Nine reasons to look beyond Budapest

From culture to cuisine, wildlife to watersports, Hungary has much to tempt the traveler to go further than the bright lights of Budapest.

Cruising the Danube Bend: a beautiful view of Esztergom seen from the river.
Photograph by Dave Yoder

While it’s true that Budapest is one of the world’s great cities, there is so much else in Hungary to explore. This is a country of varied landscapes, from the hills of the north to the flat plains of the east. It’s a land of colourful traditions and legends of derring-do, of rich wildlife and genuinely top-class wine. It has no shoreline but an abundance of lakes, as well as countless natural thermal springs that feed its many spas. There are hilltop abbeys and ruined forts, cultured university towns and rural villages where time stands still. It’s worth taking the time to explore the regions beyond the capital city.

1. Traditional life

Budapest is as cosmopolitan as it gets, but step outside and there are still pockets of Hungary rooted in yesteryear. Northeast of the capital, deep in the Northern Uplands, the 400 residents of the charming village of Hollókő speak in dialect, live in thatched vernacular houses and often wear hand-made traditional costumes. This is a place and people that stand defiant in the face of the modern world. There’s something of the same spirit in the Őrség too. This is a border region, and medieval kings sent their bravest fighters to live on the hills here and guard against invasion. Many of the current inhabitants are direct descendants, and they retain a fierce pride in their heritage. Visit when a festival is in full swing to experience traditional music and dance, and the best local dishes.

2. Elegant towns and cities

Hungary has some beautiful towns and cities, boasting elegant squares and architecture, and fascinating sites to visit. It’s only 90 minutes from Budapest to Eger, a place famous not only for its Bull’s Blood wine but for an act of supreme heroism. In 1552, a force of just 2,000 troops repelled a Turkish army of 80,000. You can walk the castle ramparts where the soldiers fought, joined by Eger’s womenfolk, who hurled cauldrons of boiling pitch down on the attackers.

Sopron, on the Austrian border, lays claim to being the prettiest city in Hungary, with its landmark Firewatch Tower overlooking a gorgeously sprawling main square. There are sights aplenty, but make sure you visit the Goat Church – funded with treasure uncovered by a foraging goat.

Pécs in the south is a lovely university city with a youthful energy, but also historical sites to rival anywhere else in the country, including early Christian burial chambers — complete with wall frescoes — that have UNESCO World Heritage status. Pécs has a very high concentration of museums and galleries – it’s for good reason that the city was made a European Capital of Culture in 2010.

3. History

Lovers of history and historic buildings will find much to keep them occupied. Standing high on its hill, the UNESCO-listed Pannonhalma Abbey is arguably the country’s most important religious site, founded well over 1,000 years ago at a time when Christianity was still being established. In its library is a document containing the first written words in the Hungarian language.

Esterházy Palace, to the southeast of Sopron, was the opulent 18th-century home of the Esterházy family and is a stunning example of high-blown Rococo architecture. The tales attached to the palace are legendary. When Maria Theresa visited in 1773, for example, the family gave her a jewel-encrusted sleigh and laid salt on the ground so she could ride on it. Fans of classical music flock to the Music House, where Haydn lived for many years; in summer, the palace’s Concert Hall hosts festivals devoted to Haydn’s music.

4. Thermal experience

Natural thermal springs bubble up all over Hungary – many of them packed full of healing minerals – and people have taken advantage of this since Roman times. There are many bathing complexes around the country. Perhaps best known of all is at the spa town of Hevíz near Lake Balaton, which has the second-largest thermal lake in the world (and the largest you can actually swim in). Each day, 60 million litres of thermal water feed Lake Hevíz’s vast crater. The sulphurous water is said to relieve a multitude of ailments. You can also have treatments using the nutrient-rich mud dredged from the lake bed.

5. Watersports/lakeside relaxation

There may be no coastline, but Hungary does have beaches. Lake Balaton is known as the ‘Hungarian Sea’ – a huge lake with a total area of nearly 250 square miles – and around it are beaches (called strands) of grass or sand that are popular for sunbathing and watersports. The northern shore has more cultural attractions and tends to be more relaxed, but if you want somewhere slightly quieter then head for Lake Tisza. Here you can stay in lakeside chalets, go kayaking into the reedbeds and cycle a path that runs around the outside of the lake.

6. Wildlife

Hungary has deer, wild boar and beavers, but it’s the birds that the wildlife enthusiasts flock to see. Around 400 species have been recorded, as the country stands at a sort of ornithological crossroads for migrating birds. The Great Plain – or puszta – in the east is particularly rich in birdlife, and in October you can watch one of Europe’s great natural spectacles as 100,000 common cranes stop to rest and eat in Hortobágy National Park.

7. River cruise

You don’t have to go far to enjoy beauty beyond Budapest. To the north of the city is the so-called Danube Bend – the graceful curve of the river – and along it lie some achingly picturesque towns that are perfect for a river-cruise day trip. The pastel-painted houses and good light of Szentendre have always made it popular with artists. Visegrád has a terraced medieval palace complex and a 13th-century citadel, while Esztergom was once the royal capital and its cathedral is the biggest church in Hungary.

8. Hiking and cycling

Hungary is increasingly popular as a hiking and cycling destination, with a network of marked trails that allow you to make the best of the landscape. A good region to consider is the Northern Uplands, which is a place of cool beech forests, peaceful valleys and crystal-clear springs. Alternatively, you could challenge yourself to cycling around Lake Balaton, or hike into Balaton Uplands National Park with its meadows and intriguing rock formations.

9. Wine

Hungary has a tradition of wine-making dating back to Roman times. There are 22 wine regions, so you’re rarely far from a vineyard. Tokaj is of course the most lauded globally, its Tokaji Aszú – a honey-thick dessert wine – declared by Louis XIV to be ‘the king of wines, the wine of kings’. Eger is the place for Bull’s Blood (Bikavér), and its Valley of the Beautiful Woman – a 15-minute walk from the centre, and featuring 200 mould-clad cellars carved into the valley rock – is an atmospheric spot to for tastings. Balaton is known for its light white wines, while the full-bodied reds produced in the southern village of Villány are very highly regarded.

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