Hungary's location in the centre of Europe makes it one of the best starting points for an Eastern European journey. It's both typically European and distinctly Hungarian, incorporating a mixture of historical and present-day pleasures. The country proudly upholds its traditions, culture and art, while staying attentive to the modern world.
Hungary has seen numerous dynastic changes throughout its history, from Turkish occupation to the era of Communism. Quaint little towns, countryside ruins and storied cities attest to this turbulent past, with a rich mosaic of architectural styles and fortified hilltop castles. Neither Slavic nor Germanic, the Hungarian people are formal, reserved and intensely proud of their heritage and the cosmopolitan capital, Budapest.
Budapest is situated on a lovely stretch of the Danube. The river gives the city an air of romance and beauty, enchanting visitors with its astounding grace. Outside the capital, the rolling hills, rivers, lakes and vineyards hold much to amuse the visitor. Indeed, the Baroque town of Eger attracts many with its fine wines.
There is also a surfeit of historic riverside villages along the Danube Bend, not to mention commanding fortresses, castles and palaces. Other popular tourist spots include the resort-lined Lake Balaton and the thermal spas and volcanically-heated lake at Hévíz.
As one of Europe's most fascinating countries, Hungary offers a wealth of sightseeing attractions. Visitors to beautiful Budapest marvel at its architecture, operas and music concerts, all the while taking in the romance of the Danube River and the capital's famed spa baths.
Budapest has many celebrated tourist attractions and is a useful transport hub for exploring the rest of the country. Tourists can visit Hévíz and soak in the world's second largest thermal lake, Gyógytó, or stop by Momento Park, one of the world's most bizarre attractions, where hundreds of giant statues are kept after being banished at the end of the communist era.
Also popular is a trip to Szentendre for a spot of shopping, and a visit to the old university town of Keszthely to enjoy the quaint tree-lined streets, trendy cafes and busy markets.
The best season to visit Hungary is in the summer, between April and September, when the days are long and the weather warm.
Most towns and cities in Hungary have reliable and affordable public transport, but the best way to see the country is to hire a car and experience it all at a leisurely pace.
Buda Castle is the royal complex of past Hungarian monarchs. Sitting atop Castle Hill in the picturesque Castle District of Buda, the royal palace was first inhabited by King Béla in the 13th century. Its strategic location straddling the Danube offered whoever controlled the city a defensive position and potential control of the main waterway. The castle has a mixture of architectural styles, ranging from Gothic to Baroque. Today, it's the country's most important cultural centre, housing numerous museums with the majority of the buildings being historical monuments. The Budapest History Museum contains an exhibition explaining the history of the city, as well as archaeological remains of the palace. Also within the palace complex are the Hungarian National Gallery, the National Library and the Ludwig Museum.
Built in 1905 on the medieval castle walls, the ramparts of the Fisherman's Bastion were so named after those whose duty it was to defend this side of the hill during the Middle Ages. The Romanesque Revival-style ramparts are purely ornamental, with gleaming white cloisters and stairways connecting seven turrets symbolic of the Magyar tribes that conquered the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century. Set back from the ramparts is an equestrian statue of King Stephen, a memorial to the founder of the Hungarian nation. The view from Fisherman's Bastion is outstanding at day or night, looking over the Danube, the Chain Bridge and the Parliament Buildings with Pest stretching out into the distance.
Situated in the centre of the Castle Quarter, the 700-year-old Church of Our Lady is popularly known as Matthias Church. Its architecture is a mixture of styles from various occupations and periods. When the Turks occupied the Castle in 1541 it was converted into a mosque, and the interior walls were painted over with scenes from the Koran. Reconstructed in the 19th century in Gothic Revival style, remains of original medieval frescoes have been discovered underneath the whitewash. The interior is richly decorated with gilded altars, statues and rose windows, while the Church Museum gives access to the crypt and a small collection of religious artefacts and jewels. The church remains operational, hosting organ concerts and choir recitals beneath its multicoloured tiled roof and Gothic spire.
