Stunning architecture, vital folk art, thermal spas and Europe's most exciting capital after dark are Hungary's major drawing cards.
Hungary’s scenery is more gentle than striking. But you can’t say the same thing about the built environment across the land. Architecturally Hungary is a treasure trove, with everything from Roman ruins and medieval townhouses to baroque churches, neoclassical public buildings and art nouveau bathhouses and schools. And we're not just talking about its capital, Budapest. Walk through Szeged or Kecskemét, Debrecen or Sopron and you’ll discover an architectural gem at virtually every turn. Indeed, some people go out of their way for another glimpse of their favourites, such as the Reök Palace in Szeged or the Mosque Church in Pécs.
In Hot Water
Hungarians have been 'taking the waters' supplied by an estimated 300 thermal springs since togas were all the rage and Aquincum was the Big Smoke. They still do – for therapeutic, medicinal and recreational purposes – but the venues have changed somewhat. Today they range from authentic bathhouses dating from the Turkish occupation and art nouveau palaces to clinical sanatoriums straight out of a Thomas Mann novel. More and more though, you'll see clear chlorinated waters in organically shaped pools that bubble, squirt and spurt at different rhythms and temperatures alongside requisite wellness centres offering a myriad of treatments.
Eat, Drink & Be Magyar
Hungarian food remains the most sophisticated style of cooking in Eastern Europe. Magyars even go so far as to say there are three essential world cuisines: French, Chinese and their own. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but Hungary's reputation as a food centre dates largely from the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th and, despite a fallow period under communism, their cuisine is once again commanding attention. So too are the nation's world-renowned wines – from the big-bodied reds of Eger and Villány and white olaszrizling from Badacsony to honey-sweet Tokaj.
Hungary has one of the richest folk traditions still alive in Europe. With exquisite folk paintings found on the walls and ceilings of the tiny wooden churches of the Bereg region and the wonderful embroidery that the women of Hollókő stitch to decorate smocks, skirts and slippers, this is often where the country comes to the fore artistically. Traditional music, played on a five-tone diatonic scale on a host of unusual instruments, continues to thrive as well, especially at táncházak ('dance houses') – peasant 'raves' where you'll hear Hungarian folk music and to learn to dance too.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Hungary.
Castle Hill is a kilometre-long limestone plateau towering 170m above the Danube. It contains some of Budapest’s most important medieval monuments and museums and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Below it is a 28km-long network of caves formed by thermal springs. The walled area consists of two distinct parts: the Old Town to the north, where commoners once lived, and the Royal Palace to the south, the original site of the castle built by Béla IV in the 13th century and reserved for the nobility. There are many ways to reach Castle Hill from Pest. The easiest way is to take bus 16 from Deák Ferenc tér to Dísz tér, more or less the central point between the Old Town and the Royal Palace. Much more fun, though, is to stroll across Széchenyi Chain Bridge and board the Sikló, a funicular railway built in 1870 that ascends steeply from Clark Ádám tér to Szent György tér near the Royal Palace. Alternatively, you can walk up the Király lépcső (Royal Steps) leading northwest off Clark Ádám tér. Just south of Clark Ádám tér, a staircase and lift from Lánchíd utca lead to the Neo-Renaissance Garden of the Castle Garden Bazaar, and from there stairs, lifts and an escalator will take you up to Castle Hill. Another option is to take metro M2 to Széll Kálmán tér, go up the stairs or escalator in the southeastern part of the square and walk up Várfok utca to Vienna Gate. This medieval entrance to the Old Town was rebuilt in 1936 to mark the 250th anniversary of the castle being taken back from the Turks. Buses 16, 16A and 116 follows the same route from the start of Várfok utca. The new Castle Shuttle Budapest will whisk you from I Öntőház utca just south of Clark Ádám tér to Castle Hill in just minutes.
The largest church in Hungary sits on Castle Hill, and its 72m-high central dome can be seen for many kilometres around. The building of the present neoclassical church was begun in 1822 on the site of its 12th-century counterpart, which was destroyed by the Turks. József Hild, who designed the cathedral at Eger, was involved in the final stages, and the basilica was consecrated in 1856 with a sung Mass composed by Franz Liszt. Highlights include the dome, treasury and crypt. Measuring 114m long and 47m wide, the grey church is colossal. Its highlight is the red-and-white marble Bakócz Chapel on the southeast side – to the left of the main entrance – which is a splendid example of Italian Renaissance stone carving and sculpture. The chapel escaped most – though not all – of the Turks’ vandalism; note the smashed-in face of Gabriel and the missing heads of other angels above the altar. The altar painting by Michelangelo Grigoletti (1854), modelled after a work by Titian, is said to be the world’s largest painting on a single canvas. On the northwest side of the church are the 70 steps to the basilica’s treasury, an Aladdin’s cave of vestments and church plate in gold and silver, studded with jewels. It is the richest ecclesiastical collection in Hungary. From here it's worth making the tortuous climb up 360 more steps to the dome for outstanding views over the city. On the way you pass through the new Panorama Hall and cafe. The door to the right as you enter the basilica leads to the crypt, a series of eerie vaults at the bottom of 50 steps, with tombs guarded by monoliths representing Mourning and Eternity. Among those at rest here are Cardinal József Mindszenty.
