Hungary is a landlocked country in Central Europe, known for its rich history, stunning architecture, delicious cuisine and relaxing thermal baths. The capital, Budapest, is often referred to as the 'Paris of the East' for its beautiful boulevards, grand architecture and rich cultural heritage. Here's our pick of the best things to do in Hungary.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, your essential guide for visiting Europe.
With a wealth of culture, splendid architecture and sumptuous coffee houses, Budapest, the Pearl of the Danube, is an ever-changing city that demands repeated visits. The most obvious place to start is Budapest, which embraces all manner of architectural forms and styles, from the ostentatious neo-Gothic Parliament building and Moorish-Revival Great Synagogue to the city’s Ottoman-era bath houses.
The central dome of Hungary’s Parliament is designed by Imre Steindl and completed in 1904. This neo-Gothic edifice is immense: 268 metres/yds long and 116 metres/ yds at its widest point, with some 20km (12 miles) of staircases inside. The exterior walls feature 233 statues, and the numerous frescoes were executed by some of Hungary’s most notable artists, such as Mihály Munkácsy and the indefatigable Károly Lotz.
Foreigners who really want to become acquainted with the Hungarian way of life should visit a thermal spa at least once during their stay in the country, whether it’s a traditional bath house in the Turkish style or the more elaborate type of establishment in the style of Gellért in Budapest.
The Gellért is justifiably popular with wealthy Hungarians and foreign visitors. Staying at the hotel is great fun; you can don your complimentary robe and slippers and descend to the baths in a private lift. The facilities consist of beautifully tiled pools and a range of baths and treatments, although finding your way around is something of a challenge if you speak no Hungarian.
You literally can’t miss this: the heart of the historic Buda side of the city. A quaint, antique funicular railway (Budavári sikló) scales the difference in height between the river bank and the top of Castle Hill (Várhegy) – a Unesco World Heritage Site and from where the views are excellent. Alternatively, if you’re feeling energetic you can climb the countless steps to the top.
From Castle Hill, the eye is drawn to the Danube and its bridges (you can see almost all of them from here), Margaret Island on the left, the imposing Parliament building with its greenish-brown dome on the Pest bank and the Danube Promenade (Duna-Korzó). Pest spreads east across the plain to the usually misty horizon.
Another sanctuary from Budapest city stress is Margaret Island (Margitsziget), an oasis of greenery between Margaret and the Árpád Bridges. You can reach the island by car from the Árpád Bridge, but it is closed to motorists. The most prominent building on the island, at a height of 57 metres (187ft), is the Water Tower (Víztorony) above the open-air stage.
In the tower of a restored Premonstratensian church, the south wall and windows of which date from the 12th century hangs one of the oldest bells in Hungary, which was found in 1914 under a tree uprooted by a storm. Sports enthusiasts will find swimming pools, tennis courts, boathouses and jogging tracks here. More sedate pleasures are to be had in the Japanese Garden, with its carp pools, hot spring and Rose Garden.
From village folk dances to Budapest's mega-fest Sziget, Hungarians know how to party. Some of the festivals and folk music events are very entertaining, although they can seem quite lengthy if you don’t understand what’s going on. One celebration well worth seeing is the Kaláka-EBU Festival, which takes place every year in early July at Diosgyőr Castle in Miskolc and features all sorts of ethnic.
Another special event is the dance-house meeting, which takes place every year at the end of March in Budapest as part of the Spring Festival. An endless procession of folk musicians and dance groups congregate for this Sunday festival, cheered on by the thousands who come to join in.
This atmospheric Uplands town is strewn with gorgeous Baroque architecture and boasts a castle which famously repelled the Ottoman attack in 1552. Between the Mátra Mountains and the Bükk range is Eger, the most interesting and attractive city in northeast Hungary. It has a turbulent history, and varied architecture, and produces a famous red wine: Egri Bikavér, Eger Bull’s Blood.
The Turks captured the town in 1596 and stayed for 91 years, leaving behind a 40-metre (131ft) minaret, the most northerly in the former Ottoman Empire. A climb to the top offers a fabulous view of the town and its surroundings. There is also a bastion of the castle and the walls of Pasha Arnaut’s baths, which have been incorporated into the modern spa facilities on Fürdő utca.
An escape from Budapest's muggy summer weather with a visit to one of the most enchanting stretches of the Danube is one of the best things to do in Hungary. The Danube Bend, probably the most beautiful stretch of scenery on its Hungarian course, lies between Esztergom and Szentendre
The landscape is at its most impressive near Visegrád, where the Börzsöny and Pilis hills force the river into a fairly narrow gorge; the view from Visegrád castle over the valley is stunning.
