Hungary

Hungary

Hungary (Magyarország) is a country in Central Europe bordering Slovakia to the north, Austria to the west, Slovenia and Croatia to the south west, Serbia to the south, Romania to the east and Ukraine to the north east. Member of the European Union and the Schengen Border-less Europe Agreement. The country offers many diverse destinations: relatively low mountains in the north-west, the Great Plain in the east, lakes and rivers of all sorts (including Balaton – the largest lake in Central Europe), and many beautiful small villages and hidden gems of cities. Top this off with Hungary’s great accessibility in the middle of Europe, a vivid culture and economy. It is a destination absolutely not worth missing if you’re in the region.

Hungary is one of the 15 most popular tourist destinations in the world, with a capital regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world. Despite its relatively small size, Hungary has numerous World Heritage Sites, UNESCO Biosphere reserves, the second largest thermal lake in the world (Lake Hévíz), the largest lake in Central Europe (Lake Balaton), and the largest natural grassland in Europe (Hortobágy). In terms of buildings, Hungary has the largest synagogue in Europe (Great Synagogue), the largest medicinal bath in Europe (Széchenyi Medicinal Bath), the third largest church in Europe (Esztergom Basilica), the second largest territorial abbey in the world (Pannonhalma Archabbey), the second largest Baroque castle in the world (Gödöllő), and the largest Early Christian Necropolis outside Italy (Pécs), the second underground in Europe and the third all over the world after New York and London (Millennium Underground).

You can expect to find safe food and water, good safety and a generally stable political climate.

Hungary doesn’t attract terrorists and keeps drug and crime levels moderate.

People

Hungary has been ethnically diverse since its inception, and while today over 90% of the population are ethnically Hungarian, pockets of ethnic and cultural Slovaks, Romanians, Germans and others dot the country. Due to the border changes of Hungary after World War I, over 2 million ethnic and cultural Hungarians live in bordering countries, as well. The Hungarians, otherwise known as Magyars, are the descendants of several tribes from Central Asia, who were believed to be fierce, nomadic horsemen and came to Central Europe in the 9th century.

Climate

Absolute values of temperatures in Hungary vary from -20°C (-4F) to 39°C (102F) through the year. Distribution and frequency of rainfall are unpredictable due to the continental climate of the country. Heavy storms are frequent after hot summer days, and rainfall is more frequent in the autumn. The western part of the country usually receives more rain than the eastern part, and severe droughts may occur in summertime. Weather conditions in the Great Plain can be especially harsh, with hot summers, cold winters, and scant rainfall. The weather of the capital city is humid continental with agreeable temperatures in spring and autumn, during the summertime the climate is warm and sudden heavy showers are common, while the winter is cold and the temperatures are usually under 0 degrees.

Regions of Hungary

  • Central Hungary. The most-visited part of the country due to the capital Budapest.
  • Lake Balaton. A great variety of destinations from rural, peaceful wine regions to vibrant towns.
  • This historic region west of the river Danube is one of the most economically developed of the country.
  • Northern Hungary. Great historic towns and cave baths are to be seen here.
  • Great Hungarian Plain. Somewhat isolated from the rest of the country, this is a large region with flat to rolling plains. Szeged could be considered the unofficial capital of the region.

Cities

  • Budapest — with jovial leafy parks, renowned museums, an extensive Medieval Castle District and a thriving nightlife, Budapest is one of Europe’s most delightful and enjoyable cities
  • Debrecen — the second largest city in the country, a cultural and ecclesiastical centre
  • Eger — a beautiful northern town with an ancient castle and camera obscura
  • Győr — there are many cafés, restaurants, boutiques, and night clubs in its lovely Baroque city centre
  • Kecskemét — a city famous for its vibrant music scene, plum brandy, and Art Nouveau architecture
  • Miskolc — with a unique cave bath in Miskolc-Tapolca, the fourth largest city in the country, located near the scenic Bükk Mountans
  • Nyíregyháza — a medium-sized city with a busy water resort, museum village, and annual autumn festival
  • Pécs — a pleasant cultural centre and university town
  • Szeged — the sunniest city in Hungary with a particularly rich history
  • Székesfehérvár — former Royal seat, currently famous for its Baroque architecture and museums
  • Szombathely

