Budapest, Hungary is not exactly quiet at any time of the year, but in the summer travel season – May to August – things heat up and the crowds are everywhere. The nightlife is at its best – Sziget Festival draws music fans and during weekends, Chain Bridge is closed to the traffic and fills up with market stalls in July and August. But traveling during the peak season always increases costs. Flights end up costing more (although Budapest is a hub for low-cost carriers in Europe). You will also pay more for your room and more for entrance fees to almost every single place you plan to visit.
Come winter things start to change. Places which used to require entrance fee – such as Fishermen’s Bastion – are now free to visit, and the Christmas Markets come to life. The biggest one is located in Vörösmarty Square, right in the center of the city, and draws locals and visitors alike.
Christmas Markets pop up almost everywhere in Europe, usually opening on the Sunday before Advent (four Sundays before Christmas). There are some which open as early as mid-November (in Budapest and Vienna, for example). Markets close on December 24th or on Epiphany (January 6). The market in Budapest opens on November 18th (in 2012) and closes on December 30th (it’s closed on Christmas Day and December 26).
Christmas in Europe comes straight from fairy-tale books, featuring cake recipes dating from the Middle Ages , quirky traditions, and midnight masses in interesting churches. You haven’t experienced Christmas until you’ve been lured by the smell of roasting chestnuts, gingerbread, mulled wine, and home-made ornaments. In Budapest, add the kürtös kalács (a pastry originating in Transylvania, Romania, and which has different coatings) , lángos (dough deep-fried in oil), grilled sausages and many kinds of meats to the menu.
The fact that it hasn’t made it on to lists of “most popular Christmas Markets in Europe” makes the Christmas Market in Budapest an attraction on its own. The festive atmosphere is there, and so are the crafts, mulled wine , sweets, and food. While it draws plenty of crowds, the feeling of being overwhelmed by tourists is not there, and finding interesting items to bring back home is not a problem either because you’ll always find something for any budget.
How to get to Budapest
Budapest is served by Budapest Franz Liszt International Airport (BUD), colloquially referred to as Ferihegy , the largest airport in Hungary and a hub for Ryanair and WizzAir. The easiest way to get from the airport to the city center is by train, which connects directly to Budapest-Nyugati train station. From here, take the metro, bus, or walk. Please note that trains leave from the former Terminal 1, and to get to the terminal in use (2a/2B) now, there’s a bus running every 8-15 min from the train stop at Terminal 1. Alternatively, you can take the same bus (200E) and get off at M3 stop ‘Kőbánya-Kispest’, from where you can take the metro into the city center.
Budapest is connected by rail to almost all countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Trains arrive and depart from Budapest Keleti train station (unless stated otherwise). Keleti station is also served by metro and buses, making it easy to get from here to any place in the city.
Buses from abroad usually arrive at Népliget Bus station, which is located close to Népliget Metro stop, so it easy to get from here to the city center. Although it’s possible to get here by bus from most Central-European countries, the preferred method of transportation for short distances remains the train.
Where to stay
Especially when planning a short city-break, it’s important to stay close to the places you want to visit and have easy access from the airport (or train station). Budapest city center has the advantage of being compact, so you can easily rely on your own two legs, and when you plan to cover longer distances, on the metro.
Most often I get to Budapest by train, which means my favorite place to stay is also close to Budapest Keleti train station. It offers easy access to the metro and some sites are within walking distance.
Budapest is filled with places to stay, ranging from budget to luxury hotels, hostels, and panzios (hostel-like accommodation). No matter what you fancy, especially if you plan to travel between December 15 and January 1 , make sure to book a room well in advance (about 2 months would be enough). Ideally, you should look for a place to stay close to a metro stop.
Cost: Expect to pay from €11 per night for a bed in a 10-beds dorm to €46 per night in a double room (private bathroom).
36 hours in Budapest around Christmas time
As you probably imagine, the weather is not the reason to visit Budapest around Christmas (unless you like gloomy, cold weather with some raindrops or snowflakes). The reason to visit the Hungarian capital in the dead of winter is the Christmas Market(s).
A weekend is enough to check out the highlights of Budapest and visit the Christmas Market. Last year we were in the city during the last weekend before Christmas, and to my surprise, there was something very relaxing about everything. I expected a rush specific to the time right before the holidays, but that didn’t happen.
After you arrive , get a map. It will be very easy to get to the hostel/hotel. Most accommodations have early check in – especially if they ask you when you’ll arrive – but they also have early check out (10 a.m.). You’ll probably be very hungry, too. Many places will invite you to have breakfast at the hostel/hotel or will give you some tips to find a place to eat close by. There are a lot of affordable restaurants and fast foods located away from the city center where you can get the day’s menu for only 1000 HUF /US$4.50.
Christmas Market at Vörösmarty Square
Now it’s time to visit the Christmas Markets. Yes, there is more than one, but the biggest and most popular one takes place in Vörösmarty Square, at the end of Váci utca (street), in central Budapest. It’s easiest to get here by metro. Pick up a daily travel card (valid 24h from the first time you use it) and catch the Metro to Deak Ferenc ter. Then change lines (choose M1, marked in yellow) and get off at Vörösmarty Ter.
Just round the corner there’s a coffee shop, and from there you can pretty much follow your nose and ears. The market is to the left. The cottages offer pretty much anything and buzz with activity. Music – but not necessarily carols – fills the air. And your senses will be overwhelmed: from home-made soaps, to pastries, to mulled one, ginger bread, Christmas ornaments, and roasting chestnuts…you’ll want to try them all.
The culinary delights are definitely a highlight of the market .The Hungarian fare includes: stuffed cabbage, strudel, grilled sausages and meat, Christmas cookies, kürtös kalács, langos, and töki pompos (flat bread baked in a clay oven and topped with bacon and sour cream). And let’s not forget the mulled wine (which by the way, is an amazing way to keep you warm) and apple cider, both costing 600 ft (~$2.70USD).
