I lived in Hungary, specifically the capital city of Budapest, for three years from 2005-2008. Originally drawn to the country, like many of the other foreign men there, in pursuit of the woman I loved, I found myself immersed in the country’s vibrant evolution from reluctant Soviet satellite state to modern Western-facing democracy. Today, with the dark forces of right-wing authoritarianism threatening the progress made since the fall of the Berlin wall, and a flashpoint for the middle eastern refugee crisis, Hungary is once again a fascinating social and political place to study, visit, argue about, and fall in love with.
Geographically located in Central Europe (NOT eastern – look at a map!), the current boundaries of Hungary contain a mostly flat country with one major city, Budapest, and several regional hubs. Most travelers will only see the capital, which is definitely of highest priority, but those with extra days to spare would be well served to check out the rolling hills, beautiful vistas, and colorful vineyards in other areas of the country. It’s worth reading up on the major events of the past century as much has happened that affected the country’s borders, population, culture, and more.
Budapest is a stunning European capital littered with examples of classic gothic architecture, cathedrals, castles, lovely bridges, an island park, public art, and more. Split by the Danube River in two halves, Buda and Pest, the “Paris of the East” is easily covered on foot and metro, or even better, by bicycle. Leafy-green and hilly Buda is the place to explore the castle area with its excellent views overlooking Pest. Take a ride up the riverside bike path and stop in a cafe for lunch, or ride around exploring Margaret Island (Margit Sziget), where you can join an acroyoga class, sip a froccs (wine spritzer) in a garden bar, see live music, or just take a nap on the grass. Pest is the place you’ll spend the bulk of your time, however, with many excellent museums, art galleries, restaurants, shops, markets, bars and much more.
For accommodations, I’d suggest looking for an apartment to rent for a few days instead of a hotel room. Look for a location in the inner part of the Pest side, in the 5th, 6th, or 7th districts. On the Buda side, look for a location close to the river south of the castle, or perhaps choose the Gellert Hotel (which also contains one of the many Turkish-style bathhouses that are a must-visit).
Any guidebook (and there are many) will have the major sights listed, so you can pick and choose what seems interesting, but for me what felt most rewarding was just trying to “fit in” to the rhythms of day-to-day life, albeit in famous places. Don’t just go to the grand market hall to gawk at the vendors – actually do some produce shopping there, and don’t forget to get a snack of langos (savory fried dough, best with cheese and sour cream) upstairs, washed down by a beer. During the summer months, you’ll want to do as much eating and drinking outside as possible – look for garden bars and “ruin pubs”, the most famous of which is called Szimpla. Often there are pop-up ruin pubs and venues that only last one season. Talk to locals or pick up the free English-language program guide Funzine to see where the latest hotspot is.
GO to the bathhouses – at least two of them. The must-do bathhouse is in the city park (Varosliget) and is called Szechenyi; Gellert, Rudas, and Kiraly baths are all wonderful as well, with each having its own unique character. One fun way to do the baths is by going to a party in one – most Saturday nights you can get your groove on in the tubs with great light shows and sometimes fire performers.
You can probably skip the National Museum, the inside of the Synagogue, and the tour of the Parliament building – all of these are just as good from the outside. In fact the only must-go museum is the excellently designed House of Terror Museum (Terrorhaza), which documents the country’s oppressive past (and possible future?) under the Iron Soviet Fist. Speaking of fists, St. Stephen’s Cathedral has a quirky 5-minute diversion: in an antechamber to the main hall, you can pop a coin in a slot and light up a gold-cased mummified fist – “The Holy Right” – said to be that of St. Stephen, one of Hungary’s founding Kings and over 1,000 years old. For other funky off-beat sights, check out Atlas Obscura
(whose founders got their start exploring weird sights in this part of Europe!)
If you have a week in the country, strongly consider spending a few days at Lake Balaton, Europe’s largest freshwater lake, which is an easy train or bus ride from the city. Here you can while the day away cycling around the lake, wine-tasting at vineyards, splashing around in the warm shallow water, exploring cute villages, and eating more langos.
Eat: langos, pogacsa, retes, burek, chicken or mushroom “paprikas”, chilled fruit soups, vegetable stews, gulyas, all the cakes and sweets you can handle, all the other things
Drink: Red wines from Eger and Villany, whites from Badacsony, Zwack Unicum (an herbal liquor), and maybe try some palinka (brandy)
Transit: Bike, metro, walk
Guides: TALK TO LOCALS (all young people speak English), Funzine, Where magazines
As with all places you’ll go, the more research you do in advance, the better. Enjoy your trip!