Brush-stroked grey skies and soft patches of snow, the Hungarian capital of Budapest shows its true colours in winter.
Waking up on my first morning in Budapest, I rolled over and checked my phone for the weather. It was minus 10.
I cursed myself for being so silly to book a trip to Budapest in winter; especially when I’m used to the balmy southern Spanish climate.
But there I was, rugged up in fourteen layers before I was brave enough to leave the hotel, during one of the season’s coldest snaps.
And boy, was it worth it.
As most visitors to the city prefer to arrive in the sticky, summer months, the romantic winter period in Budapest is definitely underrated. Despite the biting (or at times, savaging) chill in the air, the short days, patchy snow, warm cups of mulled wine and traditional, cinnamon pastries were what made the place quintessentially Eastern European.
It’s like stepping back in time. Each street of the city reflects a different era in the ancient city’s past, all the more highlighted by the (positively Soviet) grey sky.
Forget being warm – this is why you need to visit Budapest in winter.
Even the public transport is a trip back in time
From the moment you go hurtling to the city from the airport on a boxy, blue Soviet-era train, through bare, grey-coloured forest offset only by the white of settled snow, you’re transported into an otherworldly dimension – where the monarchy and aristocracy of yesteryear reigned supreme; until a harrowing history of war, revolution and communism took over.
It’s amazing that so much history can be reflected just through public transport – yet in Budapest, no matter where you go you feel as if you were in a living, breathing real life museum, with remnants of the past left, still functioning, in situ.
The Millenium Undergound, also known as line M1, is the second oldest subterranean railway in the world and the oldest on the European mainland. In continuous operation since 1896, it was built as to not obstruct the elegant street-scape of Andrássy Avenue above. While the original carriages now sit in the Budapest Underground Rail Museum, the ‘newer’ trains still date back to 1973. The three-car, yellow-painted metro is a rickety blast from the past – right down to every tiled and wood-panelled underground station.
Budapest is also home to one of the world’s largest tram systems, with more than 150 kilometres of routes in total. The narrow, bright yellow tram cars are a common sight, zipping up and down the banks of the Danube; some even date back to the 1950s.
Then there’s the gorgeous little funicular, slowly chugging its way up and down Castle Hill. The varnished-wood and white three-tiered cabins, constructed in the late 80s, are modelled on the original cars from a hundred years earlier (which were sadly destroyed during the Second World War).
I got around Budapest with a 72-hour Budapest card (also available in 24 and 48-hour lots), which provided me with free and continuous access to all the city’s public transport (except the funicular – it’ll cost you 1,100 Hungarian Forint one way, or around €3.50)
You can soak your achy bones in medicinal waters
There’s nothing like running barefoot on salty ground in a wet bathing suit during temperatures of minus five degrees Celsius. But that’s exactly what you can – and should – do in Budapest. In the glorious City Park – made all the more romantic in winter by snow covered ground, leafless trees and ice skaters idling slowly around the huge, outdoor rink – sits Széchenyi thermal bath.
Arguably the most recognisable of the city’s 125 thermal springs, the indoor and outdoor baths are surrounded by grand, neo-baroque style yellow buildings. In the steamy water you’ll sit among both tourists and locals: sufferers of chronic joint problems are often prescribed weekly visits to the baths, for the water’s composition of sulphate, calcium and magnesium are said to heal all ailments.
The outside baths, at a toasty 38 degrees Celsius, are made up of a relaxing pool, ‘adventure’ pool and swimming pool, the latter of which is only for serious lap-swimmers who wear a cap. Inside, there’s a never-ending selection of thermal pools, all of varying temperatures and mineral composites, broken up by various saunas.
After a long session of floating around the outdoor baths, I found that the best trick to beat the cold was to dash into the nearby, underground wooden sauna, wait until I was too hot, then take a leisurely stroll outside, which by now was almost relieving.
Entrance to the Széchenyi Baths is 5,400 Forint (about €17) on a weekend with the use of a private change cabin (which I highly recommend), but you can get a 10% discount with your Budapest card. Swimsuit and towel hire is available, but I brought my own (and ‘borrowed’ the linen from the hotel).
There are less tourists and better views
Budapest is among the five most visited European cities – but in winter you’d never know it. Budapest is a hilly city, which means it’s also full of countless high points from where you can soak in the view. And over the chilly season, not one of them is obstructed by copious amounts of tourists.
One of the city’s most famous lookouts is Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque terrace perched on the edge of Castle Hill, just in front of Matthias Church. Built in the early 1900s, destroyed in the war and then built again (really, like most things in Budapest – this place was badly damaged by war), the towers and archways present a panoramic view of the Danube, parliament building, St Stephen’s basilica and right out to the city limits.
While a chilly breeze whips high up the hill in winter (where the temperature for my entire visit barely broke zero), the lack of tourists means you get the time to take in the view, take photos, and take advantage of the otherwise choc-busy sight.
You can get to Fisherman’s Bastion on the 16 or 16A bus, but the walk along cobbled streets via Vienna Gate is worth it. Plus, in winter, you’ve got no chance of overheating!
The city is so full of museums you barely have to stay on the street
If you haven’t already gauged it, Budapest is a city built on history (and then knocked down, and then built again). There’s no shortage of fascinating museums for any history buff’s tastes; from Roman times to the 19th century monarchs, throughout two world wars and from behind the iron curtain.
The National Hungarian Art Gallery, housed within the Buda Castle, is full of Renaissance, Gothic, Medieval and Baroque sculptures and paintings, although I really only entered to defrost my hands and take in the impressive view (plus, it was free with my Budapest Card).
I’m more of a 20th-century kinda gal – all my nerdy museum excitement was saved up to visit the House of Terror, which exhibits remnants of the fascist and communist regimes. Much to my disappoint, I arrived at the museum’s front door to find it closed for refurbishment.
In lieu, I headed back up Castle Hill to the Hospital in the Rock; an underground hospital and nuclear bunker used throughout the Second World War and Cold War. And it most definitely did not disappoint.
Built into a kilometre of ancient cave system, the hospital has been converted into a museum, complete with the original surgical instruments, operating theatres, wards and (somewhat creepy) wax mannequins throughout. While it was originally intended for just a couple of hundred people, during the siege of Budapest it housed over 600 hundred wounded soldiers and civilians.
In the 50s, it was converted into a (thankfully, unused) nuclear bunker, purpose built to keep medical staff safe in the event of an attack. In the museum, you can see the purpose-built tunnel, complete with radiation suits, old-school gauges, showers, shaving rooms and a hand powered air raid siren (which we were given the option of trying out. Much to my surprise, I was the only one who wanted to!)
You can get to the National Art Gallery by walking (or taking the cute funicular up the hill!). The Hospital in the Rock is located nearby, but can also be accessed on the 16 or 16A bus. Entrance to the National Gallery is 1,800 forint (about 5€) or free with a Budapest Card. Entrance to the Hospital in the Rock is 4,000 forint (12€), 2,000 if you’re under 25, or 2,800 (€9) with a Budapest Card. A one-hour guided tour of the museum is included in the price.
What’s the best European city to visit in winter? Would you face the cold and see Budapest? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section.