Gellért Hill offers unrivalled panoramic views of the city, taking in Buda, Pest and the meandering Danube. A monument of a martyred bishop stands at the base of the hill while on its summit stands the Liberation Monument, dedicated to the memory of troops who died freeing Hungary in 1945. Behind the monument is the Citadella, built after the Revolutions of 1848 to provide military control against further uprisings. The hill is also home to several historic spas, valued for their medicinal qualities. The city's most famous spa is the Gellért Baths, attached to the grand establishment of the Art Nouveau Gellért Hotel, where visitors relax in the thermal waters of a Roman bath with its lion-headed spouts, surrounded by columns and mosaics.
The Chain Bridge was the first stone construction built over the Danube and is the most famous in Budapest. Today, nine bridges link Buda to Pest but the Chain Bridge takes pride of place as the city's primary landmark, a magnificent sight when floodlit at night. It owes its existence to Count István Széchenyi who decided to build a permanent crossing after having to wait a week to cross the river to bury his father. The Chain Bridge was built in 1849 by William and Adam Clark, who also constructed London Bridge. The iconic stone lions which guard the bridge were added to the bridge in 1852, miraculously surviving World War II even though the bridge itself was blown up in January 1945 and only resurrected in November 1949.
Situated within the charming old Jewish Quarter of Pest, the Great Synagogue is one of the largest in the world. Its style is Byzantine-Moorish, with patterned brickwork in the red, blue and yellow colours of the city's coat of arms. Gilded domed towers, splendid archways and beautiful windows make this one of Budapest's finest landmarks. The splendid interior glitters with lights and gilded arches while balconies line the walls, while the ceiling is covered in Stars of David and the floor is tiled in decorative stars. On Jewish festivals, it's packed with Jews from all over Hungary who come to celebrate within its splendour. Next door is the Jewish Museum, containing a Holocaust Memorial Room and relics from the Hungarian Jewish Community. In the courtyard is the Holocaust Memorial in the shape of a weeping willow tree, each metal leaf engraved with the names of those who have passed away.
On the bank of the Danube stands the beautiful Hungarian Parliament, an imposing sight and a prominent feature of the city skyline. With its red dome, white stone lace ornamentation and sharp spires, it's the city's most decorative structure. Stone lions flank the entrance guarding a rich interior of marble and gold, statues and columns. Magnificent artefacts are seen on guided tours, such as the 1,000-year-old crown of the first Hungarian King. The grand edifice, stretching for 250 metres (820ft) along the embankment, is one of the biggest national assemblies in the world.
A popular yet bizarre attraction, Memento Park contains the giant figures of the communist era that once filled the streets of Budapest. Among them are the forms of Lenin, Marx and Engels, as well as memorials to Soviet soldiers and communist martyrs. There are also exhibitions detailing the history of the Soviet occupation in Budapest, contributing to a unique collection of artefacts and a fine location to educate oneself on the nature of communism.
Lake Hévíz is the world's largest thermal lake, a most extraordinary sight with its huge milky blue surface covered in water lilies and steam. The warm water wells up from a volcanic crater spring about 40 metres (128ft) below the surface, with the recommended maximum time in the water during any session being one hour. The mud is said to be slightly radioactive and good for various medical conditions, but only in small doses. A pavilion in the centre is reached by a covered bridge, and indoor swimming takes place in an area enclosed with plexiglas. Gaps in the plastic lead to the rest of the lake where swimmers can float among the water lilies and swim between platforms bobbing on the surface. There are also various other spa and health treatments on offer.
Eger Castle overlooks its town namesake and is one of the most popular and famous attractions in Hungary. The original buildings included a cathedral and the Bishop's Palace, dating back to the 13th century. The castle was later fortified and the walls provided the cover for its determined defence by a small and outnumbered army against a Turkish force. The women who fought alongside the soldiers claimed their place in national consciousness during this much-celebrated act of heroism. The popular Dobó István Fortress Museum in the restored palace has exhibitions on the history of the town and castle. Also within the castle grounds is the Heroes' Hall, which holds the grave of the celebrated leader, Dobó István, as well as the Prison Museum, Waxworks and the underground rock-hewn artillery enclosures.
With its rolling vineyards and century-old cellars and taverns, Szépasszony Valley is a favourite attraction in Eger. Wine producers welcome visitors into their quaint old cellars, hollowed out of the porous rock hundreds of years ago. Here, some of the country's finest red wines can be tasted, including the unique Bull's Blood. The rows of cellars are numbered and each has a particular charm, whether it's the chequered tablecloths of an underground tavern or the wooden barrels of fermenting grapes in an uneven rock passageway. It's even possible to book a visit to the Godly Cellar, the oldest in the region. It operated as a secret church during the Turkish occupation, and the stone altar and religious artworks still remain.
