Budapest is a magical town in winter. The famous Chimney cake itself is reason enough to visit the capital of Hungary in December. We offer you the 14 BEST things to do in Budapest in winter in order to make the best out of your Christmas trip.
We arrived to Budapest coming from Vienna. We can highly recommend combining these two cities and you can read more about our trip to Vienna in our guide. It took us a little over 2 hours to get to Budapest by train. If you fly to Budapest you will be landing at Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport, the main airport of Hungary. After that you can take the bus 100E which has several stops in the city such as Kalvin Square, Astoria, and Deak Ferenc Square. Purchase tickets (€2.90 per person) at terminal 2. The bus runs every 20 min. and will bring you to the city within 45 min.
Where to stay: The Three Corners Downtown Edition Hotel is right in the city center just 300m from St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Parliament Building and Buda Castle. It offers comfy rooms and amazing service. Definitely the perfect stay for a winter holiday.
1. Christmas Dinner
If you are going to Budapest for your Christmas holiday, you are probably on the lookout for a nice place to have your Christmas dinner at. We decided to go to Pest-Buda, which is both a hotel and a restaurant. It proved to be an excellent choice! We enjoyed the best chestnut soup for starters, traditional parikash as our main course and some cottage cheese dumplings for dessert. The live accordion music made the evening unforgettable. Since a lot of people visit Budapest for Christmas and locals like to enjoy their Christmas dinner outside as well, we recommend to make reservations at least a few weeks in advance.
2. Walking Tour
Of course the best way start to every city exploration is by doing a walking tour. Unfortunately, the walking tour company that we joined doesn’t exist anymore. However, consistently good Sandeman’s New Europe Tours offers a city walk through Budapest as well. The 2.5 hour tour starts at 10am at Kossuth Lajos Square, which is in front of the parliament and hits all major sights. Definitely make sure you layer up for this one. Unfortunately the Christmas markets only sell mulled wine in styrofoam cups, which doesn’t warm up cold-stiffened fingers. We had to learn this the hard way..
3. Christmas Market
Budapest offers multiple Christmas markets, the oldest and most beautiful of which you will find on the Vorosmarty square. You will find handicraft shops, food stalls and regular Christmas concerts performed by local bands, taking place here. The Christmas markets will stay open during the holidays although opening hours may vary. After the holiday, only the food stalls remain open. Try some Langos, Chimney Cake and mulled wine and maybe even do a little bit of shopping. I picked up a beautiful and incredibly warm pair of lambswool gloves, which I was very thankful for during the remaining days of our holidays.
4. Indulge in Chimney Cake
If you come to Budapest during Christmas season, you have to try a chimney cake. It is a Hungarian cake made out of sweet yeast dough that is rolled into a long rope and baked around a cylinder. After your first taste you will not be able to get enough of it. Chimney cakes are sold at Christmas markets but also in special chimney cake shops such as Kato Neni. We can recommend the traditional version with sugar but since you won’t stop at one, also try the cinnamon sprinkled version as well as the walnut coated one. Delicious!
5. Visit a Christmas Show
During the Christmas season you will find plenty of entertainment options in Budapest. The Nutcracker Ballet is the annual winter show in Budapest and definitely wonderful to watch. The elegance of the dancers, the festive set, the classic Christmas story, there is hardly another show that catches the Christmas spirit better than the Nutcracker does. We have watched the performance at the Erkel Theatre back when the Opera house was still under renovation. Since 2021 renovations are finished and The Nutcracker ballet is performed back at the Opera house again. Make sure to buy the tickets in advance.
6. Thermal Bath
The Szechnyi Bath is the most iconic thermal bath in Budapest. It is definitely an experience to walk through -5ºC in a bikini only to plunge into a pool of hot water. The water temperature in the pool varies between 30 and 40ºC depending on what thermal bath in Budapest you visit. You will not only be extremely proud of yourself for having undergone the cold exposure but will also have done something positive for your health as baths involving cold and warmth are good for relieving muscular aches and pains, detoxing skin, improving body metabolism and increasing circulation. Plan to spend at least 3 hours here.
