National Geographic: In Search of St. Nick at the Budapest Christmas Market

Part of what I loved most about this most recent trip to Europe was searching for the most authentic Christmas traditions. In Budapest, I discovered Santa Claus doesn't visit Hungarian children (and others in Europe) on Christmas Day. St. Nicholas Day is December 6th and that's when he visits. I wrote more about it for National Geographic and some of the sweet treats and shopping I discovered.

"In Budapest, I’m suddenly reminded of the toast my mom used to make when I was little — crunchy and buttery, and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

Though the taste is familiar, this is a souped-up version of the childhood treat: a giant, hollowed-out cylinder of dough almost as tall as the boots I’m wearing — the consistency of which is somewhere between a doughnut and a churro. I can’t pronounce the Hungarian word for them, Kürtőskalács, but these pastries are also known as “chimney cakes,” a fitting name, I think to myself, as Christmastime approaches."

Read more here: In Search of St. Nick at the Budapest Christmas Market

Four Seasons Gresham Palace in Budapest

Five years ago, I listened to live piano music and a cocktail at the bar at Four Seasons Gresham Palace in Budapest before going back to another hotel. This time, I got to stay for one night before our river cruise started and we got upgraded to a "I can't believe this view" suite. I felt like a completely different person for 24 hours. I arrived a jetlagged, bumbling mess and emerged feeling like I could do anything. It is one of the most breathtaking properties in all of Europe, especially the soaring Art Nouveau lobby. Built in 1906 by the Gresham insurance company of London, it was severely damaged in WWII and restoration did not begin until 1999, opening in 2004 as the Four Seasons. The hotel is right at the entrance to the famous Chain Bridge, so make sure and walk over at night to see the building all lit up.

Gresham restaurant

I love the Royal Palace in the window

An Old Friend in Beautiful Budapest

View from St. Stephan's BasilicaWhat I loved most about Budapest (pronounced Buda-Pesht) was seeing an old friend of mine that lives here. We met 5 years ago and have seen each a couple times since then. She's one of my favorite people and she knows Hungary's history & culture inside and out. This is very helpful as I'm working on some stories! A word of advice: She also taught me what "cookie" means in Hungarian slang - let's just say I learned it's not a good thing to go around saying you love cookies.

You cannot miss the Alexandra Cafe while in the city. It's right near the opera house on Andrassy Street. You walk into a very modern bookstore and see a set of escalators and discount book bins. But two flights up is a gorgeous old-world style cafe, with great coffee and Hungarian treats. Go!

Budapest has a fascinating, complicated, often sad history with WWII, Russian occupation, uprisings, and the subsequent fall of Communism, also known as The Revolution of 1989. However, Hungary was less restricted than other countries. I visited The House of Terror museum, in the former Nazi and Communist headquarters, on a previous trip and it affected me for days. Some of the architecture is as gorgeous as what is on Paris' wealthiest boulevards but further outside the center, there are ugly block-style buildings. Hungary is in the European Union but not on the Euro yet because it hasn't met the financial requirements.

The city is best viewed from atop St. Stephan's Basilica - walk the 300+ steps to the top - or Castle Hill.

We had two days in Budapest before embarking on our river cruise on the Viking Embla. Here's what I loved, starting with treats & Hungarian food from the just-opened Christmas market.

You have to walk the Chain Bridge at night