Planning a winter vacation predictably ends up as either a search for warm-weather locations with beaches and island life, or a cold-weather location for skiing, snowboarding, and stunning snow-capped mountain views. An unpredictable choice would be to consider visiting Budapest, Hungary, in the winter months. Take advantage of the off season to avoid hefty plane fares and crowded, costly hotels, and explore one or more of the following options to make a winter European excursion worth your while.

Thermal Baths and Spas

courtesy: Széchenyi Thermal Bath and Spa

Széchenyi Thermal Baths, Budapest ©Diane Dobry

One of the most popular activities in Budapest involves enjoying the thermal waters that flow beneath the city as a way to ward off the chilly weather. Several well-known thermal baths (gyógyfürdők) and wellness centers can be found throughout Budapest, and they offer not just various temperature pools, but also saunas, steam rooms, masseuses, and specialty spa experiences—like a beer spa or a Sparty, a combination of spa and party with a nightclub vibe. The most well-known is Széchenyi Thermal Baths with its neo-Baroque and modern Renaissance architectural style.

Private Beer Bath spa within the Széchenyi Thermal Baths ©Diane Dobry

Though it was built more than 100 years ago, Széchenyi’s interior was updated in the mid-2000s, and the lockers and cabanas are clean. A new Beer Bath room featuring wooden tubs full of water infused with natural beer ingredients is on the premises. Gellert Thermal Baths, attached to but not affiliated with the Gellert Hotel on the Buda side of the Szabadsag (Liberty) bridge, features Art Nouveau style and dark wood cabanas with attendants that oversee the changing areas and give the Gellert Spa a sense of class. The interior is on the small side, and the outdoor pool is small compared to Széchenvi. Rudas has several pools indoors, with temperatures ranging from 19C to 40C. The outdoor area is on the rooftop, which offers a small sunning area, a circular spa with tile bench seating all around, and a clear cover above. Visitors also discover a stunning view of the Danube and Pest side of the city from the roof and from the outdoor terrace of the restaurant bar one floor down. Rác Bath just recently re-opened, and it is reportedly one of the oldest historic baths in the city. Several hotels also offer spas with indoor pools, saunas, steam rooms, and jacuzzis.

Coffeehouse Culture

Cakes at Central Kavehaz Budapest ©Diane Dobry

While exploring shops, museums, exhibits and concerts, the best way to keep warm is to take advantage of true European coffee culture while indulging in some of the best tortes and pastries in Europe. Although Vienna is famous for its cafés, Budapest has some of the most architecturally stunning coffeehouses—the New York Café in particular—and the 130-year-old Central Café and Restaurant, long known as homes to writers, journalists and, at times, students. Café Gerbaud in Vörösmarty square has been in business for 160 years. Inside it has old world charm with high ornately decorated ceilings, chandeliers, and chairs branded with their logo. It is also appealing in summer when diners can eat al fresco and enjoy light meals, pastries, ice cream, coffee and handmade chocolates while watching people traversing the plaza.  Artist Café—aka Művész Café—is not just an architectural treat for the eyes but also serves visually enticing platters of sandwiches, eggs, and desserts. Some smaller, newer cafés are popping up all around. One favorite is Amber’s French Bakery & Café across from the Central Market in Kálvin tér, and another is the Goat Herder Espresso Bar near Keleti train station.

Alcoholic Beverages

Palinka ©Kathy Guenther

An alternative type of liquid warmth could go a long way toward keeping the winter doldrums at bay while touring Budapest.  You may not be able to tour wine country in the dead of winter, but you can learn through libation as you enjoy Budapest Wine and Champagne Tasting Tours in a labyrinth of caves on the Buda side, or you can opt for a wine pairing dinner or a simple wine tasting at the Tasting Table not far from the National Museum. At the Zwack Museum, watch a video, take a tour, and taste Hungary’s national drink, Unicum, and some variations on the original as well as a shot of pálinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy.

Indoor Interests

When temperatures are too cold, winds too strong, or the weather too wet, there is plenty to do indoors in the capital. Historic buildings include some famous houses of worship, such as the Doheny Street Synagogue—the largest in Europe—and Stephen’s Basilica, where you can often hear music students playing the organ as part of their final exams. If you make your way to a small back room, you can see the actual hand of St. Stephen, the first Hungarian king. Matyas Templom, in the Castle District, known by its colorful Zsolnay tile roof, was the location of the sacred ceremony for the crowning of Hungarian kings. Visit the Parliament, where the royal crown with its crooked cross is on display in a secure glass case. The Opera House on Andrassy ut (set to reopen in early 2019 after improvements), just steps away from St. Stephen’s Basilica, offers the chance to hear some of the best musicians and singers in Europe, and daily tours provide visitors with a more in-depth appreciation of the building and its history. Until the Opera House re-opens, the Erkel Theatre hosts its performances.

For indoor sightseeing that combines a leisurely stroll with cultural and architectural wonders, Budapest’s many museums offer insight into the country’s history—from day-to-day living to wars and battles and arts and agriculture. If you are more interested in history, the National (Nemzeti) Museum in Kálvin tér is fairly comprehensive, and the Museum of Ethnography shows what daily life was like for Hungarians through the years. (The original location is closed until 2020 while the museum relocates to City Park). Both history and war are the focus of the  Museum of Military History and the House of Terror (which chronicles the Hungarian tragedies related to the 1956 Revolution).  The Museum and Library of Hungarian Agriculture, housed in what is called the Vajdahunyad Castle in City Park, features 40 collections showcasing the development of agriculture, forestry, hunting and fishing, viticulture, domestication, flora and horse breeding in Hungary. Also in City Park on either side of Heroes Square are the Museum of Fine Arts and The Hall of Art or Kunsthalle.

Outdoor Activities

Heroes Square in Budapest  ©Diane Dobry

The lake in Városliget—or City Park—is a hub of activity in both winter and summer. In summer, you can rent boats and peddle boats in various shapes and color by the hour. Winter turns the lake into a large, temperature-controlled ice rink flanked by the Museum and Library of Hungarian Agriculture on one side, and, on the other, a white neo baroque style building that resembles a palace but was actually built in 1870 as a shelter for skaters to warm up and to store their gear.

If you happen to be in Budapest in February, it is worth the trip out of town to Mohacs, a town 208 km (129 miles) south, to check out Busójárás. The pre-Lenten ceremony, bent on scaring the winter away, features men in large face masks with long hair and distorted features arriving in boats from the Danube as the start of a week-long participatory festival of spiced wine, dancing, noisemakers (including cowbells, if you want more of that), and ending with a bonfire. Not far from Mohacs are two key wine regions—Szekszárd and Villány—offering some impressive internationally award-winning red and rosé wines. Wineries in Villány have tasting rooms open and some have pension hotels attached for those who want to make a full day (and night) of it.