Hungary has a lot to offer fresh-air fiends, from excellent hiking, canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding, hiking and fishing, to more contemplative pursuits. The country's many varied ecosystems make it a good birding destination, while spas and thermal springs are great for postactivity unwinding.
Many spas, such as those at Hajdúszoboszló, Sárvár, Gyula and on Margaret Island in Budapest, are serious affairs and for centuries people have come to ‘take the waters’ to treat their specific complaints. But most bathers go just to relax (the baths are also an excellent cure for a hangover). The most unusual in the country is the Thermal Lake in Hévíz, but Budapest’s Turkish-style baths such as the Király and the Rudas also have their own following.
The advent of massive water parks for kids with giant wellness centres attached for adults has broadened the fan base of spas in recent years.
The Hungarian National Tourist Office (www.gotohungary.com) puts out a booklet called Hungary: A Garden of Well-Being and has listings online. Also try the Spas in Hungary (www.spasinhungary.com) website.
There’s a Hungarian saying that the Magyars were 'created by God to sit on horseback' – just look at any statue of Árpád. Most stables that we recommend offer follow-the-leader treks up to scenic spots, but the emphasis is usually on lessons. English riding and saddles are the preferred style. Book ahead.
The nonprofit Hungarian Equestrian Tourism Association classifies stables countrywide and has full information on riding facilities and tours. See too the Hungarian National Tourist Office website and its helpful Hungary on Horseback brochure.
Look for good schools around the Lake Balaton region, including the Kál Basin, Tihany and Siófork. Riding a white Lipizzaner horse through the wooded hills of Szilvásvárad is the stuff of dreams.
Some 398 of Europe's 530-odd bird species have been sighted in Hungary, and spring and autumn are always great for birdwatching (May and October, especially). Huge white storks nesting atop chimneys in eastern Hungary are a striking sight from May through October.
There are dozens of excellent birding sites in Hungary, but the grassy, saline steppe, large fish ponds and marshes of the Hortobágy and Kiskunság National Parks are some of the best. Look for birds of prey, egrets, herons, storks, bee-eaters and rollers. In October up to 100,000 common cranes and geese stop on the plains as they migrate south.
The wooded hills of Bükk National Park near Eger hold woodpeckers and other woodland birds year-round; April to June sees the most activity in the reed beds of the shallow, saline Lake Fertő, while autumn brings white-fronted and bean geese. Freshwater lakes Tisza and Öreg-tó are prime sites for wading birds and waterfowl.
For a guided outing, go to the expert: Gerard Gorman, author of The Birds of Hungary and Birding in Eastern Europe. He owns and operates Probirder, an informational website and guide service out of Budapest. Fixed tours take in the woodland birds of the Bükk Hills and sites on the Great Plain and typically last a week. Hungarian Bird Tours operates similar woodland and plains tours from a base near Eger. For both companies, three-night tours cost €380 to €470 and seven-night tours are €870 to €1050.
Hungary counts some 2200km of cycle tracks, with thousands more kilometres of relatively quiet country roads. Three EuroVelo (www.eurovelo.org) routes sponsored by the European Cycling Federation (www.ecf.com) cross Hungary, including the new so-called Iron Curtain Trail (Route 13). Many cities, including Budapest, Szeged, Kecskemét and Esztergom, have dedicated bike lanes. The Danube Bend is among the best areas to explore on two wheels. In the Lake Balaton region a 200km track circles the entire lake.
Bicycles are banned from motorways as well as national highways 0 to 9, and they must be fitted with lights and reflectors. On certain train lines, bicycles can be transported in special carriages for 235Ft per 50km travelled.
Local tourist offices are good sources of information about suggested routes, and some routes are posted on the Hungarian National Tourist Office website under 'Active Holidays' and 'Cycling'. Frigoria publishes a very useful 1:250,000-scale atlas and guide called Hungary Cycling Atlas, which outlines 100 tours, with places of interest and service centres listed in several languages. They also do guides to Lake Balaton, the Danube Bend and Budapest.
Happy Bike (www.happybike.hu) organises ambitious week-long cycle tours of Lake Balaton and the Danube Bend. Velo-Touring, a large cycling travel agency, has a great selection of multinight trips in all regions, from a seniors-friendly Southern Transdanubia wine tour (€1559) lasting nine days to an eight-day spa-and-wine tour in the Tokaj region (€659). Ecotours has cycle trips with camping through Transdanubia (six days, €580), the Zemplén Hills (five days, €480) and around Balaton (three days, €250).
Canoeing & Kayaking
Many of Hungary's more than 4000km of waterways are navigable by kajak (kayak) or kenu (canoe) from April to September. The most famous long-haul routes course from Rajka to Mohács (386km) on the Danube and from Tiszabecs to Szeged (570km) on the Tisza River. Rentals are available at tourist centres in places such as Tiszafüred and Tokaj.
Ecotours leads week-long Danube River canoe and camping trips for about €600 (tent rental and food extra), as well as shorter Danube Bend and Tisza River trips. Tokaj-based Kékcápák organises four-day trips on the smaller rivers in north and eastern Hungary, with transport to/from Tokaj included.
The forests of the Bükk Hills near Eger are the best in Hungary for serious trekkers; much of the national park there is off-limits to cars. The Mátra and Zemplén Hills, to the east and west respectively, also offer hiking possibilities. There are good short hikes in the forests around Visegrád, Esztergom and Budapest, too.
Cartographia (www.cartographia.hu) publishes two-dozen hiking maps (average scales 1:40,000 and 1:60,000) of the hills, plains and forests of Hungary. On all hiking maps, paths appear as a red line and with a letter indicating the colour-coding of the trail. Colours are painted on trees or the letter of the colour in Hungarian appears on markers: 'K' for kék (blue), 'P' for piros (red), 'S' for sárga (yellow) and 'Z' for zöld (green).
Hungary’s lakes and sluggish rivers are home to pike, perch, carp and other coarse fish. You’ll see locals fishing in waterways everywhere, but Lake Balaton and Tiszafüred are particularly popular. You'll need a national fishing licence valid for a year as well as a local one issued for the day, week or year for your area. You can usually buy local ones at tackle shops, anglers’ clubs and fishing associations. The National Federation of Hungarian Anglers sells national licences.