Keszthely is a university town settled during Roman times, enjoying trendy cafes, tree-lined streets and busy market areas. Its most important sight is the Festetics Palace, with the Helikon Palace Museum and Library both in one of its Baroque wings. Varosi Strand is great for travelling families, with its beach and amusement area. It has water slides, a big pool and various play spaces, as well as nice lawns, a beach and loungers. Keszthely likes to describe itself as the capital of Lake Balaton and it's the best town from which to explore the lakeside surroundings, including the thermal lake at Hévíz and the nearby Kis Balaton, a wetland reserve perfect for birdwatching.
Szentendre is a quaint old market town situated on the slopes of the Pilis Mountains. Meandering cobbled lanes, red-tiled roofs and brightly painted houses, along with small town squares and Orthodox churches give it a charming and picturesque setting. Serbian refugees inhabited the town in medieval times and built numerous churches, with their style contributing to the town's haphazard charisma and Balkan flavour. In the 1900s, the town became a favourite retreat for painters and sculptors, resulting in a wealth of museums, galleries and art collections. Being close to Budapest, the town is a popular excursion and summer weekends can get rather crowded.
Situated on the loop of the Danube beneath steep hills, Visegrad was once a Roman stronghold on the border of the Roman Empire and the second home to Hungarian royalty in the 14th and 15th centuries. On the banks are ruins of the magnificent palace, one of the finest ever built in the country and now the open air King Matthias Museum. As this intriguing history suggests, the village is a delight for history buffs and retains an old-world feel. Visegrad is also a good base for outdoor activities in the lovely surrounding countryside and there is an excursion centre behind Castle Hill which organises activities such as hiking, canopy trails and cycling.
Esztergom combines captivating history with riverside charm. One of Hungary's most historically important towns, it was the capital for over 250 years and the birthplace of their beloved first king and saint, Stephen, who was crowned here in the 11th century. It remains the religious centre of the country, with Hungary's largest church dominating the hill next to the ruins of the medieval royal palace. The colossal basilica was the first cathedral in the country, offering wonderful views from its enormous dome and contains a crypt and priceless treasures. Below is the pretty Watertown District, with its uneven cobbled streets winding up the hill towards the castle.
There's nothing kids love more than a circus performance and Budapest offers a fantastic display in the Hungarian tradition. The Great Circus (Nagy Cirkusz) features an array of clowns, jugglers and acrobats, with the Hungarian Circus and Variety Non-Profit (MACIVA) playing an important role in Hungarian cultural life and is one of the oldest cultural establishments in the country. Built in 1954, the circus has a school for performing artists and holds circus camps for children who want to learn. Special events like parades and festivals occur at certain times of the year but show times and prices vary according to the season, so please check the website for details.
The Budapest Puppet Theatre is a great outing for the whole family, ideal for travel in Budapest with kids. While shows are all presented in Hungarian, children remain enthralled by familiar stories like Cinderella and Snow White. During enactments, the crowd can be heard calling out warnings when villains are approaching or encouraging heroes in their endeavours. It's amazing how little the language barrier matters when it comes to this kind of storytelling. The puppets are proper works of art and come in all shapes, sizes and colours, with some easily recognisable characters and some creative originals. Most adults will enjoy the performances too but can easily head for the cafe during the show.
Vác is a pretty Baroque town on the east bank of the Danube Bend. Despite its many attractions and charms, it's wonderfully less crowded than some of the other famous towns along the river. The stunning cathedral founded by the first Hungarian King is its most popular attraction, while a more macabre attraction awaits in the Memento Mori Crypt, housing a number of naturally mummified corpses and their well-preserved clothes and decorated coffins. This World Heritage Site is a significant archaeological discovery, enabling several breakthroughs in science and ethnography. Vác also has a wonderful pedestrianised town square, surrounded by colourful buildings and a splendid promenade along the Danube River.
