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Hungary for Christmas cheer

In Budapest you can shop for snacks in the festive market, then dive into a thermal bath. Tim Walker takes a midwinter break

The smell of cinnamon is a happy symptom of the Christmas period. But there are only so many Starbucks gingerbread lattes you can drink before you need a new way to get a hit of that distinctive seasonal spice. And I found it: led by my nose to a corner of Budapest's busy Christmas market on Vorosmarty Square, where kiralyi kurtoskalacs ("royal chimneys"), were being prepared a stone's throw from the Danube. This local snack is made by wrapping dough around a wooden roller and turning it slowly over hot coals. It's then dipped in cinnamon sugar and slipped from the roller, leaving a cylindrical tower of crisp, sweet dough, best savoured with a mug of mulled wine from the neighbouring stall.

Food and drink are the stars of the Vorosmarty Christmas fair, Budapest's biggest Advent-themed event. As well as the mulled wine and the dough chimneys, there's Central European sausage and cider, schnitzel and sauerkraut with black pudding, vast waffles washed down with hot chocolate. In one corner of the Square is a live stage, featuring a variety of traditional Hungarian performers, such as the choir of elderly ladies I stood to watch while munching a kurtoskalac. Many of the crafts on sale are too kitsch for words, but there's enough charming hand-painted crockery to fill your granny's kitchen cabinet three times over. And meanwhile, to keep the grandchildren occupied, there's a hut where they can make their own Christmas decorations.

Now, I wouldn't advise anyone to visit Hungary's capital purely for the royal chimneys, nor for the folk singing of the Budapest WI. But there's plenty more to recommend a December break in this fantastic city. A two-and-a-half hour flight (and a 40-minute taxi ride) from Gatwick, I arrived at the Opera Garden Hotel. This is a year-old conversion from a block of upmarket Soviet-era apartments, in a cobbled street close to the very best of Pest. (The twin cities of Buda and Pest are divided by the Danube, with Pest on the eastern, or left, bank.)

If you're a music buff then, as the hotel's name suggests, the Opera House is just down the road. And in winter, when even the short evening walk back from Don Giovanni could leave you chilled, the hotel has a cup of mulled wine waiting for you in the lobby.

Within 10 minutes' walk of the Opera Garden are the two most imposing monuments on the Pest skyline: St Stephen's Basilica, the neoclassical cathedral named after the canonized first king of Hungary; and the neo-gothic Parliament building, which, like the Basilica, was completed in the early years of the 20th century. Returning to the hotel after a sightseeing stroll, I came across a fantastic lunch on Zichy Jeno street at Most! ("Now!"), a hipster-approved new bar and café worth visiting at lunchtime, tea-time or night-time.

If you're not making use of the cocktail list at Most! of an evening, however, there's a handful of blanket-equipped bars and restaurants along the riverside, with lovely night-time views across the water to picturesque Buda. I went for a promenade and a pint, and then a snifter of the country's signature liqueur, which goes by the unappetising name of Unicum. Worth trying once, though possibly never again.

In the morning, I headed south to see the steadily gentrifying district of Josefvaros, home to the Hungarian National Museum and the Ervin Szabo Central Library (which has a Versailles-like reading room that must be seen to be believed). Much of the action of the ill-fated 1956 Hungarian Revolution took place here. Thanks in part to its swelling student population, Josefvaros today is a mesh of galleries, cafés and café-galleries – such as the Lumen in Mikszath Kalman Square, which serves great coffee to sip while you admire its latest photography exhibit. In a basement flea market, I fell for a functioning USSR alarm clock (and decided against the Soviet erotic novels).

While Pest is the more lively side of the Danube, a trip across the river to Buda is essential. At the far side of the Szechenyi Chain Bridge – the city's first permanent river crossing, built by a Scot in the 1840s – I found myself at the foot of Castle Hill, which is easily ascended courtesy of the "Siklo" funicular railway.

At the top, Buda's impressive old walled town begins at the Royal Palace – which, having been destroyed a handful of times over the centuries, is less ancient than it might be. It houses the National Library, the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. Below ground, meanwhile, are the Royal Wine House and Wine Cellar Museum, which offer regular tastings of the finest Hungarian wines.

A walk through the cobbled streets took me to the faux-gothic clifftop battlements known as Fisherman's Bastion. Vaguely vulgar they may be, but they offer the best possible views east across the river. They're also beside the beautiful (and authentically old) Matthias Church. From across the square, the free number 16 bus took me back to Pest.

To many, Budapest's finest attractions are its thermal baths. Locals may take for granted that their city lies on a mattress of 100 or more natural thermal springs, but for tourists it's a treat. As students, a friend and I once took the waters at the spectacular art deco Gellert Baths, situated just on the Buda side of the Liberty Bridge. On this trip, however, I rode the elderly but ultra-efficient underground railway out to City Park, and the sprawling Szechenyi Baths (named, like the bridge, after the 19th-century statesman Istvan Szechenyi).

On winter evenings, the outdoor pools here are a particular pleasure, with steam rising into the cold air over bathers of both sexes and all ages – including groups of elderly gentlemen playing games of chess. I interspersed my dips with trips to the myriad saunas – dry, steam or Finnish – and indoor pools of varying temperatures and mineral qualities. Take your swimming togs and a towel; the baths open whatever the weather.

Upon returning to the city centre I decided that a hearty dinner was crucial. Happily, Budapest has no shortage of super restaurants. Pesti Lampas ("The Pest Lantern") in the University district, and Dio, just around the corner from St Stephen's, both serve intriguing nouvelle takes on Hungarian cuisine. The former's venison and paprika stew was mouthwatering, as was Dio's goose liver on brioche with blueberry mousse. That said, you ought to mix up your menu by visiting some more traditionally themed restaurants. Cafe Kor, just along the street from Dio, is always busy; and it's worth booking a table at Bock Bizstro, part of the Corinthia Hotel, as soon as you've booked your trip.

The kindly exchange rate (Hungary isn't part of the euro zone) means shopping in Budapest is easy on the wallet. The broad boulevard of Andrassy Street is lined with leading brands, while nearby Kiraly Street has been re-christened "Boutique Street", for its cluster of designer stores. Do take care when you plan your spree, though: most shops here aren't open all weekend.

For a mid-afternoon snack between stores on my final day in town, I found myself taking tea at Café Callas – a grand establishment alongside the Opera House – which serves a seriously impressive selection of cakes like those that once fattened the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Still can't beat those royal chimneys, though.


Getting there

* The writer travelled with lastminute.com (0871 222 5952), which offers flights from Luton to Budapest from £142 return and rooms at the Opera Garden Hotel from £50 per night.

* Budapest is served by Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com), Malev Hungarian Airlines (0844 482 2360; malev.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com).

Staying there

* Opera Garden Hotel, Budapest, Hungary (00 36 1 301 9030; operagardenhotel.hu).

More information

* Budapest Tourism Office: 00 36 1 322 4098; budapestinfo.hu

* Hungarian National Tourist Office: gotohungary.co.uk