Then there are the quality hand-made products which range from jewelry to clothes and everything you can think of. They are excellent souvenirs and make amazing gifts, too.
Come back later in the day and you can see the light show played on the wall at the Gerbeaud Houseevery single day at 6 p.m, starting on November 27th. If you travel with small children, Santa Claus will meet them on December 4th, 5th, and 6th (at different hours).
You can easily spend the afternoon here, and by the time you’ve seen pretty much everything, you’ll be hungry. You can try the food in the market as well (a bit challenging if you are a vegetarian like me). Thankfully, the major streets are lined up with cafés, restaurants, pubs, and fast foods severing anything from pub fare to Asian cuisine.
Advent Royal Fair, the ice rink and Christmas trees
Alternatively, you can make your way to the Adventi Királyi Vásár (Advent Royal Fair),one of the other Christmas Markets in town. It takes place at the Gozsdu Courtyard (13, Király utca) , easy to reach from Vörösmarty Square. Go back to the metro, take line 1 to Deak F. ter and follow Kiraly utca up to the Hollo utca crossroads. This fair is open between November 25th and December 24th.
But there are other places to have Christmas-related fun in Budapest that are not Christmas markets per se. Close to the Royal Fair, in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica, there’s a tree and an ice rink. Of course , there are stalls to buy souvenirs from, too.
Another tree dominates Deák Ferenc utca (Fashion Street), and there are also stalls selling food, sweets, and souvenirs. Similar markets can be found at Liszt Ferenc tér (Pest, near Oktogon) or at Nyugati tér, but they are smaller and not as popular (or as fun) as the one at Vörösmarty Square.
Citadella and Castle Hill
If you decide to visit only the Vörösmarty Square Christmas Market and have lunch in the area, then it’s time to walk off that lunch. Walk towards Elisabeth Bridge and get on the other bank of the Danube. You should see the Citadella right in front of you. If it’s too windy , you might want to skip the walk to the top (but the views are magnificent and it’s free).
Alternatively, walk towards Castle Hill. You can enter the premises via a secondary gate (and you’ll be able to take some interesting photos , too). It’s free to walk in the area, but if you want to visit the museums, there are entrance fees. Walk towards the Fishermen’s Bastion and Matthias Church.
The Fishermen’s Bastion terrace offers stunning panorama of the city towards the Parliament and all the way Margitsziget (to the left) and Gellert Hill (to the right). The seven towers of the bastion represent the seven Magyar tribes which settled in the area in 896. During summer you would have had to pay to get up here, but the entrance is free during winter!
Then you can visit Matthias Church, constructed in 1015 , but the current style dates from the 14th century. It’s just as impressive inside as it is outside (and also free to visit during winter).
Heroes’ Square Area
With a map in hand make your way towards the Danube and the Battyhany ter metro stop (on M2, red). Get off at Deak F. ter and then switch to M1 (the oldest underground train in the world) and get off at Hosok tere. The ride on the M1 trains is an experience in itself. The carriages are old, it’s not a metro per se (it’s an underground train), and the stations are nicely decorated. Now cross the street towards the large column in the center.
By now it’s dark and you’ve come here for some interesting night shots. Both the square and the buildings (museums) around it are nicely lit. Look towards front-right (as you face the column) and you’ll see a fairy-like castle (Vajdahunyad Castle) and an ice rink. The castle houses museums, and there is also the statue of the Anonymous in the courtyard (supposed to bring luck if you rub its pen).
Go back to the metro stop and go to the hotel/hostel. Hungry? Roasted chestnuts, of course. While passing by Keleti train station, a nice smell will make you crave these yummy treats, spiked with wine. Alternatively, stop at one of the restaurants or shops to get something to eat.
Start with a healthy breakfast and the daily cup of coffee (if you are just as addicted as I am). The coffee at the panzio was too weak so I immediately decided to go back to Vörösmarty Square and check out Coffee Heaven (note: when we went back in 2012, it was a Starbucks).
A walk in Budapest
Depending on when your flight/train leaves, go back to the Christmas Market in the morning and pick up souvenirs and gifts. Then, make your way towards Széchenyi lánchíd (Chain Bridge), probably the most beautiful bridge in Budapest and one of the most beautiful bridges in Europe. It suffered badly during the Second World War, but it was reconstructed in its original form.
Now face Elisabeth Bridge and start walking (keep Buda Hill to your right). If your travel card is still valid you can hop on a tram and get off near Gellert Hill. On the way which leads up to the Citadella you’ll find the chapel in the rock, and as the name suggests it, it was built in a rock. It’s free to visit but you’ll have to do it after the religious service.
By now it’s time to eat lunch. I certainly suggest crossing Elisabeth Bridge and then follow the road to Rakoczy Ut and check out the cafes which line it. I fell in love with Cairo Café, which offers good, cheap food, excellent wi-fi, and a warm place to rest until it was time to go to the train station.
Bonus: Transport Museum
If you have enough time on your hands, from the Christmas Market, get back to the Metro stop , travel to Deak F. Ter and switch to M1. Get off at Heroes’ Square, cross the park and reach the Transport Museum. It’s a fun way to keep you entertained (and warm) until it’s time to get back home.
For more on travel to Budapest, check out the following articles and resources:
- Check out our Budapest Indie Travel Guide
- Find a flight to Budapest
- Read 10 of Europe’s Most Eco-Friendly Cities
- Read 8 Ways to Experience the Best of Eastern Europe in Budapest
- Read Christmas Markets Around the World
- Read 7 Great German Christmas Markets that Aren’t In Germany
All photos by Cristina Puscas and may not be used without permission.