Hungary Travel Guide – Europe

 Budapest Castle and Danube River, Hungary

Budapest Castle and the Danube River, Hungary

Visiting Hungary

A tourist interested in east European culture could do worse than start in Hungary, which joined the EU in 2004.
The country is easy to get around and offers the relaxed and interesting capital city of Budapest, medieval towns with ornate buildings, ancient villages with intricate folk art, impressive mountains, plains and lakes, healing thermal spas, birds galore and excellent wine and beer at excellent prices.

Downsides

• Prices are hardly cheap, particularly compared to not-dissimilar Czech Republic.
• Locals are quickly learning how to fleece unwary tourists, especially waiters and taxi drivers.
• The cuisine leans towards heavy and waiters towards greed and sloth.
• There’s plenty of post-communist poverty and environmental damage outside big towns and resorts.

Weather

Best weather: May-September.
Worst: November-February (grey, damp and cold)

Length of stay:
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights: Budapest for a wild weekend.
Recommended: 9 days to take in Budapest and some of the surrounding towns and countryside.

 of Fisherman

Fisherman’s Bastion, Budapest

Main attractions

***Budapest, a diverse, interesting city with plenty of action.

The Danube Bend – **Szentendre, **Visegrad and Esztergom

Just 20km (12m) north of the capital this pretty, hilly area is a popular – if crowded – tourist target.
Szentendre is an attractive place to see art in all forms, as well as venerable structures on winding streets. Visegrad at 40kms (25mls) also offers a few impressive historic sights, but much smaller and less busy than its big sister. Esztergom is less worthy of your time.

 Esztergom Cathedral, Hungary

Esztergom Cathedral

*** Lake Balaton. This massive (77km long) lake about 100km (62m) from Budapest is known as ‘Hungary’s playground’ and supplies a vast range of leisure activities – swimming, sailing, biking, walking, sunbathing, and drinking yourself into a stupor, among others.
Balaton’s south (east) shore caters to lovers of bop-a-lot and beach lifestyles while the north tends towards cultural experiences, historical sights, better scenery and lots of tranquil walks. Tihany village is the culture star of Balaton while Siofok is a German drop zone.

Lake Balaton, Hungary

Lake Balaton, Hungary

***Eger, 125km (80m) from the capital, is a charming, pedestrian friendly, baroque town full of interesting sights and buildings, including a 13thC castle.

The adjacent Valley of Beautiful Women offers wonderful wine cellars, music and spectacular drinking (especially the local Bull’s Blood wine). Get there by train (2. 5 hours), bus or car.

**Holloko. En route to Eger a 40km (25ml) detour brings tourists to this World Heritage site, a charming village that has preserved much of its architecture and rural ways since the 17th century.

***Sopron. In far west Hungary, only an hour from Austria’s Vienna, Sopron offers a compact medieval centre and a famous summer music festival.

**Pécs. A lovely, cultured town with some impressive monuments – such as the Turkish Mosque Church and the synagogue – a cluster of excellent museums, plenty of music and opera offerings and superb leatherwork.
Summertime sees a rash of dance and music concerts in gorgeous locations.
It’s a long way south of Budapest so most convenient for those travelling to/from Croatia.

the Danube River from Visegrad, Hungary

Pecs town.

Activities

Hiking: many well-marked, attractive trails cross the hilly north and west parts of Hungary and hikes range from half a day to a week.
Volcanic Badacsony’s basalt towers beside Lake Balaton or those in the Tapolca Basin are favourites, as are walks around the Danube Bend.

Caves: In the north east the spectacular Baradla Cave in the Aggtelek cave system is a World Heritage site. There are many kilometres of limestone caves walkable on daily tours.

Canoeing: the are many excellent tranquil routes, including through nature reserves. Birds sightings are common. The Great Plain’s Tisza River is especially popular, as is the Bodrog River.

Biking: excellent tracks run beside the Danube in Buda and Szentendre, around Lake Balaton and various mountain ranges such as Matra.
Bikes can be taken on most trains, with a ticket.
They are not allowed on some main roads and tramlines and cobblestones can be tricky.

Windsurfing and Sailing: Lake Balaton (77km x 6km) is only 3m (10ft) deep, has no currents, warm summer water (21C) and has lots of rental possibilities especially on the south (east) shore).

Bird watching: in the Hortobagy National Park, 40km (25m) from Debrecen. Over 300 species of bird hang out in this huge wetland reserve, including great bustards. Cars are not permitted and a guide is useful.

