Hungary Holiday Planning Guide
Because tourism in Hungary remains less prevalent than in other European countries, much of the country's natural beauty has not been developed or exploited. Visitors today are drawn to the unspoiled picturesque landscape, the capital metropolis surrounded by charming small towns and villages, and the plethora of thermal baths. The country's number of well-preserved archaeological ruins, castles, cathedrals, and medieval towns provide ample vacation ideas for those wanting a taste of European history. Offering opportunities to explore both time-worn architecture and notable natural surroundings in every region, Hungary may just surprise you with its wealth of things to do and see, plus amenities on par with other tourist destinations.
Places to Visit in Hungary
Regions of HungaryCentral Hungary
: Home to one of the world's most gorgeous capitals, Budapest, and many of the country's premier historical cities, Central Hungary serves as a point of entry on many Hungary vacations and provides easy access to the most popular attractions and places to visit.Central Transdanubia
: Packed full of medieval architecture, elegant churches, and winding village lanes, Central Transdanubia lies at a national crossroads within easy reach of the Danube, the beautiful city of Gyor, and the ever-popular outdoor hotspot of Lake Balaton.Western Transdanubia
: Nestled up against the Austrian border, Western Transdanubia features a little bit of everything, from medieval towns and lofty castles to idyllic waterfalls and an extensive network of hiking trails.Southern Transdanubia
: Though the ancient city of Pecs is perhaps the single biggest draw in this region, Southern Transdanubia's host of quaint university towns are solid options for visitors looking to combine both culture and nature on their Hungary trip.Northern Hungary
: Scattered with timeless traditional villages, Northern Hungary makes a great place to visit to see the country's past come alive, and also boasts some of the nation's finest landscapes for outdoor adventuring.
Cities in HungaryBudapest
: Made up of two distinctive halves and home to a burgeoning late-night party scene, stunning Budapest is undoubtedly the jewel in Hungary's crown, impressing visitors equally with its medieval castle hill, winding cobbled lanes, Baroque imperial avenues, and iconic parliament building.Debrecen
: Laid-back Debrecen, Hungary's second-largest city, serves as the epicenter of the wide-open Great Hungarian Plain and one of the most enduring bastions of national culture, offering an array of quality museums, green parks, and ornate cathedrals.Eger
: Built around an imposing city castle offering stunning views and blessed with a host of historical buildings, Eger lies at one of the centers of the country's winemaking industry, offering a great chance to try some delicious local blends on your Hungary vacation.Gyor
: Cafe culture abounds along the Baroque squares and streets of Gyor, an idyllic city that's perfect for a day of strolling and shopping at the open-air markets or indulging in a surprisingly lively nightlife scene.Heviz
: Set upon a thermal lake believed to have healing properties, this classic spa town draws visitors from around the world looking to relax and enjoy the soothing waters in a lush natural surrounding.Pecs
: Founded nearly two millennia ago by the Romans, the charming city of Pecs features an interesting mishmash of architectural styles around its pleasant center, from Ottoman mosques and medieval cathedrals to ancient chapels and Baroque museum buildings.Szeged
: Szeged's shimmering reputation as Hungary's "sunshine capital" ranks it high on many Hungary itineraries, and its traditional fish restaurants serving up seafood delicacies are heaven for traveling foodies.Szentendre
: Scores of galleries and craft shops give quaint Szentendre a distinctly artsy feel, making strolling the town's leafy streets lined with pastel-colored Baroque homes a relaxing and enjoyable day trip from the capital.Tokaj
: With a winemaking tradition stretching back to at least the 12th century, it's no surprise that rural Tokaj and its surrounding countryside occupy a place on the World Heritage List and produce some of the most popular blends in the nation.
Things to Do in Hungary
Popular Hungary Tourist AttractionsFisherman's Bastion
: Neo-Gothic towers and imposing walls rise above the Danube River at Fisherman's Bastion (Halaszbastya), a 19th-century complex built to honor a heroic fisherman and offering fine views over Buda.Residence Parliament
: Perhaps the capital's most iconic landmark, the riverside Parliament (Orszaghaz), dating from 1896, serves as the seat of Hungary's national legislative body and delights visitors with its ornate dome and host of needle-like spires.Széchenyi Thermal Bath
: Featuring richly colored Neo-Baroque buildings ringing its delightful outdoor swimming area along with numerous steaming indoor spas, Szechenyi Baths and Pool is undoubtedly the king of the capital's many medicinal baths and one of the top places to see in Hungary.St. Stephen's Basilica (Szent Istvan Bazilika)
: One of Hungary's finest Catholic cathedrals, St. Stephen's Basilica (Szent Istvan Bazilika) rises above central Budapest with unreserved grandeur, offers a sweeping view from its dome over town, and also houses the preserved hand of the nation's first king, St. Stephen I.Chain Bridge (Szechenyi lanchid)
: Since 1849, the legendary Chain Bridge (Szechenyi lanchid) has been connecting the Buda and Pest halves of the capital. Walk across the massive structure to enjoy sweeping panoramic views over the Danube and waterfront areas.
