If you’ve read this blog for some time, you’ll know that I love Christmas time in all shapes, moods and colours. I hate the cold, but the fairy lights and a hot punch usually make up for it in some way. That’s why I also love taking trips to different Christmas markets and cities decorated in their best Christmas gear. So far I’ve been to various cities across Slovakia, in Prague and Vienna and I’ve also been to Budapest Christmas markets once, but it was ages ago so I don’t remember too much (and I wasn’t drinking yet back then!). So when I got a chance to visit the Hungarian capital once more last week, my bag was already packed and waiting.
I love Budapest in Summer and other seasons, but December – oh! As soon as I found myself on Vaci Utca, I was in a Christmas fairy tale. Twinkling lights on the beautiful historical houses, secret little shops that wink and scream at you to come inside and the MARKETS themselves! I say markets, because there’s several of them actually. Unlike Bratislava or Vienna where you get the main markets in one place on a big square, in Budapest they are scattered across the whole old town, so wherever you go, you can have an endless supply of mulled wine and hot food (genious!). The Vörösmarty tér is transformed into a Hollywood movie-style Christmas town, but with better food and real warm holiday atmosphere. What I love about Christmas markets in Europe is how different they all are, while offering the same welcoming and lovely atmosphere at the same time. In Budapest, it was all about food for me. You can get a hot punch or wine anywhere, but where can you get a langos decorated like an Italian pizza, a fresh delicious duck with red cabbage or – wait for it – a porkolt (kind of goulas) made of cock’s balls (yes, really!) ? The market stalls looked like mini 4-star restaurants and the design was fantastic, too! Everything in sync, everything beautiful in red, white and black… Modern, clean and traditional at the same time. Just how I like it.
Another wonderful market can be found by the Saint Stefan Basilica, with huge red tree turning off the lights just in time for the light show on the church front wall. Amazing experience. Unlike the Vorosmarty ter, this square also has an ice skating rink adorned by stalls full of food, drinks and little presents around it. Christmas was absolutely everywhere in Budapest. In the evening, when we walked to the old Jewish neighbourhood we went through a wonderful alley that seemingly appeared out of nowhere – Gozsdu Udvar – full of trendy little cafes, restaurants and bars twinkling in colourful fairy lights. What can I tell you – I immediately felt the need to move here. It was something out of a movie, but alive and real. Or surreal to be honest. One place better and more stylish than the next. But I couldn’t stop, because our finish line was at a popular Mazel Tov restaurant.
Our guide took us through the old dusty quiet streets to a rusty historical house, with its facade almost completely broken. I was a little bit worries at first, but mostly curious, since I love historical architecture and could imagine the gems hiding inside. As soon as we entered the big gate, we were in a movie once again. The place was lit up by little white lights, the walls covered in green plants, hiding the old brickwork underneath. We were ushered to a back room lit by tea candles, transforming the original bricks on the walls into a work of art. People in Budapest managed to get the most out of the old abandoned buildings, destroyed by war and carrying many terrible memories. They brought life back to a place from where it was once taken. And they did it with love, passion and sensitivity, even creating a trend out of the Jewish cuisine and bringing young people to explore something new.
The next day we went to see another beautiful piece of architecture in Budapest – the Great Market Hall. It was built in 1897 next to the Danube and very close to the center and it’s the biggest of the Budapest market halls (they have a lot of them). If you want to get a real taste of Budapest or Hungary for that matter, this is the place to go. In the charming old stalls you can find fresh meat, fish, sausages, vegetables, fruit, spices (paprika! a lot of it), local oils and alcohol, but also some traditional souvenirs and presents here. From the market hall you can walk along the Danube to the old town center again, looking at the castles on Buda hill and all the incredible bridges across the river.
Oh, before I forget. Budapest is one of the greatest cities in Europe not only for the good food, wine and lovely walks. It is also the only one with so many thermal spas and swimming pools! And since I looove relaxing in the hot thermal water, I tried two of them during my quick visit. One is the biggest indoor aqua world in Hungary – Aqua World at the edge of the city, with a nice big hotel and a lot of activities, especially for children. I especially fell in love with the second one though – Rudas Gyorgyfurdo at the city center, right by the river. The historical bath comprises of three parts – the oldest one being the Turkish spa built back in 16th century. It is a nude spa (I wasn’t too happy about this) and it is open to men and women separately on different days (I couldn’t see because it was a men day when I visited). There is another historical swimming pool and a wellness area with swimming pools with water ranging from 29 to 42 degrees. There even is one bath on the roof, overlooking the river and the city, which is a must-see!