Best Time to Visit Budapest
Determining the ideal time to visit Budapest is no easy task, with all seasons making a solid case for themselves and neither being unworthy of the choice of best. It is not only possible but encouraged to create and cultivate a relationship with Budapest at any time of year, though you must know that the place you will fall in love with will be a different one each time.
The selling point of summer is the open-skied, balmy feel you get that makes you feel like you’re twenty and will be forever. Nothing beats winter for the prices and the lack of crowds, and if you’re the kind of person who gets excited about Christmas when Halloween comes around, you can do no better than picking the end of December. The fall and spring are the most lyrical times, with both showing you the Budapest you imagine before ever setting foot on one of its bridges.
There are of course considerations to put a damper on the fairy-tale. While it’s the life of the city in the summer, the Danube becomes a hazard in the winter. She blows a cold and unflinching wind that makes it an ordeal to cross Budapest’s famous bridges as a pedestrian. Some winter days end at four in the afternoon, unless you’re really determined to keep them going. In the summer, heat can on occasion get so sweltering, you really don’t understand why air conditioning is so uncommon, and the ground beneath you seems almost to be bubbling. The Hungarian micro-climate makes its hottest and coldest seasons extreme, so it would seem that your best bet is visiting in more temperate fall or spring, but the event calendar makes sure that there are things unmissable for each and every month of the year (besides, honestly, November). While we won’t choose an express favorite — though it might be summer — we will make it easy on you to pick one suited to your preferences by going through the best and worst parts of each season.
Many people who go on long, exhaustive tours of Europe will find that Budapest was their favorite location. We can see why: the city is unassuming and quietly wins the hearts of seasoned Paris lovers or die-hard Prague fans. All that there’s left to do is to go see for yourself after you look through our breakdown of a year in the Hungarian capital below.
Springtime is a wonderful season in the Hungarian capital. As the air warms after a long, dark winter, Budapest breathes a sigh of relief and color returns to her streets. Early March may still be quite wintery in terms of temperature, but sunnier days contribute to a feeling that spring has arrived even if the thermometer won’t admit it. April is a famously temperamental month with varied weather that can turn on its heels multiple times a day.
In May, the warm season will most definitely have arrived, often feeling like summer already. As for holidays and things to do, the most important date is March 15. Known as the Ides of March in the Roman calendar, this is incidentally also an important date in Hungarian history, marking the start of the 1848 revolution. The anniversary of the uprising that later grew into a war of independence from the Austrian Empire is celebrated very seriously in Hungary, with parades, concerts, and all manner of merriment.
For something far less patriotic, there’s Friss Hus, meaning “fresh meat” in Hungarian. This international film festival features short films from local and foreign filmmakers and is held in March every year. April in Budapest means the Spring Festival is on, and you really should try and partake in the celebrations if you can. Exhibitions, parades, fairs, and concerts of all genres featuring homegrown bands and internationally renowned artists abound. Rest assured that Hungary knows how to ring in springtime.
May 1 means Labor Day in Budapest just like it does in all cities in Europe – and most of the world: the U.S. is part of a handful of nations not celebrating the occasion on this day. Labor Day is a smaller festival here than it is in many other countries, with most programs centering around the various political agendas at play and not very much else.
Considering all the above, we still hold that the very best thing to do on a warm spring day in the city is making use of the countless bar terraces that spring up like mushrooms from fertile soil at the first sign of winter thawing. There’s an unbridled joy that overcomes the people of the Hungarian capital with the possibility of a beer enjoyed in the afternoon sun, and you’ll surely see why. Days get longer and evenings warmer: streets and parks are yours for the discovering. The warmer months also signal the beginning of the fair season in the castle district, with weeklong events dedicated to various things from wine and sausages to Hungarian folk dances: there are too many to list, and each event is certainly worth visiting as much as the next one.
Budapest in Summer
We usually preface the summer section of our articles with the note that this season is not the best for city visits, especially in August. This, however, is not so in Budapest. The Hungarian capital might just be the most fun in August, in fact. You’ve got the Sziget Festival happening in the first half of the month, for one. This is one of the largest festivals in Europe with a long, illustrious history, and though many say it’s lost the edge it used to have due to the effects of commercialization from increased popularity, it remains an iconic event of Budapest, if not the most iconic one.
On Aug. 20, the formation of Hungary as a sovereign nation is celebrated with grand fireworks over the Danube and parties that reach late into the night. Make sure to set out in search of a vantage point to view the fireworks from many hours before they are set to begin, as every bridge, plateau, and terrace gets crowded with everyone but the most cynical residents of the capital. Another quirky thing that happens on this day is the announcement of the winner of the yearly National Cake Contest. The prize-winning cake can, from this day on, be sampled at any Szamos bakery outlet in the country. Try the new national cake, but then try the perennially available 2016 winner and know that there’s a reason they keep that one around all the time, which is that it is the perfect cake.
