12 Magical Things to Do in Budapest in Winter [Ultimate Guide]
When thinking of Christmas and winter destinations, cities like Paris, London, Prague, Vienna or Stuttgart pop up. But lately, the Eastern countries in Europe have started to outshine their Western neighbours when it comes to a festive spirit and Christmas Destinations. One of the most magical destinations I visited during the winter months was Budapest. In this guide, you’ll get all of my top tips and things to do in Budapest in winter.
Budapest is amazing in the summer, but oh so mind-blowing in the winter! Can you remember the fairy tales you have read as a child? Snowflakes falling, the smell of spices and cookies hanging in the air, ice skating in front of the majestic castle. Christmas carols in the background, and 1000’s of fairy lights that twinkle, making the city light up with pure magic. Now, imagine that picture again. Well, that is exactly the Budapest in winter feels!
Besides being a real-life fairy tale, Budapest is also a budget-friendly city. Visiting in winter, especially in January and February, could save you a penny. Another great budget city to visit in winter is Bucharest, Romania.
For a significantly cheaper price than western Europe, you’ll get to live in comfortable accommodation and enjoy all the activities, sightseeing, and culinary delights on offer. You can also expect fewer crowds as most tourists are not up for -2 to 6 degrees Celsius temperatures. Which means, less waiting time in queues and fewer people in your holiday photos! Just make sure to wear layers.
Still need convincing to visit Budapest in Winter? Well, let’s change that.
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Explore the best things to do in Budapest in winter
Map of what to do in Budapest
Visit the Christmas Markets in Budapest
Yep, this is number one on my list as it is the best winter attraction in Budapest. I’ve visited a lot of Christmas destinations in Europe, but the Christmas spirit here is so surreal, it clings to your clothes! Budapest has many Christmas markets. The biggest being The Christmas Fair & Winter Festival, at Vörösmarty Square, in front of Gerbeaud Coffee House.
The Christmas Fair & Winter Festival
This market is in the heart of the city, with many stalls selling unique crafts, Christmas decor, and seasonal culinary favourites. These include stuffed cabbage, roasted pork & goose, lángos (Hungarian flatbread), strudel, or my favourite, the famous chimney cake. Here’s a list of where to find the best chimney cakes. Let’s just say, I did not care for healthy eating! Two stages offer Christmas programs filled with shows, concerts and activities for the kids.
Christmas Fair Budapest Xmas Market Dates
6 November – 1 January:
Fri – Sat: 10.00 – 22.00, Sun – Thurs: 10.00 – 21.00
24 December: 10.00 – 15.00
25 & 26 December: 10.00 – 18.00
31 December 10.00 – 04.00
Christmas Fair at St. Stephen’s Basilica
Another popular market is the Christmas Fair at St. Stephen’s Basilica, on Szt. Istvan Square. Voted as Budapest’s best Christmas market in 2019, need I say more?
Expect unique handmade crafts, exquisite gastronomy, and best of all, the striking 3D light show. In the evenings, every 30 minutes, light paintings appear on the Basilica facade, showing festive and religious stories.
I was in absolute awe of these amazing light shows. They play every 15 minutes, so you don’t need to time getting there. Folk dances and cultural shows will also keep you entertained all day long. Follow the official site of the event for up to date info of all programs at the Basilica this year.
Christmas Fair Dates:
20 November – 1 January:
Mon – Thurs: 10.00 – 20.00
Fri – Sun: 10.00 – 22.00
24 December: 10.00 – 14.00
25 & 26 December: 10.00 – 18.00
31 December 10.00 – 03.00
These are my 2 favorite Christmas markets, but some other quaint markets to visit include:
- Christmas Fair at Vövám Square – next to Central Market Hall
- Erzébet Square Market – along the Western side of Erzsébet tér
- The Advent and Winter Festival – Városháza park in Budapest city centre
- Christmas Fair in Gozsdu Court – Gozsdu Udvar
Catch a ride on the Christmas trams, especially Tram no.2. It passes along various impressive heritage and architectural buildings along the Danube bank. Use your regular public transport ticket or the Budapest card.
Are you travelling on your own around Christmas time? Or maybe missing your fam and friends? This post has heaps of tips on how to make Christmas feel special while travelling.
Free walking tours Budapest
You know whenever I visit a city for the first time, I love to include one or two free walking tours. This is the best way to get a feel for the city from a local’s point of view. Giving insider tips on places to visit, tourists traps to avoid, and valuable history lessons.
Trip to Budapest Tours
Trip To Budapest includes licensed and local college graduates who are very enthusiastic about Budapest, and they don’t push for a fee. They only wish that you thank them with your generosity based on how you experienced the tour!
The Free Budapest Walk is an all-in-one. From practical tourist information, history and cultural lessons, architecture admiration to pointers on the best nightlife spots.
