Bordered by countries as diverse as Austria, Serbia and Ukraine, Hungary is a crossroads at the centre of the continent - what was once known as Mitteleuropa – and it fuses old Europe and new in its mix of Hapsburg grandeur and Communist-era grittiness. There is a Central European solidity to its food, buildings and culture, but the more exotic, and undeniably romantic, founding myth of the nomadic, warrior Magyars from the Central Asian steppe is also key to Hungarians’ fiery national pride.
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Budapest, the capital, is a city of imposing scale and wide Danube vistas, split by the river into historic Buda and buzzy Pest, and offering both the old (imperial-era boulevards, Art Nouveau coffeehouses, bubbling Turkish baths) and the new (quirky warehouse bars and summer riverboat clubs). A few hours’ travel beyond Budapest is enough to access Hungary’s other key charms, from Serb-influenced Szentendre, a short way north along the Danube bend, to the lush wine-growing Badacsony region on the shores of Lake Balaton to the southwest. Balaton, the “nation’s playground”, also plays host to crowded summer party resorts such as Siófok, or gentler Keszthely. Hungary’s three most culture-rich towns beyond Budapest are scattered across the country but not to be missed: Sopron, close by the border with Austria; Pécs, on the far southern tip, ringed by alpine hills; and Eger, just northeast of Budapest, a mellow, historic city famous for its Bull’s Blood wine. Across southeast Hungary stretches the enormous Great Plain, covering half the country and home to some beautiful national parks and the cities of Szeged, Kecskemét and Debrecen.
Where to go in Hungary
Whilst Budapest deservedly takes centre stage, there is much more besides; gorgeous Baroque towns stand cheek by jowl with ancient castles and fortresses, while nature asserts itself spectacularly in the form of Lake Balaton, the thickly forested Northern Uplands, and the immense sweep of the Great Plain, not to mention one of the grandest stretches of the great Danube River. Aside from the country’s extraordinary concentration of thermal spas, there is a wealth of other activities available, including watersports, horseriding, cycling and hiking, while nearly two dozen wine regions offer the chance to sample a range of quality wines little known beyond its own borders.
Top image: Parliament building, Budapest © photo.ua/Shutterstock