Being part Hungarian by ancestor, I was especially eager to visit Hungary when I started travelling. It is a beautiful country with sprawling, bucolic plains, hearty food, unique wines, world-famous thermal baths — and don’t forget Unicum (cold)! I studied abroad in Budapest in 2002 and have returned to Hungary several times since then. There’s always more to discover!
Food and Drink
Hungary is famous for its rich foods. One that everyone should try is Paprikás (Paprikash) – a delicious stew with plenty of paprika (sweet or spicy), often made with veal or chicken, served on top of thick dumplings, with sour cream. Another quintessential Hungarian dish is Goulash (gulyás), a beef soup/stew with paprika (naturally), potato, carrot, and other spices. It often has a red color from the paprika.
Hungarian sausages are delicious and ubiquitous– you’ll see them hanging in pretty much every food market or on meat counters (as shown below). Sometimes you’ll even find sausages wrapped in bacon to make them extra tasty. Their high fat content gives them great flavor — but they certainly aren’t diet food! Speaking of non-diet food, Lángos is another Hungarian dish — it is a massive, deep-fried flat bread (think elephant ear), typically covered in sour cream, cheese, and sometimes crumbled bacon. Yum!
Hungary also boasts some world-class wines. The Egri Bikavér is a blended dry, red wine that comes from Hungary’s Eger region. The name reportedly came from Ottoman invaders, who saw the Hungarians drinking wine during the siege of Eger in 1552 and thought they were drinking bull’s blood mixed with wine — explaining their fortitude in battle.
Another famous Hungarian wine is Tokaj, a sweet white dessert wine that comes from Hungary’s northern Zemplen region (it also spans into Slovakia). Even if you normally don’t drink sweet white wine (like me), it’s worth trying this one — it’s a treat! Tokaj is typically classified by Puttonyos, or units of sweetness / residual sugar, ranging from 3 to 6, and increasing in price accordingly. The sweetness comes from the Aszú grapes, and a Tokaj made entirely from those grapes is known as Aszú Eszencia. Even if your don’t want to splurge on the expensive ones (or would like a taste before doing so), it’s worth going to a wine bar and tasting the varying levels of Puttonyos to gauge the range of sweetness.
I would be remiss to not mention Unicum, the famous Hungarian herbal liquor comprised of a secret recipe of over 40 herbs and aged in oak casks. Apparently Hapsburg Ruler Joseph II was suffering from indigestion and his physician, Dr. Zwack, concocted this remedy for him. Upon drinking it, Joseph II declared “Dr. Zwack, das ist ein Unikum!” (…this is unique!) and the name stuck. Note that it is quite bitter and many people mute the flavor by drinking it ice cold. If you do try it, I recommend ordering it cold — and remember that the warmer it gets, the more flavor will come out!
Hungary’s capital of Budapest is spectacular city and a massive tourism hub in Central Europe, divided between the Buda and Pest sides of the Danube river, which runs through the city.
The Pest side of the Danube has many of the city’s key tourist and shopping attractions. Perhaps the most famous site is the city’s Parliament, a large, ornate neo-Gothic structure dating back to 1902. On the website, it’s possible to book visits to see the Parliament’s attractions, including the Hungarian crown. Additional national treasures and historical items can be found at the nearby National Museum.
The Hungarian State Opera is a massive neo-Renaissance style building that dates back to the late 1800’s and is a highlight of Budapest. If you can’t catch a show there, at least try to go inside and admire its ornate interior design.
St. Stephen’s Basilica is a massive cathedral named after the first King of Hungary — Stephen — whose right hand is preserved in the reliquary for visitors to see. It is also possible to climb onto the roof of this building and get outstanding views over Budapest.
The Dohány Street Synagogue is beautifully-decorated with a Moorish-theme and is the largest synagogue in Europe. In addition to being a functioning synagogue, it also has a cemetery, museum, and Holocaust memorial.
Vaci Utca is a pedestrian walking street — and possibly the most frequented street by tourists in Hungary. It has several souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars. It is lively, centrally-located, and a great place to get your bearings upon arrival in the city.