Pécs is a contender for Hungary’s most beautiful city. Its gentle climate, open, friendly people, architecture ranging from Roman through to the Habsburg period, and prestigious art collections and museums, all make it a great place to visit. With the inner city now largely free of cars, it’s a pleasure to stroll along the streets and relax in the pavement cafés.
Széchenyi tér, the main square, is dominated by the mighty dome of the former mosque of Pasha Kassim Gazi, the largest surviving building from the Turkish occupation. The streets surrounding the square are all worthy of exploration. To the southeast of the square is pedestrianised Király utca, which is devoted to restaurants and the beautiful art nouveau Pannonius Hotel.
Head to Badacsony for wonderful whites or Szépasszony for zesty red, Bull's Blood. Vines are grown in many parts of the country. Some areas, such as the warm volcanic slopes of the northern coast of Lake Balaton (Badacsony and Bakony) are particularly fertile. The dry, white Olaszrisling is worth looking out for In southern Transdanubia,
Szekszárd produces good reds, as does Villány. However, there are two wines that are internationally known. The first, Egri Bikavér (Eger Bulls’ Blood), owes its name to its beautiful deep red colour and to its strength and aroma. It is made from various grape varieties, not always in the same proportions.
The “Hungarian sea” offers oodles of entertainment: Siófok and Keszthely are just two of the resorts where you can sail, windsurf, slide or, of course, swim. Its area of 595 sq. km (230 sq. miles) makes it the biggest lake in Central and Western Europe. It is also Hungary’s most important tourist attraction, after Budapest.
The heavy influx of visitors during the summer months has the usual side effects of local price rises and a shortage of accommodation, even at campsites. You can enjoy the liveliness of the Balaton and the quiet of the countryside by staying a few miles from the shore where it is far less crowded.
The best-known ingredient of Hungarian food today is paprika. Paprikás is a general name given to dishes seasoned with paprika and served with sour cream sauces, especially fish, fowl and veal dishes. Red meat, pork and fatty fowl such as goose or duck are not prepared as often with this spice.
Hungarian goulash (gulyás), probably the most famous Hungarian creation (and the most misunderstood in foreign kitchens), uses plenty of paprika in a meat soup or stew containing onions and small potatoes.
Visegrád today is merely a small town on the Danube, but in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was one of the residences of the Hungarian kings. St Stephen’s Crown and the Royal Insignia were kept from time to time in the castle above the town. King Sigismund of Luxembourg extended the Visegrád Royal Palace at the foot of the castle.
Today a visit to Visegrad Royal Palace is one of the best things to do in Hungary. The palace complex comprises several buildings, including the Upper Castle, Lower Castle and Solomon's Tower. Visitors can explore the palace remains and enjoy spectacular views of the nearby Danube River valley from the castle walls.
The industrial areas of Kazincbarcika and Ózd are not particularly appealing to tourists, but the limestone caves in the karst of Aggtelek National Park 55km (35 miles) northwest of Miskolc near Hungary–Slovakia border are a great attraction. Their underground passages are among the most complex structures of limestone caves in Europe and stretch for 22km (14 miles) well into Slovakia.
In Miskolctapolca, a spa situated just a few kilometres away from the industrial centre of Miskolc, you can bathe in a slightly radioactive cave Bath with a water temperature of 30°C (86°F), and you can also inhale wholesome steam if you suffer from asthma. This is a truly spectacular place to bathe, in the half-light of tortuous caves with clear waters and soft lighting.
The biggest cave on Hungarian territory is Baradla Cave. It is connected to the Domica Cave across the border. Baradla Cave contains the biggest stalagmite in the world – 25 metres (82ft) high, known as the Observatory. Concerts are held in the caves during the summer months.
Tapolca used to be maligned as an industrial centre whose bauxite and manganese mines poured pollution into Hévíz Lake. The closing of the mines simultaneously saved Hévíz and filled Tapolca Lake Cave (István Cave) with clear water; its 4km (2.5-mile) system can be navigated in little rowing boats.
Bukk National Park is the largest national park in Hungary, located in the northern part of the country, near the city of Eger. The park is famous for its diverse natural landscape, which includes hills, forests, meadows and limestone cliffs. It is also the habitat of a great variety of flora and fauna, including some rare and endangered species.
Visitors to Bukk National Park can explore the park on foot, by bicycle or by car, following the numerous trails through the park and the roads that run through the area.
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