Budapest's grand architecture and wealth of activities make for an unforgettable holiday visit.
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Wandering among the fairy-lit market stalls of Vörösmarty Square, you’re suddenly tempted by a delicious aroma floating through the wintry air. Following your nose, you arrive at the source of the tantalizing smell: a vendor baking golden, spiral-shaped Kürtőskalács, or chimney cakes, over open coals. You ask to have yours dusted with cinnamon sugar, and as you take your first warm, flaky bite, you’re reminded that the holiday season in Budapest is magical.
As vibrant and alluring as Hungary’s capital city is throughout the year, it casts an especially enchanting spell during the winter holidays. The city’s many festive Christmas markets, cheerfully lit streets and trams, and array of distinctive attractions—from holiday music performances to outdoor thermal baths—make it the perfect seasonal travel destination.
Here are just a few of the reasons to visit Budapest over the holidays.
Budapest’s festive Christmas markets are among the city’s greatest draws for winter visitors. The best-known is the Christmas market at Vörösmarty Square, with more than 100 cottage-style stalls selling traditional Hungarian crafts and goodies (like the poppyseed- or walnut-filled pastries called Beigli; and Lángos, deep-fried disks of dough topped with sour cream and cheese), as well as nightly live music concerts and children’s performances.
Just a few blocks from Vörösmarty Square, the Christmas market at St. Stephen’s Square (one of Europe’s best, according to European Best Destinations) hosts a dazzling light show, in which holiday-themed animations are projected onto the façade of St. Stephen’s Basilica. At the foot of Buda Castle Hill, Várkert Bazaar offers a plethora of seasonal craft workshops, where adults and kids can decorate gingerbread and make advent wreaths and Christmas ornaments. And the Advent Fair at Erzsébet Square (Deák Ferenc Square) is home to a spectacular Christmas tree installation, as well as a huge Ferris wheel—called the “Budapest Eye”—which gives riders beautiful views out over the city lights.
Budapest abounds with special celebrations and cultural events during the holidays. Among the most popular are the performances held at the Budapest Palace of Arts (Müpa)—including concerts of Christmas-themed classical, jazz, folk, and choral music. The venue also hosts its own Winter Open Air festival beneath a pavilion on the banks of the Danube, where children’s programs, as well as theater and contemporary circus performances are held throughout December.
Another favorite family tradition is attending one of the annual performances of Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday ballet, The Nutcracker (typically held at the historic Hungarian State Opera, but this year hosted at the elegant Erkel Theatre while the opera house undergoes renovations). In addition, St. Stephen’s Basilica hosts an annual, celebrated organ-concert series featuring some of Hungary’s most esteemed musicians.
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Some of Budapest’s most cherished holiday activities can make the city feel even more delightful—like something out of a fairy tale. One of the most atmospheric winter pastimes here is ice skating among local families at the vast, open-air City Park Ice Rink, which sits in front of the towering Vajdahunyad Castle (in warmer weather, it becomes a lake for boating). As well as being one of Europe’s oldest outdoor rinks, it’s also—at 130,000 square feet—one of the largest.
City Park is also home to another of the city’s most treasured destinations: Széchenyi Thermal Bath. Budapest’s baths are open year-round, and this one is an architecturally striking spa compound that encompasses three grand outdoor soaking pools (where guests can warm themselves in 101°F waters right beneath the chilly winter sky), along with 18 different steam chambers, saunas, and indoor plunge pools. Another, equally popular bathing spot is the historic Rudas Thermal Bath, where the main pool sits within a dazzling 450-year-old building girded by Moorish-style archways and overlooked by a soaring domed ceiling. This facility offers evening bathing hours on Fridays and Saturdays; it also has a unique rooftop pool, where guests can relax while admiring panoramic views over Gellért Hill and the Danube. Also a don’t-miss is the opulent Gellert Spa Bath, which dates to 1918 and is one of Europe’s most famous thermal spa baths.SpiceOfEurope.com.
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