I usually prefer to head to cities in the winter and beachy destinations when it’s warm, which is why I opted to visit Budapest in the middle of December. Thankfully, it’s a city with much to offer during this chillier time, from the heart-warming wintery food to the thermal baths Budapest is famed for.
With affordable flights and a journey time of under four hours, it’s definitely possible to experience Budapest in just a couple of days. That’s what I did, and here is my (hopefully!) useful guide to visiting Hungary’s handsome capital.
First of all, what’s there to see in Budapest?
There’s innumerable things to see and do in this beautiful city. As mine was just a short trip, we picked out some of the major attractions and a couple of less obvious ones.
To bathe or not to bathe?
Budapest is famous for its thermal spas that are popular spots for both tourists and locals alike. I didn’t actually experience any during my trip as the bath house we wanted to go to (Géllert baths) wasn’t open to both males and females on the day we chose to visit. If you already have a bath house in mind, it’s vital that you check in advance if they have gender-specific visiting days!
I was advised by a couple of friends that the huge outdoor Széchenyi baths is one of the best options (plus it always tends to be mixed bathing days). However, after doing some research online I couldn’t help but think it looked like a glorified public swimming pool! I liked the idea of somewhere a little smaller and less crowded which is why the Art Deco Géllert baths at the bottom of Géllert Hill would have been my top choice.
Walk up Castle Hill instead of taking the funicular
Unless you’re incredibly short on time or can’t physically cope with too much walking, I’d recommend skipping the queues for the funicular railway that takes you from the base of Castle Hill to the top. The zig zagging pathway up is equally as picturesque and gives you the chance to discover viewpoints you might miss if you take the more direct route.
View of the city and Fisherman’s Bastion
Once you reach the top, you’ll find stunning cobbled streets and beautiful attractions like the fairy-tale Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church with its rainbow coloured roof. Baroque Buda Castle itself is a stunning World Heritage Site that’s currently home to the Hungarian National Gallery and The Budapest History Museum. They both have a small entrance fee but you can walk around the castle gardens free of charge.
Check out the Hospital in the Rock
Located below the surface of Castle Hill, this museum is perhaps one of the most captivating I’ve ever visited (and I’ve been to a fair few around the world!). It gets its name from its role as a hospital during the first and second world wars when it treated wounded soldiers during the city’s occupation by German and, later on, Soviet forces.
Explore a warren of underground tunnels turned into operating rooms and wards on an excellent guided tour before heading into the museum’s nuclear bunker. While there are some quite harrowing images depicting the aftermath of nuclear bombings in Japan, it’s also a thought-provoking reminder of how many people across Europe lived in fear of attack.
For an even more in-your-face history lesson, the morbidly named House of Terror — with its torture chamber basement — is worth a trip. Be warned, though, that most of the exhibitions aren’t in English (there’s paper translations at the entrance to each room, however) and that you have to follow a specific route through the museum instead of leisurely wandering.
See the whole city from above at the top of Géllert Hill
Another one of Budapest’s hills is Géllert, which has the city’s Citadella at its summit. It’s quite a hike to reach but well worth it for the unbeatable views. A lot of tour companies will offer transport up the hill but if you fancy a challenge, I’d definitely recommend walking the winding path instead.
The walk up Géllert Hill
An easy way of starting your journey is to walk across the Elisabeth Bridge and follow the path up past the iconic statue of Gerard of Csanád (the first bishop of Hungary). It’s quite a steep ascent but you can take it slow and stop off for a rest at various benches and viewpoints along the way.
Stroll down to the Hungarian Parliament Building
Admittedly, walking along the Pest riverside to this iconic building seemed like a picturesque idea but it was freezing on the day we did it! Nevertheless, we were rewarded with stunning views of the Hungarian Parliament and basically zero crowds.
On your way, you also pass the poignant Shoes on the Danube memorial that’s dedicated to Jewish people who were forced to jump into the freezing river during World War II by Arrow Cross militia.
Shoes on the Danube memorial
Useful bits and pieces
Great bites in Budapest
Mazel Tov — This is a great restaurant in the Jewish Quarter with gorgeous décor — think lots of fairy light and plants — that had an interesting menu of wholesome Hungarian-Jewish dishes. I booked a table in advance online as I’d heard it can get quite busy (and it was by the time we left). The night we went there was also a live saxophonist playing which was a nice touch.
Fröhlich Kóser Cukrászda — I read about this Jewish bakery in a guide book and was a little hesitant to visit as I thought it might just be crammed with tourists. It was surprisingly authentic and relaxed, though, as well as being conveniently located around the corner from Dohány Street Synagogue. The perfect place for a sweet snack, we had mugs of genuinely decent coffee and shared impossibly fluffy sponge slices of coffee and vanilla cake.
Kuglóf — If you’re after somewhere to warm up after a refreshing walk up Géllert Hill, this cute and cosy café sits just across the river on the Pest side of the city. The menu was an enticing mix of filled sandwiches and pastries (the pistachio croissants sounded amazing!). Sadly, they weren’t serving hot food the day we went as the kitchen was closed but we did have some delicious mulled wine.
Street markets — For fans of street bites, Budapest has no shortage during December when there’s various festive markets spread throughout the city (including one with an ice rink outside St. Stephen’s Basilica). Sample delicious meaty baguettes or satisfy your sugar cravings with some chimney cake, a local dessert made by spinning flavoured pastry around a cone and suspending it over a warm fire. There’s also a couple of indoor food markets that are open all year round — I didn’t make it to any but a friend recommended trying the roast duck.
Dohány Street Synagogue
Where to stay
There’s obviously a handful of branded and independent hotels in the city (even ones overlooking the river) but you’ll also find Budapest an excellent place for holiday lets. I found a cute apartment on Airbnb located on the fringes of the Jewish Quarter that was ideal for our needs – and a fantastic price, too!
Getting from the airport to the city
I can hands-down say that our journey from the airport into Budapest was one of the easiest and smoothest I’ve ever undertaken. As our flight was due to land quite late, I knew we wouldn’t be able to get public transport very easily. Instead, we decided to take a taxi from the official taxi stand outside arrivals.
All you have to do is tell the person at the booth where you want to go. They then print out a ticket with your taxi’s number on it and the price of the journey. Within two minutes, our taxi had arrived and it then took less than half an hour (although it was the middle of the night so the roads were quiet) to get to our apartment. We then paid the amount on the receipt in cash.
On the way back, we decided to take the airport bus from the stop just down the road from St. Stephen’s Basilica. You pay when you get on the bus (it was roughly £5 each) and it takes around 40 minutes.
Budapest’s yellow trams
Let me know if you need any other tips on exploring this beautiful city in the comments!