Sticking to staycations for the summer, but need to scratch that travel itch soon? In this blog I’ll be sharing why you should start planning a winter city break to Budapest for early 2021!
Why? Because there are just too many great things to say about my favourite European city. In this first part I’ll be talking about Budapest in Winter…
It’s not a location you traditionally think of as a ‘winter’ destination, as the world famous Spa Bath’s didn’t sound that appealing at 1 degree celsius, but finding myself with a 2 week break before I started a new job, a spur of the moment booking saw me fly to Budapest with my parents in the middle of January 2019… random!
Was it going to be too cold? Would anything be open? What was there to do in the middle of winter?
Now, I don’t want to become one of these ‘bloggers’ that says everywhere is ‘the best’, but honestly, Budapest has been my favourite city break so far. It tops Amsterdam and even Rome! It was so good in fact, that I went back twice in the same year! I’ll talk about Budapest in the Summer in Part 2! Coming soon…
Here’s just a few reasons why Budapest is awesome…the architecture is stunning, the food & restaurant culture is second to none (and SO affordable) and the Hungarian hospitality is awesome. Not forgetting the ruin bars and great nights out, but I’ll cover that another time..
The checklist for a fantastic winter break to Budapest is pretty simple:
- A hat, warm winter coat and good pair of gloves
- Cosy and comfortable walking shoes
Not too much to ask… So, now you’re ready to explore. But, before I jump into our favourite finds, just a quick explanation of the geography & history of Budapest, as it might help you plan your trip…
BUDA & PEST; A BRIEF HISTORY
The city of Budapest only officially came to exist in 1873, after the merger of Obuda, Buda and Pest which were 3 separate cities before. Obuda and Buda sit on one side of the River Danube and Pest on the other. Pest is the ‘newer’, more modern city, while Buda and Obuda’s history date back as far as the Roman’s and architecturally Buda is quite medieval (more on this here…)
Although I had quite a decent history education, I was totally ignorant about how Budapest and the Hungarian people were tragically affected by World War 2 AND a long Soviet Occupation. This history is felt clearly on the Pest side of the city, with the historic Jewish Quarters, Heroes Square, Shoes on the Danube and other key historic landmarks.
So, if you’ve only got a couple of days in Budapest, I suggest breaking your exploration up by the Danube… explore the Buda side one day and the Pest side another. Otherwise you’re free to come and go as you please and the public transport links between the two mean you can cross the bridge(s) as much as you like!
Now that’s explained, here’s a roundup of some of the best wintery experiences in Budapest…
EXPLORING CASTLE HILL
Undoubtedly my favourite place in the city, I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of the views from Castle Hill. Standing at the top of Fisherman’s Bastion, looking out across the Danube really is quite spectacular, especially on a crisp winter evening when the Széchenyi Chain Bridge (right) and Parliament building (to the left) is lit up in all its glory.
The walled district contains important Medieval monuments, from the Royal Palace to the South which is now a museum complex, to the ‘commoners’ quarters in the North, where you’ll find the absolutely beautiful Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church.
All of the architecture is free to wander around, although you’ll have to pay to go inside the museums and the church. If you’ve got time, it’s definitely worth popping into Matthias Church! Dating back to the first king of Hungary, the church is decorated inside and outside with colourful murals, glazed tiles and stained-glass windows. The bonus of going in winter is that the church is much quieter than summer months – allow an hour to wander around, take pics and soak it in.
- If your schedule allows, try and visit Castle Hill in the late afternoon to catch the view at both daylight and dusk/dark. There’s enough to wander around for a couple of hours (with time to pop into a local cafe & warm up).
- Don’t bother with the Funicular railway up to Castle Hill – it’s a great money-maker for a 2 minute journey (and the queues for tickets are a waste of time), it’s only a 10 minute walk up through the castle gardens… easy enough to route on Google Maps, or take Bus 16 from Central Pest straight up to the top of Castle Hill!
SOAK UP THE HISTORY IN PEST
Now if you’re into your history (or even if you’re not), the Jewish Quarter (on the Pest Side) is now one of the ‘trendiest’ parts of Budapest, but it has a lot of history. The Quarter rightly contains many memorials and monuments to the atrocities faced by the Jewish community throughout the 1900s. To really get a sense of what happened, it’s definitely worth visiting the aptly named House of Terror Museum, which documents the Nazi and Soviet occupation of Budapest and the genocide of the Jewish population. It won’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but it’s morbidly interesting and a really important piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten.
