This may surprise those considering a vacation in Hungary, but the country and its historic capital, Budapest, is the 15th most sought-after visitor destination in the world. For those who know Hungary, however, it comes as no secret, and this Central European land is packed with historic sights, heritage buildings, lakes, rivers, glorious countryside, cosmopolitan cities flavored with hidden gems, and great food. UNESCO World Heritage sites and Biosphere Reserves, Baroque castles, a rich culture and ethnic folk traditions make for a fascinating visit.
Sightseeing across Hungary and its great cities suit every taste, from Budapest itself, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, rich with museums and grand buildings, through national parks great for eco-tourists and birders to the famous Hungarian thermal baths and spas. Outdoor activities take in the countryside on horseback, mountain bike or on foot, and cultural connoisseurs will love the opera, ballet and classical music as much as the younger crowd adores the vibrant nightlife and gourmet cuisine.
Every season has its attractions, although most museums and tourist spots are closed during winter. Spring is a beautiful time to visit Hungary with mild weather and flowers in bloom. Summers are unusually long, although crowds can spoil the experience. Fall around the capital is spectacular and one of the best times for trekking and walking. Accommodation and flight costs are highest in summer, but bargains can be found in the shoulder seasons and winter, although the cold and lack of sightseeing may offset the price advantage for many visitors.
Currency: Hungarian Forint
Official language: Hungarian
The region now known as Hungary was a part of the Roman Empire until its fall in the 4th century, after which the powerful Hun controlled the land. Subsequently, a number of smaller Middle European empires passed through until the 9th century when the Magyar tribes formed a unified federation. Christianity arrived during the next 100 years and the first Hungarian king, later to be beatified as St Stephen, ruled over the Catholic Apostolic Kingdom.
The country was unified with Croatia after a short war in the early 12th century and, in 1217, King Andrew II led a huge royal army to the Holy Land as part of the Fifth Crusade. 25 years later, his power was crushed by a Mongol invasion, during which 20 percent of the population died. After they finally retreated, the country, along with the rest of medieval Central Europe, fell into several centuries of warfare including unsuccessful invasions by Ottoman forces.
By the early 16th century, Hungary lost its international importance due to weak kings and peasant unrest, and a revolt in 1514 gave the Ottoman Turks the momentum they needed at the Battle of Mohacs in 1541. Hungary was divided into three, and the Turks remained in control until the late 17th century, when a joint army known as the Holy League recaptured the Buda region and went on to reclaim the country for its people in 1717.
The rich culture of Hungary is strong in folk traditions and has its own distinctive style, influenced by the various ethnic groups including the Roma people. Music of all kinds, from classical to folk, is an important part of everyday life, as is the country’s rich literary heritage. Crafts such as ceramics and embroidery, Hungary’s distinct, traditional cuisine, strong fruit brandies, dance and the ever-popular spa treatments all reflect the heritage of this fascinating country.
Hungary’s 10 million people are vibrant, friendly and value the family above all else, with generations living in the same household under one roof and grandparents having a strong say in the upbringing of their grandchildren. Hungarians are a nation of horsemen due to their ancient nomadic past, and visitors often receive an invitation to go riding from their new local friends. Hospitality is a major part of the culture here, and personal questions about your life are all part of the getting-to-know-you process.
Hungary’s climate is classified as continental, bringing hot summers with frequent rain showers, little humidity and cold, snowy winters. Average summer highs range around 74°F, while winter lows hit 25°F with occasional spikes and falls to over 100°F in summer and -10°F in winter. The exception is a small region around Pecs which enjoys a typical Mediterranean climate although winter snows are still common. End-of-day storms occur during the hot, high-summer months.
May through September sees the best weather, with warm days and cooler nights, and spring is wetter than autumn. Late fall and winter weather is mostly chilly and wet with fog is a common factor. Snow falls frequently in the winter months, with heavy coverage in the mountainous regions to the north. September is the driest, with June seeing the most rain, and winter more humidity than the shoulder seasons and summer.
Hungary is part of the Schengen Agreement, which means there are no border controls for nationals of EU countries. EU citizens only require a valid national identity card or passport to enter Hungary. Non-EU citizen require a valid passport and possibly a visa if you intend on a longer visit.
Getting around Hungary by taxi is straightforward and usually trouble-free, provided you use a registered, metered cab from one of the larger companies. Offers from random drivers at airports and rail stations should be refused and downtown cabs not affiliated with reputable firms are infamous for overcharging. Calling a cab from your hotel is the best way to avoid being ripped off, with major companies provided English-speaking switchboard staff. Be conscientious and check your change, as a recent scam involves giving worthless Romanian currency. Requesting an approximate price for your journey before setting off is also a good idea. Taxi-Cab (+36-70-645-4444) is a multilingual firm, and Taxi 2000 (+36-1-200-0000) is a reliable alternative.
Ferries link towns on Lake Balaton, and water taxis can be taken on the Danube, but working hours are undetermined and the service is unreliable as a result. Hydrofoil lines operate from Budapest to other Danube towns including Esztergom and Visegrad and, from May to September, there’s a ferry from Vienna to Budapest.
The Hungarian National Railway comprises two lines, MAV and GYSEV, and fans out from Budapest. Intercity trains link major conurbations and are fast, cheap and comfortable, with quality standards improving on other lines. First class tickets on fast trains cost only a little more than second class and give a greater degree of comfort, and retired EU citizens over 65 can travel for free on all local trains. Budapest’s Metro links most sites of interest.
Bus travel is by 28 state-run companies united in the Volan Association, with frequent routes and costs identical to those on the non-intercity train services. Long-distance buses are well-maintained and clean, but delays often occur. Trams, trolleys and buses in Budapest are the cheapest way to get around, and the comprehensive service is easy to understand with the help of a public transportation map.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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