Despite the popularity of its capital, from the outside Hungary doesn’t seem like the easiest place through which to travel. I think for most people, when they think of visiting Hungary, they’re really not sure what to expect. That may be in part because there isn’t a clear, singular cliché to latch onto, be it food, history or culture.
That level of mystery can be enticing for some, myself included, but for many people it can be off-putting. Before I went for my first visit, most of what I had heard of Hungary revolved around spa parties in Budapest. That didn’t particularly interest me, so I had my hesitations, but thankfully there is plenty more to Hungary. So to give you a better idea of what to expect when visiting Hungary, below are some things I think you should know before you go.
1. More than just Budapest
Although it may be the country’s capital city and its biggest tourist destination, there’s plenty more to Hungary than Budapest. This should come as no surprise given how large the country is and yet most visitors only make time or have time for Budapest. Don’t get me wrong, the capital is a downright fascinating destination, an affordable city break and a worthy inclusion on any Europe itinerary.
It’s just that if you want to uncover a little more about Hungary you’re going to look a little further. For starters, there’s other major cities to visit like Szeged, Debrecen and Pecs. Szeged in particular has a great student atmosphere to it and some stunning architecture. Then there’s landlocked Hungary’s alternative to the seaside, Lake Balaton. This vast lake is home to plenty of small waterfront spa towns and offers a novel place to unwind. Let’s not forget all the historic towns that can be strolled through – it is Europe after all! The walled old town of Sopron oozes medieval character and is bound to impress.
Even though it may seem out of the way, Hungary is one of the more simple countries to visit. This is because the country is a member of both the EU and the Schengen Area, meaning it has the same entry requirements as much of Europe. Of Hungary’s 7 neighbouring countries (yes 7!), 3 are fellow Schengen members – Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia. In theory, this means you are able to cross these borders without going through passport control, although it tends to vary these days.
With the issue of visas out of the way, it allows us to focus on getting to Hungary, which it turns out is really quite easy. For starters, Hungary may just be the easiest country to fly to in Central and Eastern Europe. This is because many of Europe’s budget airlines fly there regularly, including Hungary’s own Wizz Air. As for travelling by train, Budapest sits at a crucial crossroads, connecting central European destinations like Vienna with Eastern Europe, the Balkans and even Turkey. Oh and there’s all the buses that run there too.
3. Getting Around
Just as easy as it is to get to Hungary, it’s pretty straightforward to get around the country. Hungary’s train network is really quite good, with trains on par or even occasionally better than neighbouring Austria.
Possibly the biggest drawback though for the train network is that for most cross-country trips you need to transfer in Budapest. The network is very centralised, so it’s possible to travel quite a long way in the wrong direction to connect via the capital. That being said, I found the trains so good there that I never actually had to take a bus, which speaks volumes I think.
As for within the cities themselves, Budapest has a really extensive public transport network, including metro, trams and buses. In fact, Budapest is home to the oldest electric underground metro on continental Europe and it’s still quite the sight. The southern city of Szeged is also linked up by tram, with smaller destinations connected by local bus services.
4. A Difficult Language
There’s no easy way to say this (pun totally intended!) … the Hungarian language is tough. In fact, the language is quite the enigma, given that its closest relatives are Estonian and Finnish. It actually has very little in common with any neighbouring country, so unless you speak Estonian or Finnish, you’re out of luck.
All of this comes with a personal confession, throughout my visits I don’t think I’ve learned a single word of Hungarian. Usually I do my best to learn a few basic phrases, but in Hungary I failed to do so. In part this was because I was able to get by with English in most places, although in Sopron I came across many people who were actually speaking German as main language rather than Hungarian.
Still, it wouldn’t be right to leave you without some basic Hungarian phrases to help you fit in. Just because I was slack doesn’t mean you should be unprepared. A few phrases include Szia which means ‘Hello’; Koszonom for ‘Thank you’; and Kérem for ‘Please’. You can find some more here.
5. Enthralling History
You may not know it, but Hungary actually has a pretty remarkable history. Given its location at a crossroads between east and west, it’s been involved in a considerable amount of European history. For instance, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with Attila the Hun, who tormented the Romans and Western Europe during the 5th century. From his Hungarian home, he ruled an expansive kingdom that rivalled many other dominant historical figures.
Later Hungarian history revolved around the Kingdom of Hungary, the many invasions of the Ottoman Turks and Hungary’s inclusion under the Habsburgs. In places like Kőszeg, you can learn about plenty of this history from the city museum. It was in Kőszeg after all that a small band of locals repelled attacks by the Ottomans as they marched on Vienna. The town also played a vital role in hiding the Hungarian crown jewels during WWII. Hungarian history can also be explored in Budapest with places likes Heroes Square, where the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars stand immortalised.
6. Hearty Cuisine
Hungarian cuisine might not be at the top of any foodie’s list but it certainly has a distinctive character to it. If there’s one Hungarian dish you’re familiar with, there’s a good chance that is goulash. This hearty soup is a traditional dish of Hungary, despite its common place on Austrian menus as well. And that’s something worth noting as Hungarian dishes can be found quite frequently in other former territories of the Austrian Empire.
It’s not uncommon to find variations or relative Hungarian cuisine in places like Slovakia, Czechia and Austria. Hearty stews that come with dumplings can be found in all of the above, although dishes that are infused with a lot of paprika are much more likely to be Hungarian. When it comes to desserts the lines blur even more, with things like strudel and palacsinta (or palatschinke in Austrian) shared across the lot. In essence, much of Hungarian cuisine is ideal for a cold winters night and boasts plenty of spice/flavour, meat and vegetables, which is never a bad thing.
7. Impressive Architecture
If there’s one thing that needs to be said about Hungary, it’s that it has some truly breathtaking architecture. After all, the Hungarian Parliament Building may well be the most beautiful parliament in the world and is definitely a masterpiece regardless.
What’s more, throughout the rest of the country you’ll find scenic buildings that harken back to all sorts of different periods in the country’s history. There’s a copious amount of ornate baroque buildings to find, from the buildings of Sopron to the stately Festetics Palace in Keszthely. Let’s not forget Szeged, with its brilliant art nouveau architecture scattered about the city. You almost feel like you’re walking through a museum there’s so much. Safe to say, these sights in Hungary should leave you enchanted and wanting more.
What else would you like to know before visiting Hungary? If you’ve been, what things do you think people need to know? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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