Budapest isn’t actually ‘quiet’ at any time - there are peak tourist times, yes, but you’ll find some short-breakers here whatever the month, and the city’s position at the hub of Central Europe makes it a popular meeting point for business people all year round. Having said that, the city is certainly a very different place from month to month, and so the best time for you to go will depend upon your personal priorities, preferences and interests.
The Autumn and Spring festivals are big attractions for culture lovers, while the Christmas market is lovely in winter. The tourist flow is thickest in summer, although temperatures can soar in July and August and many locals jump ship for cooler climes in the countryside.
Spring - festivals and springiness
Spring sees the city thaw and the hills around it reawaken. The Spring Festival (Budapesti Tavaszi Fesztival) is one of the country’s big cultural bashes, running from the middle of March until early April. There are performances of ballet, opera, folk dance and music at over 200 events around the capital. You can find details at www.festivalcity.hu. The weather is generally mild, although you can expect some showers.
Summer - the city’s steamy during the peak season
Things start warming up seriously from May onwards, and it’s not unusual to find temperatures hitting 35˚C or higher in July and August. The nightlife is at its best during the summer months. There are outdoor clubs on Shipyard Island (Hajógyári-sziget) and along the river, and the al-fresco tables of the bars on Liszt Ferenc Square are packed with people enjoying a drink. At weekends throughout July and early August, the iconic Chain Bridge is closed to traffic and filled with market stalls selling folksy crafts and snacks. The Sziget Festival (www.sziget.hu) is one of the biggest festivals of popular music in Europe, and the Hungarian Grand Prix is an increasingly popular race on the Formula 1 circuit. Hotel prices are generally at their highest between June and September (although some places drop their rates for the hottest weeks), and you should certainly book ahead to guarantee a room when the city is hosting a large event or festival; they are eye-wateringly expensive when the city hosts the Grand Prix in late July/early August.
Autumn – more culture and nature at its prettiest
The weather can remain very pleasant well into September (and even October). This is the best time of year for those who want to do some cycling or walking as part of their city break - the Buda Hills are beautiful. The season’s main event is the Autumn Festival (Budapesti Őszi Fesztival), which showcases contemporary arts (music, dance, film, theatre and even food) at various venues from mid to late October; see www.festivalcity.hu for details. Be sure to make the most of Budapest Winter Invitation (www.budapestwinter.com), a city-wide discount campaign that offers good deals, such as four nights for the price of three, on stays at over 60 hotels and reduced admission at thermal baths and other attractions.
Winter – mulled wine and romance
It gets cold from late October onwards, and there’s frequently snow in December and January. If you’re after some seasonal cheer, head for the Christmas market in Vörösmarty Square which operates throughout December; its little stalls sell a range of handcrafted gifts (as well as steaming cups of mulled wine). The main winter event is the New Year’s Eve Gala Ball (www.viparts.hu) at the Budapest Opera House, which attracts the capital’s great and good; tickets are pricey, and get snapped up quickly. Hotel rates are also highest during the Christmas period.