“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see”— Gilbert K. Chesterton.
If you have a limited amount of time to see a country, it’s tempting to pack in as many visits and experiences as possible. After all, there is no guarantee that you will be back to see it; it’d be a shame to miss anything. But here’s the trouble: when you shuttle from place to place, buy tickets, stand in line, and get that perfect picture in front of [insert popular destination here], how much of the country have you really seen?
To get the best experience in Hungary, you really need to live like the locals. Slow down, strike up a conversation with your neighbor, and explore. Once you have experienced the culture, taken a minute to deeply inhale the wafting scents of paprika, and soaked in the thermal waters, you will come away with an appreciation that far surpasses the thrill of having another stamp on your passport.
Find your home base
Just like the locals, you will need to decide where to stay. Whether finding a room at a hotel or renting an apartment, you will want to consider your location. The most popular destination within Hungary is its capital city, Budapest. Budapest straddles the Danube river and provides some of the richest cultural experiences. One side of the river lies Buda, an area with a quiet vibe, beautiful hills and some of the city’s great architectural wonders. Pest lies on the opposite side of the river. A residence in this area will provide you with easy access to the city’s nightlife and their numerous ruin bars, as well as the Jewish District.
Hungary’s public transportation is reliable and efficient and provides an affordable option to travel throughout Budapest and to sites outside the city. Arguably, the best way to get around is through the metro system. Another great option is the trolley system. The yellow streetcars have been running in Budapest for over 125 years. If you are looking to get a broad view of the city’s main attractions, hop on tram number 2, which runs down the Danube river.
If you do choose to rent a car while visiting, be sure to stop by a local gas station or pick up a vignette (or rental car). This will save you the shock of receiving a rather large bill for all the tolls accrued throughout the city.
Pack a lunch and visit a local park
A trip to the park is a great way to meet locals and get the insight into the places only the residents know about. Begin your morning by visiting The Great Market Hall. Pick up some salami, fresh bread, pickles, and maybe a bottle of Tokaj wine. Head to The City Park, behind Hero’s Square, and enjoy a view of the lake as you relish in your market treats and do a little people watching.
Relax at one of Hungary’s thermal baths
Aside from its food and architecture, thermal baths are one of Hungary’s most popular draws. Whether you are recovering from jet lag upon your arrival or a másnaposság (hangover) after a week of visiting the city’s ruin bars, a dip in a local thermal bath is a great way to relax. Over 150 thermal spas exist in Hungary. They are packed with minerals and are said to relieve arthritis and other ailments. Be forewarned, soaking pools have become increasingly popular through the years, with many spas being overwhelmed by tourists. The Széchenyi Baths are the largest and most popular baths in Hungary featuring 15 baths, 3 pools, and 10 saunas. Try Veli Bej Baths located in district II, for a more peaceful and authentic experience.
Grab a bite
Hungary is more than goulash. Though this famous dish can be found in many restaurants throughout the country, the cuisine offers an array of options to savor. Chicken paprikash rivals goulash as a favorite among locals. Halászlé (fisherman’s soup) is great as well. Try Pest-Buda for some of the best chicken paprikash in Budapest. If you want the best selection of street food, go to Karavan. Be sure to try a langos, fried dough covered in sour cream and cheese.
Enjoy the nightlife
After a long day of seeing the sites, it’s time to treat yourself to a drink. There is no shortage of places to enjoy a refreshing beverage in Budapest. While in the city, it would be borderline criminal not to visit one of its famous ruin bars. Ruin bars often inhabit abandoned buildings throughout the Jewish District. They each are adorned with one of a kind wares, with each location providing its own distinctive vibe. Szimpla Kert is the most popular ruin bar, and though it has a high tourist draw, it is still worth your time to visit this original ruin bar. Try to include DZZs Bar and Mazel Tov as you explore.
Enjoy yourself and unwind, but be careful not to clink your glasses for a toast. Legend has it that after the failed rebellion of the 13 generals in 1849, the Austrians celebrated victory by drinking beer and loudly clinking their glasses. Because of this, Hungarians vowed not to clink their glasses for 150 years. Though this time frame has now expired, many Hungarians still find it disrespectful, so you are best to avoid this practice. Instead, a firm glance at your neighbor and Egészségedre (Cheers) are customary.
Odds are, if you are looking for the local experience, you will find yourself staring down a glass of Palinka. In fact, if you find yourself invited into a Hungarian home, there’s a good chance you will be offered a glass of Palinka first thing in the morning. Be prepared—Palinka is a strong drink. Called the moonshine of Hungary by the New York Times and Hungarian Brandy by Visit Budapest, it has an alcohol content ranging from 37% to 86%. The New York Times wasn’t far off when they compared the drink to a “slap in the face”
Take in a festival
The International Wine Festival in Budapest runs in early September. The festival features various wines from Hungary’s 22 wine regions, as well as a vast collection of wines from around the globe. Concerts run throughout the festival and food is offered as well. The festival is family friendly with a good amount of activities for kids. If you are planning on attending this event, you can order your tickets in advance online and purchase a souvenir wine glass.
If you are visiting during the winter holidays, be sure to stop by the Christmas market on Vorosmoty Square. The market runs from the middle of November to the end of December and is ranked as one of the top Christmas markets in Europe. Try a chimney cake and discover the unique gift of the region.
Escape the city buzz
Don’t be afraid to venture outside of Budapest. Though the capital city is over seven times larger than the country’s next biggest city, that doesn’t mean you have to stay in town. The city of Eger is a two-hour train ride from Budapest. Here you can enjoy the city’s baroque structures and appreciate their place in history. Stop at a local vineyard or relax at Eger’s thermal bath.
The Baradla Cave can be found on the border of Hungary and Slovakia. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the caves offer breathtaking views and a cool retreat on some of Hungary’s hotter days. Aside from the caves, there are hiking trails, a playground, and food and gift stalls.
If any country was made to be seen as a local, it’s Hungary. With architecture that will make you want to wander the streets for hours and a nightlife without compare, Hungary will have you planning your return trip before you even leave.