holiday in Hungary?
A tourist interested in east European
culture could do worse than start in Hungary, which joined the EU
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.
• Prices are hardly cheap, particularly compared to not-dissimilar
• Locals are quickly learning how to fleece unwary tourists, especially
waiters and taxi drivers.
• The cuisine leans towards heavy and waiters towards greed and
• There's plenty of post-communist poverty and environmental damage
outside big towns and resorts.
Best weather: May-July, September-October.
Worst: August (hot dead towns, very crowded resorts), November-February
(wet, then extreme cold)
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights: Budapest for a wild
Recommended: 9 days to take in Budapest and some of the surrounding
towns and countryside.
Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest
***Budapest, a diverse, interesting
city with plenty of action.
The Danube Bend - **Szentendre,**Visegrad
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
*** 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
***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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Festivals in Hungary:
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
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
June: Pécs Weeks - a clutch of events related to arts of
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,
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
September: Jazz Days - Hungary's best jazz gathering, in Debrecen.
September: Wine Song Festival - choirs and vocal acts lubricated
by wine evenings, in Pécs.
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.
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
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.
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.
Photo by Andres rus
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
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.
The Cifrapolata, an Art Nouveau gallery and museum in Kecskemet just south of Budapest.
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.
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'!
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