A 53-mile (86km) drive from Budapest, Kecskemét makes for a wonderful excursion. While this garden city is quite large, the place has a uniquely small-town charm. Walking around the scenic city centre is pleasant, with the abundance of open squares and avenues peppered with colourful Art Nouveau buildings. There are a number of attractions in Kecskemét that visitors enjoy, including the distillery tours at the Pálinka Museum, the Hungarian Museum of Photography and the Museum of Hungarian Folk Art and Handicrafts, as well as the beautiful architecture and art collections at the city hall. Kecskemét has existed in some form since at least the 14th century, so it's no surprise that it holds so many old and hidden gems.
Balatonfüred has been the most fashionable resort on Lake Balaton since the 18th century when the medicinal centre was established, with people still drawn to its healing thermal waters. While the mineral baths are reserved for patients, Balatonfüred remains popular with tourists as there are three good beaches for swimming, sunbathing and yachting, and there is also a number of cycle tracks along the lake and through the surrounding region. A wine tasting festival is held in August annually and the famous Anna Ball takes place on the weekend closest to 26 July (Anna Day) at the Anna Grand Hotel.
The Mineral Bath Swimming Pool Park in Eger is considered the biggest and best in the country. They are indoor or outdoor, hot or cold and recreational or health-related. It's a great spot to visit with children, as they'll have their own special pool. There's an Olympic-sized swimming pool for those who want to exercise, while there is food and drink to keep visitors refreshed. There are also Turkish baths, comfy cabins and simple sun loungers. The only downside of this fun park is that its popularity can lead to big crowds, so set aside a weekday morning to experience it at its best.
Hungary has a continental climate with distinct seasons, and a big variation between winter and summer conditions. Most people enjoy visiting Hungary over the summer period (June to August) when the weather is warmer and the attractions are open. The weather in spring and autumn can be pleasant too, but temperatures do drop to around 20°F (9°C). Temperatures approach freezing during winter (December to February), with snow blanketing the ground for weeks and the mighty Danube River freezing over. Rainfall is largely dependent on the region.
The west of Hungary, including Budapest, starts warming up after a cold winter in April. The weather in this part of Hungary is hot and humid throughout the summer months, which are the most popular time to visit.
Eastern and central Hungary experience hot, dry summers and cold, wet winters. The wind is often strong on the plains, adding to the chill factor. In the south of Hungary, there is a slightly warmer climate and summers are long, hot and rainy while winters are shorter and less severe, with temperatures seldom dropping below freezing.
One of Budapest's finest Indian eateries by far, the trendy Indigo is popular with locals and visitors alike and never fails to please with its mouth-watering curries and fragrant dishes. Stylish, yet modern décor and clean lines create a fresh atmosphere and the great food and service make for a memorable dining experience. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Credit cards accepted.
Those looking for a trendy eatery with both indoor and outdoor dining options need look no further than Café Vian. The food is good, the prices are reasonable and many young and hip locals frequent this popular Budapest restaurant. Try the grilled chicken breast 'Vian' style with ratatouille and candied lemon and potato pancake, or the red wine flavoured beef stew with dumplings. Open daily. Reservations accepted.
Also known as Aunt Nancsi's Restaurant, this family-run place is situated in the peaceful Buda Hills. It serves hearty Hungarian food at its best and is worth the short taxi ride out of the city centre. Try the Hungarian black truffle cream soup or the joy stew.
Luxurious but comfortable, Baraka is a great fine dining option in Budapest, serving up contemporary European food with a global twist. The wine list is impressive and the cocktail options are as international as the menu. The restaurant is also conveniently situated in a lovely old part of the city popular with tourists. Reservations are recommended.
Comme Chez Soi is known as the best place to go for Italian food in Budapest. The menu is full of simple and delicious pizzas, pastas, seafood, and meat dishes, and there is a varied selection of antipasti options as well. Its generous helpings and reasonable prices have made it increasingly hard to get a table, so reservations are required. Open Monday to Saturday, 11am to midnight.
Although Hungary is part of the EU it does not use the Euro; the official currency is the Hungarian Forint (HUF). It is divided into 100 fillér. Most international credit cards are accepted at shops, restaurants and hotels. Banks usually open between 8am and 3pm on weekdays and some are open on Saturdays, while ATMs are available in towns and cities throughout the country.
Hungarian (Magyar) is the official language, but German is widely spoken, especially in the areas close to the Austrian border. English is spoken in tourist areas and most hotels.
Electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. European-style two-pin plugs are standard.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Hungary. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
UK nationals: Passports endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), and 'British Overseas Territories Citizen' issued by Gibraltar, must be valid on arrival. British passports with other endorsements must be valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Hungary.