Be prepared to cover about 3km of walking, lasting 2.5 – 3 hours. So pack in those comfy shoes! Major attractions visited include St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest Eye ferris wheel, Matthias Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion.
Also, remember to wear lots of warm clothes as you’ll stop out in the cold a lot. The guide will likely break up the tour with a warm drink out of the weather when everyone starts feeling the chill.
If you’re after a tour with a little more personality or something different to the basic sites join one of these:
- Street & Urban Art tours – exploring the painted murals in the Jewish quarter
- Pub tours – a fun night out, visiting the famous ruin pubs.
- Jewish District & Communism tours – learn about Jewish history and the post World War 2 communism era.
A cool idea!
I didn’t do this during my trip, but recently found out Budapest has a haunted city self guided tour game.
Purchase the game for €14 and you’ll get access to clues to solve a quest discovering and learning about the haunted areas of the city. Seriously, I LOVE this idea. What a cool way to explore Budapest.
Go skating at Europe’s largest outdoor ice rink
Did someone say ice skating? On Europe’s largest ice rink? Yes! This was a winter wonderland experience I will never forget. An outdoor ice skating rink in Europe, under the snowy skies and in front of a beautiful castle, was a dream come true.
The City Park Ice Rink, between Heroes’ Square and Vajdahunyad Castle, is 150 years old. During summer the area is filled up with water to create a lake, ideal for boating or water events.
Even cooler, in winter it gets frozen by special cooling systems to create an ice rink. At the City Park palace, you can get changed, rent skates, and have yourself some hot drinks to warm up. Visit their website to get more info on opening times and ticket prices for this season.
Another ice rink to enjoy is at the Winter Festival of the Palace of Arts, at Komor Marcell utca 1. Also offering exciting Christmas programs, lovely mulled wine and snacks.
Budapest thermal spas and baths
Don’t miss out on visiting the famous thermal baths of Budapest. I’m sure you’ve seen photos of these when Googling Budapest, and how amazing to visit and warm up when it’s cold outside.
Some of these date back as far as the 16th century, such as the Kiraly baths. With around 125 natural hot springs, their mineral-rich waters connect to over a dozen baths. This is why Budapest is known as the ‘City of Baths’. Minerals in the water provide many health benefits for joints and chronic illnesses.
If you want to avoid the crowds and save some money, Budapest’s secret bath, Veli Bej is your best bet. Hidden on the Buda side and only allowing 80 people at a time, will ensure a more relaxing experience with fewer tourists. Everything you need to relax can be found at Veli Bej. Thermal pools, a wellness area with steam and infrared saunas, showers with various settings, and the option to get massages. Visit during the week in the mornings to have an intimate quiet experience.
Gellert and Szechenyi Baths
The more famous baths are Gellért and Széchenyi. Both these are huge tourist attractions and for good reason. With Scéchenyi having a total of 18 pools and Gellért 15 pools, they offer much the same experience, with some differences.
Gellért has an awesome wave pool, and the art-Nouveau style architecture and details are out of this world. It’s said to be the most beautiful of all the spas. Whereas Széchenyi’s outdoor pools are also open in winter and they have ‘smarties’, night time pool parties! I didn’t get to visit during a pool party, so you’ll have to let me know how it is!
Visit the websites linked above to get the latest info on opening times and ticket prices.
Warm up in the historical coffee houses
Early in the 20th century before WWII, the Golden era, the coffee culture was big in Budapest. During this time people from all social classes visited these magnificent and grand coffee houses. Often to escape their less than ideal living conditions, to network and do business or to catch up on the latest news and gossip.
Actors, artists and literature geniuses created some of their best work at these historic coffee houses. Here they could spend all their days writing, dreaming and exchanging ideas. The coffee houses offered free services like ink and paper, shoe polishing, books and newspapers. The famous ‘writer’s platter’ consisting of cheese, bread and cold cuts, were also offered at discounted prices to them.
Unfortunately during WWII, many of these coffee houses got destroyed and were not allowed to operate in the communist era. After 1989 when the communist regime ended, some were gradually restored to their former glorious statuses. Most today still live up to the traditional elegant experience, etiquette and interior of the past. Some houses even serve your coffee with paper plates featuring a famous Hungarian piece, written by an artist who regularly visited the cafe.
The best coffee houses to visit
If you are a coffee addict like me and love the idea of an era before Starbucks, visit at least one of these historic coffee houses. Some of my favourites included:
- Centrál Cafe & Restaurant – one of the oldest coffee houses in Budapest
- Gerbeaud Cafe & Confectionery – one of the most prominent in Europe
- New York Cafe – one of the most famous and opulent coffee houses.
- Offbeat has summed up the best specialty coffee in Budapest into 25 places to try!