Castle Hill: Packed full of cobbled medieval streets, historical homes, and grand attractions, Castle Hill (Varhegy) is undeniably one of Budapest's most charming locales and tourist hotspots, home to fan favorites like the Fisherman's Bastion and Buda Castle rising above the city.Shoes on the Danube Bank
: The horrors of the Holocaust did not leave Hungary untouched, and the Shoes on the Danube Promenade Memorial remembers the thousands of Jewish victims executed along the river during the darkest years of the country's World War II fascist regime.House of Terror
: A legacy of Hungary's turbulent 20th-century experience, House of Terror pays tribute to the many victims of both fascist and Communist occupation and rule by displaying an array of artifacts, exhibits, and rooms used by the former regimes.Hősök tere
: The centrally located Heroes' Square lies at the epicenter of many of Budapest's popular attractions, giving travelers easy access to a city park, Andrassy Avenue, and a range of monuments, while at the same time serving as a grand meeting place with its pillars, statues, and famous tomb.Gellert Spa
: With a medicinal history stretching back as far as the 13th century, the ornate Gellert Spa is one of the city's most famous, and rumor has it that a visit to this renowned center can do wonders for everything from aching muscles to acute cases of working too hard.
Planning a Hungary Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Hungary with KidsBudapest
is without a doubt the premier stop in all of Hungary, and if traveling with the kids in tow it makes an obvious and easy introduction to practically all of the delights the country has to offer. In addition to its historical attractions and beautiful setting, the capital is packed full of parks, playgrounds, museums, and more to keep younger visitors entertained for hours on end. Pecs
, though much smaller, feature plenty of similar activities on a smaller scale. Of course, a hot-weather Hungary vacation is always well-augmented by a visit to the popular Lake Balaton
, which features tons of activities in and around the water and is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. Though there are plenty of towns along the shoreline, the city of Keszthely
is a major nexus for holiday-makers looking to get their feet wet and kick back in the sun, while the nearby spa town of Heviz
serves as a more low-key alternative. East in the country, Debrecen
is known as one of the nation's outdoor hubs for its surrounding lush nature and fun-filled attractions.
Things to Do in Hungary with Kids
boasts enough attractions and activities to keep the entire family entertained, so even if your Hungary trip doesn't stretch outside the city you'll find the days chock-full of fun. Aside from the can't-miss historical sites in town, such as Castle Hill, Buda Castle
, Fisherman's Bastion
, and gorgeous St. Stephen's Basilica
, there's also a host of other lesser-known things to do. Add Budapest Zoo & Botanical Garden
and Hungarian National Museum
to your itinerary for a great day of fascinating wandering. The thermal waters at Gellert Spa
and the spectacular Szechenyi Baths
have kid-friendly options and areas, accented with entertaining whirlpools and fountains--as well as spa facilities for any adults tagging along. For a bit more of an adrenaline-pumping thrill, head for the slides and rides at Aquaworld Zrt.
. Alternatively, the leafy expanse of Margaret Island (Margitsziget)
is ideal for frolicking among the flowers and trees, enjoying a picnic on a sunny day, or taking a dip in the Palatinus Strandfürdő
pool complex. Outside of Budapest
, the cities of Eger
, with their elaborate fortresses of Eger Castle
and the Castle of Boldogko
, respectively, make simple and satisfying jaunts.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Hungary
Keep in mind that on Sundays, even in Budapest
, many businesses and stores are closed, while many museums and exhibitions are closed on Mondays. Plan accordingly to ensure your Hungary itinerary doesn't run into an unfortunate roadblock. If you're ever at a loss as to what to do next, the country's many spas and parks are quick and easy ways to keep the little ones entertained for an afternoon and beyond. Keep in mind that mosquitos, particularly out in the country's less-populated rural regions, can be a real nuisance, especially for kids, so bring an abundance of repellant or stock up at one of the many pharmacies in towns.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Hungary
Cuisine of Hungary
Chowing down on local grub is a vital aspect of any vacation, and while on your Hungary holiday you'll likely find that the delicious food will always keep you coming back for more. An interesting blend of Eastern spices and Central European heartiness, Hungary's cuisine features a lip-smacking array of dishes. You've probably heard of goulash, a thick, warming stew of beef, potatoes, carrots, and all sorts of spices. Of course, it's impossible to mention Hungarian cooking without highlighting the legendary spice, paprika, known the world over and present in just about every national dish. Your Hungary trip is likely to be sprinkled with ample doses of this ground red pepper, which is responsible for the deep, rich colors present in many a meal. "Paprikas," made with chicken and differing combinations of mushrooms, sour cream, and--strangely enough--paprika, is one delicious standard. "Halaszle," a fish soup, "töltött káposzta," cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and meat, and "pörkölt," a tomato-rich stew, are other well-known staples. Rotisserie-baked chimney cakes are a perfect sweet treat after a day out, while "langos," basically a flattened piece of round dough topped with anything from sour cream and cheese to chocolate and jam, can be found on street corners and stalls countrywide. Hungary's Jewish legacy also means that traditional foods like matso and challah, along with roast goose and dumplings, feature in certain restaurants.