Other destinations

  • Aggtelek — beautiful caves with dripstones and stalagmites
  • Bükk — a section of the Carpathian Mountain range
  • Harkány — a historic small town along the Villány-Siklósi wine route famous for its spa
  • Lake Balaton — the major lake of Hungary and the biggest lake in Central Europe
  • Mohács — Famous for the Battle of Mohács (1526, 1687), These battles represented the beginning and end, respectively, of the Ottoman domination of Hungary. Every spring, the town hosts the annual Busójárás carnival.

Hungary’s main international airports are Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport in Budapest (formerly “Budapest Ferihegy International Airport”) and Debrecen Airport in Debrecen. Only these two have scheduled flights. There are other less used international airports; the Hévíz-Balaton Airport has seasonal charter flights, the Győr-Pér and Pécs-Pogány airports serve mostly general aviation. Hungary does not have a flag carrier airline. There are several low cost carriers operating to Budapest.

Talk

Hungarians are rightly proud of their unique, complex, sophisticated, richly expressive language, Hungarian (Magyar pronounced “mahdyar”). It is a Uralic language most closely related to Mansi and Khanty of western Siberia. It is further sub-classified into the Finno-Ugric languages which include Finnish and Estonian plus a handful of minority languages spoken in Western and Northwestern Russia; it is not at all related to any of its neighbors: the Slavic, Germanic, and Romance languages belonging to the Indo-European language family. Although related to Finnish and Estonian, they are not mutually intelligible; being about as closely related as English is to Hindi. Aside from Finnish, it is considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn with the vocabulary, complicated grammar, and pronunciation being radically different. So it is not surprising that an English speaker visiting Hungary understands nothing from written or spoken Hungarian. Hungary did adopt the Latin alphabet after becoming a Christian kingdom in the year 1000.

Foreign languages

Since English is widely taught in schools and universities, if you address people in their teens, twenties or lower thirties, you stand a good chance that they will speak very good English.

However, due to Hungary’s history, the older generation will tend to not speak English. These Hungarians may speak Russian, which was compulsory in the Communist era, although most have not used it since. As with practically all post-communist countries, people might be hesitant to speak Russian and may be prejudiced against people who do. It is wise to try and start a conversation in some other language and if you cannot understand each other, ask if switching to Russian would be acceptable.

German is very useful and is almost as widely spoken as English, and almost universally near the Austrian border and especially Sopron, which is officially bilingual and has huge contacts with Vienna due to it being accessible by Vienna suburban trains. In these areas and with older people in general, German will most often take you a lot further than English. Spanish, French and Italian are secondary languages in schools and are increasing in prominence where there are increasing numbers of firms basing subsidiaries in the country.

You will have a much better chance finding someone speaking a foreign language (mostly English and German) in larger cities, especially in those with universities such as Budapest, Debrecen, Miskolc, and Szeged.

What to see. Best top attractions in Hungary

  • Budapest, including the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue
  • Old Village of Hollókő and its Surroundings
  • Caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst
  • Millenary Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma and its Natural Environment
  • Hortobágy National Park – the Puszta
  • Early Christian Necropolis of Pécs (Sopianae)
  • Fertő/Neusiedlersee Cultural Landscape
  • Tokaj Wine Region Historic Cultural Landscape
  • Other major tourist destination is Lake Balaton, with winehills, thermal spa in Hévíz around.
  • Tiszavirágzás. In mid-June the Tisza produces swarms of mayflies which are likened to flowers. Once decimated by pollution, the population is rebounding. (They’re famous for living only for 1-2 days.)

