The markets may sell kürtoskalács in place of mince pies, and you’d be hard-pressed to catch the familiar strains of “Jerusalem” amongst local clusters of carollers, but Christmas in Budapest still offers plenty of festive cheer. It helps that the city is covered with a frequent dusting of icing sugar-like snow in the winter months, and that the aforementioned markets are stocked with enough mulled wine to down a chilly elephant.
But if there’s one thing that makes Christmas in Budapest particularly special, it’s the music. With concerts held all over the city from the Palace of the Arts and the Liszt Academy to St Stephen’s Basilica and the Matthias Church, and even on a river barge (The Danube Palace), Budapest is suffused in song come December. Book ahead to attend one (or several) of the city’s seasonal concerts – and don’t forget to sample some of that mulled wine beforehand.
Budapest is unique in that its panorama – the skyline of historic buildings that flanks the Danube River – is its very own UNESCO World Heritage Site. While December’s chill might otherwise make it difficult to appreciate the splendour, a riverboat dinner cruise keeps everyone cosy and dry – and provides its own soundtrack, too. The Danube Palace Dinner & Cruise just does that, inviting the Hungária Folk Orchestra to perform traditional tunes before a lavish Hungarian dinner – after all, what goes better with live music than goulash and dumplings?
Of course, not all of Budapest’s Christmas concerts are water-bound. Those who’ve yet to polish up their sea legs can bundle themselves over to the neoclassical Palace of the Arts, the artistic hub of the city. There, audiences will be serenaded by Bach’s finest, including his six-part Christmas Oratorio. Held for just one night this year – on 20th December – miss it and you’ll have to opt for The Nutcracker, again.
Budapest is a city that’s positively packed with churches – it’s certainly no surprise, then, that some of the biggest Christmas concert highlights will be held within their walls. One church, which has lifted a few pages from Marie Antoinette’s book of interior design tips, is St Stephen’s Basilica – or the “Bazilika,” if you’re trying to impress the locals. It’s within this gilded jewellery box of a building that you can hear the celebratory melodies of Handel’s Messiah, performed this year on 6th, 13th, and 20th December. Hallelujah, indeed.
While the city’s other churches may not be a visual match for the King Midas-approved Bazilika, they’re still pretty exceptional to look at – and their vaulted interiors make for an ideal sonic setting for Christmas in Budapest. The medieval Matthias Church, or Mátyás Templon, is set to host five seasonal evenings of music this December, which will feature performances by the Hungarian Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, accompanied by renowned Hungarian singer Szerkes Adrien. The petite but pretty St. Michael’s Church – known for its somewhat OTT altar – will also host classical concerts performed by the Duna String Orchestra that will make for evocative and festive listening.
And finally, round out your Christmastime concert schedule with a trip to the Liszt Academy Concert Centre. One of the city’s preeminent music conservatories, the venue will host its own performances of Handel’s Messiah, as performed by visiting Baroque choir The King’s Consort, on 21st December. Visitors can also pair up the performance with an evening at St Stephen’s Basilica, if they so wish – it should be all the Hallelujahs that audiences can, ahem, Handel.