We all know “Budapest” as the capital of Hungary but the city was actually developed relatively recently, as a result of the 1873 merger between two distinct cities: Buda – which once used to be the capital of the country and which is located on the western bank of the Danube – and Pest, located on the other bank of the River.
I never expected that this little European city would impress me so much. The beautiful Christmas lights and the white snow that had just fallen over the city the night of my arrival certainly played a part in creating the enchanting beauty of the city’s landscape and an enlightening part of my trip. This city is absolutely stunning: it’s full of history, the architecture is flamboyant and most of its sights are free to visit (unlike some other European capitals where you feel like keeping your hand in and out of your pocket). Budapest reminded me a lot of Prague, with a river going across the city, charming monuments and cinnamon rolls that can be found and eaten pretty much everywhere!
If you wonder what the best attractions and landmarks in Budapest are, here is my list of must-see places to visit in December while you’re there:
Chain bridge, Buda Castle, the Fisherman’s Bastion & Matthias’ Church
All these sights can easily be seen within the day as they’re in the same area of town and at a walkable distance to one another. You can start by enjoying a nice stroll over the Chain Bridge from Pest and venture to climb up to the Buda Castle. If you’re in a lazy mood, you can always take the funicular carriage to the top! Once you’re done exploring the courtyard and admiring the different statues of the castle, you can then head to the beautiful Fisherman’s Bastion, which will offer you one of the best panoramic views of Budapest, overlooking the Danube River. This was one of my favorite spots.
The architecture made me feel like I was in a Disney movie, with its high fairytale towers, decorated with moldings that resembled those of Disney Castles. You’ll have plenty of photo opportunities there.
After a stroll around the Fisherman’s Bastion, don’t miss the opportunity to visit the church which is located right next to it (It’s pretty big, you can’t miss it)! It’s gorgeous, very unusual, and once again they’ve done an excellent job with very clear, interesting historical explanations.
In short, do all of these sights in a day, they’re all worth the hike. Just remember to bundle up for the weather.
This luxurious building is a true gem in European architecture. So many travellers have been fascinated by it that it has even ranked 10th on the list of the most beautiful buildings around the world by TripAdvisor! It is even ahead of Notre Dame de Paris…
So make a stop there, by day or by night – the beauty of this building will surely not vanish with sundown. I could definitely rate it as one of my favourite buildings too!
St Stephen’s basilica and its Christmas market
During a promenade around the old city of Budapest, there is a great chance that you will stumble upon St Stephen’s basilica, one of the largest Churches in Budapest. It is located in a very central neighbourhood called Lipótváros, and was dedicated to Hungary’s first King (St Stephen).
It has a very ornate interior, decorated with marble, mosaic, sculptures (including one of the King), paintings by Hungarian artists, stained-glass windows.
I read that you had to pay to get in but it was free when I went there… So try your luck!
If you’re lucky enough to go there during the Christmas season, you’ll love the Christmas market at the bottom of the Basilica’s stairs. A lot of food is available there, from Ragu-filled potato crêpes (one of the country’s signature dishes) to other typical Hungarian on-the-go meals. To help you digest all the good food, ice-skating on the beautiful central ice rink located in the middle of the Christmas Market can be a good option!
Gillert Hill and its ‘statue of Liberty’
The climb up there can be quite tricky if the ground is frozen but since you will probably see one of the most stunning aerial views of your life, you should do it! It takes about 30 minutes to go up (if you’re in shape) and I would recommend you to do it during the day as you will see much less at night. This isn’t a New-York City type of view – with illuminated buildings – it’s more of a spread out city view with a river going across it and it’s far more stunning during day time.
The Liberty Statue on the Gellért Hill was erected after World War II to honor the Soviets who helped them be liberated from the Nazi occupation. Its location on Gellért Hill makes it a prominent feature of Budapest’s cityscape and is a symbol of liberty and independence. The 14 meter tall bronze statue stands atop a 26 m pedestal and holds a palm leaf. It was designed by someone whose name you won’t remember – but I can give it to you anyway: Zsigmond Kisfaludi Stróbl. The legends argues the statue was initially modelled to hold whether a propeller or a child as it was made for the memorial of a Hungarian figure who died serving as a pilot during WWII.
If you’re going for the hike towards the top of Gellert hill, I suggest that you then go to the Gellert bath right after to warm up and relax! 🙂
The famous Thermal Baths
A visit to Budapest would be incomplete without taking a dip in one of its famous thermal baths. The three main (and recommended) spa baths are the following:
Szechenzi bath is certainly the most popular one as it is one of the biggest natural hot spring spa baths in Europe and celebrated its 100th anniversary quite recently, in 2013. Millions of people have been there to enjoy the warm medicinal waters, saunas, facial and massage treatments, the fun pools and more. That makes it one of the most visited and praised attractions in Budapest.
