Photo courtesy of Szechenyi Thermal Baths, Budapest, Hungary

by Diane Dobry

This story first appeared in the 2019 Winter issue of FWT Magazine–reprinted with permission with some updates

Planning a winter vacation predictably ends up as a search for warm-weather locations with beaches and island life, or skiing, snowboarding, and stunning snowcapped mountain views. Why not be unpredictable instead, and take advantage of the off season to avoid hefty plane fares and crowded, costly hotels, and to explore ways to make a winter European excursion worth your while with these five or six options in Budapest: 

Thermal Baths and Spa Hotels.  One of the most popular activities in Budapest—and Hungary, for that matter—is enjoying the thermal waters that flow beneath the city as a way to ward off the chilly weather.  Several well-known thermal baths (gyógyfürdők) and wellness centers can be found throughout the city, which offer not just various temperature pools, but saunas, steam rooms, masseuses and specialty spa experiences—like a beer spa or a Sparty, a combination of spa and party with a nightclub vibe.  The most well-known is Széchenyi Thermal Baths, with its neo-Baroque and modern Renaissance architectural style. Though it was built more than 100 years ago, its interior was updated in the mid-2000s and lockers and cabanas are clean. A Beer Bath room is on the premises, and here is where the Sparties happen.  Gellert Thermal Baths, attached to, but not affiliated with the Gellert Hotel on the Buda side of the Szabadsag (Liberty) bridge, features Art Nouveau style and dark wood cabanas, with attendants that oversee the changing areas and give the Gellert Spa a sense of class. The interior is on the small side, and the outdoor pool is small compared to Széchenyi.  Rudas has several pools indoors, with temperatures ranging from 19 C to 40C.  The outdoor area is on the rooftop, which offers a small sunning area and a circular spa with tile bench seating all around and a clear cover above, as well as a stunning view of the Danube and Pest side of the city from the roof and from the outdoor terrace of the restaurant bar one floor downRác Bath just recently re-opened, and is reportedly one of the oldest historic baths in the city.  Several hotels also offer spas with indoor pools, saunas, steamrooms and Jacuzzis.  

New York Cafe, Budapest ©Diane Dobry 2011

Coffeehouse Culture.  While exploring shops, museums, exhibits and concerts, the best way to keep warm is to take advantage of true European coffee culture while indulging in some of the best tortes and pastries in Europe.  Although Vienna is famous for its cafés, Budapest has some of the most architecturally stunning coffeehouses—the New York Café in particular—and the 130-year-old Central Café and Restaurant, long known as homes to writers, journalists and, at times, studentsCafé Gerbaud, in Vörösmarty square, has been in business for 160 years. Inside it has old world charm with high ornately decorated ceilings, chandeliers, and chairs branded with their logo. It is also appealing in summer, when diners can eat al fresco while watching people traversing the plaza as they enjoy light meals, pastries, ice cream, coffee and handmade chocolates. Artist Café – aka Művész Café —is not just an architectural treat for the eyes, but serves visually enticing platters of sandwiches, eggs, and desserts. Some smaller, newer cafés are popping up all around. One favorite is Amber’s French Bakery &Café across from the Central Market in Kálvin tér, and another is the Goat Herder Espresso Bar near Keleti train station. 

A selection of cakes at the Central Café and Restaurant © Diane Dobry 2017

Zwack Unicum courtesy of Zwack

Alcoholic Beverages.  An alternative type of liquid warmth could go a long way toward keeping the winter doldrums at bay while touring Budapest.  You may not be able to tour wine country in the dead of winter, but you can learn through libation as you enjoy Budapest Wine and Champagne Tasting Tours in a labyrinth of caves on the Buda side or opt for a wine pairing dinner or a simple wine tasting at the Tasting Table not far from the National Museum. At the Zwack Museum watch a video, take a tour and taste Hungary’s national drink, Unicum and some variations on the original as well as a shot of pálinka, Hungarian fruit brandy.    

Parliament ©Diane Dobry 2011

Indoor Interests.   When temperatures are too cold, winds too strong, or the weather too wet, there is plenty to do indoors in the capital.  Historic Buildings include some famous houses of worship, such as the Doheny Street Synagogue—the largest in Europe; St. Stephen’s Basilica, where you can often hear music students playing the organ as part of their final exams and, if you make your way to a small back room, you can see the actual hand of St. Stephen, the first Hungarian king;  Matyas Templom, in the Castle District, known by its colorful Zsolnay tile roof, was the location of the sacred ceremony for the crowning of Hungarian kings; and Parliament, where the royal crown with its crooked cross is on display in a secure glass case. The Opera house on Andrassy ut (recently refurbished), just steps away from St. Stephen’s Basilica, offers not only the chance to hear some of the best musicians and singers in Europe, but also daily tours that provide visitors with a more in-depth appreciation of the building and its history. 

For indoor sightseeing that combines a leisurely stroll with cultural and architectural wonders, Budapest’s many museums offer insight into the country’s history—from day-to-day living, to wars and battles, the arts and agriculture. For a more historic understanding, the National (Nemzeti) Museum in Kálvin tér is fairly comprehensive and the Museum of Ethnography shows what daily life was like for Hungarians through the years. (Recently relocated to City Park, the original location is closed until 2020).  Both history and war are the focus of the Museum of Military History and the House of Terror (which chronicles the Hungarian tragedies related to the 1956 Revolution)The Museum and Library of Hungarian Agriculture housed in what is called the Vajdahunyad Castle in City Park, features 40 collections showcasing the development of agriculture, forestry, hunting and fishing, viticulture, domestication, Hungarian flora and horse breeding in Hungary.  Also in City Park, on either side of Heroes Square, are the Museum of Fine Arts and The Hall of Art or KunsthalleSo after touring some of the museums in City Park, head over to the Szechenyi thermal baths to relax afterward, or try the outdoor fun below.  

Heroes Square © Diane Dobry

Outdoor Activities The lake in Városliget—or City Park—is a hub of activity in both winter and summer.  While in summer, boats and peddle boats in various shapes and colors are rented by the hour, winter turns the lake into a large, temperature-controlled ice rink flanked by the Museum and Library of Hungarian Agriculture–and a white neo baroque style building that resembles a palace but was built in 1870 especially as a shelter for skaters to warm up and to store their gear.   

Busójárás in Mohacs, Hungary © Zsolt Turi

In February, it is worth the trip out of town to Mohacs, a town 208 km (or 129 miles) south of Budapest, to check out Busójárás. The pre-Lenten ceremony, bent on scaring the winter away, features men in large face masks with long hair and distorted features arriving in boats from the Danube as the start of a week-long participatory festival of spiced wine, dancing, noisemakers (including cowbells, if you want more of that), and ending with a bonfire.  Not far from Mohacs are two key wine regions— Szekszárd and Villány, offering some impressive internationally award-winning red and rosé wines. Wineries in Villány have tasting rooms open and some have pension hotels attached for those who want to make a full day (and night) of it.