Other budget-friendly Budapest attractions in winter
These were some of my top favourite things to do during the winter in Budapest, but the city has got oh so much more to give!
Travelling on a budget in Budapest does not take away from all the wonderful sights and activities it offers. Depending on how much time you have, consider adding these fun ideas to your list of things to do in Budapest in winter:
Visit the old ruin pubs
The old ruin pubs in the Jewish district are where old abandoned buildings have been turned into super cool bars and pubs. Their funky and artistic decor makes a drink so much more memorable! The Most famous, oldest and probably most eclectic of them all is Szimpla Kert.
Try ‘all’ the mulled wine
Discover and taste delicious mulled wines, a warm alcoholic drink made of red wine and spices. Anything to keep me warm please! You will find mulled wine everywhere during the winter months and each place usually puts a slight spin on it. Get your drink, find a cosy spot and take in all the Christmas spirit.
Explore Normafa Hill
Visit the beautiful park, Normafa Hill, for a day out of the city. Explore nature, take gorgeous photos, and get the best view of the city. Even better, you can enjoy winter activities such as sledding and skiing when it is snowing.
Remember the fallen
Visit the ‘Shoes on the Bank’ memorial, on the river bank just south of the Hungarian Parliament Building. Have a moment of silence for all the Jews that have been brutally executed into the Danube River.
Head out on the water
A night cruise on the Danube river is also a spectacular experience. Allowing you to view all the city lights and lit up buildings from the water, including the Parliament Building, the Buda Castle and the Chain bridge.
You’ll find some great budget operators for just €10. I’d recommend this river cruise. Great reviews, easy to book and a glass of champagne all for €14.
Get dressed up for the Opera
In the mood to splurge a bit? Enjoy an Opera show like the Nutcracker at the Erkel Theatre or an Ava Maria church concert in the St. Stephen’s Basilica. This was my first time visiting the Opera and although I didn’t understand it, it was definitely a grand treat for me! Buy your tickets online at Budapest Opera tickets, there are some great deals if you go to the less popular time slots.
Take in the city views from Fisherman’s Bastion
This area is insta famous for a reason, it’s stunning!! From the neo-Gothic and neo-Roman era there are viewing terraces overlooking the Pest side of the city. Did you know the river divides Buda and Pest, hence the city name.
Where to stay in Budapest
Budapest has no shortage of accommodation. With many Airbnb’s, hostels and hotels, you will find something right in your budget.
Ideally try to stay in the centre of town on the Pest side. In the areas between the State Opera house, Vörösmarty Square and the Parliament Building. This will make for an easy walk to most places and reaching all the Christmas action, markets and monuments in no time. You will also be close to the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, making it easy to cross over to the Buda side and the castle district.
If you prefer a more quiet residential feel, then the Buda side is a better fit for you. Check out my map of all the main attractions, this should give you a great idea of where to stay!
3 Star Hotel
City Hotel Unio – A simple hotel with big rooms, and all basic services and amenities you would need. Within walking distance to all historic sites. Average price of €38 per double room per night.
Adagio Hostel 2.0 Basilica – Very hip hostel with a shared kitchen, free wifi and private or dormitory rooms. 500m from St. Stephen’s Basilica. Average price of €23 per room per night.
Central Location Flat – 1 Bedroom apartment with a fully equipped kitchen and bathroom. 300m from St. Stephen’s Basilica and 900m from the Parliament Building. Average price of €20 per night for the apartment.
How many days in Budapest?
I visited Budapest in December and stayed for 3 nights. This was a great amount of time to see the city highlights, but if you want a more in-depth trip, I’d recommend a week here.
What else you need to know about Budapest in winter
- Remember to bring warm, layered clothing. Temperatures could reach as low as -2 degrees celsius in winter. You do not want to spoil your free walking tour by shivering the whole time, trust me! I did not dress warm enough for the walking tour in Plovdiv.
- Not keen on walking everywhere in icy weather? Buy yourself a Budapest Travel Card at the airport. This will allow you to use many of the city’s metro and bus lines and even a trip from and to the airport. Check out BKK, who runs the public transport for the different travel card options and prices.
- Although Budapest is part of the EU and accepts Euros, most establishments still prefer to trade in the local currency, Forints. So exchange some money ahead of time to be ready for any small expenses. Plus, it’s always a cheaper option to use the local currency!
- Visit the Great Market, opposite the Liberty bridge, to sample some great Budapest food for free! Bingo!
- Consider buying tickets for museums, concerts and cruises ahead of time online. This will help with planning and could save you time with ‘skip-the-line’ advantages.
Visiting Budapest in the winter was a magical experience for me that I will never forget. And as a budget traveller myself, it is definitely a destination that offers so much for less. Giving you the opportunity to have that awesome holiday in a European country with all its charm and history. You will definitely have the best time in Budapest in the winter!