I personally picked Gillert bath as it seemed to be a bit less touristy and because it was the perfect combination after my venture to the top of Gellert Hill – which required walking in the cold for a bit…
My stay wasn’t long enough to try Rudas baths but I have also heard great things about it.
A goulash @BeefBar
Have you tried Goulash, one of the most renown dishes of Hungary? If you have, well… try it there again. If not, try it there anyway! Not only does their Chef cook it amazingly but the restaurant will offer you a splendid view on Chain Bridge – which you can’t miss.
Beefbar, located in the famous Clark Hotel, offers a wide selection of the best beef origins & cuts in the world in a unique & luxurious setting. So even if you’re not into goulash, you’ll have two other reasons to put this place down on your list: for other meat dishes or for the hotel itself. It was recently tastefully remodelled and the art déco elements gives it a very classy and elegant touch. Actually, this place isn’t unfamiliar to the Art Déco community!
The Budapest Christmas Streetcar of Tramway #2 (Christmas season only)
How cool to see a city put some Christmas spirit to public transport! In Budapest, they call it the ‘Christmas Streetcar’ – which is now one the loveliest Budapest Christmas sights.
You’re wondering how to find it? Well… you just need to wait at one of the stops of the number 2 Tram. Not all streetcars are beautifully lit unfortunately – probably because you need about 40,000 blue and white LED lights to turn a car into a festive sight!
As a result, you might need to wait a bit before you get to see -THE ONE-. The streetcar from the Number 2 tram is certainly the most famous one but I understand that they now have other decorated trams during the Holiday season to make their people happy! All you need to do to spot one of the holiday streetcars and start the chasing game is check their public transportation schedule.
I was also surprised when I saw an illuminated bus appear in the middle of the road. They still keep some secrets, I guess… because no one had told me about that one!
The good news is, there is no surcharge to travel on one of the Budapest Christmas Streetcars (your public transport pass will work just fine).
So… fancy taking a little festive tram ride?
Brunch @ The New York Palace Hotel, the most beautiful café in the world
It’s quite a difficult task to sum up the splendor of this place in a couple of lines but I’ll give it a try…
I saw and stayed in beautiful hotels in the past but the New York Palace Hotel surely hasn’t stolen its “Palace” title, nor its title as the ‘most beautiful cafés in the world’ given by ucityguides.com – thus coming before places like the Café Florian in Venice or even Café de la Paix in Paris. I didn’t meet anyone there who wasn’t impressed by the style and the architecture of the building, without mentioning all of the bloggers striking poses all around the place.
The reception area is absolutely gorgeous, just like the other sections/corners. The Christmas decorations probably played a part during my visit but even if you removed
all the Christmas glitters, the hotel itself would be quite impressive and – surprisingly for a hotel – it reminded me a lot of Versailles. If you want to feel like Sisi for a day or two – or just for brunch or coffee – go there and it will certainly awaken the princess inside of you.
The brunch/eating area definitely measures up to some of the most beautiful museums and palaces in the world. It’s rich in paintings, marble, ornate gold moldings, chandeliers, furniture… This place is truly magical and will fill you with emotion. It breathes history and luxury.
From 1900, the New York café became a hot spot for literature and Hungarian poetry, where multiple writers and artists came to live. At the time, some levels of the building were occupied by an insurance company while others were rented to rich owners. After the fall of socialism in 2001, the palace was sold to the Italian group Boscolo. Massive refurbishment work was done for a great cost of 100 million euros. The group opened which is now the current building – a hotel comprising 107 rooms, a luxurious spa and a gastronomic restaurant. The place, restored in its old pomp, now attracts tourists from all over the world like it once used to attract artists and writers. More recently, in 2018, the hotel joined the hotel chain The Dedica Anthology.
In short, put this hotel on your hotspot list while you’re in Budapest and try to spend one or two nights there if you have the budget.
Dinner @ Nobu
Any self-respecting sushi fan will know about the famous Nobu restaurants. Most people will have heard about the ones in New York, London, Paris… and for those who had no idea (like me), there is actually one in Budapest too! Sushi are just exceptional there – I thought they were better than they are in the other restaurants. So if you want to go for a tasteful sushi dinner in a fancy atmosphere, try it out.
To sum up my trip in Budapest, I would say it’s one of the most beautiful European capitals I’ve been to and I would recommend to anyone to go there for a few days, especially during the Christmas season or at least the snowy days. If you want to see some of the “most beautiful” things in the world such as the most beautiful café (the New York Palace), one the most beautiful buildings (the Hungarian Parliament) and other extraordinary places, Buda should be on your must-go list of cool cities to visit!