On the Pest Side of the River you’ll also find the art installation ‘Shoes on the Danube’ which again commemorates Jewish lives lost. It’s one of the highest rated ‘sights’ on TripAdvisor & although it’s certainly interesting and humbling, you’ll have walked past it in 2 minutes, so only make the trip if you’re also walking up to the Parliament Square at the same time.
Parliament Square architecturally is really impressive, so worth walking to before cutting back through to the side roads to make your way to St. Stephen’s Basilica. Much like Fisherman’s Bastion, the Basilica is stunning and for a small fee you can climb to the top of the neo-renaissance Dome to soak up the views of Buda from the Pest side. It’s also surrounded by restaurants and cafes – we stumbled across a cute little cafe with walls lined with art and antiques – Egoist Cafe – and warmed up with a coffee.
TAKE A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
Now a visit to the zoo wasn’t the first thing that sprang to mind when I thought about Budapest, but having walked our socks off and seen most of the architecture in the first 2 days (Budapest is very walkable), we found ourselves in Heroes Square and saw that the Zoo was still open. For about 11 quid each, we thought why not!
For the first 5 minutes we thought we’d made a mistake as the zoo was deserted and the first enclosure (the Otters), was locked. But, as we wandered around we were pleasantly surprised to find Tigers, Bears, Rhinos, Elephants and Giraffes! And, the best bit, because the zoo was pretty much empty, so it felt like we were on our own private tour 🙂
Near the Zoo, you’ll also find Széchenyi Thermal Bath, but we weren’t brave (or silly) enough to strip down to our swimmers in the freezing cold. There’s also an Ice Rink for the more athletically inclined (again, not for me, see Bambi on Ice)… which in the summer doubles up as a Pedalo Lake which was more up my street (more on that in Part 2…)
A FOOD PARADISE
One of the unexpected reasons that Budapest was a hit (and one of the main reasons I was keen to jump back to the city just 6 months later) was the FOOD! Oh my gosh, the food!
Everywhere you turn in Budapest, you can get the highest quality, most delicious food for the most reasonable of prices. The quality of the meats, the flavours (Paprika is a base for a lot of dishes and my absolute fave!) and the Nokedli (a Hungarian specialty, not dissimilar to a cross between dumplings and pasta) was to die for.
If you’re looking for a special evening meal, there are plenty of trendy restaurants to choose from, mostly on the Pest side.
Some favourites discoveries of ours (so good I went back to both in the summer):
- Vintage Garden – a very cute, Instagrammer’s dream on the inside, it’s not all style over substance. The restaurant turns out modern takes on traditional dishes… check out the menu here.
- Zeller Bistro – it’s best to book this one if you go in the evening as it’s popular due to the live music in the evenings. You’re greeted at the front desk of a ‘normal’ looking restaurant, but walked through to a fairy light dazzled indoor courtyard where you’ll have a magical evening. And, even after 3 courses of deliciousness, we got mini cupcakes for free with the bill. The service is also fantastic!
Any guidebook worth its salt will recommend Café Gerbeaud, arguably Budapest’s most famous coffee and pastry shop. With fancy chandeliers, cakes and its famous Dobos Torte on display, it does entice you in, but for the premium you pay, it’s not worth a specific visit in my opinion.
Also, you can’t go to Budapest without trying the Chimney Cake…small street vendors in the summer, or cafes in the winter will serve the traditional sweet treat. It didn’t blow my mind, but is kind of non-negotiable on the Budapest bucket list.
In Part 2, I’ll talk more about places to eat… and more importantly drink, plus video evidence of our adventures with Unicum. Intrigued…don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss that one!!
WHERE SHOULD YOU STAY?
The public transport in Budapest is reliable (and cheap as you’d expect), but it’s also really easy to get around by foot, especially if you’re on the Pest side which is better for nightlife and places to eat. Having never been before, we didn’t know this, and found ourselves on Castle Hill, which was beautiful & peaceful and it was lovely to have an excuse to walk through the Fisherman’s Bastion everyday!
We stayed at a little boutique hotel which I couldn’t fault at all and included a continental and hot breakfast every morning which set us up perfectly for a day of walking.
There are plenty of other options in Pest, and you can get some great flight and hotel deals by booking directly with British Airways!
I hope I’ve inspired you to think about booking Budapest for your first citybreak post-corona (whenever that will be!)
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Thanks for reading,