Winter in Budapest can plunge the thermometer into the negatives, but even if your breath turns into steam, there’s plenty to help you forget the cold. Around the holidays, the city buzzes with activity both indoors and out. Whether it’s sipping mulled wine at a street market, soaking in a hot thermal bath under the snow, skating in front of a fairy-tale castle or riding the city's sparkling Christmas tram, December in Budapest is a lot of fun.

A tall Christmas tree covered in small blue lights stands in the middle of an ice rink in front a large church. Strings of lights fan out from the top of the tree to form a canopy of lights above the ice skaters
Festive lights during the traditional Christmas fair at St Stephen's Basilica in Budapest © GTS Productions / Shutterstock

Shop at the Christmas markets

In early December, with Christmas drawing near, most of Budapest’s squares dress up in festive lights, vendors set up stalls and the air fills with the scents of mulled wine and cinnamon. The best-known and biggest Christmas market is on central Vörösmarty tér. Vendors here sell top-quality Hungarian handicrafts, while a huge food terrace offers anything from pulled pork and stuffed cabbage to street food favourite, lángos (deep-fried dough traditionally topped with sour cream, garlic and cheese). In the evenings, there are free concerts and dance performances. At another merry market just steps away by St Stephen’s Basilica, creative and colourful animations are projected on the facade of the cathedral every half-hour after sunset. The centrepiece here is a huge Christmas tree surrounded by an artificial ice-skating rink, where children under 14 can skate for free while  parents drink and dine. 

Celebrate Santa Claus Day

The feast day of St Nicholas, 6 December, is the traditional day in Hungary when Santa Claus comes to town. His two helpers, a good angel and a dreaded hairy and horned creature called Krampusz accompany him on his gift-giving journey. The night before, children shine their boots and place them on the windowsill, waiting for Santa to leave candies and little toys for the nice, or a birch rod – a bouquet of twigs – for the naughty. Around this time in December, bearded people in red flood the streets of Budapest, and many family-friendly events take place citywide. A temporary Santa’s workshop sets up in City Park for the month. The Finnish Father Christmas figure, Joulupukki, pays a visit to the Vörösmarty tér Christmas Fair every year. Also look out for the Santa Speedo Run, where hundreds of people don nothing but swim shorts, a Santa hat and shoes, and go for a jog around the city to raise money for local charities.

A shot from the front of a tram covered in small white and blue lights, stopped near the river
Tram 2 dressed in Christmas lights stopped beside the Danube © Romeo Reidl / Getty Images

Ride Budapest’s sparkling Christmas trams

From late November until early January, tram 2 dresses up in thousands of white- and blue-coloured LED lights. Passing right in front of pretty Parliament, the tram follows the curve of the Danube the whole way, providing the most perfect vistas of the Buda and Pest embankments. Regular public transport tickets (costing roughly €1) and passes can be used on the glittering tram. Other trams and trolley buses (generally trams 41 and 19) also dress up in Christmas lights to carry merry crowds. For more details and specific dates, check the Christmas tram’s Facebook page (Hungarian-only).

A night shot over a large ice rink with many people skating around. In the foreground a group of seven people hold hands and form a chain. In the background the castle is lit up.
Ice skating in Budapest's City Park, home to the largest outdoor ice rink in Europe © Aleksandar Kamasi / Shutterstock

Go ice skating in City Park

Trek up to City Park to Europe’s largest outdoor ice-skating rink, situated just steps away from monumental Heroes' Square in the shadow of the 19th-century Vajdahunyad Castle. This setting is especially romantic after the sun goes down, when the castle is beautifully lit up. You can rent skates for 2000Ft and fuel up on mulled wine or hot tea between laps. The rink is open daily – mornings are less busy – but closes for maintenance for part of each day (1–5pm Mon–Fri, 2–4pm Sat & Sun). Tickets cost 1500–2000Ft, with student and family discounts available.

Two men stand under jets in a bright blue pool with steam rising around them. Behind them are the distinctive yellow walls of the spa and a marble statue of a woman
The steaming pools of lavish Széchenyi Baths in Budapest are popular year-round © Heracles Kritikos / Shutterstock

Have a soak in the thermal baths

Budapest is a city of spas, as it sits on a patchwork of hot springs that spout mineral-rich waters into numerous thermal baths, many of them dating back centuries. The best-known and most popular are Széchenyi Baths in City Park and Gellért Baths up by Gellért Hill. Széchenyi is the biggest spa complex in Europe with 21 pools. In the outdoor area, you can relax in warm water, playing chess while snow freezes your hair. Sparty, late-night parties in the spa, are regular features, with two running in December (7 and 30 Dec). Gellért is a masterpiece of art nouveau architecture, adorned with colourful porcelain tiles and stained glass windows. Other options are Lukács Baths, Veli Bej, one of Budapest's oldest spas, and Rudas Baths, which boasts a rooftop hot tub and pretty views over Pest.

Puzzle your way out of an escape room

Did you know that Budapest is the home of the escape-game craze? Parapark in District VIII was the first one, opening in 2011, but now there are dozens across the city. All you need to do is find your team and choose a theme that appeals to you. This could be Ancient Egypt, solving a crime, sci-fi settings, stopping a nuclear reactor from going into meltdown – you can try virtually anything. The idea is that you get locked inside a room with your team, and you have an hour to get out by solving a series of logic puzzles and tasks before the time runs out.

Article first published November 2018, and last updated by Kata Fári in October 2019

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