An authentic Christmas Market cannot fail to get you in the mood for the festive season, so why not treat yourself to a break in the run up to Christmas. Often described as “the Jewel of the Danube”, Budapest is a spectacular city, which is easy to get to and can make an excellent city break for a long weekend or an extended stay.
Christmas is a big deal in Budapest, with the main attraction being the Christmas Market held in the heart of the city at Vörösmarty Square, which is at the top of the main shopping district, Vaci Utca. As you approach, you can smell the scent of mulled wine, home-made biscuits, cinnamon and fir trees luring you into the square. The square is filled with little wooden huts, selling a selection of gifts, from woolly hats and nick naks to handmade Christmas tree decorations and gifts. There are a number of traditional foods available and locals huddle together to chat in the seating areas, warming their hands on cups of mulled wine and eating the fresh street food served up.
The square itself is dominated by Gerbeaud Coffee House, a traditional and lavish patisserie, which serves a vast and tempting array of handmade cakes. But from the end of November, the building turns itself into a giant advent calendar, with numbered windows. At 5pm daily, there is a light show, a brass band emerges onto the balcony and the crowd gather to watch the day’s picture being revealed. It is a lovely tradition which never fails to charm its audience. There are also two stages which have performances on them throughout the day, ranging from marionette shows to world music. The town is dotted with nativity scenes around the streets and outside the churches. Christmas trees line the streets, with the biggest outside the Parliament building and outside St Stephens Basilica.
St Stephens Basilica is a simply stunning cathedral and they often hold classical concerts in the evenings. Hearing the elegant sounds of opera and classical music, alongside the huge church organ, soaring into the dome and echoing around the cathedral is breath-taking. You can also climb the dome for great views of the city.
Heading out of the town centre a little, there is an open air ice rink just behind Hero’s Square at the entrance to the City Park and if you are lucky enough to have snow, walking around the park and the area where the Vajdahunyad Castle stands is a joy. The weather in Budapest can be variable, but one thing for sure is that it will be cold at this time of year, so thermals, coats, hats and gloves are strongly recommended. That said, there are often cold, crisp, clear and sunny days which will give you chance to explore.
But Budapest has much more to offer than solely a festive atmosphere. Taking time to explore this beautiful city by day and by night is well worth it and the place as a whole is very easy to get around. There is an efficient public transport system, combining trams, busses and a subway which make this city very accessible. Tickets can be bought from tobacconist stands and the public transport operates the European method of validating your tickets immediately before or at the time of travel. Beware, plain clothes ticket inspectors are rife, so don’t get caught out.
You can’t walk very far in Budapest without stumbling across a park, square or statue, so there is plenty to look at and explore by foot. Whatever you do, don’t miss the opportunity to have a walk down the banks of the Danube at night. Walk on the Pest side to get great views of the castle and Fisherman’s Bastian lit up and check out the illuminated bridges which span the river – the Chain Bridge being the most spectacular. If you want piece of tranquillity in the middle of the city, head to Margaret Island, where you can have a stroll around the open spaces away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
One of the first things you will notice about Budapest is the eclectic mixture of architecture – ranging from historic buildings and cathedrals in a variety of styles which have survived war and revolution to the concrete blocks built during the Russian occupation and the modern architecture springing up. Budapest is city not only straddling both banks of the Danube, but is a city which straddles both historic and modern.
The city itself is split into two halves, divided by the River Danube – namely Buda and Pest. Buda is the more historic part of the city and is dominated by Buda Castle, which stands over the city, aside the Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias Church with its ornately decorated roof. From the castle district, there are superb panoramic views over the entire city, and in amongst the medieval, Baroque and 19th Century architecture are a number of museums, shops and restaurants. The castle itself houses the Hungarian National Gallery for those interested in art. The interior of the Matthias Church has to be seen to be believed, with its warmly coloured and intricately detailed decoration. It is truly unique. The Fisherman’s Bastian also provides stunning photo opportunities and beautiful views of Pest, Margaret Island, the Hungarian Parliament Building and the Danube. Access to the castle district is either by walking up the steep streets or by funicular railway which runs up the steep hill from the Buda side of the Chain Bridge. For those up for a steep hike, there is a small museum, some military vehicles and stunning views of the city and surrounding area at the summit of Gellart Hill which can be accessed by a maze of criss-crossing paths that wind their way up the hill.
Pest is the more modern side of the city, with its shopping and business districts. The main shopping area is Vaci Utca, which is bookended by the historic market at one end and Vörösmarty Square at the other. A number of restaurants line the street at the bottom end and yield to a number of clothing shops as you progress, ideal for picking up those Christmas gifts.
