The moment that ‘Back to School’ merchandise disappears from our High Street shelves, Christmas cards and gifts arrive to fill the gaps. For many of us, it seems far too early, so it’s easy to lose the festive feeling long before the big day arrives, but a trip to a European Christmas market is guaranteed to get you in the mood, especially if the city has a more to offer than just decorated stalls and mulled wine. Sound good? Then try Budapest.
Last year, my husband and I made our first visit to Budapest, a three-night trip in early December when the city was dressed in its very best Christmas clothes. And as we soon discovered, Budapest is worth far more than the usual day trip visit that proves a highlight for so many Danube cruise passengers in summer.
The Hungarian capital is barely 2 hours’ flight from London and the airport’s a mere 30-minute bus ride from the city centre. We booked a great value package of flight and hotel with wizzair.com, departing from Luton Airport, and including a bus transfer to our hotel’s front door. Base for our three nights was the lovely Kempinski Corvinus where facilities include a spa, an excellent bistro, and the relaxing Living Room lounge for tempting coffee and cake.
Best of all, the hotel is right in the heart of Pest – and the Christmas festivities – and yet beautifully quiet. Our spacious room looked over a large courtyard towards the festive lights of Fashion Street, a pedestrian shopping street full of seasonal stalls. In the green square out front, the Big Wheel offered a robin’s eye view over the rooftops to the river. And of course the Kempinski Corvinus was beautifully decorated with its own huge tree in the entrance lobby.
This year’s Advent Feast runs from 27 November to 2 January and is centred on nearby Basilica Square where, every 30 minutes after dark, seasonal videos will illuminate the monumental façade of St Stephen’s in 3D. Take a spin on the ice rink – or just enjoy watching others – and browse around 80 stalls. I’m often disappointed by the quality of merchandise on sale at Christmas markets so was pleasantly surprised at the items on sale here, which included a wide variety of hand-made crafts in wood, leather and glass, as well as festive decorations and traditional Hungarian street food.
The weather was a few degrees above freezing so walking around wasn’t uncomfortable and of course the short days meant we could enjoy Budapest’s wonderful illuminations for longer. We took a 6pm river cruise with Legenda to get a close up view of the lights on Castle Hill – on the Buda side of the river – as well as the city bridges and flamboyant Parliament building, modelled on our own Palace of Westminster.
By day, you can take a tour of Parliament in English – pre-book at parlament.hu – and also cross the river to explore Old Buda. The castle has been rebuilt several times, always in the style of the age, and now houses the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum. Here you can discover the city’s turbulent past from the Huns to the Ottomans and the Habsburgs. We loved the Art Nouveau interior of Matthias Church, where we were lucky enough to catch a rehearsal of Bach’s Christmas Oratio, before heading across the square to the seven towers of nearby Fishermen’s Bastion for sweeping river views.
Trams and a metro connect hilly Buda with flat Pest and there’s a funicular up Castle Hill to minimise the climb, but Budapest is an easy city to explore on foot and walking gives you a chance to look up and admire the many grand buildings. Don’t miss the Art Nouveau façades along Andrassy Avenue, lined with designer shops and international embassies, nor the huge City Park beyond Heroes’ Square, location for some stirring statues of local chiefs and warriors.
When you feel the need to stop and relax, Budapest offers several popular thermal spas. Best known is St Gellert which boasts classical surroundings and stained-glass windows. Or do as we did and just relax over coffee and scrumptious cake in one of the city’s many ornate cafes, such as Szamos Gourmet Palace or Gerbeaud. My favourite local treat was Esterhazy cake, flavoured with chopped walnuts.
If you’re after edible souvenirs to take home as Christmas gifts, you’ll find plenty of shops selling pretty packs of paprika in sweet, hot or smoked varieties, plus traditional marzipan. Just one tip – buy an extra ‘gift’ for yourself, otherwise you’ll find somebody’s left without a present!
For more information, visit budapestwinter.gotohungary.com