Friday, 23 December 2011 3:41 PM
Hungary’s capital comes alive during the festive season. Sarah Gibbons paid a visit to find out more:
There’s nothing like taking an evening stroll through a city illuminated by festive lights and Hungary’s small but perfectly formed capital, Budapest, is no exception.
Vörösmarty Square (named after the poet Mihály Vörösmarty, whose statue stands proud in its centre) in central Pest was my first port of call. As soon as I heard the folk music and saw the sea of people weaving through twinkling, wooden huts offering Hungarian handicrafts, mulled wine and traditional Hungarian treats, I knew I had arrived at the Christmas market – and, as it turned out, just in time for the light show. Vibrant lights burst on to the building façades surrounding the square, dancing like a kaleidoscope in time to music blasting out from speakers. Clutching my cup of forralt bor (mulled wine), I began to feel very Christmassy indeed.
The handicrafts on offer ranged from wooden crafts, to leather goods and the Hungarian specialities of porcelain and lace. A feast for the eyes, the only downside was that everything was quite expensive (don’t come to Hungary expecting to find bargains!). Tending to my hunger seemed like a better idea so I headed straight for the Kürtoskalács stall – serving the traditional Hungarian treat of sweet pastry wrapped around a stick and coated in sugar, cinnamon or nuts. Alongside a cup of hot cider, it was the perfect way to soak up the buzzing atmosphere of the Christmas market (and a great way to warm up!).
One of the famous features of the square is Hungary’s oldest café: Gerbeaud Cukrászda. (If you’re going to splash out once during your trip – make sure it is on a coffee and a cake here as it was delicious). I opted for a cappuccino and their apple strudel, served with cream, a mini apple and vanilla custard (pictured below). Golden filo pastry on the outside, wrapped around a chunky apple filling, it was worth every penny (or should I say forint). It’s even worth popping in just to take a look at the beautifully decorated cakes and chocolates. Perusing the shops lining one of Pest’s oldest streets – Váci Utca – which leads on to the square is also a ‘must-do’ (it’s the city’s equivalent of Oxford Street).
The next day, I set my sights on taking to the ice in one of Europe’s largest outdoor ice rinks in Budapest’s City Park (Városligeti Mujégpálya), just behind the iconic Heroes’ Square. Converted into an alfresco ice rink from the park’s boating lake, the ice rink is open in the winter season from mid- October to February. It certainly was the largest expanse of ice I had ever skated on and – hands down – the best setting.
It was quite an experience twirling (OK...more like inelegantly tumbling) to music past a castle that looks as if it was taken straight from the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (see picture below). It was, in fact, the Gothic section of Vajdahunyad Castle – built by Ignác Alpár to illustrate the evolution of Hungarian architecture in a single building for the Millennium celebrations of 1896 (other sections of the castle include renaissance, baroque and romanesque). It wasn’t bad value for money either – an hour’s skating in decent hire boots came to around 2,000 forint (£6.50).
After exerting yourself on the ice, the perfect place to warm up is the Széchenyi Baths, also located in Városliget Park. Set in an impressive Secession building, the baths are one of the most famous in the city and offer a full range of thermal water treatments and indoor and outdoor pools. Not only relaxing, it’s a great way to soak up (literally!) one of Budapest’s long-standing cultural traditions, introduced by the Turks when they occupied Budapest in 1541 (although Hungarians had used the thermal springs for centuries beforehand). Tickets cost around £10, but are discounted with a Budapest card.
The rest of my whistle-stop tour of the city was spent exploring the famous sights. With a Budapest Card it was easy to hop on and off the tram, which was handy when my fingertips felt like they were about to freeze, but the city is so compact you can easily walk anywhere. Every now and again I would pop to one of the many Christmas market stalls scattered across the city for a warming mulled wine or hearty snack – one of the benefits of travelling to Budapest during the festive season!
I began in the UNESCO world heritage site of Buda (a hop, skip and a jump away from Pest – all you have to do is cross the Chain Bridge, over the mighty Danube which flows between Buda and Pest) to visit the grand Budapest Castle (housing the Hungarian National Gallery), the intricately-carved Fisherman’s Bastion and Mátyás Church. After the Turkish neglect of Buda, the Habsburgs restored it to the grand, imperial style it is today, making it one of the most spectacular parts of the city. A visit to the intricately-carved Fisherman’s Bastion – built in 1885 as a monument to the Guild of Fishermen – is worth the trip alone as it offers the best panoramic views of Budapest (pictured right).
Back over in Pest, I went souvenir and paprika shopping in the Central Market Hall – a bustling market hall packed with fruit, vegetable and handicrafts, before exploring the Jewish Quarter and the impressive Great Synagogue – the largest in Europe. The Jewish history of Budapest is poignant: after settling in the city in the 13th century tens of thousands of Jews died in the Holocaust in the Second World War, when the Jewish Quarter was made into a ghetto. Today, it is home to quaint book shops and kosher restaurants.
Two of Budapest’s most famous buildings – The Hungarian Parliament and St Stephen’s Basilica were also on my ‘to-do’ list and both overlooked smaller ice rinks (ideal for smaller children) and festive stalls.
From the magical Christmas markets to the ice rinks and warming thermal baths – not to mention the hearty Hungarian cuisine – a trip to Budapest during winter is an ideal festive break away.
By Sarah Gibbons
How to get there:
Malév Hungarian Airlines
Flights are from £119 per person including taxes with Malév Hungarian Airlines from London Gatwick to Budapest. Price includes 23 kg of checked luggage, food & drinks.
Other airlines flying direct to Budapest include British Airways, Easyjet, Wizz Air and Jet 2.
Where to stay:
Le Meridien Budapest
Rooms are available from €131 per double room for two people, excluding breakfast.
Reservation number: +36 1 429 5600 or email: email@example.com
Guides can be booked through Underguide, a company that promises to show visitors the city through the eyes of a local
For information on the Budapest Card that offers free transports, free tours & discounts across the city visit www.budapest-card.com
For more information on Hungary please visit www.hungary.com
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