7. Buda Castle
Buda Castle is one of the major sights to see when visiting Budapest. During World War 2 the Buda Castle , originally build in the 13th century, was destroyed by fire. When it was rebuild again, modern interiors were incorporated and structures that had remained hidden over centuries revealed again. You can walk around the castle grounds or enjoy the breathtaking view from the top. The view was so good that we actually visited the castle a second time in the evening. The skyline of Budapest at night definitely makes the climb worth it! Next to the castle you will see St. Stephen’s Basilica from which you will have a great view over Pest.
8. Hungarian Parliament Building
If you want to visit the Hungarian Parliament Building, you can only do so by booking a guided tour. The guided tours are offered in different languages. Remember to book a tour well in advance since they sell out pretty fast. If you don’t manage to get tickets, you can try to show up early at the parliament and ask for remaining tours for that day. Otherwise, simply admire the parliament building from the outside and make sure to also come in the evening when the Neogothic building is all lit up.
9. River Cruise over the Danube
If you go on a winter holiday it’s important to find the right combination of outdoor and indoor activities. A river cruise is a perfect indoor activity that also gives you a different viewpoint on the city that you’re exploring. Budapest River Cruise offers a guided 1-hour river cruise tour, which includes a hot beverage to enjoy on your ride. The boats are made up in a very festive way and cruising the Danube while sipping mulled wine and listening to Christmas tunes proved to be quite a unique but wonderful experience. They also offer Christmas dinner cruises with live piano music.
10. Ruin Bar
What the Red Light District is for Amsterdam, the Ruin Bars are for Budapest. Visiting a Ruin Bar was definitely one of the highlights of our Budapest trip. Luckily, our friend from Budapest took us along to the best one: Szimpla Kert. It is located in Kazinczy Street, which translates to Street of Culture. It is the first and oldest ruin bar offering live music concerts, innovative drinks, tasty food, free jam sessions, farmer’s markets on Sundays, breakfast dishes in the morning and serves as an international meeting point. Every time we come back to Budapest, we visit Szimpla Kert, which says it all!
11. Great Synagogue in Dohany Street
The Synagogue in Dohany Street is the second biggest synagogue in the world. It can hold three thousand people and serves as the center of the large Hungarian Jewish crowd. We can definitely recommend to take a guided tour through the synagogue. Especially the “Tree of Life” and the cemetery garden are amazing. After your visit the Synagogue you can also explore the Jewish quarter in Budapest.
12. Take the Christmas tram 2
Since you will probably run very cold in Budapest in December, at least we did, every little bit of respite in the warmth is needed. A very enjoyable one is offered by tram 2. Not only is this tram beautifully decorated from the outside making it look like it’s Santa’s sledge itself coming right from the North pole but the tram also runs along the Danube river, which makes the ride very scenic. Tram 2 stops include several highlights of the city like the Margaret Bridge, the Hungarian Parliament or the Hungarian Academy. You can find the schedule of tram 2 and the other Christmas trams here.
13. Ice skating in City Park
The Ice skating rink in front of Varosligeti castle is in the Lonely Planet’s Top 10 places to be in winter. Once you come to Varosligeti castle, you understand why. Skating on the ice with Christmas music playing in the background with the beautiful castle right on your side makes the experience very magical. The fact that you can stroll over yet another Christmas market and indulge in some Hungarian sausage or try some authentic Goulash after a little bit of a workout makes it even better. Don’t forget to take a walk to the Heroe’s square when you’re here since it is close-by.
14. Try some Unicum
Unicum is a Hungarian herbal liqueur enjoyed as a digestif and aperitif. It was originally invented in 1790. Today it is produced by Zwack using 40 different herbs. The ageing process takes place in oak casks. We had the pleasure of trying the Slivka flavour of Unicum, so the plum flavoured one. Unfortunately, we did not like that one as much as the original Unicum. The classic Unicum we liked so much that we even bought a few extra bottles to take home for friends and family. Although probably not intended it also makes for excellent Moscow Mules and serves as a cough/flu/stomachache remedy.