Winter Weekend in Budapest
Budapest is an ideal city for a winter weekend break in Europe. It is a vibrant place, full of historic sights, great architecture, exciting street life and affordable experiences, such as great dining, thrilling nightlife and soothing thermal spas. In addition, it is just the right size to hop around for a few days.
If you are planning a weekend break in Budapest this winter (you totally should!), check out Bunny’s tips for the city below.
Buda or Pest?
Buda and Pest, on the opposite banks of the Danube River, used to be two different towns until 1873. When the towns merged and formed the official capital of Hungary, the name was established as Budapest. Apparently, it might just as well have been Pestbuda, but that name doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?
Today, the two sides make up modern Budapest and have their unique characteristics. The flat and populous Pest is known as the vibrant and buzzing side of the city, whereas the hilly Buda offers a more peaceful and residential environment, with a touch of imperial air and grandeur.
The locals generally prefer Buda for its quietness and leafy streets but trust Bunny: all the fun is to be had on the Pest side. Bunny is no night owl, but Pest is the side that she most appreciated after having moved to Budapest from neighbouring, aristocratic, and let’s face it, sometimes boring, Vienna.
If you want to feel the pulse of Budapest, have the best restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, clubs and generally the city’s exciting hustle and bustle at your doorstep, base yourself in Pest, Bunny says.
Where to Stay in Budapest
Luckily Bunny just happens to know the best possible place to stay on the Pest side of Budapest… Look no further than Aria Hotel Budapest.
It has an excellent location, stylish music-inspired rooms, and a lovely spa with a pool and whirlpool. The service is very friendly and complimentary afternoon cheese and wine is offered every day in the beautiful lobby bar. The year-round rooftop bar offers great views over the city and Aria Hotel is within walking distance to most of Budapest’s main attractions, literally steps from St. Stephen’s Basilica, considered the heart of the city.
What to See in Budapest
Budapest has a wide array of interesting sights to explore. If you’re on a short visit and have limited time, these are some of Bunny’s favourite places in town.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica is named after Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen, whose (alleged) shrivelled, mummified hand is kept in a glass case inside the church.
St. Stephen’s Basilica is the biggest church in the city and, at 96 metres, the exact same height as the Parliament. City regulations stipulate that no other structure can rise above the height of these two iconic buildings.
St. Stephen’s Basilica has an impressive and atmospheric interior and is free of charge to visit (a small donation is expected). The Basilica’s cupola gives beautiful views of the city. Visiting the cupola costs extra, but Bunny thinks the lovely views are well worth the small entrance fee.
If you visit Budapest around Christmas, there is a charming Christmas market just beyond the steps of St. Stephen’s Basilica.
One of the biggest and most spectacular Parliament buildings in the world, the Hungarian Parliament is a mixture of Neo-Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. It has an impressive 691 rooms and 20 kilometres (!) of stairs inside the building. The main entrance is located on Kossuth Lajos Square, but the best view of the whole building is from across the Danube River on the Buda side, particularly just before sunset.
When the assembly is not in session, it is possible to visit the Parliament by organised tour. The tour is the only way to visit the magnificent Grand Stairway, the Dome Hall, the Old Upper House Hall and the crown jewels, including the Holy Crown of Hungary.
The tour takes about 50 minutes and Bunny recommends you buy your ticket in advance to avoid queues. The tour ends at a small museum, where you can learn more about the history of the building, and visit a gift shop.
When visiting the Parliament, check out The Shoes on the Danube Bank nearby. It is a moving memorial to honour the Jewish people who were killed in Budapest during the Second World War.
Szechenyi Thermal Bath
You cannot visit Budapest and miss the famous thermal baths. There are many natural warm springs under the city and Budapest has been known for its thermal baths for centuries.
Bunny was curious, but being used to the fancy, state-of-the-art spas in Austria, she was afraid that the spas in Budapest would have a bit too much, ahem, character, for her liking. This turned out to be partly true. Although thermal baths in Budapest tend to be a bit rough around the edges, many of them are absolutely gorgeous and a fun way to spend a couple of hours on a cold winter day.
Bunny’s favourite is the Szechenyi Thermal Bath - the biggest and grandest of them all, with 18 pools and 10 saunas, and several other facilities. Visiting Szechenyi Thermal Bath is an essential part of the Budapest experience but potentially also a very crowded affair. Bunny strongly recommends an early morning visit, before 9am, so that you can enjoy smaller crowds and a more atmospheric bathing experience.
Szechenyi Thermal Bath is particularly alluring on a cold winter morning when steam rises from the pool while snowflakes dance in the air above you.
Szechenyi Thermal Bath is open every day and very easy to get to, as the metro station Szechenyi Furdo is right outside the complex. There is no need to reserve tickets in advance. It is best to take a cabin, which is a bit more expensive, but offers more privacy and comfort than merely a locker.
Bring your own towel, even a robe if you can borrow one from your hotel room, sandals, and a little beach bag so you can take your camera and other essentials with you to the outdoor pool area. Keep an eye on your valuables though!
Budapest’s Opera House is another magnificent national monument worthy of a visit. It is very centrally located on the Pest side of the city and is easy to pop by in the lobby without paying anything. If you want to have a look behind the scenes, it is best to take part in one of the many organised tours that are conducted daily.