What to do in Hungary

Bird watching. Hungary is an excellent destination for bird watching (aka birding) holiday. There are wooded hills, vast fish-pond systems and grasslands, the puszta. Particularly good areas include the Kiskunsag and Hortobagy National Parks and the Aggtelek, Bukk and Zemplen Hills.

Horse riding. Vast areas of open countryside coupled with the long traditions of horsemanship make Hungary an ideal country for riding. Wide open plains in the south and forested hills in the north offer varied riding terrain.

Baths. Thermal waters abound in Hungary with over 1000 thermal springs in the country (more than 100 just in the Budapest area) many of which have been turned into baths and spas. The most famous being the Szechenyi baths in Budapest. It was completed in 1913 and built in Modern Renaissance style. This is the biggest thermal bath complex in Europe, its venue is the Budapest City Park. There are, however, hundreds of individual baths all around the country. The cave baths at Miskolc-Tapolca and the spa at Egerszalók are some nice examples. The first thermal baths were erected by the Romans more than 2000 years ago.

“Budapest History Museum” There are three major sections. The Roman Antiquities and Archaeology section (Aquincum Museum). The Medieval section (Castle Museum). And the Modern Age section (Kiscelli Museum).

“Holocaust Memorial Center” It is an interactive exhibition that shows original documents and objects from the Holocaust. There is also a library, bookshop, a coffee shop, and the Braham Information Centre. (also guided tours are available)

“House of Terror Museum” Its exhibitions commemorate the victims of the racist and communist regimes in Hungary in the 20th century. (Including those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building.) It portrays the country’s relationship with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during their years of occupation.

“Lake Balaton” The biggest lake in Central Europe and there are numerous villages on its edges catering to tourists. It is one of the most popular holiday destinations.

Money Exchange

Euros are now accepted at most hotels and some of the restaurants and shops. Make sure you check the exchange rate though, sometimes even well-known places (like McDonald’s) will exchange at unrealistic rates.

You can use major credit cards (EuroCard, Visa) in major shops and larger restaurants, but never expect that without checking first. Small places cannot afford to handle cards. ATMs are available even in small cities, the coverage is good.

While completing any monetary transactions, it’s best to pay in forint when you can. Some restaurants and hotels charge a steep rate for euro exchange and often, due to the fluctuation in exchange rates, cost and services stated may vary drastically.

There were 284 forints to the US dollar and 319 forints to the euro. Shopping in Hungary is extremely cheap for people from the US and the euro zone.

What to buy

Apart from classical tourist souvenirs like postcards and trinkets, here are some things unique to Hungary or just hard to find elsewhere.

Cold-smoked sausages

Spices: Paprika and Hungarian Saffron

Gundel set of cheese: aged in Gundel wines or with walnut pieces or seasonings. Most easily found in 350g sets of three kinds in duty-free of Ferihegy Airport in Budapest (at least in Terminal 2), but is likely available in Gundel 1894 Food & Wine Cellar (see Pest#Eat). Keep in mind that shelf life for this cheese is only 2 months.

Wines: Tokaji, Egri Bikavér (see Liquor), red wine from Villány area etc.

Pálinka: very famous and strong brandy made from fruits.

Unicum: a herbal digestive liqueur.

Herend: luxury hand painted and gilded porcelain.

What to eat

Main courses in menus are normally HUF2,500-3,000 in touristy places in Budapest, HUF1,500-1,800 outside it, or in towns like Eger and Szentendre (March 2009).

A lunch in Budapest is HUF900-8000 per person, and half or one third of that outside Budapest. (Chinese fast food menu is around HUF500).

In restaurants, a service charge is frequently included into bill, 10% or even 12%, but this has to be clearly pointed out on the menu. If it’s not mentioned, the place has no right to include a service charge in the bill.

Even if there’s no service charge, unless the service was preposterous most Hungarians tend to leave a generous tip (10% minimum). Unlike in most western countries, tip is usually not left on the table, but rather the amount is specified to the waiting staff when you pay.