Shopping in Hungary
Souvenirs are very easy to come by throughout the country, and you'll have no problem finding that perfect bit of memorabilia to commemorate your vacation in Hungary. In Budapest
, ubiquitous souvenir stands and shops in and around just about every popular tourist attraction sell items like magnets, shot glasses, and keychains. Though less universal, you'll find the same kind of gear for sale in towns like Gyor
The capital's Andrassy Avenue
is perhaps its most famous shopping street, and home to plenty of popular attractions along with a number of upscale chains and boutique stores. For a distinctly "local" experience, ditch the tourist shops and head for Budapest's Central Market Hall
, a massive agglomeration of stalls and shops hawking everything from fresh meat and homemade pickles to antiques and tasty sweet treats, all housed within a historical Neo-Gothic structure. Ecseri Flea Market
is less centrally located but provides the chance to get your hands on a number of household goods and items, though you'll definitely need to brush up on your Hungarian. WestEnd City Center
offers more of a modern shopping experience, loaded with brand-name stores and practical shops. Keep in mind on that many stores and shops have limited hours on Saturdays and may not open at all on Sundays.
If you're paying a visit to one of the prolific winemaking areas on your tour of Hungary, be sure to pick up a bottle of your own to take home. Both the Tokaj Wine Region
and the Valley of the Beautiful Women
are famous for their white wine blends, owing to the perfectly suited climate and rare local grape varieties. Of course, indulging in an onsite tasting is a souvenir in itself.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Hungary
History of Hungary
Hungary's history is one defined by turbulence, migration, and the enduring resilience of its people, the Magyars. Led by Arpad, who became a legendary historical figure, they made their way into Europe from the plains of Central Asia in the early Middle Ages, settling in the heart of the continent.
Though the Hungarians conducted fearsome raids through Western Europe during the 10th century, in 1001 Prince Stephen accepted Christianity and was crowned as Stephen I, the first King of Hungary, by the Pope. You can even see his crown for yourself while sightseeing in Hungary by visiting Parliament
, where it lays on display. At this point, Hungary was one of the most important players in all of Europe and a vital blockade against the ever-encroaching Turks to the southeast.
The Mongol invasions of the mid-13th century devastated Hungary, and the east of the country bore the brunt of the destruction, which by some counts killed half of the population. To thwart the rampaging horsemen from the East, King Bela commissioned an array of defensive forts, such as Buda Castle
, which helped to beat back the invaders at Budapest
and turn the tables in Europe's favor.
However, Hungary's triumph was relatively short-lived, as the revitalized Ottomans swept back into the country during the 16th century, routing the Hungarian defenders at the Battle of Mohacs
in 1526 and tearing the nation apart. It would be 150 years before Hungary was whole again, under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs. During this period, "Magyarization"--a concerted practice of asserting Hungarian as a national and literary language--took hold, and after a botched mid-century uprising Hungary emerged as an equal part of a dual monarchy alongside Austria.
Though the new Austro-Hungarian Empire had become, by the turn of the 20th century, one of Europe's preeminent forces, its participation on the side of the Central Powers in World War I would prove its downfall. Along with Germany and the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary was split apart, its empire dismantled by the Allies via the Treaty of Trianon. The Hungarian republic muddled through the interwar years, eventually throwing in its lot with the rising power of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. After battling alongside Hitler's forces on the Eastern Front, Hungary was once again crushed as the Soviets rolled in, falling in 1945. You can see a touching memorial to Hungary's unfortunate role in the Holocaust at the Shoes on the Danube Bank
After the war, Communism took hold, and years of repression, violence, and dictatorial rule followed. Budapest's House of Terror
documents the nefarious deeds of the Hungarian secret police during this period. The nation rose up and briefly overthrew the Communist government in 1956, battling Soviet Army units to a standstill in the streets of Budapest
and towns around the country until being violently crushed by invading Soviet reinforcements. Visit Memento Park
to see a collection of Communist statues and monuments toppled both during the uprising and after the collapse of Communism.
