Late last year, I decided to book my boyfriend a weekend away for Christmas (good way to get out of having to wrap a present FYI). I wanted somewhere cheap, cheerful and where there was a chance of a bit of winter snow. After a mooch online and a friends’ recommendations, I ended up booking a weekend in Budapest in January. I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect – or even where it was to be honest – but I am here to report that I had a great time. So, if you’re thinking about heading to Budapest during the winter, DO IT. And maybe this post will help…
Things to Do | Budapest in Winter
One thing I knew before we set off was that going in January meant the city would be a bit quieter than it is during summer and before Christmas (hence why it was so cheap – shh don’t tell the BF). However, I had a small list of things I really wanted to do and see in Budapest, and I was able to do them all so definitely don’t let the time of year put you off going.
On our first day, we wandered from our apartment (accompanied by slight hangovers from our first night out in Buda – but more info on drinking shortly) down to the famous Danube river and the Chain Bridge that connects Buda and Pest. The bridge is nice and all, and worth a photo, but I personally just found it a bit windy and was in the mood for breakfast. After stuffing my face with Hungarian carboyhydrates, we then ventured to one of the things on my list: Fisherman’s Bastion. I still don’t know what a bastion is, but OH MY LORD, this place was gorgeous. It’s a viewpoint over the city with beautiful fairytale-like towers – plus, it had snowed the day before and so we basically arrived in Narnia. Hubba hubba.
After soaking up the views and getting some selfies in (why is James so tall, please? I might have to start carrying round a little stool with me for photo opps), we wandered back to the city and across the bridge to our side of the river. We went for lunch at the New York Cafe, which had also been on my list because it is a b-e-a-utiful little ornate cafe and I like pretending that I’m fancy. I had the most delicious white hot chocolate in the world – yes, even beating Costa, quelle surprise – and we also both had a burger because we’re actually not fancy at all. I’ll blab on about food and drink prices later, but New York Cafe was expensive for Budapest but really reasonable still (espesh considering we had live musicians playing the violin as if we were on the bloody Titanic).
On our second day, we ticked off the other things on my list: St Stephen’s Basilica and the Szechenyi thermal baths. The Basilica was lovely, though smaller than other big churches I’ve visited in Europe so we were in and out quite quickly. I think James was happy about that because he’s of the (wrong) opinion that looking around old buildings isn’t interesting, but even he agreed it was well worth a visit for the teeny donation you give to enter.
Next up, we paid a visit to the famous thermal baths. Szechenyi Bath is the biggest of quite a few in Budapest, and also apparently one of the biggest natural hot spring spa baths in Europe. We booked our tickets online as I’d read about the humungous admission queues at the weekend. However, if you’re also going to Budapest in January then I’d say you don’t need to worry about that. Booking online means you get to go in another entrance and to your own desk, but the queues for general admission were tiny when we walked past.
Once we’d got changed in our cabins, we pegged it into one of the outside baths. Going from -1 degree air to 30-something degrees natural water is definitely something to experience, and it’s amazing how quickly you can forget that 5 minutes before you were buried underneath 3 layers of clothes. After chilling (or the opposite) in the outside bath for a bit, we ventured inside to see what the 15 indoor baths had to offer. This for me was when the bath thing got a bit weird, as you essentially find yourself walking through lots of leisure centre-style public swimming pools. Of course the tiles are slightly fancier than the ones in Cov Baths, but it is what it is and I think there’s only so long you can just sit in a warm pool of water with a load of strangers for.
It’s worth noting that while they were closed for January, there are parties on Saturday nights at the baths throughout the rest of the year. I imagine these are worth a visit as long as you’re not too prudish about what you might see – I mean, there was quite a lot of suspicious lap-sitting and neck-nuzzling from some people while we were there, and that was a Sunday afternoon. So all I’m saying is maybe double-check that rumour about not getting pregnant from a swimming pool before you go to one of those parties…
Where to Stay | Budapest in Winter
When I was booking the trip, I was really spoiled for choice with accommodation. I’m not sure how it compares to the rest of the year, but hotels and apartments are cheap-cheap in January. I eventually booked us into the Ivory Boutique Apartments (below photo from website), which was nowhere near the cheapest accommodation but still only cost us £140 for three nights.
