Complete with Budapest’s bubbling bathhouses and lively dive bars, the winding Danube and the legendary wine labels of Tokaj, Hungary is unquestionably one of the most immersive destinations in all of Europe. Here, we range from the Slovakian border to the Great Hungarian Plains, all in search of the finest spots to visit in old Magyar.
Let’s have a look at the best places to visit in Hungary. Enjoy!
1. Lake Balaton
Running for a whopping 77 kilometers through the undulating hills that form the verdant reaches of western Hungary, Lake Balaton is a magnet for both domestic and foreign visitors both summer and winter. Along its wide, grassy banks, sunbathers settle from May onwards, many clutching beers and boogieing the afternoons away outside beach bars in party towns like Keszthely and Siofok (now hailed as the Ibiza of Hungary!). Others come to dive into the mineral-rich volcanic waters of the lake itself, which is eminently swimmable and great for sailing and other watersports. Camping and cottage resorts pepper the shorelines too, while castles and interesting churches crown the hills of Balatonalmadi and Szigliget.
The multicultural gem of south-western Hungary, Pecs can be found neatly nestled close to all of Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia. 2,000 years of history going all the way back to Roman times imbue the centre with layer upon layer of heritage and cultural interest, while the backdrop of the forest-clad Mecsek Hills offers outdoorsy types oodles of hiking and mountain biking on the edge of the Dinaric Alps. Back in the town centre and a lively student population powers the bars, all of which coalesce invitingly between the cobbled streets, below the charming Rococo-come-Renaissance Cathedral, amidst the curiously Turkic facades and the around the pretty blue-domed tops of the Mosque of Pasha Quasim.
Straddling a picturesque bend in the Danube as it weaves its way along the southern border of Slovakia, the cathedral-topped town of Esztergom has long been hailed as the veritable nerve centre of Christianity in Hungary. From around the 10th century, the city was also the capital of the Hungarian Kingdom, and played host to revered Magyar monarchs like the pious Saint Stephen. Today, it’s visited mainly for its sprawling religious constructions, which find their zenith in the huge Esztergom Basilica, which comes complete with gloomy crypts and cupolas. And around this stony church-citadel is the Watertown district; a pretty maze of cobblestone where Baroque and Classical faces abut babbling fountains and sun-splashed squares.
Oft-overlooked and unexplored by tourists making their way through Hungary, Debrecen is actually a surprising cocktail of history, culture and heritage. It’s hailed as the capital of the Great Hungarian Plain; known for its isolated place on the rolling steppe and vast agricultural land of the east. In the Middle Ages it rose to prominence as a frontier fort against the Mongol Hordes, then as a hotspot for Magyar Calvinists. In the 19th century, the city boomed as the temporary capital of the nation as a whole, imbuing the downtown area with its charming neoclassical facades, bolstering the collections of the great Deri Museum (a must) and expanding the boundaries of the sprawling Nagyerdo city park.
Draped over the Danube banks just a little jaunt north out of the capital of Budapest, tight-knit, fairy-tale Szentendre rises in a symphony of stone-clad streets and age-old Magyar houses. Something of a museum-piece of an old town, the place was overlooked entirely by the invading Ottomans, but boomed again in later centuries with Serbian and Mediterranean settlers, who each brought their elegant Baroque and Balkan styles to bear on the centre. Today, travelers head here to weave between the many independent galleries (the spot has become something of a magnet for up-and-coming artists), wander below the bulbous church domes and shop in the multitude of interesting little boutiques.
Poking its way elegantly out over the sky-blue waters of Lake Balaton, the peninsula town of Tihany has been known as one of Hungary’s most romantic retreats for decades. It comes decorated with the white walls and spires of the Tihany Abbey – a 1,000-year-old monastery that’s been both a Benedictine worshipping house and erstwhile prison for Habsburg emperors over the centuries. Around this rises one chocolate box of an old town, where paprika stalls dot the streets, independent galleries offer Magyar crafts and the bobbing yachts in the docks beckon visitors to the volcanic waters of Balaton itself.
Encompassed on all sides by the cascading fields of vineyards that form the famed Tokaj wine region of eastern Hungary, this small and charming town has risen to become a taster’s dream. Amidst its sun-splashed cobbled lanes and Baroque-styled boulevards, travelers here enjoy oodles of cellar doors and wineries, where it’s possible to sample the iconic Furmint, Harslevelu, and Tokay dry and sweet wine varieties that helped to put the Tokaj area on the viniculture map. But it’s not just about the bottle here, because Tokaj town also hosts enchanting taverns that serve up famous fish broths, winding walking routes along the River Tisza and the heights of Bald Mountain to boot.