The Opera House was completed in 1884 and has remained virtually unchanged ever since. It is currently undergoing some renovations, so the organised tour is more limited than usual. However, this is compensated for by a lovely mini concert performed by two opera singers at the end of the tour.
Budapest is a beautiful city and Fisherman’s Bastion offers one of the best panoramas of the city, including the Danube River, the Chain Bridge, the Parliament and Castle Hill.
Fisherman’s Bastion was built between 1895 and 1902, intended to provide the locals with a communal panorama terrace. It proved extremely popular. With its eccentric architecture, ornate towers, balconies and cloisters, Fisherman’s Bastion rather resembles a Disney castle.
The best time to go is just before sunset, so you can enjoy the views in day light and then watch the city gradually light up for the evening. Alternatively, visit early in the morning to avoid crowds. Fisherman’s Bastion is one of the most visited attractions in Budapest and you will be Instagrammed to death if you arrive there at peak times.
Bunny much prefers Fisherman’s Bastion to Gellert Hill, which also offers a sweeping panorama of Budapest, but can be quite cold and windy in winter time. Come summer, Bunny is happy to hop along to Gellert Hill again, particularly with all that cold beer on offer nearby…
Bunny is not a huge museum lover, but she likes a quirky affair now and then.
In Budapest, she would recommend the Vasarely Museum, displaying the major works of Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely. Vasarely is one of the pioneers of op art.
Truth be told, Bunny had never heard of Vasarely before visiting the museum, but she was quite impressed and entertained by the exhibition. There is also a cool interactive virtual reality experience where visitors can float around Vasarely’s art thanks to a 3D headset.
Vasarely Museum is a bit out of the way in the Opodo district of the Buda side but well worth the detour, Bunny says.
House of Terror
The House of Terror (Terrohaza) is a grim but sobering exhibition commemorating the victims of political repression in Hungary.
The building itself is the former headquarters of the Nazi regime in the 1940s. After the Second World War, it was taken over for the same purposes by the Communists. The basement served as a prison camp holding cell. Hundreds of victims were held captive, tortured and killed in these basement cells. Today, visitors to the House of Terror can get acquainted with the former prison while learning about the brutality of both regimes.
This museum is a must for anyone interested in Hungary’s dark past. It is well-presented, even if sometimes a bit confusing for foreign visitors. Informative leaflets in several languages are available in each exhibition hall.
Where to Eat in Budapest
Budapest’s restaurant scene has long left the grim past behind and now enjoys a reputation of tasty, affordable and cosmopolitan fare. Bunny is not totally convinced about Hungarian cuisine itself, but she does enjoy the myriad of international restaurants in town. Check out Bunny’s blog post on Vegetarian Budapest for some tips.
If you visit only one restaurant in town, make it Dobrumba. Bunny’s favourite restaurant in the city incorporates flavors from Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Georgian cuisines at very affordable prices. Make a reservation though as it is deservedly popular.
Bunny loooves the tradition of afternoon tea and thinks it is a particularly fitting way to while away a couple of hours on a cold winter day.
In Budapest, one of the best afternoon tea offerings is served at the marvellous New York Cafe. Once chosen as the most beautiful cafe in the world, the New York Cafe oozes old-fashioned charm, with a touch of aristocratic opulence. This beautiful place is decorated with copious amounts of marble, crystal and gilded furniture, and even Bunny, who is usually a fan of much more understated luxury, must admit that it is a sight to be seen. And the afternoon tea service is absolutely delicious!
It is best to reserve a table in advance as queues at the New York Cafe can get very long.
Alternatively, you can also enjoy a wonderful afternoon tea service at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace. It’s pricey, but you can take in the magnificent Art Nouveau surroundings, and enjoy delicious afternoon tea with impeccable service, all just minutes away from the Basilica and literally a dozen steps from Chain Bridge.
Where to Party in Budapest
Bunny is not exactly a party animal, but she does recognise a party town when she visits one. Ladies and Gentlemen of the party-going age, Budapest is your place!
Budapest ruin bars are legendary. Many of the ruin bars, set up in unused outdoor spaces and dilapidated buildings, close their doors for winter, but many, such as Simpla Kert, function year-round. Although artsy vibes and cheap beer remain their biggest draw, many ruin bars offer decent food as well.
For the more advanced in age, Bunny recommends the wine bar Doblo. It is a romantic, atmospheric corner in the heart of Pest’s party district. It specializes in Hungarian wines, but you may also be tempted to try palinka, the traditional Hungarian fruit brandy. Do so at your own peril, Bunny says.
How to Get Around in Budapest
Budapest is a fairly large city, but it has an excellent metro system that is very easy to use. The Hop On and Off Bus is another great way to get around and hit the major sights.
For Bunny, nothing beats walking. She is particularly fond of hopping around at Castle Hill, with its cobblestone streets and charming old architecture as well as in and around the Buda Castle which offers lovely views over the Danube River. It can be quite chilly in winter time though.
Another favourite of Bunny’s is the atmospheric Jewish Quarter. The beautiful Great Synagogue is the largest in Europe, but Bunny also likes this edgy district for its narrow streets with interesting street art, the quirky boutiques, ruin bars and affordable eateries. It is always lively and interesting there!
Budapest is a great city for a winter visit. You can take in a museum or two, explore one of the national monuments, eat and drink well in a ruin pub, enjoy long and indulgent afternoon tea in the New York Cafe or warm up in one of the city’s iconic thermal baths. And what’s best, you can do all this at very affordable prices!