Spending Christmas in Budapest was a last-minute decision, but it was a great one! Budapest is full of history, incredible architecture, friendly people, and beautiful Christmas decorations. If you are looking for a new European destination that has yet to be overwhelmed by tourists, Budapest is it!
Brief history of Budapest
Budapest is the capital of Hungary, a former Soviet territory, located in Eastern Europe. Hungary is now part of the European Union.
The city was not always known as “Budapest.” In 1873, the cities of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda combined to become the city we now know as Budapest. The former cities of Buda and Pest are on different sides of the Danube River, and each has its own unique architectural style. In the early 20th century, Budapest was stuck in numerous turf wars, which ultimately resulted in the creation of the Kingdom of Hungary. A mere thirty years later, World War II all but ravaged Budapest, destroying many of its buildings.
Budapest was the center of Jewish culture in Hungary. It became a sort of a safe haven for Hungarian Jews during the war. Many of the Jews were saved, but not everyone was so lucky. There were many who were killed before the end of the war.
Now, Budapest is part of the European Union and has become a place many tourists have on their list to visit.
Christmastime in Budapest
Spending Christmas in Budapest was magical. After I got over the shivers from the cold winter air, I was able to take in the full beauty and allure of Budapest. There were multiple Christmas markets strewn around the city. The biggest market was located near the Fashion District. It had multiple vendors, selling anything from food to housewares to souvenirs. Some people say that once you’ve been to one Christmas market, you’ve been to them all, but I tend to disagree. Each market has its own defining factors, and the market in Budapest was no different.
Hot wine and mulled wines were aplenty amongst the vendors in the main market, a well as the other smaller ones. Traditional Hungarian delicacies, such as stuffed cabbage and pork knuckle were abundant. My favorite, the chimney cakes, were also being freshly baked right before my eyes. The smells of the market were delightful, and it made for an exciting addition to the array of Budapest Christmas celebrations.
As I stated before, Budapest has a large Jewish population, but the city as a whole observes the Christmas holiday. More precisely, they observe Christmas Eve as a day of celebration. For most of the latter part of the day, Budapest is basically a ghost town because of its designation as a bank holiday. After about 3 p.m., there were little to no places to eat, drink, or be merry. Besides your hotel room, anyway.
We were able to eat at the Christmas market, as well as at an Italian restaurant not far from the main market. After dinner, we wanted to visit one of the famous Budapest ruin bars. Ruin bars are bars mainly located in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest, that have an eclectic look to them. Basically, they have random things all over the walls, doors, and anywhere else. I have read that they are truly a sight to see and experience. Unfortunately, with the limited time we had in Budapest, we did not get the opportunity to visit any of the ruin bars. We did try to visit one, Mazel Tov, because it was one of the only open on Christmas Eve. The line was loooooong. So, yeah, we didn’t go inside.
If you want to visit the ruin bars around Christmas, which I highly recommend (go for me!), plan to have at least two days before or after Christmas to ensure they are open for business.
On Christmas Day, many places had reopened. Stores were less likely to be open, but many places to eat were ready to serve customers. For Christmas dinner, we opted to enjoy a buffet on a boat. The boat drifted along the Danube, passing by the lovely lit buildings and numerous bridges of Budapest. It truly was a beautiful way to eat Christmas dinner, especially with the traditional Hungarian music playing live in the background.
To make the most of our limited time in Budapest, we also took a boat tour on Christmas Eve. This tour lasted only about an hour and a half, but it was very informative. Traveling up and down the Danube, our boat tour provided an audio commentary of each landmark (in, like, 20 languages!) we passed. It was a cold day, but the sun was shining which allowed us to be able to brave the top deck of the boat for some unobstructed photos, like this one of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge.
Getting there & staying there
We flew from Stuttgart Airport in Germany, which was a first since we normally fly from Frankfurt. The flights were an absolute steal! We were able to snag a deal by booking the Eurowings flight (2 roundtrips) and hotel (3-nights) for only about 700 euros – last minute! At Christmas! Our hotel wasn’t too shabby, either. We stayed in the 5-star (!) Hilton Budapest, which neighbored Buda Castle. The taxi drivers nicknamed it the “Castle Hilton” because there are two in the city. The hotel was beautiful inside, built atop a 13th-century monastery with stained-glass windows and a partially-excavated basement with old artifacts.
The Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church, both Budapest tourist spots, were within seconds of the hotel. The area between the back of the hotel and Fisherman’s Bastion was beautifully decorated for the season.
Walking is a great way to get around Budapest if it isn’t too cold. Taxis are common and easy to find. They are also relatively cheap. Many taxi drivers speak English, whether they’re fluent or know just enough to get you where you want to go. If you’re feeling brave, car rentals are available at the airport.
Tips & tricks
- Even though Hungary is part of the EU, the Hungarian Forint is the primary currency. Euros are also accepted in most places. Prices are also often listed in both currencies
- Info Points are abundant throughout the city. If you need help, they provide it for free
- When at Christmas markets, beware of the price of your meal. The food is weighed to determine price, rather than having it set. Sometimes foreigners are tricked into paying more without knowing it
- “Normal” Christmas market mugs aren’t really a thing at the Budapest market. There are mugs available, but they are more like traditional coffee mugs
Where is your favorite holiday destination?
Until my next adventure,