UK nationals: A visa is not required for British passports endorsed 'British Citizen' or 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), nor for holders of identity cards issued by Gibraltar authorities, and endorsed 'Validated for EU travel purposes under the authority of the United Kingdom'. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period for holders of British passports with other endorsements.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Hungary. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Hungary. A visa is required.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay, and a valid Schengen visa, to enter Hungary. Passports issued more than 10 years prior to the arrival date will not be accepted.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Hungary. No visa is required.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months after the period of intended stay in Hungary. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
The borderless region known as the Schengen Area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option, and which allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all the aforementioned countries. All visitors to Hungary, other than EEA members, should ensure that their passports are valid for at least six months beyond the expiry date of their visa. Foreign passengers must be in possession of a return/onward ticket (or sufficient funds to buy one), and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination. Additionally, visitors must hold the equivalent of HUF 1,000 per day of stay, in hard currency, although the following documents are also accepted: a major credit card, a letter of invitation, proof of accommodation (reserved and paid for), or a document authorising the visitor to withdraw cash from a bank in Hungary. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
A reciprocal health agreement with countries in the EU provides nationals with free emergency healthcare on presentation of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). After Brexit, the Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) replaced the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) for UK citizens. The GHIC allows UK citizens access to state healthcare during visits to the EU. The GHIC is not valid in Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland, nor is it an alternative to travel insurance. All big towns have pharmacies, but anyone requiring specific medication should bring a supply with them as local medicines may be unfamiliar. Tourists should make sure that if they're travelling with prescribed medications they bring along a letter from their doctor stating conditions and prescribed medication. Public health facilities are good but comprehensive travel insurance is still recommended.
Taxi drivers, waiters and other professions in the service industry expect a tip of 10 to 15 percent in Hungary. Waiters should be handed the cash, rather than have it left on the table.
Most visits to Hungary are trouble free, but normal precautions against petty crime should be taken. Pick pocketing and bag snatching is a risk on crowded public transport and other places frequented by tourists. Visitors should make use of hotel safes to store valuables and not display conspicuous wealth. It is also always a good idea to carry copies of important documents such as passports.
Hungarians are generally open and friendly, readily striking up conversation. Men and women greet each other by shaking hands, and close friends kiss each other lightly on each cheek. Older men may bow to women and kiss them on the hand.
A handshake is the standard form of greeting when doing business in Hungary and in mixed company it's usually women who initiate. Conservative suits and ties are standard business dress and businesspeople should be addressed by their title and surname.
Business cards are often exchanged; Hungarians usually list their surnames first. It is useful to have a local representative when doing business in Hungary, acting as an interpreter and go-between. It is important to invest time in building relationships; socialising is a key element and face-to-face meetings are vital.
Punctuality is important on all occasions and cancelling a meeting at the last minute may be detrimental to a business relationship. There may be plenty of red tape to get through too so negotiations can be slow-moving. Business hours are usually from 8am to 4pm Monday to Friday.
The international access code for Hungary is +36, and the area code for Budapest is 1. Most contracts enjoy cheap roaming charges, while WiFi is available in most cafes, hotels and restaurants.
Travellers over the age of 17 arriving by air from countries outside of the EU can import the following duty-free: 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 100 cigarillos or 250g of tobacco; 4 litres of wine, 16 litres of beer and either 1 litre of spirits containing more than 22% alcohol or 2 litres of alcoholic beverages containing less than 22% alcohol; and other goods up to a value of €430.
Official Hungarian Tourism Portal: gotohungary.com
Hungarian Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 362 6730.
Hungarian Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7201 3440.
Hungarian Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 230-2717.
Hungarian Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 (0)2 6282 3226.
Hungarian Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 430 3030.
Hungarian Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 661 2902.
Hungarian Consulate-General, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 260 3175.
United States Embassy, Budapest: +36 1 475 4400.
British Embassy, Budapest: +36 1 266 2888.
Canadian Embassy, Budapest: +36 1 392 3360.
Australian Embassy, Budapest: +36 1 457 9777.
South African Embassy, Budapest: +36 1 392 0999.
Irish Embassy, Budapest: +36 1 301 4960.
Closest New Zealand Embassy is in Germany: +49 (0)30 206 210
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