In major cities and next to the highways you can find restaurants of the major international chains such as KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway and TGI Friday’s.

Cuisine

Hungarians are quite proud of their cuisine (Magyar konyha), and most of the time not without a reason. Food are usually spicy (but not hot by general standards), and it’s tasty rather than healthy — many dishes are prepared with lard or deep-fried. The national spice is paprika, made from ground sweet bell peppers and which actually has some flavor when fresh. The national dish is, of course, goulash, but Hungarians call the thick paprika-laden stew known as goulash elsewhere by the term pörkölt and reserve the term gulyás for a lighter paprika-flavoured soup.

Meat is popular- especially pork (sertés), beef (marha) and venison (őz). Less common is lamb and mutton. The best fish in Hungary are river fish: Carp (Ponty) and Fogas (Zander), though many restaurants will serve fish from far away. Chicken (csirke) and Turkey (pulyka) and common, and you will also find game birds excellent in smarter restaurants and country areas- Pheasant (Fácán), Partridge (Fogoly) and duck (Kacsa). A typical meal will involve soup, often like a consommé (erőleves), meat with potatoes (burgonya) and a side salad, and a dessert like pancakes (palacsinta).

Paprika

Less well known in the rest of the world are paprikás csirke, chicken in paprika sauce, and halászlé, paprika fish soup often made from carp.

Goose is also quite popular in Hungary. While tourists gorge on goose liver (libamáj), still cheap by Western standards, probably the most common dish is sült libacomb, roast goose leg. Stuffed (töltött) vegetables of all kinds are also popular, and Hungarian pancakes (palacsinta), both savoury and sweet, are a treat. Common snacks include kolbász, a Hungarianized version of the Polish kielbasa sausage, and lángos, deep-fried dough with a variety of toppings (mostly sour cream, cheese and/or garlic).

A Hungarian meal is almost always — even at breakfast — accompanied by Hungarian pickles called savanyúság, literally “sourness”. These are often dubbed saláta on menus, so order a vitamin saláta if you want fresh veggies. Starch is most often served as potatoes, rice or dumplings (galuska’ or nokedli), the primary Hungarian contribution in this field is an unusual type of small couscous-like pasta called tarhonya.

It is worth to visit a “Cukrászda” if you are in Hungary. These are very popular with delicious cakes and coffee. Try the traditional Krémes (with vanila cream), Eszterházy (lots of nuts) or Somlói Galuska.

Another favorite is Lángos, it is basically deep fried bread, similar to “whales-tail or beaver-tail” but in Hungary, it can be served with any fillings imaginable. Most common is plain, with salt, garlic (fokhagyma) and soured cream (tejföl). If you do come across a Langos stand, there are usually a large number of options from pizza langos, or eggs with mayo or nutella and bananas.

A very popular vegetarian dish throughout Eastern Europe is Kaposzta Teszta (kaposhta tasteta) Cabbage with noodles. In Poland, it’s called kapusta z kluski or haluski, in the Czech Republic, it’s known as nudle s zelí, and Slovaks call it haluski. This can be a strictly vegetarian dish, sometimes with mushrooms. This side dish or main-course offering holds up well on a buffet table.

Vegetarian food

Vegetarians and Vegans will have about as much ease eating out as in any other western country. Budapest is not a problem, as there is a wide variety of restaurants to choose from, but in an ordinary Hungarian restaurant the non-meat mains on the menu are pretty much limited to rántott sajt (fried cheese) and gombafejek rántva (fried mushrooms).

However, in recent years, Italian food has become a lot more popular, so as long as you don’t mind a pasta heavy diet as a vegetarian you will find a wider choice.

If one self-caters from supermarkets or local shops and markets, however, the selection of fruits and vegetables is quite good, especially in summer. Hungarian peaches and apricots are delicious (buy from farmers at local markets).

There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, and a lot of health food stores that offer all sorts of vegetarian/vegan products (including cosmetics). Regular stores like Groby among other brands sell everything from vegan sausages to mayonnaise.

