Hungary may not top of your list of exotic lands to explore, but it should. Filled with architectural gems, thermal baths, rich folk culture, exquisite wines and a sophisticated cuisine, Hungary is a must for any well-rounded traveler. Get to know this enigmatic land with our insider’s guide to Hungary.
Located in central Europe, landlocked Hungary is wedged between Romania, Austria, Slovakia and Croatia. It’s not a large country—the population is about 10 million—and its culture is much different from its neighbors. While it may not have a coastline, water is important. Hungary is home to 50-mile-long Lake Balaton and is crisscrossed by dozens of serene rivers. Plus, Magyars, after the ethnic tribe who first settled here more than 1,100 years ago, have been “taking the waters” for millennia. Geothermal springs dot the landscape, and people come from far and wide to soak in their healing waters.
When to Visit
Weather-wise, spring and autumn are the best times to visit. Fall grape harvests bring festivals and other special events in the hilly areas. In spring, temperatures are ideal, but late May and early June can be wet. Winters are often bleak, and summers comfortably warm and crowded at tourist spots. Many Hungarians take holiday in August so you may find restaurants and shops in cities shut down.
By all accounts, Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages to learn. It’s quite different from other Indo-European languages in its preposition use and lack of gender-specific articles. If you stick to the urban centers and touristy areas, you’ll probably encounter people who speak enough English to answer your questions. If you plan to get off the beaten path, familiarize yourself with some basic phrases and carry a travel dictionary.
Money and Tipping
The Hungarian forint (Ft) is the official currency. Prices in shops and restaurants are generally marked in forint; hotels sometimes quote rates in Euros. ATMs are available throughout the country, and credit cards are usually accepted.
Tipping is widely practiced in Hungary. At a bar, tip 300 Ft to 500 Ft per drink or 10 percent of the total bill. In restaurants, tip between 10 and 15 percent, but be aware that many restaurants include a gratuity on the bill. Ask if you’re not sure. Don’t leave cash on the table for the server as it’s considered rude. Instead, tell him or her how much change you want back.
Etiquette and Culture
Socially, Hungarians are extremely polite, bordering on courtly. You may hear a young person greet an elder by saying, “Csókolom,” which means “I kiss (the hand.)” Most people shake hands upon greeting; close friends may kiss lightly on each cheek. Public restrooms are rare, so expect to pay a small fee to use a facility, and never hail a cab on the street. Call the cab company directly.
Exploration and Adventure
A beautiful landscape steeped in history and tradition make Hungary one of Europe’s most fascinating destinations. Discover more with our insider’s guide to Hungary.
Situated on the banks of the Danube River, Budapest is the capital and home to 1.75 million Magyars. It’s a hub for nightlight in Central Europe. People travel from all over to enjoy the city’s bustling after-dark scene. But don’t sleep the day away. Multifaceted Budapest has plenty to entice you as you wander through its distinct neighborhoods. Castle Hill is literally layered with history. Ottoman domes, palatial Habsburg homes and an underground hospital used during World War II and a revolution in 1956 await. You’ll also find museums, a 14th-century synagogue and the world’s oldest patisserie.
In the Belváros and Lipótváros district you’ll see the ancient alongside the modern. The remnants of the old city walls surround the neighborhood. Inside, find trendy cafes, the country’s parliament building, St. Stephen’s Basilica, modern art museums, art noveau facades and Michelin-starred restaurants. Another neighborhood to explore is Erzsébetváros and the Jewish Quarter, a former Ghetto where the city’s storied past mingles among its eclectic present. Find fashionable shopping, bars and nightlife and elegant dining here. The neighborhood where the 1956 Revolution started, Józsefváros, has a grittier albeit artsy vibe, but contains the 19th-century palatial apartments that once housed Hungary’s aristocracy. And if you’re looking for craft beer, head to Ferencváros where bars keep local beers flowing. You’ll also find the National Theater and art museums here.
If you’re looking to commune with nature, Northern Hungary is where you want to be. Miles of gentle hiking trails through the Mátra and Bükk mountain ranges, scenic lakes and vast cave complexes draw those who want to experience the country’s gentle landscapes. The highest peak, Mt. KékestetÅ‘, is just over 3,300 feet tall so it’s an easy excursion. Go spelunking in Aggtelek, a 16-mile cave, complete with an underground amphitheater. See a village that time forgot at HollókÅ‘, often voted Hungary’s most beautiful. People here wear traditional dress as they go about their days in this village filled with whitewashed structures with wooden roofs. And don’t forget the wine. Tokaji Aszú is produced in this region and it’s garnered something of a reputation over the years. To be called the “king of wines, wine of kings,” you know it must be good.
West of the Danube, you’ll find an area rich in history with medieval churches and monasteries, castles and fortresses. Head to Pannonhalma Benedictine Arch Abbey for a taste of the Benedictine wine tradition and Hungarian religious history. See where Hungarian monarchs reigned at the ancient Crowning Basilica in Székesfehérvár. For baroque elegance, Sopron and KÅ‘szeg, or GyÅ‘r will delight. Botanical gardens, arboretums and historic parks are scattered throughout the region. Of particular interest the prehistoric park of VértesszÅ‘lÅ‘s where you will meet one of the first men of Europe, 500,000-year-old Samu. In the southern area, visit Pécs, a city famous as a meeting place of cultures over the millennia. Visit the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter or early Christian necropolis. Even further south is another wine-making region and medical spas.
Often called the Hungarian Sea, you’ll also find Lake Balaton in Transdanubia. The massive lake attracts loads of people who come for the warm, shallow waters. In winter, the lake freezes, so people ice skate.
Puszta and Lake Tisza
East of the Danube and south of the mountains, you’ll discover the Hungarian Plain, the largest continuous grassland in Europe. This land of endless horizons offers a mishmash of experiences: national parks, serene lakes, winding rivers, geothermal spas, even more wine making, Hungarian cowboys and the country’s second largest city of Debrecen. Sometimes called the Calvinist Rome, Debrecen sits on the edge of the prairie but offers metropolitan delights like a university and contemporary art museum. Start a pilgrimage through Körös-Maros National Park from Szarvas. If you’re sore after hiking, put Hajdúszoboszló in your sights. The town has the largest spa complex in Europe, where they claim to hold the secret to curing back pain. Before leaving the region, be sure to see the “csikós” in action. Hungarian cowboys are incredible horsemen and show off their skills at the ranches of the Great Plain.
Hungary offers travelers a wealth of opportunities for outdoor adventures, cosmopolitan delights and a chance to interact with one of the more unique cultures in Europe. Use our insider’s guide to Hungary to start planning your trip today.