Come winter, Budapest’s Gothic spires and bridges twinkle with lights, its festive markets radiate with warmth and seasonal cheer, and a light glitter of snow completes the picture. From outdoor skating at the foot of a castle to al fresco bathing in toasty thermal spas, step into a magical winter wonderland with our guide to the most festive things to do in Budapest at Christmas.
The inspiration for endless poems, paintings and musical scores, the majestic Danube cuts right through the heart of Budapest. Indeed, the river once separated two different cities, Buda and Pest, until they united in 1873. Taking a slow glide along it on festive river cruise is one of the more romantic things to do in Budapest at Christmas; a snow-capped Fisherman’s Bastion rising from the hilltop, the immense Hungarian Parliament Building standing proud over the water and the festive cheer of lights sparkling along the riverbank.
Budapest is famed for its many grand outdoor bathhouses, with mineral-rich, naturally heated thermal waters. Taking a dip in one may be a Hungarian tradition year-round, but at Christmas, al fresco bathing takes on an altogether cosier feel. Széchenyi Bath is Budapest’s biggest and most elegant—just be quick in stepping from the changing rooms to the outdoor baths. Then settle back and watch the snowflakes drift around you to melt in the steaming waters.
A perfect balance of kitsch and charming authenticity, Budapest’s Christmas markets are fairytale wonderlands. Strings of shimmering lights twinkle from log cabin stalls while carols pipe out and the spicy aromas of mulled wine and strudel permeate the air. There are two main Christmas markets—one next to the strikingly illuminated Basilica and the oldest on Vörösmarty Square. Pick up pretty local handicrafts such as Hungarian lacework and embroidery, pottery and handcrafted leather belts and blown-glass ornaments.
Wrap up warm, don your mittens and take to the rink with some outdoor ice-skating at the historic City Park for one of the most popular things to do in Budapest at Christmas. Located by Heroes' Square and backdropped by the elegant domes and spires of Vajdahunyad Castle, it’s a glide through a Gothic winter wonderland. The giant outdoor rink is Europe’s largest, open seasonally from November to February with skate rental available. Warm up afterwards with a cocktail or two in one of Budapest’s cool ruin bars.
The calf-achingly steep hills on the Buda side of Budapest can be happily scaled with the help of an excellent tram system. Of course, hopping on one is a great way to sightsee throughout the year, but over the holidays, the city’s tram network is lit up like a Christmas tree with glittering lights. Tramlines 2A, connecting Jászai Mari tér and Boráros tér, 19, running between Batthyány tér and Kelenföldi Railway Station, and no. 47, connecting Deák Ferenc tér and Móricz Zsigmond körtér are all illuminated between December and January. Jump aboard and witness Budapest at its most magical.