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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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'.
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