Alert — Watch out for rip-off restaurants on Vaci Utca. A few years back I randomly picked a restaurant on this street called Galilei. The food was both overpriced and bad (ie., the “goulash” tasted like a can of watery microwaved beef both ). They also added extra / hidden charges for everything imaginable — double or triple as compared to the price listed menu, such as extraordinary seating charges, multiple forms of tax, and various other invented fees that costed more than the food itself. (The bill came out to nearly $100 for a truly basic meal). When I complained, they had a response for everything (“oh, well, we gave you a better quality beer, which is why it cost more,” “…of course we added those fees– it’s like you’re eating on the Champs de Elysees!”) That restaurant has since closed down after receiving many other bad reviews, and a new restaurant called Monarchia sits in its place. But based on the similar reviews that Monarchia has received, it doesn’t appear that much has changed. The lesson here is: 1) Get wifi and use it to check reviews of restaurants before you go, and, 2) be clear about what you’re ordering — and the fully loaded price– when eating in these type of touristy streets. There are so many outstanding restaurants in Budapest– and the food is so great– that it’s best to avoid places like the one mentioned above.
The Central Market Hall lies at the end of the Vaci Utca, and is a multi-storied hall selling Hungarian food and souvenirs alike. (In the basement is a grocery store that sells many of the same products at a better price : ) In addition to trying the various foods on the ground floor, I enjoyed going upstairs to the small cafes and restaurants selling local food. (You can also try various styles of Tokaj here).
Having studied at the Budapest University of Economic Science for a summer program, I have to recommend it for a quick visit. It is now named the Corvinus University of Budapest, and was previously the Karl Marx University during Communist times. It is a large dominating building on the Danube, and when I was there, it was still possible to see a seated Karl Marx statue in the lobby.
The Szechenyi Chain Bridge is another famous landmark, and a great stopping point before crossing over to the Buda side of the river. It dates back to the 19th Century and features imposing archways, massive chains and suspension cables, as well as huge lion statues on either end of the bridge. (For those who want to spend time on the Danube itself, there are plenty of boat tours available.)
On the southern end of the Buda side of the river is the Gellert Hotel — a landmark of Budapest famous for its elaborate art deco complex of thermal baths dating back to 1918. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth budgeting an afternoon for a dip in the pools. Check the website in advance to reserve a spot and buy tickets. The spa features everything from intensely hot steam rooms, milder saunas, massive decorative warm thermal pools, and cold tubs with frigid water — to refresh and start all over!
After finishing at the Gellert Hotel, it’s worth taking a hike up to the top of the Gellert Hill, which offers spectacular views of the Pest side of the city (including the Parliament). On the top of the hill is a Citadel and a statue of the city.
Heading north, you’ll reach the winding, cobblestone Castle Hill — a highlight of this side of the river. In the center of this hill is Buda Castle, which dates back to the 1200s and contains many works of art and the national library. Nearby is the ornate Matthias Church, which was built around the same time as the castle. I also enjoyed visiting the castle’s underground Labyrinth, which was dark, spooky, and quite extensive — but still marked well enough to avoid getting lost!
Just before going to the Labyrinth I did a wine tasting, which was a very good deal: for only a few dollars, it was possible to taste a range of over 50 Hungarian wines. The cavernous atmosphere made it all the more memorable. I haven’t been able to find the place again — and I’m not sure if it’s even still open since I did this in 2002, but this site appears to offer wine tasting — so I will visit when I return to see if it’s the same great experience I remember.
Another must-see spot of Budapest is the Fisherman’s Bastion – an ornate fortification featuring seven peaked, Neo-Romanesque lookout towers, offering spectacular views along the Danube.
Other Places around town
On neither side of the Danbue — but in middle of the river itself– is Margaret Island, a pleasant park with cafes, restaurants, and a singing fountain. It’s a great reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the city!
After the collapse of Communism, several Soviet statues were rounded up and placed in Memento Park, about 10 kilometers southwest of the city center. The park features several large communist monuments (including a massive statue of Stalin’s Boots), which makes for an intriguing excursion out of town. Be sure not to miss the small museum at this site– which features vignettes of daily life under Communism, including Soviet training videos on how to coerce citizens into spying on their neighbors. Truly fascinating stuff!
