03 Jan Budapest, Hungary: Christmas Markets
Now that the holidays have passed, I can finally sit down and write about this year’s Christmas Market trip! There’s so much that I can’t wait to tell.
Travel: First, I have to talk about our flight there. I’m the type of gal that likes to (and can easily) pass out on flights. Feed me a little and pass me a Benadryl and I’m out. Unfortunately, the turbulence was so consistently bad that once you were able to relax again and steel your nerves – BAM! Altitude drop. It felt like we were on a roller coaster pretty much the whole time; several people around us even threw up. All that to say, when we laid over in Paris, we were frazzled, tired, and cranky.
In came our White Knight by the name of “Sky Club.” My work gave me two tickets to Delta’s Sky Club as a thank you earlier in the year. We saved those puppies and I am so glad we did! Like zombies, we navigated our wrinkled selves through Paris’ swanky airport and located the AirFrance Sky Lounge. Angels sung as we rounded the corner to find a cornucopia of meats, cheeses, breads, cakes, drinks (adult and non), and baristas ready to make you delicious caffeinated beverages – all complimentary.
It was, quite literally, our Heaven at that moment.
DJ and I filled our bellies and settled in for the four-hour layover. The sleep I got curled up on that black leather club chair was committed and drugged; the sounds of French business men making deals on their cell phones was my lullaby.
Not surprisingly, the four hours flew by and when we emerged from our quiet little piece of Heaven to catch our flight to Budapest.
One of our favorite things to do while traveling is to see the in-between cities; the ones that probably not a lot of tourists stop at or see. So we always rent a car. We booked a seemingly good deal online with Holiday Autos but quickly learned that was not the case. They wanted $100 extra for each country we visited. And before you think this is customary, it’s not. We’ve rented a car and driven to other countries dozens of times, and never been charged a fee like that. Take Away: Make sure to read all the fine print, even if you think all rental companies are the same.
One of our favorite things to do while traveling is to see the in-between cities; the ones that probably not a lot of tourists stop at or see.
Also, I’m not sure if GPS devices are hot on the black market, but ours came massively protected.
Budapest Christmas Markets: We really liked the short drive from the airport to our hotel. There are quite a run-down Communist era structures and cute a-frame houses. We got into the city, GPS safely secured, around 4:30pm and decided that since the sun had already set, we’d make our way to the hotel and get checked in, change out of our two-day old clothes, bundle up in some long johns and hit the Christmas Markets.
The InterContinental (on the Pest side, which Rick Steves says is the side you should stay on) had a beautiful view looking right over the Danube River to the Buda Castle. The room was big by European standards and had the nice appointments you’d expect from the chain. After we got settled, they even brought us up a cute souvenir bag of sweet paprika, a staple in Hungarian cuisine, that included a tiny wooden measuring spoon. I can’t wait to give some homemade goulash a try!
Once we bundled up in hats, scarves, gloves, thermal undies, about three other shirts, sweaters, and a jacket — we were off! You might not think you’ll be cold, but when you walk leisurely around the markets for hours, you’ll be freezing – no matter how much glühwein you’ve had!
There are two main Christmas Markets in Budapest: Vörösmarty Square and St. Stephen’s Basilica. Neither were far from our hotel, but we headed out to Vörösmarty Square because it is the largest (with over 120 stalls) and oldest (by about four years). We later learned that the market by St. Stephen’s Basilica is more touristy and expensive. That seemed to be the case when we walked by later, and we definitely heard more English spoken there than at the Vörösmarty Square market.
Christmas markets are new to Budapest, starting about 15 years ago when city officials realized they were losing money from tourists and residents alike because they were making the short trip to Vienna instead of Budapest.
Even though they are new, they have similar trappings of the French, Czech, and German markets we visited last year: quaint cottage-style wooden stalls selling crafts and souvenirs, an abundance of beautiful twinkling lights, and lots of meats roasting over open fire pits. Something we didn’t see last year, Budapest markets turn winterized fountains into giant Advent wreaths and have daily turnings of Advent calendars (the Gerbeaud Advent Calendar is popular).
The air around the markets is thick with fires, roasting meats and chestnuts, leather, cinnamon, mulled wine, and fir trees. You can almost track them down by sticking your noise up in the air and taking a big whiff.
The Vörösmarty Square market had several stages for musicians, choir concerts, folklore performances, and Santa Claus visits. While we were there, one of the performances was a guy singing American music; I don’t even think they were all Christmas tunes. But that fit the general music theme, I suppose. Piped in over the speakers throughout the market were modern American Christmas tunes. There is something about being in a foreign country and hearing old Christmas songs in the local language that makes me feel warm and cozy inside. Hearing the same old songs that are played in every Target and mall across the United States seemed boring and a bit tourist focused.
Want to know what will put you in the Christmas spirit? The smell of a European Christmas market. The air around the markets is thick with fires, roasting meats and chestnuts, leather, cinnamon, mulled wine, and fir trees. You can almost track them down by sticking your noise up in the air and taking a big whiff. But as wonderful as that smell is, just remember to pack a tiny bottle of Febreeze, because smelling like an open fire pit isn’t so great the day after.
We arrived in Budapest on December 11 and they still weren’t completely set up. So, if you’re heading there next year, you might want to consider that when planning your travel (even though they say the markets run from November 28-January 1). Also, unlike the markets we went to last year, there was no real emphasis on ceramic mugs for the mulled wine, which was a let down.
The food at the Vörösmarty Square market was really tasty: roasted pork knuckles, goose thighs, grilled sausages, stuffed cabbage, and my favorite, kürtős kalács or “chimney cakes.” We had chimney cakes in Prague last year (there, they are called Trdelnik) and loved them filled with Nutella. From the tour we took in Budapest, we learned they actually originate from Hungary. But I later found out that that is sort of a stretch. But it’s a good story, nonetheless!
Chimney cakes are made from strips of sweet, yeast dough. They are then wrapped around a cone-shaped device (Like a large rolling pin), rolled in sugar, and brushed with melted butter. Then the dough is placed over a charcoal fire until it turns golden brown. Before they hand it off, they sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar, and then you have your choice of inside fillings like Nutella.
Next up, I’ll write about the Szechenyi Thermal Baths and ruin bars – both are popular with tourists and locals alike.