be close to the Christmas attractions
Wishing to stay close to the beating heart of the city centre Radisson Blu Béke Hotel is an ideal choice for everyone who wants to explore the rich cultural life of the capital. The hotel is located just a few steps from the beautifully lit up Andrássy Avenue, and easily accessible by car or public transport. The theatres, museums, restaurants and cafés located nearby guarantee that those interested in high-end entertainment will not be bored for a moment.
Astoria City Center that opened in 1914 as one of the city’s most elegant hotels, and – over a century later – it stays true to that original character. Guests have always been attracted by its sublime fin-de-siècle architecture and comfortable rooms. The location of the hotel is perfect if you want to stay close to the city centre as it is only a 10-minute walk from prime Budapest attractions like the Hungarian National Museum, the Great Synagogue, the Danube promenade and the famous Váci Street.
Built in wonderful Art Nouveau-style and opened in 1918, the impressive Gellért hotel shares the building with the world-famous Gellért Spa, located on the Danube riverbanks, at the foot of Gellért Hill, which was named after Saint Gerard who was thrown to death from the hill. The hotel can be found in Gellért Square next to Liberty Bridge. Metro line M4 stops right next to the hotel, at Szent Gellért Tér, while the city centre is also reachable in a 10-minute walk.
Hungary is blessed to have true 4 seasons and this makes Budapest a perfect city break destination all year round. A new generation of locals keep raising the bar to incredible levels when it comes to authenticity, art and food culture. They create the buzz, they are the beating heart of the city – they organise Spa Parties and re-invent a thousand-year-old recipe of the chimney cake. In December, the whole city, old and young, celebrate the festive season together which creates this unmistakable vibe around the capital. And you are most welcome to join the hype – you wouldn’t want to miss it, anyway.
If you are excited about visiting Budapest in December then see more here: 3 days in Budapest itinerary.