Just east of Danube on the Pest side of the river is the City Park – a large, green park featuring Vajdahunyad Castle, a pond with paddle boats, thermal baths, and a zoo / botanical garden. At the eastern entrance of the park is the Heros’ Square monument, honoring leaders of the seven tribes that founded Hungary.
Near the City Park is Paprika Vendéglő Restaurant — it offers traditional food in a rustic setting and gets great reviews. I wasn’t able to get in though, as they were fully booked the night I tried to eat there. (That was the night I ended up eating at the tourist trap I wrote about above). Still, this restaurant is on my list for next time!
Another great restaurant right downtown is the For Sale Pub. It might appear touristy, but the goulash and chicken paprika is exceptional, the atmosphere is fun, and the prices are reasonable. I highly recommend a visit here while in town. (Many people pin up cards and scraps of paper on the wall with their names on it — I did the same in 2002 and was able to find it when I returned in 2003, but not when I returned in 2012! Still, if anyone visits and finds my post there, I owe them a shot of Unicum!)
One interesting concept that was popular when I visited Budapest in 2012 were Ruin Bars — creatively decorated bars inside the ruins of old homes. The cobbled-together nature of these structures provides an authentic, cozy feeling — it’s worth grabbing a drink at one of them while in town. (I think I went to Szimpla Kert, but I could be wrong, as there are several of these around town).
Eger is a quint, scenic town about 1-2 hours northeast of Budapest. It features several baroque-style buildings and a Castle that dominates over the city center, which was used to defend the city against an Ottoman invasion in 1552.
After visiting the castle, wander down to Dobó István Square, which is named after the military leader who led the resistance in the Siege of 1552. The square marks the center of town and contains numerous statues and cafes. Also in the city center is the Church of Anthony of Padua and the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Apostle — both are well worth a visit! You may also note a small minaret in town– attesting to the period in which the city was under Ottoman control.
Just south of the city center is another complex of Thermal Baths, which are a popular local destination. Be sure to read the signs carefully before going in the tubs — I jumped into an unoccupied pool only to later notice a sign on that pool that read “Radioactive Water.” After panicking, I learned that thermal water with slightly higher amounts of radon is considered safe and helpful to improve vitality — it is therefore popular at spas. I still got out of the water right away.
Finally, the highlight of any trip to Eger is a stop at the Valley of the Beautiful Lady, 1 km southwest of the city center, which is home to several small wineries producing famous wine (such as Bull’s Blood) from the surrounding region. It’s possible to pop into the small wine booth, sample whatever is on offer– straight from the barrel–and buy a bottle to take home (usually in a plastic jug). The wines are all cheap and delicious — and there are several food options available to balance out the wine tasting!
Szeged is a pleasant town — the third largest city in Hungary, but one that still feels calm and manageable. I didn’t engage in a day of robust sightseeing or box-checking, but strolled along the Tisa river and meandered around the walkable old city with the Yakpacker parents in 2015. I also picked up some great paprika there!
The Votive Church of Szeged is a massive brick cathedral in the center of town. Construction began in 1913 after a flood destroyed much of the city– but the cathedral wasn’t completed until 1930. Nearby is the Viztorony Water Tower, which offers good views of the city from on top.
For dinner we ate at Szeged Étterem, a traditional, dimly-lit tavern with hearty fare. (Note that Szeged is famous for its fish soup, Halászlé.)
Mikohaza is a small village in Hungary’s Zemplen region, where Great Grandmother Yakpacker was from. She left the town in the early 20th Century and talked about the church and the well in the center of town. I went there in 2012 and the church was present– although the original one had apparently burned down and was rebuilt.
The well was capped, but the foundation was in place and a large bell-shaped Monument sat on top of it.
We ate on a patio at the nearby Malom Tanya Restaurant, which had good food and a pleasant, friendly small-town atmosphere.
Something for Next Time: I’ve heard great things about Lake Balaton — which has long been a famous getaway spot for Hungarians and foreigners alike. There are plenty of resorts, nature parks, restaurants, and areas to engage in various lake activities… I hope to get there one day!