Budapest's stunning Great Synagogue is the world's largest Jewish house of worship outside New York City. Built in 1859, the synagogue has both Romantic and Moorish architectural elements. Inside, the Hungarian Jewish Museum & Archives contains objects relating to both religious and everyday life. On the synagogue’s north side, the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial presides over the mass graves of those murdered by the Nazis. Inside this Neolog (or Conservative) synagogue, built according to the design of Viennese architect Ludwig Förster, don't miss the central rose window and the sumptuous organ, dating back to 1902. The museum includes items such as a 3rd-century Jewish headstone from Roman Pannonia, ritualistic silver and a handwritten book of the local Burial Society from the late 18th century. The leaves of the Tree of Life Memorial, designed in 1991 by Imre Varga, are inscribed with the names of some of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Holocaust. Nearby in Goldmark Hall you'll find the Jewish Quarter Exhibition with interactive displays, video and artefacts, documenting what life was like in this area from the 18th century onward.
Home to more than 40 statues, busts and plaques of Lenin, Marx, Béla Kun and others whose likenesses have ended up on trash heaps elsewhere, Memento Park, 10km southwest of the city centre, is truly a mind-blowing place to visit. Ogle the socialist realism and try to imagine that some of these relics were erected as recently as the late 1980s. Here you'll find the replicated remains of Stalin’s boots (all that was left after a crowd pulled the enormous statue down from its plinth on XIV Dózsa György út during the 1956 Uprising). An exhibition centre in an old barracks has displays on the events of 1956 and the changes since 1989, and a documentary film with rare footage of secret agents collecting information on 'subversives'. To reach this socialist Disneyland, take the M4 to Kelenföld pályaudvar and then bus 101B, 101E or 150 (25 minutes, every 20 to 30 minutes) to the Memento Park stop on the corner of XXII Balatoni út & Szabadkai utca. An easier – though more expensive – way to go is via the direct Memento Park bus, which departs from a stop marked 'Memento Park' opposite the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on V Erzsébet tér.
Budapest’s neoclassical cathedral is the most sacred Catholic church in all of Hungary and contains its most revered relic: the mummified right hand of the church’s patron, King St Stephen. It was built over half a century to 1905. Much of the interruption during construction had to do with a fiasco in 1868 when the dome collapsed during a storm, and the structure had to be demolished and then rebuilt from the ground up. The view from the dome is phenomenal. The basilica is rather dark and gloomy inside. To the right as you enter the basilica is a lift to the 2nd-floor treasury of ecclesiastical objects. Behind the main altar and to the left is the basilica’s main attraction: the Holy Right Chapel, containing what is also called the Holy Dexter – the mummified right hand of St Stephen and an object of great devotion. It was restored to Hungary by Habsburg empress Maria Theresa in 1771 after being discovered in a Bosnian monastery. The chapel was being extensively renovated at the time of research and was not due reopen before 2020.
The headquarters of the dreaded ÁVH secret police houses the disturbing House of Terror, focusing on the crimes and atrocities of Hungary's fascist and Stalinist regimes in a permanent exhibition called Double Occupation. The years after WWII leading up to the 1956 Uprising get the lion's share of the exhibition space (almost three-dozen spaces on three levels). The reconstructed prison cells in the basement and the Perpetrators' Gallery on the staircase, featuring photographs of the turncoats, spies and torturers, are chilling. The (communist) star and the (fascist) pointed Greek cross at the entrance and the tank in the central courtyard make for jarring introductions and the wall outside displaying metallic plaques and photos of the many victims speaks volumes. The building has a ghastly history – it was here that activists of every political persuasion before and after WWII were taken for interrogation and torture. The walls were apparently of double thickness to muffle the screams.
The Eclectic-style Parliament, designed by Imre Steindl and completed in 1902, has 691 sumptuously decorated rooms. You’ll get to see several of these and other features on a guided tour of the North Wing: the Golden Staircase; the Dome Hall, where the Crown of St Stephen, the nation’s most important national icon, is on display; the Grand Staircase and its wonderful landing; Loge Hall; and Congress Hall, where the House of Lords of the one-time bicameral assembly sat until 1944. The building is a blend of architectural styles – neo-Gothic, neo-Romanesque, neobaroque – and in sum it works very well. Tours in eight languages run for 45 minutes; to avoid disappointment book through Jegymester (www.jegymester.hu). The English-language ones are usually at 10am, noon and then hourly on the half-hour till 4.30pm, though there may be additional departures depending on demand.
The Hungarian National Museum houses the nation’s most important collection of historical relics in an impressive neoclassical building, purpose built in 1847. Exhibits on the 1st floor trace the history of the Carpathian Basin from earliest times to the arrival of the Magyars in the 9th century; the ongoing story of the Magyar people resumes on the 2nd floor, from the conquest of the basin to the end of communism. The museum was founded in 1802, when Count Ferenc Széchényi donated his personal collection of more than 20,000 prints, maps, manuscripts, coins and archaeological finds to the state. Highlights include Celtic gold and silver jewellery, a huge 2nd-century Roman mosaic, King St Stephen’s crimson silk coronation mantle, a Broadwood piano used by both Beethoven and Liszt and memorabilia from socialist times.
The Liberty Monument, the lovely lady with the palm frond in her outstretched arms, proclaiming freedom throughout the city, is southeast of the Citadella. Standing 14m high, she was raised in 1947 in tribute to the Soviet soldiers who died liberating Budapest in 1945. The victims’ names in Cyrillic letters on the plinth and the soldiers' statues were removed in 1992 and sent to Memento Park. The inscription reads: 'To those who gave up their lives for Hungary’s independence, freedom and prosperity'. The monument had been originally designed by the politically ‘flexible’ sculptor Zsigmond Kisfaludi Strobl (1884–1975) before WWII for the ultraright government of Admiral Miklós Horthy. After the war, when pro-communist monuments were in short supply, Kisfaludi Strobl passed it off as a memorial to the Soviets.
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