Wherever you go in Budapest, you are never very far away from a patisserie. Taking afternoon tea is the done thing and generally, each patisserie makes their cakes every morning and they all have a special, unique signature cake which is exclusive to them. Sitting with a huge slab of cake and a hot chocolate whilst watching the world go by is the perfect way to spend an hour in the afternoon.
There are a number of museums dotted around the city, although they are all closed on Mondays. The National Museum presents a broad history of Hungary, whereas the Ethnographic Museum is more focussed on the people of Hungary rather than the country itself. But for an experience which is both fascinating and humbling, the Terror House is a must see. This museum is set in the building which had been the headquarters of the Nazi’s during their occupation of Hungary in World War Two and subsequently occupied by the secret police after Stalin imposed a communist government on the people of Hungary after the war. This brilliantly put together museum deals sensitively with a dark period of recent history. There is also the Museum of Fine Art and the Palace of Arts which flank opposite sides of Hero’s Square.
Budapest is also a spa town, with bathing being a huge tradition. There are a number of thermal baths around the city. The Rudas Baths is one of the oldest in the city and the coloured glass stars in the dome of the building penetrate the steam rising from the warm waters with beams of coloured light. The stone building also houses a sauna and steam room and you can have a massage there, but it is more akin to a Turkish massage than anything relaxing. Prepare to be roughly manhandled if you decide to give it a go. The bathhouse operates separate days for male and female guests, and still operates the apron policy – where all bathers are nude save for a small apron worn at the front for modesty and turned around to the rear when seated. Very little is left to the imagination once you have dipped yourself in the water. For mixed bathing, head to the Gellart Spa and Hotel, which is luxurious and welcoming. Standard swimwear is required at the Gellart. But for those who are brave enough or want a slightly different experience, then head to the Széchenyi Baths in the City Park, which has huge outdoor pools, where you can sit and enjoy the thermally heated mineral waters whilst it is snowing around you.
Budapest offers a lot to the gay traveller, with a broad range of places to suit everyone. There are a number of gay pubs, clubs and restaurants which range from the discrete and low key to brash and sleazy. The rainbow flag is often displayed in venues and restaurants and the Hungarian word for gay is “Melag”, meaning gentle.
If you want a gay friendly place to eat, then head to the Pizzeria Club ’93 which offers an abundance of pizza and pasta in a low key atmosphere and Ruben which offers a reasonably priced menu of traditional Hungarian and international food.
For pubs and clubs, gay men are catered for more than lesbians, although there are some venues including Club Underground have a mainly lesbian clientele (although there is a minimum drink policy at this club). For gay men, there are an abundance of pubs and clubs ranging from the quiet to the cruisy. Action bar and CoXx are both well known for their cruising and darkrooms, whereas Why Not and the Mystery Bar are more social. Just beware that a number of the bars don’t have an entrance fee, but have a minimum drinks policy which can prove quite costly, so be careful. One thing that is common in all of the bars are the number of male escorts offering sex quite openly and freely. Even if you are sat with your boyfriend, they will come and talk to you, and some of them can be quite persistent.
Alterego is a cabaret bar and club which is very popular with both locals and tourists, with a nightly cabaret show, and Score is the newest gay club in Budapest. The Capella Club has a nightly drag show, but has a more straight clientele base than a gay one.
There are a number of sauna’s in the city, including the Magnum Sauna, but a lot of the thermal baths are quite cruisy in any event.
Getting to Budapest is fairly easy, with a number of budget airlines offering flights or flights and accommodation packages. There are plenty of apartments for rent and these can be fairly easily tracked down on line. Hotels can be booked separately online, or a number of travel agents offer a package deal, which are usually quite reasonably priced.
There are a number of hotels in the city, ranging from traditional to modern. For sheer Art Deco indulgence, stay at The Astoria Hotel, with its beautiful patisserie which transports you back to the decadent age of the 1920’s and 30’s. For something luxurious, stay at the Gellart hotel with its quality food, famous buffet breakfast and grand, opulent thermal bath.
Vegetarians may find it difficult to eat out, as the Hungarian diet is very meat based, so unless you fancy living on chips and cheese sandwiches for the duration of your stay, then you may prefer staying in a self-catering apartment. Unfortunately, vegans will really struggle to eat out.
Most people in shops and restaurants are able to speak English and most tourist information can be found online or at access points which are written in English (especially useful when buying tickets etc at the stations).
So what are you waiting for? Wrap up warm and head out to see what this superb city has to offer.
For general information, head to http://www.budapest.com/ which also has a gay section. A lesbian website can be found at http://www.labrisz.hu/ and plenty of information for the gay traveller can be found at http://budapest.gayguide.net/
by Paul Szabo
In between visits to the theatre, watching films, photography, walking, scuba diving and singing (badly); Paul writes for TheGayUK.