Horse riding: The Magyars were warrior horsemen a thousand years ago so this is the right place to have a wild ride.
Riding centres can be found in most areas, but especially near Budapest, around Lake Balaton and on the Great Plain (Puszta) where genuine Hungarian cowboys still live to ride. The largest riding centre is Epona Riding Village in the Hortobagy Park. Horse carriages are also for rent.

Golf: there are a dozen good courses around Budapest and in the west of Hungary, Transdanubia.

Gellert Hotel spa, Budapest, Hungary

The world famous spa in the Gellert Hotel, Budapest

Spas

These natural, hot, mineral pools – are both a social occasion and a way to treat different physical conditions according to the mineral content of each spring. Specialists can recommend appropriate therapies to deal with various problems.
Budapest claims to be the spa capital of the world with over 30 thermal springs (Hungary’s total is over 1, 000), and the most famous spa is in Buda’s gorgeous Gellert Hotel with spacious Széchenyi baths, over the Danube in Pest, coming a close second.

Main Festivals

end of Feb: Busojaras Carnival – ancient and colourful celebration of the new spring, in Mohacs.
end of March: Budapest Spring Festival – a huge and well-respected arts festival.
May-October: Regional Wine Festivals – lively local celebrations, including Sopron, Tokaj, Eger, Szekszard, Koszeg and Balatonboglar.
mid June: Danube Carnival – East European folk dance and classical music.
June: Pécs Weeks – a clutch of events related to arts of gastronomy.
June/July: Sopron Festival Weeks – another world famous event, this one showcasing ancient music and dance, in Sopron, near Vienna.
mid July: Visegrad Palace Games – a medieval festival, including arts, archery and jousting in this pretty town near Budapest.
late July: Koszeg Street Theatre Festival.
early August: Eger Baroque Festival – three weeks of dance, music and street activities in gorgeous Eger.
August: Folk Arts Festival – a fascinating collection of folk arts, in Nagykallo.
August 20 : St Stephens Day – a nationwide celebration, especially lively in Budapest, with parades, folk singing, fairs and fireworks.
August 20 : Flower Carnival – a huge and kaleidoscopic event, in Debrecen.
September: Jazz Days – Hungary’s best jazz gathering, in Debrecen.
September: Wine Song Festival – choirs and vocal acts lubricated by wine evenings, in Pécs.

Visas

Hungary has joined the Schengen accord, so tourists can enter on a European Union Schengen visa and there will be no further ID/passport controls on EU borders. Citizens of the USA, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Venezuela and New Zealand may enter without a visa for 90 days.

Tipping

About 10% to taxi drivers and waiters. Check restaurant bills carefully, fiddled numbers are common.
And if you say thank you when you pay the bill you won’t get any change!

Electricity

Electric sockets are 230v and take 2 round pin plugs.

Similar to much of Europe, lite crime is generally visited upon the dumb or unwary. Don’t change money on the street, pickpocketing and bag filching happens on crowded public transport – occasionally using razors to cut bags from behind – and taxi drivers overcharge.
Fake police may try to lift a tourist’s passports, credit cards or bags. Real police have an ID with hologram, so ask for it.

International Transport

Discount train fares to other East European countries are common and trains are comfortable and efficient.
A hydrofoil service also runs in the summer to Vienna via Bratislava, on the Danube river (about 5 hours).
There are a multitude of efficient, good value buses running too, e. g. Vienna 3 hours, Prague 8 hours, Berlin 15 hours.

Memento Park, Budapest, Hungary

Tihany Abbey. Photo by Andres Rus.

Food

This is another European country where rich, fatty, salty foods are the norm and weight loss is not an option.
All the best local foods are widening, from traditional Hungarian goulash – a thick and spicy stew of potatoes and fatty beef or pork – to ubiquitous sour cream, dumplings, pastries and strudels.
International fast and equally fattening foods are widely available too, with pizza, kebab and burger joints open in most towns.
Healthier offerings, in the shape of vegetarian or nouvelle cuisine, are becoming more visible though still limited.
Street stalls are always better value and serve good alternatives such as corn, bean soup, chestnuts, crepes, fried fish, fruit, waffles and donuts.
Avoid eating in places that do not state prices on the menu and check the bill carefully at the end. Overcharging is commonplace.
Wines and beer are excellent and good value.

Traditional housing, Hungary

The Cifrapolata, an Art Nouveau gallery and museum in Kecskemet just south of Budapest.

Accommodation

There’s a wide range of accommodation from luxury hotels to cheapish pensions to village homestays to varied campsites, but it’s important to book well ahead for the June-September season.
Many places can now be contacted by email.

Language

What a nightmare! German is the Hungarian second language, English third, so it’s worthwhile learning some basics even if it takes three weeks to learn three words, though on the plus side ‘hello’ is the same as ‘goodbye’!