Despite all of this turmoil, the people of Hungary endured, and a gradual liberalization process culminated in the fall of Communism in 1989 and a definitive westward trajectory. In 1999, Hungary joined NATO, and then later became a member of the enlarged European Union in 2004, helping to pave the way for its status as an increasingly popular destination for visitors from around the globe.
Customs of Hungary
Though Hungary is historically a Catholic country, the society itself is not particularly conservative. That said, be sure to bring some modest clothing along on your Hungary holiday in order to be respectful when visiting churches, cathedrals, and other religious sites. Hungarians also tend to be an open and friendly people, so don't be alarmed when receiving questions that might seem somewhat personal: this is just a sign of genuine curiosity and normal conversation. While you're unlikely to encounter this with complete strangers, the exchange of light kisses on the cheek as a greeting is common practice, as in much of Europe. The older generation may still occasionally bow to women or kiss their hands as an alternative greeting. When it comes to drinking, Hungarians do not toast by clinking bottles, mugs, or glasses, though this aversion is slowly fading into the past.
Holidays & Festivals in Hungary
On August 20, Hungarians commemorate the death of Stephen I, the first king of Hungary, an event that also falls upon a religious feasting day. The bloody Hungarian Revolution is solemnly remembered on October 23, both paying tribute to those who lost their lives battling the Soviet invaders and celebrating Hungary's eventual overthrow of Communism. Easter and Christmas are observed by much of the population and are perhaps the two most important holidays on the Hungarian Catholic calendar.
In terms of festivals, Hungary boasts a wealth of events showcasing traditional culture, arts, and music, from the exhibition of theater and works at the Budapest
Spring Festival to the popular Hungarian Dance Festival in Gyor
. If your trip to Hungary coincides with one of these events, consider adding them to your itinerary to see tons of participants dressed in classical Hungarian clothing. Internationally, it's August's Sziget Festival that captures the most attention; taking place on Obuda Island in Budapest
, this is one of Europe's largest and most popular music festivals, featuring a range of big-name, international artists along with plenty of smaller acts.
Hungary Travel Tips
Climate of Hungary
Hungary's climate lies more or less in line with the rest of the European continent and features four distinct seasons with noticeable hot and cold periods. While the east of the country, towards Debrecen
, can warm up slightly more than Budapest
, the weather on the whole is somewhat predictable, with regular cycles of sun in the summer, snow in the winter, and periods of on-and-off rain in the crossover periods in between. If your Hungary vacation falls in winter months, be sure to dress warmly and bring a waterproof outer layer so you can enjoy the country's sights regardless of the weather. Summertime, on the other hand, calls for shorts and T-shirts, plus plenty of sunscreen.
Transportation in Hungary
You'll have little trouble getting between points on your Hungary itinerary using the country's transportation network, which utilizes an efficient combination of trains, buses, and trams. Budapest
boasts a fantastic array of options, and you'll find the city streetcars and underground metro lines make traversing its urban sprawl relatively simple. Don't forget to buy a ticket from a newsstand or ticket booth and validate it once on board, as inspectors do check regularly and charge fines for breaking the rules. The trains and intercity buses can easily take you between major population centers like Debrecen
, and Miskolc
, some of which also feature street trams for travel within town. However, many smaller villages have just a few minor bus lines, so try tackling them by foot instead as the distances are relatively short. Keep in mind as well that Budapest
serves as the country's rail hub, so almost every service originates from or passes through the capital.
Language of Hungary
Hungarian will likely sound extremely alien to foreign ears, and even those well-versed in other European languages will find little familiar in this Finno-Ugric tongue. With its roots in Central Asia, Hungarian is one of Europe's only languages that lie outside the bounds of the Indo-European language family, and loan words notwithstanding it's likely that a first-time visitor will be unable to follow along. Though it uses the Latin alphabet, Hungarian's difficult orthography and pronunciation, combined with its penchant for long words, mean that you'll likely stare in awe at street signs and menus more than once while on holiday in Hungary. Many younger people in urban centers and tourist destinations, particularly Budapest
, speak English well, but a few words in Hungarian go a long way towards making you stand out from the crowds of tourists. Do consider bringing a phrasebook or dictionary when traveling outside urban centers.
Tipping in Hungary
Tipping in Hungary is not traditionally expected, though in more touristed areas, particularly Budapest
, you may find the practice more common. Adding 10 percent to the bill in restaurants is a standard way to show appreciation while on your Hungary trip and is always welcome, as is rounding up the check to the nearest whole number. The same goes for taxis and at bars, though don't feel the need to tip "per drink" as is standard in North America, particularly when ordering at the bar itself. Give a small tip to porters and staff at more upscale hotels.