Why hide from the winter? Do just the opposite while tourists who can’t face the cold are tucked under mounds of blankets. The most beautiful sights will belong just to you for a moment; the queues will be much shorter, and the thermometer reading means you can order some more cake without feeling guilty. Or perhaps you’d like a filling kebab in Berlin, or churros pastries in Madrid, or a bowl of spicy goulash in Budapest?
While lovers rush to Paris, head to the Spanish capital and join forces with its art, cuisine and architecture. The Plaza Mayor has stood witness to bullfights, beheadings and coronations. Nine entrances lead to the square, and anywhere you look, you’ll spot cosy cafes that are great for sitting down to watch tourists take pictures by the 400-year-old bronze statue of King Philip III.
Should you get lost, they say all roads in Spain lead to the Puerta del Sol; it’s the square people have been gathering at for decades to welcome the New Year and eat 12 grapes at midnight for good luck.
At the beginning of Madrid’s longest street Calle Alcalá, you’ll meet Oso y Madroño, the symbol of Madrid – it’s a bear snacking on fruit from a strawberry tree. It’s usually the meeting point for first dates. When you’ve checked off all the sights of a typical guidebook, take a look at the business centre of the city with the slanted KIO towers and the Atocha train station ¬– inside, there’s a small rainforest and several dozen turtles.
In February, the cultural life of Madrid starts to bloom – you’ll see countless posters advertising concerts and exhibitions. Devote a couple of hours to Spain’s most notable museum – Prado – and marvel at the works of El Greco, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Botticelli. Then spend some time at Reina Sofia and learn more about Spanish contemporary art. In room 206, you’ll find the most famous Spanish painting of the 20th century ¬– Guernica by Pablo Picasso.
On spotting a sign that says bocadillo de calamares, don’t turn away, and you’ll get a delicious calamari sandwich. San Ginés is the most famous churros location – it’s been selling these pastries, which are eaten dipped in chocolate, on an all hours of the day since 1894. The velvety chocolate will warm you up nicely in the winter months.
Instead of mittens, go for cocido madrileño – it’s a three-course meal that consists of a simple noodle soup, a plate of veggies and peas, and then comes the meat stew. Spend your evenings looking over the city from rooftop bars, and order Samontano or Toro wine. Those who love stories must get a drink at Sala Equis cocktail bar – it used to be a cinema showing piquant adult movies. Sunday mornings are for souvenir shopping at the oldest flea market in Madrid – El Rastro. From seven in the morning, bounty hunters haggle for a rare vinyl or gold jewellery. You’ll find some unique souvenirs for sure!
Locals call it one of the most romantic cities in the world; it’s not called Eastern Paris and the Pearl of Danube for nothing. The Hungarian parliament building stands on the bank of the Danube River – it’s a beautiful architectural landmark featured on countless post cards, simply a must-see. There are 691 rooms in the building, and the total length of the staircases spans about 20 km. Choose the evening for an especially picturesque walk, with city lights reflected in the dark water.
Nearby you’ll see the Széchenyi Bridge, with angry lions staring at you. The legend days that the sculptor forgot to carve the tongues of the lions, and a little boy was the one to point it out during the opening ceremony. The sculptor was so overwhelmed that he jumped into the river.
St. Stephen’s Basilica is named after the first Hungarian king, and this neoclassical building is the most important church in the country, and its interior is breath-taking. It holds a mummified hand of the king himself, clad in ruby and pearl bracelets, and a view over the city opens up from the dome of the church.
It’s no wonder Budapest is considered a SPA city, with over 120 natural thermal springs in it. Previously, enjoying the force of water was reserved for monks, knights and soldiers, but nowadays it’s available to every guest of the city. The water contains valuable minerals that are great for the skin – so this SPA visit is basically just what the doctor ordered! The most popular place is the Gellért baths, located in a luxurious Art Nouveau building.
At Széchenyi, you can also access the outdoor pool and feel the frost try to bite your ears.
If that’s not enough, head to the museum of chocolate – during the tour, you’ll be able to dip marzipan balls in a chocolate fountain. Budapest’s ruin bars are iconic places to spend an evening – abandoned buildings now serve as bars, such as Szimpla Kert. If you haven’t tasted Hungary’s national dish goulash, you haven’t been to Budapest.
Locals also love paprika in all shapes and sizes, and they put it in halászlé as well, which is a spicy fish soup. Gourmands must look for Dobos torta, made of chocolate buttercream and caramel. It usually has five layers, and the first bite will have you screaming for another piece. Gesztenyepüré is called the Mont Blanc of Hungary – it’s a chestnut puree with coca and whipped cream. It’s going to be one tasty trip!
If you’re in Berlin for the first time, the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column with a shiny lady on top are a must. This beauty weighs 35 tonnes, and a couple of euros will grant you the chance to take 285 steps on a spiral staircase to look over the Tiergarten. In the heart of the city, there’s the Fernsehturm TV tower, the second tallest building in the European Union. Who could say no to the view from the top?
Calm your curiosity at the German Museum of Technology – next to steam trains, there’s a huge hall devoted to aviation. Kids will yearn to spend several hours in the science centre where experiments with electricity, light and magnetism are conducted. Berlin is full of other wonders as well – the world’s largest dinosaur stands proud in the Natural History Museum – this sauropod would have weighed 55 tonnes and would have been 13 metres tall when standing erect. In the museum’s wet collection, you’ll see more than a million animals preserved in rubbing alcohol. If you’d rather see live animals, it’s time for the legendary zoo – you can meet all the big cats and pandas there.
In the botanical garden, eternal summer prevails, with cacti as tall as the ceiling, bamboo growths and the spiciest pepper in the world.
Speaking about food, Berlin seems to be the capital of kebabs. A crunchy piece of bread, juicy meat, fried veggies, fresh cabbage, creamy feta, pungent notes of lime and peppermint are the secret to a perfect döner. Mate tea and the spicy currywurst are part and parcel of the daily life in Berlin.
It seems that the whole world lives on a single street – next to a Vietnamese joint, there’s a Turkish kebab shop, followed by an American burger restaurant. But if you’re longing for a hefty schnitzel, go to Schnitzelei on Röntgenstraße 7. Even a short trip to Berlin will be full of excitement!