On August 20th of each year, all of Hungary comes together to commemorate its national day, St. Stephen's Day. Budapest is a special place to see the celebrations unfold--where better to celebrate than Hungary's capital, after all?
This August, don't miss your chance to celebrate the patron saint of Hungary with activities, culture, and of course...fireworks! If you’ll be staying in Budapest, here are your tips on how to celebrate St. Stephen's Day.
King Stephen--István, in Hungarian--is arguably the most important king in Hungary's long history. You'll see his legacy all over Budapest, from the busy Saint Stephen's Boulevard to the majestic St. Stephen's Basilica.
For the history of St. Stephen's Day, look back to just before 1000 A.D. The land now known as Hungary was torn by disputes between conflicting tribes. Stephen the Magyar converted to Christianity as a way to unify the tribes and strengthen the state. In response to his leadership, Pope Sylvester II gifted Stephen the holy crown (now considered a national treasure), and Stephen officially became the first king of the newly formed country, Hungary.
Stephen died on August 15, 1038 A.D. and later, on August 20, 1083 A.D., he was made a Catholic saint. From 1092, August 20t was celebrated as St. Stephen's Day. Despite a brief suspension during Hungary's Communist occupation (during which the holiday was renamed 'Constitution Day'), St. Stephen's Day is now celebrated every August.
Now that you know why we celebrate St. Stephen’s Day, it’s important you know how to best celebrate it. Especially if this is your first time in Budapest on this spectacular day.
Here are our top 4 ways to celebrate St. Stephen of Hungary.
Saint Stephen's Day is the perfect time to learn more about Hungarian history.
On holidays, the city of Budapest puts on free events and offers free admission to cultural sites around the city. Of course, you can start your day in front of the iconic Parliament building where soldiers do a flag raising at Kossuth Square. This is followed by a rousing military band parade in which you can see the soldiers of Hungary decked out in their finest.
Afterwards, you can attend a mass in the awe-inspiring St. Stephen's Basilica (whose reliquary actually houses the alleged hand of St. Stephen himself). After mass there you can watch the procession of the Holy Right hand of Stephen I, mummified and preserved since the 11th century.
This is the perfect opportunity to see Hungary's history and culture come to life. Happening every August, this year it occurs from August 19-21 and takes place in the majestic Buda Castle. This is an invaluable chance to see many masters of folk arts all together in one place. Wood crafts, folk dancing and music, the Blessing of New Bread ceremony, and more all await you.
The massive fireworks display is the crown jewel of St. Stephen's Day celebrations. You'll likely see them setting them up days in advance! When night falls, the Budapest skyline is lit up with joyful colors during the most enthusiastic fireworks display Hungary puts on all year.
Where is the best place to watch the fireworks, you may ask?
In years past, crowds have gathered on the bridges of Budapest for the best views. Where better to watch the fireworks than directly underneath? Unfortunately, the iconic Chain Bridge is closed for renovation (as of 2022), but Margaret Bridge, Elizabeth Bridge, and Liberty Bridge can still provide strategic viewpoints. Just make sure to get there early, as there's sure to be a crowd.
If you've spent any time walking along the majestic Danube, you've likely seen Gellért Hill rising above the city. While this hill and the surrounding park make for a pleasant daytime hike, it can also be a strategic place to watch the fireworks. Hike up the hill to the Citadel for a spectacular sunset, and then enjoy the show with a full panorama of the city.
Get as close to the fireworks as possible at a Budapest rooftop bar. Some of them even host parties specifically for St. Stephen's Day. Make a reservation and ensure your spot above the city!
Some rooftop bars to look into are:
Put yourself in the middle of the action by watching the fireworks from the river. Budapest has no shortage of boat cruises all year round, but cruising on the Danube on August 20 makes for an unforgettable night.
See the fireworks explode in the sky above you and the reflection beneath you as you bask in the festive atmosphere. Wondering where to start? Budapest Boat Party hosts legendary party cruises and has hosted St. Stephen's Day cruises in the past.
If you have a sweet tooth then you won't want to miss Hungary's annual birthday cake competition! Many iconic cakes have already come out of Hungary's cukrászda's, such as the walnut cream Eszterházy or brittle-topped Doboz. However, every August Hungarian confectioners vie for the prize of creating a unique birthday cake in honor of Hungary's national day.
Every year, there is a competition to determine the best birthday cake for Hungary. Hungary's "Cake of the Year" must somehow link back to St. Stephen's Day, and is made with only the best ingredients.
After the National Confederation of Hungarian Confectionery Craftsmen selects a winner, the victor gets the honor of a cake cutting ceremony. You can find the unique recipe in confectionaries around the country!
Since this is a national holiday, most shops will be closed, so be sure to do your shopping beforehand! Public transportation will also run on a reduced schedule. Find updated public transport information here.
If you're in Hungary on the weekend of August 20th, take advantage of the chance to celebrate St. Stephen's Day. Learn more about Hungarian history, join the celebrations, and take in the fireworks on Hungary's biggest holiday!