Aug. 20 used to mean Red Bull Air Race, a dangerously fun event of pilots flying in crazy formations over the Danube: weaving under bridges, spiraling down, and swerving back up just above the water. This event has not been taking place in the capital for a few years but has been relegated to lake Balaton, an immense body of water that any and all Budapest residents flock to on summer weekends. You can leave in the morning and return at night, though a couple nights’ stay is the wiser choice. Balaton (also called the “Hungarian Sea”) has a special, down-to-earth magic about it, especially if you avoid the party-town of Siofok and head to the opposite side of the water for a tranquil break from the city.
Later in August, the Budapest Grand Prix Formula 1 race draws the speed-loving crowd to the capital. This glitzy and rather highbrow affair has been a mainstay on the racing circuit for decades, and the course is a worthy favorite of spectators and drivers alike. Getting tickets might not be easy, but it seldom is, for things like this. Even if you’re not interested in the race in itself, the city becomes a tourist hotspot for a few days, and things get quite a bit more frantic, which may or may not be a good thing for you.
Turning your attention back to the beginning of summer, you shouldn’t miss Muzeumok Ejszakaja, or “Night of the Museums,” on June 23rd. On the day of the summer solstice, museums in the capital are free and open until the wee small hours, often featuring special exhibits and even the occasional welcome drink. Big, national museums partake just as small, independent galleries do, and this endlessly crowded but wildly entertaining event sets the city alight in a creative spirit.
July means Pride Week in Budapest as it does in many places around the world, but we do feel it necessary to mention that Hungary is a small, conservative nation, so Pride Week seldom goes down without a hitch. Whether that means civil protests of right-wing groups or rarer flares of unjust violence can never be said before, but common sense and a bit of caution are advised regardless.
While we said that we wouldn’t pick a favorite, we do think that summer is the season when Budapest shows herself in the most favorable light: buzzing with life in a way that makes nothing seem impossible.
Budapest in Autumn
Since Budapest is so similar to Paris in look and feel, the fall is as wonderful there as it is in the French capital. Something about the colors of fall foliage coupled with the romantic architecture found all over the city makes for a great visual experience.
A particularly enjoyable event in early fall is the Jewish Summer Festival, which actually happens in September. (The early weeks of the month are still quite warm, so the date is but a technicality.) Cultural events, musical performances and the culinary traditions of the Jewish people take center stage and make these days one of the very best things to be in town for, no matter your faith.
Early fall is also marathon time in Budapest: the twenty-six-mile running event has been held since 1961 and snakes through town on a scenic route that changes a little every year, so you never run the same race twice.
That, then, is it for the outdoor life in the city for a while, as the weather does cool significantly in October, and by the end of the season, temperatures can be quite tough to deal with. Frequent rain and shorter days don’t make things easier, either. Holidays are also on hold until Christmas, save for Oct. 23: this is the memorial to remember the 1956 revolution against the communist regime of Hungary. While the uprising didn’t bring the anticipated liberation from Soviet forces, the day remains a memento of national resilience and is often cited as the single most important day in modern Hungarian history.
Colder days in the city make the fall season ideal for immersing yourself in the still-thriving cafe culture: visit the famous coffee houses that defined the city then as they do now, and enjoy a cup of admittedly mid-range quality coffee in the most extravagantly beautiful surroundings, just before or after you take a last stroll along windy and grandiose Andrassy Avenue.
Budapest in Winter
We won’t pretend it’s otherwise: winter in Budapest can be difficult, for a multitude of reasons. Weather is bone-chilling, with darkness setting in early and leaving late. The sky turns a uniform, slate-grey color, and snow is more nuisance than a winter wonderland. That’s if there is any: Christmas is not always white, with rain making an occasional and unwelcome appearance. Streets are empty and outdoor life is nonexistent, save for a few notable pockets of exception.
Now that we’ve got all the minuses out of the way, there are quite a few good sides to the cold season: Budapest is glorious at Christmas time, for one. The lights the city is dressed in for its biggest religious holiday are simply astounding, and an effort is put into beautifying the capital that other major European cities can only dream of.
Your first stop in the weeks leading up to Christmas must be the market in Vorosmarty square: chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost, you know the drill. Take a cup of overpriced but delicious mulled wine and realize that it is impossible not to burn your tongue, no matter how long you wait.
Also, we’d like to remind you that the heat does not evaporate the alcohol from the wine, and even if it did, the Hungarian variant is often fortified with rum, so the beverage will have you slurring your carols faster than you perhaps anticipate. Have a couple but stop there if your next day plans include ice-skating on the city park lake, as they really should.
An unforgettable event unique to Budapest is the illumination of the Basilica with little films projected onto its exterior to put you in the festive spirit. This visually striking experience is one that children and adult tourists alike tend to report having loved the most, even if you’ve got to be dressed well to be comfortable for the duration of the screening.
New Year's Eve holds the same, somewhat overrated charm that it does anywhere else in the world, meaning that there’s absolutely nothing special going on besides the requisite merriment typical of the occasion. January and February tend to be the coldest months and have very little going on, so this period isn’t worth your time unless you are looking for an absolute bargain.
Ultimately, this article is meant to illustrate that there’s no wrong time to visit Budapest, just as there really is no single best time, either. Depending on your preferences, the kind of weather you’re most happy with, or the budget you have, you will find that each season can offer a perfect compromise whilst showing you a side of the Hungarian capital worth seeing, as all sides really are.