The Ivory Boutique Apartments are gorgeous and contemporary, and located on the third floor of what I think was a residential apartment building. This meant that once you’d checked in and had your key, you came and went as you please with your own access to the building. The location was also perfect, being on the same road as St Stephen’s Basilica and around a ten-minute walk from the river. If you’re looking to go to Budapest at any time of the year, then this place gets two big thumbs up from me.
Eating, Drinking & Nightlife | Budapest in Winter
Now, I love sightseeing and old churches as much as the next gyal, but I’ve got to confess that what drew me to Budapest was the promise of cheap food and drinks. Loooord, I love me some cheap alcohol. Having now spent three nights in the city, I can confirm that while it’s not dirt cheap everywhere you go, there are some real bargains to be found. I think this is because there’s a real mix of bars and nightlife in Buda – for example, in one night we went from the fairly upmarket bar-turned-club BRKLYN to this kind of weird shack made of corrugated plastic that sold vodka squash and had beanbags for chairs. Both totally delightful, believe it or not.
Drinks-wise, it’s definitely cheap for a capital city. The most we paid for a cocktail was around 2000 forints, or £5.50, and an average round of a beer and wine for us probably cost around 1400 forints/£4. And like I said, there are some amazingly cheap deals to be found. The least we paid for a small glass of wine was 350 forints, or – hold on to your knickers – 98p, and I also had a delightful vodka Red Bull for just 290 forints/81 English pence. Ahh, took me back to my student-nights-at-Oceana days…
Some of the cheapest drinks can be found in Budapest’s famous ruin pubs, which are all of these quirky little bars that sprung up in derelict buildings within the Jewish Quarter. Think mis-matched furniture, indoor/outdoor areas and a general vibe of crappiness, but on purpose. On our second night we went to one of the most popular, Szimpla Kert (‘Simple Garden’, Google tells me), which is where I had a great time on the 98p wine. You can’t fail to really, can you?
General Tips | Should I go to Budapest in January?
So overall I would whole-heartedly recommend Budapest in the winter, but here are a few extra tips and titbits (is that even a word? HA) of info that might help if you’re ever thinking of booking it:
- Temperature. Obviously I don’t need to be a professional weather girl on Good Morning Britain to tell you that it’s proper nippy in January. However, my worries about it being too cold were unfounded, and it was never unbearable or even that uncomfortable to be out in. As it was snowy on our first day, it was a degree or two above freezing, and I think it fell a bit below on our third day. But as I’d actually packed enough layers and sensible clothes (unlike that time I went to Paris in February and only took a duster coat, FML) it was honestly completely fine.
- Getting Around. We took a taxi from the airport to our apartment and paid around 6500 forint/£18 for what must have been a 20-25 minute journey. The next day we ended up paying almost half of that to travel about two minutes round the corner. Lesson of the day: taxi drivers kind of do whatever the fuck they want in Budapest. I’ve read that the metro is really good, but we didn’t bother with it and to be honest, walked most places. I would say nearly everywhere you want to get to in Budapest is walkable, as long as you’re staying central.
- Currency. Like us, Hungary are awkward and haven’t got the Euro. You need to get their currency of forints before you travel, and just so you know, a lot of travel exchange desks here don’t stock that as standard. I learned this a bit too late and we ended up exchanging at the airport, so just don’t be a Last Minute Larry like me.
- General January Vibe. Although I haven’t been at another time of year to compare, I imagine that the Budapest I experienced was much quieter due to it being January than it is at other points. When we stopped in various bars for lunch or a drink in the day, a lot of them were really quiet, if not empty. Similarly, it took some of the bars a while in the evenings to liven up (but then I’ve found this in most other European cities I’ve visited). HOWEVER, there were also some definite upsides to it being quieter, such as none of the tourist hotspots ever feeling overcrowded and not having to queue for one damn thing. Also, everything I wanted to do was still open and available so January is still an amazing time to visit the city. Also, with a 35% chance of snow each day throughout Jan, and sights like the below, why would you not want to visit?
Have you ever been to Budapest, or would you like to go? Let me know in the comments!