Overall, apply the same rules as you do at home, and you should be well fed.

What to drink in Hungary

Stay safe

Hungary is, in general, a very safe country. According to the 2012 study of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Hungary had an intentional homicide rate of only 1.3 per 100,000 inhabitants. This is lower than the European average intentional homicide rate of 3.5, and also lower than the North American average intentional homicide rate of 3.9 per 100,000 inhabitants.

However, petty crime in particular remains a concern, just like in any other country. Watch your baggage and pockets on public transport. There is a danger of pickpockets. Passports, cash, and credit cards are favorite targets of thieves. Keep items that you do not store in your hotel safe or residence in a safe place, but be aware that pockets, purses and backpacks are especially vulnerable, even if they close with a zipper. There are also reported cases of people who got their baggage stolen while sleeping on the train, so watch out for that. Bag- and wallet- snatching, while rare, is not unheard of.

Generally, Hungary is rather quiet during the night compared to other European countries, and crime to tourists is limited to pickpocketing and eventual cheating on prices and bills and taxi fares.

The police force is professional and well trained. However, one must have a good knowledge of Hungarian to ask them for assistance as most of the policemen hardly speak any English.

Hungarian laws have zero tolerance to drink and drive, and the penalty is a severe fine. It means no alcoholic beverage is allowed to be consumed if driving, no blood alcohol of any level is acceptable. Failure to pay fines may result in your passport getting confiscated, or even a jail term until or unless you pay the fine.

More importantly, the police stops vehicles regularly for document checks. You shouldn’t worry when you are stopped because by law, everyone needs to have their identification papers checked.

Hungary has some of the harshest, if punishing penalties if people are involved in a car accident. Involvement in a car accident results in a fine, and maybe a jail sentence from 1 year to 5 years (depending on the aggravating circumstances).

Respect

The 1956 Revolution continues to be a sensitive subject with the right wing community and many of the elderly. You shouldn’t discuss the Treaty of Trianon (1920) with nationalists – they can take it pretty sensitively.

Open display of the Communist red star and hammer and sickle symbol, the Nazi swastika and SS symbols, and the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross, is prohibited by law. Make sure your clothing does not have these symbols on it, even if it’s just a joke. You can be fined for it.

Members of the Gypsy community may find the traditional Hungarian label ‘Cigány’ (pron. ‘tzigan’) slightly offensive, preferring to be labeled as Roma.

As a rural tradition, Hungarians affectionately refer to themselves as “dancing with tears in our eyes” (“sírva vígad a magyar”), as in a bittersweet resignation to the perceived bad luck in their long history. Avoid mocking Hungarian history and Hungarian patriotism.

When entering a home, shoes should generally be taken off.

Uncommon customs

Even if you meet someone of the opposite sex for the first time, it’s not unusual to kiss each other on the cheeks instead of shaking hands as a greeting.

It’s an old tradition (although nowadays not held by everyone) that Hungarians do not clink beer glasses or beer bottles. This is due to the legend that Austrians celebrated the execution of the 13 Hungarian Martyrs in 1849 by clinking their beer glasses, so Hungarians vowed not to clink with beer for 150 years. Obviously this time period has expired, but old habits die hard. This is not so much followed by the youngest generation.

Contact

Broadband Internet access is now widespread in Hungary. It’s quite usual to find free Internet access (Wi-Fi) in Shopping centres in Budapest, most cafes and pubs. You’ll have Wi-Fi access even in small towns. Look for the “Wi-Fi” signs, you may have to ask for the access password, however, if you consume, it will be freely given.

Official tourism websites of Hungary

For more information please visit the official government website: 

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Useful Travel Tips

Useful Travel Tips Be sure to read these travel tips before you go. Travel is full of major decisions — like which country to visit, how much to spend, and when to stop waiting and finally make that all-important decision to book tickets.  Here are some simple tips to smooth the way on your next […]