European City Breaks: Budapest
Many seasoned travellers would argue that the winter months are actually the best time to visit Budapest, providing a break from the increasingly sprawling summer crowds and tourists.
Whether you agree with this or not, you should certainly not let cold weather put you off, as Hungary’s capital has all you could want in winter time, including food festivals, street fairs and a number of unique indoor activities and attractions.
Here’s our guide of what to do and see for those of you planning to visit the city over the coming months.
Top 5 things to do
1. Take in a show
The Hungarian State Opera House, the pride and joy of celebrated 19th century architect Miklos Ybl, enjoyed its most successful year for more than a quarter of a century in 2014 and things are set to improve.
It is the largest opera house in the country and stands as a reminder of all of Hungary’s rich and prosperous past. It is considered by those in the know to be one of the finest in the world.
2. Take a bath
The city is known affectionately around Europe as ‘the Capital of Spas and Thermal Baths’ – and for good reason. The city has more thermal and medicinal water springs than any other capital in the world.
The natural baths have been enjoyed by a staggering range of historical communities, going as far back as the Romans in the 2nd Century.
Today, there are 15 public thermal baths (not counting the private spas in some of the city’s finer hotels, such as the Corinthia Royal or Ramada Plaza). Some of these arrange special programs and parties, including music acts and light shows. You can find out more detailed information here.
3. Go underground
The aforementioned hot springs, boiling and bubbling for millennia, have gradually chipped and chiseled their way through the rock on which the city stands. They’ve left behind a convoluted labyrinth of tunnels and caves. All intrepid explorers or aspiring adventurers should, without doubt, explore the Mátyáshegyi caves.
There are a number of tours and caving sessions available at very reasonable prices. Of course, these are all organised and supervised by qualified and experienced guides. Expect to climb up sloping walls, crawl through passages and navigate through total darkness with only your head torch for illumination. Full equipment is provided. Find out morehere, if you book online you will also receive a 10% discount.
4. Cruise the Danube
The second longest river in Europe (after the Volga) snakes through the capital and actually separates urban districts that used to be independent cities. These are Obuda and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Buda and Pest.
The majority of the city’s major landmarks sit alongside the waterway, so a gentle cruise along the Danube is a memorable, and relaxing, way to get some sightseeing done.
There are plenty of different companies ferrying tourists up and down the river so it’s worth doing some comparing.Here’s a good place to start.
5. Get back to nature
If you stay in the city for more than a few days (and we highly recommend that you do), you must take a day trip to the surrounding countryside. Hiking is a popular pastime on the rolling green hills surrounding the city and to mix up your day, there is also a renowned and antiquated railway service that chugs through the hilltops like something out of a fairytale. As you can see below, during winter it is a truly magical experience.
If you came by car, or have access to a rental (for the best rates, book with easyCar.com here), it is also worth taking a daytrip through the smaller, traditional and untouched towns surrounding the capital. They are known for their wine cellars and hospitality. ‘Cellar Hill’ in a village called Páty, comes highly recommended by locals and connoisseurs alike.
Eating and going out
Hungarian cuisine is, by and large, not particularly well known for its culinary delights. You would struggle, however, to find a nation with a wider range of homely and comforting dishes. Their mainstays are stews, soups and casseroles – Goulash being the most widely known.
If you are planning a trip over the next few months, make time to attend the popular Mangalica Fesztivál, dedicated to the indigenous pig breed. It is normally held in early February in Szabadság tér, or ‘Liberty Square,’ a large and impressive public space, located in Lipótváros. It is a great way to explore the local culture and cuisine. Meat lovers, in particular, will have a field day at this pork-heavy affair. There’s sausage and salami every way you turn.
With regards to eateries, we recommend Onyx, (1051 Budapest Vörösmarty tér 7-8) which is a widely known establishment, celebrated by European foodies and studded with Michelin stars. And for those of you who prefer a more casual ambience, we recommend Bock Bisztró (Budapest, Erzsébet körút 43-49). It’s slightly more low-key and fun with an accessible menu with something for all ages and tastes.
Most people who have previously visited the city will talk about the Jewish Quarter with passion. The city is home to the famous Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe. The area has a strong historical theme, much of it dedicated to the Holocaust and the city’s multi-cultural past. Other must-see museums are the Hospital in the Rock, a secret underground hospital which served during both the world wars, and which later became a nuclear bunker during the Cold War. Also the House of Terror, the centre of the Soviet secret police during the latter half of the 20th Century.
The Jewish Quarter is also the best location for bars and pubs, many of which are located in jazzed-up defunct buildings and ruins. It’s worth visiting a few to witness their fun and uniquely chaotic decoration. We recommend the Szimpla andFoga Fogasház, however, you can find out more about Budapest nightlife here.
A final thought for those planning a trip soon: the Museum of Fine Arts, is a must-see for all art lovers and is currently hosting the ‘Rembrandt: the Dutch Golden Age’ exhibition. Be careful, however, the museum is closed for refurbishment from late February onwards – get in there quick!
After all is said and done, why not make the last sight you visit the Erzsébet Watchtower? It’s the tallest point of the city and the perfect location for a final family photo. If you’re lucky the city will be blanketed in snow – Budapest during winter is one of the most beautiful sights you will see.
Have you recently visited Budapest? Do share your memories and tips in the comments below. We always love hearing from you!