Ahhhh, European Christmas markets. Come December, they’re what us expats live for. We are far from home, friends, family, and our own traditions, so what fills such a huge void during the holidays? Mugs of steaming mulled wine, of course. Plus all the others: heaping plates of traditional foods, artistic crafts, twinkling lights, wafting music, and an all-around unbeatable cheerfulness.
I admit, during our first year in Budapest, perhaps I spent too much at the markets. I couldn’t help myself. Even just a quick stroll filled me with joy. It felt different, Budapest’s holiday season being more prolonged and celebratory, inviting a cheerful and social atmosphere. It reminded me of when I was a kid, when Christmas felt more cheerful with less pressure. It’s why so many adults flock to Germany and Austria this time of year.
And lucky for me (and you) Budapest has several markets to enjoy. Here are some of the best:
At the end of November, the center of Budapest morphs into a holiday fairytale. Lights are strung into the trees above, colorful baubles hang and sway with winter breezes. Wooden booths line the square, embracing the hustle of shoppers seeking everything from children’s toys, jewelry, pottery, art, clothing, and one-of-a-kind gifts. From the elevated center, the salty aroma of traditional food fills the air: stuffed cabbage rolls, sausages, pork knuckles, lángos, chimney cakes, strudel, and more. Mulled wine is found at every corner, which is much needed during the chilly winter nights in the city. What I wouldn’t give to sip hot cherry wine and nosh on blueberry strudel right about now…
Tip: The center, for the most part, hosts all the handcrafted goods that uphold the integrity of Hungarian art and craftsmanship. Wander up Fashion Street, where glistening silver decor hangs from the sky and twinkling lights dangle from buildings, if you want more kitchsy goods. Each day, the stage features different music, stories, and plays for both adults and children.
Hours of Operation: Early November – December 31 / 10:00 – 10:00 (generally)
St. Stephen’s Basilica
The market at St. Stephen’s Basilica is truly one-of-a-kind. The basilica’s grandiosity sits as the square’s focal point while the pathways below buzz with shoppers and vendors, which are similar to that of Vörösmarty tér. However, this market offers unique experiences, such as ice skating, roasted chestnuts, dancing, and even a laser show. Each day, at every hour, from 4:30 until closing, a laser projection plays on the facade of the basilica, a visual narrative of the holiday season, complete with music. Upon its final act, the sparkling red Christmas tree flickers back to life and the crowd cheers, continuing in merriment.
Tip: You can observe the creative of traditional culinary masterpieces, including the sweet kürtőskalács (chimney cake).
Hours of Operation: Late November – January 1 / 11:00 – 10:00 (generally)
Óbuda Advent Fair
This market sits in the humble area of Óbuda, tucked away from the crowds. It’s much smaller than the main markets on the Pest side, but here you mostly find families and locals, creating a quieter, more authentic atmosphere. The market follows the advent schedule, and attending on a Sunday evening means, whether you know Hungarian or not, you’ll receive a copy of the Óbuda advent song with the expectation to sing along. Embrace it and feel the seasonal cheer flow through your body. The skating rink here might not sit under the gaze of the basilica, but it’s bigger and free. And, as an enchanting bonus, watch children squeal in glee as they ride the vintage carousel. Animals, including a crowned swan, act as carts that hang from ropes and sway gently to the slow turns.
Tip: Getting to this market is an experience in its own. You can ride the suburban railway, H5, from Batthyany tér, complete with old Soviet era cars and beautiful views of the Danube.
Hours of Operation: Four weeks for Advent, starting the first weekend of December / 2:00 – 9:00 (generally)
Jókai Square Advent Fair
This mini market sits just a couple blocks from the Opera House on the famous Andrássy Avenue. There’s not much to see, just a quick walk will take you through its entirety. But what I love about this market is its small size and random locale. It just proves that Budapest is a city for Christmas, where a small market can pop up just about anywhere! Plus, it has a romantic feel, with big candles dripping wax lighting the way. Buy some chestnuts from the old man dressed in wool and sip hot wine as you enjoy the grandiose buildings surrounding you.
Tip: Keep walking up Andrássy and enjoy the lights that hang from nearly every tree lining the street.
Hours of Operation: End of November – December 23 / 11:00 – 10:00 (generally)
Christmas Market at Gresham Palace
Budapest’s Gresham Palace sits perpendicular to the famous Chain Bridge, and is home to the Four Seasons Hotel. Maybe you can’t afford to purchase anything at this market, but it’s worth a look. Enter through the tall, art nouveau iron gates on Zrínyi utca where you will greeted by twin nutcrackers taller than you. Stroll through adorable booths adorned in red and white stripes and decorated with twinkling lights. Above, a curved skylight is draped in light fabric and strung with silver lights. If you are in the market for a pricey keepsake, you can find wool and leather goods, jewelry, and homemade candies and chocolates. Even if you just step in and step out, it’s fun to feel a bit like Christmas royalty for a minute or two.
Tip: Find the main entrance to the hotel and take a peak at the hotel’s historical interior.
Hours of Operation: End of November – December 25 / 1:00 – 10:00 (generally)
There are many more markets throughout the city, including locations such as Várkert Bazaar, Gozsdu udvar, Városháza park, Bálna, and Fővám tér. You can easily spend an entire day Christmas market hopping while enjoying the sights. It may not be a traditional German Christmas market, but it’s no doubt that Budapest truly is a Christmas city.