Old, aged and weathered by political storms aplenty, Sopron pokes its way into the flatlands of eastern Austria on the border-straddling banks of Lake Ferto (that’s Lake Neusiedl if you’re Austrian!). Over more than 2,000 years of settlement here, the town has garnered a charming medieval veneer. Its Germanic church spires loom high over the cobbled central square, the dominating Firewatch Tower shimmers a bronze-green hue, Roman ruins rise ad hoc on the streets and remnants of a 16th-century Jewish boom linger on. Oh, and there’s wine too, with the city’s cellar doors touting some of the best Austrian-style Gewurztraminer going!
The great bulwark of the Magyar Danube and the onetime palatial home of the revered Slavic King Matthias Corvinus, Visegrad soars above the river bends on the edge of Slovakia to form one of Hungary’s most dramatic and unforgettable historic sights. Clad in medieval stone and surrounded by the ruins of an ancient Roman military camp, the spot oozes with interest for the history buff. On the top of the hill stands the mighty Upper Castle of Bela IV, constructed originally to fend off the Mongol Hordes and later a stronghold of the incumbent Ottomans. Below that is the Lower Castle, where the striking hexagonal keep of the Solomon Tower and oodles of masterful gothic architecture meet, along with the seemingly endless collections of the King Matthias Museum.
A city that really needs no introduction, Budapest continues to reign supreme as one of the great touristic magnets of Central-Eastern Europe. Crowned by the elegant and sprawling mastery of Buda Castle and cut through by the winding S-bends of the Danube, the town is at once mysterious and lively, packed with history and indelibly modern at every turn. Erudite students hit the lecture halls here by day and descend into sleepless dive bars by night, speakeasies erupt on the corners of Pest while the City Park hosts everything from bikers to castle-seekers. Meanwhile, the House of Terror shocks and the National Museum wows, the parliament building stands proud and Fisherman’s Bastion has sunset views to die for! And then there are the baths, bubbling and steaming from Art Deco Szechenyi to elaborate Kiraly.
Once the seat of the great dynasties of Transdanubia and later a fiefdom of the Anjou kings, Koszeg has its roots way back in the 13th century. Over more than seven hundred years it has gained one of the most attractive historical appearances in the country, boasting the likes of Koszeg Castle (once an important point of contact between the Magyars and their Ottoman invaders) and an enchanting, pop-up book of a centre that’s been left all but untouched since the late Middle Ages. What’s more, the hills around the city offer fine and accessible walking routes, many of which cross over into the Alpine foothills of east Austria.
12. Lake Heviz
Joined at the hip to the aforementioned Lake Balaton, Heviz seems a world apart from the hedonistic party towns that line its counterpart’s southern shore. Yes sir, hailed as one of the largest thermal lakes in the world, the tepid waters here play host to a kaleidoscopic array of algae and cyanobacteria that have helped to build Heviz’s reputation as a holistic healing spot. Today, the place is primarily known as the home of the Heviz Spa, which rises in the midst of the lake and draws everyone from medical tourists (the treatments are thought to be particularly helpful to people suffering rheumatic complaints) to relaxation seekers throughout the year.
Running deep under the hills of Gomor-Torna and continuous with the great Slovak Karst across the border, the UNESCO-attested cave systems of Aggtelek are surely one of Hungary’s most fascinating natural draws. The jewel in the crown here is the Baradla Cave, which bursts with whitewashed stalactites and evidence of human habitation going back almost seven millennia on the outskirts of the rustic village of Josvafo. Other attractions include the colourful caverns and tunnels of the Imre Vass Cave, whose rocky walls oscillate between iron-rust orange and shimmering turquoise. Walking and hiking routes also abound on the surface, and can take visitors across into Slovakia.
Crafted and cultivated by everyone from Saint Stephen to the Magyar Kings to Matthias Corvinus to the Turkish Ottomans to the Austrian Habsburgs, Eger’s veritable hodgepodge of Islamic minarets (the northernmost one in Europe no less) and sprawling medieval fortresses is a real treasure to behold. The town can be found in the north-eastern reaches of the country, bursting with bubbling thermal baths and countless wineries touting the legendary labelled produce of the Tokaj region. The old part of town is what draws most visitors; a web of winding alleys and cobbled squares that hides cafes and Hungarian taverns by the bucket load. Nice.
One of Hungary’s best-preserved cultural landscapes, Holloko bears a UNESCO tag for its seamless integration with the undulating ridges of the Cserhat Mountains that surround it. Made up of ruins and builds dating from the 13th century onwards, the spot was once the home of the Paloc tribespeople of northern Hungary. Later, the place became a bulwark against the Mongols and then was deserted after the Ottomans left in to the 16th century. It was after this tumultuous past that the present settlement rose. Untouched since, Holloko is now considered a picture-perfect example of historic and bucolic life in Central Europe.