Hungary: The Land of Spas, Magyars, and Goulash

While Hungary may be small and landlocked, within its borders you’ll find one of the largest lakes, the largest grassland, and the largest cave in Europe, not to mention countless UNESCO World Heritage sites, thermal springs and baths, and fantastic Budapest, a city that’s actually two cities, Buda and Pest, linked together by a bridge across the gorgeous Danube River (the Duna in Hungarian, pronounced Doo-nuh). With numerous activities from horseback riding to caving to relaxing at a spa, a vacation in Hungary offers a bit of everything for travelers of every stripe.


Getting in, out, and about Hungary


Hungary is part of the Schengen Agreement with much of the rest of Europe. This allows US tourists to travel into and throughout the Schengen area for up to 90 days within a 180 day period without an additional visa. You need a passport that will remain valid for at least 90 days beyond your departure and should carry this with you at all times while in Hungary.


The Hungarian government does not require you to have any specific vaccinations in order to enter the country; however, the US Center for Disease Control recommends you are up to date on the standard vaccinations such as those against tetanus, measles, and small pox. A number of travelers also get a vaccination against Hepatitis A because of the possibility of contaminated food and water in Hungary. Other vaccines may be advisable depending on your activities in Hungary. For instance, Hungary has some most extensive cave networks in the world, making caving a popular tourist activity. Since bats carry rabies, if you’re going to be doing a lot of cave exploration, an anti-rabies vaccine might be worthwhile. Consult with your local doctor about you travel plans to determine if any vaccinations might be necessary for you.


US travelers can get around Hungary fairly easily by making use of an extensive train network, as well as cruises through the lakes and rivers. You can find many extensive hiking and cycling trails in specific areas, and horseback riding around the Great Hungarian Plain is a popular activity. If you have a US driver’s license, it is valid for up to a year in Hungary provided that you have a certified Hungarian translation attached. The Hungarian government also recognizes the International Driver Permit which the American Automobile Association issues, which can substitute for the certified translation. Many major highways charge a toll and the country has a zero tolerance policy towards driving while intoxicated (no blood alcohol amount is legal), but driving throughout Hungary can be a rich experience full of enchanting views from its vantage at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains through its rolling hills and riverbanks.


The traveler’s tongue


The Hungarian language is not a part of the Indo-European language family, unlike most of the languages in Europe. A common mistake is to think of Hungarians as an ethnically Slavic people like many of their neighbors (Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Croatia, etc.). Even though Finnish and Estonian are the closest related languages to Hungarian linguistically in Europe, they are not as close as other languages spoken in parts of Western Siberia. The Hungarian language is officially called Magyar, after the name of the tribe of horsemen that settled in the area.


Thankfully, Hungarian (or Magyar) uses the Latin alphabet or American travelers would have even greater difficulty learning this radically different language. However, the Hungarian alphabet expands to 44 letters with the addition of a system of accent marks. Most Hungarian words place the accent on the first syllable, so these accent marks indicate different ways of pronouncing individual letters and vowel sounds.


Within Budapest and some of the other cities, English speakers are common, particularly under the age of 30. However, most of the older generation does not speak English, and outside of a major city or tourist destination, good luck in finding an English speaker at all, regardless of their age. German and Russian are common secondary languages, behind English. Since the Russian language is a reminder of Hungary’s communist heritage and domination by Russia, it’s best relied upon as a language of last resort. Learning a few phrases and words in Hungarian can be helpful if you travel outside Budapest.


Money matters in Hungary


Budget travelers will be delighted to learn that Hungary is not particularly hard on the pocket-book. You can find a private hostel room in Budapest for as low as $4 USD a night per person and a dorm style room for as low as $1.50 a night, although most hostel prices average around $15 to $20 USD. Meals can range from cheap, fast food variety around $4 to $5 USD to high end plates at restaurants at over $50 USD. If using public transportation, engaging in free or inexpensive activities, eating modestly, and staying in hostels, a budget traveler can rely upon $30 to $40 USD to get by comfortably.


For those with bigger budgets, three star hotels average around $50 to $60 USD a night, and you can even find some five star accommodations for under $125 a night. Even a traveler with a luxurious lifestyle will find the prices in Hungary to be modest.


Hungarians use the forint as their unit of currency, even though Hungary is part of the European Union. Prices are written with the number first followed by HUF. Many places in Hungary don’t accept traveler’s checks at all, and while most larger places accept euros or the major credit cards, it’s best not to assume. You can find ATMs throughout Hungary, and these offer a decent way to exchange money. Exchange offices can vary, but a good approach is to compare their buy and sell rates and if these diverge extensively, find another place to do business with.


Tipping in restaurants in Hungary is at 10% or better typically, although some places will include a service charge of 10-12%, which will be marked on your bill. In this case, tipping your remaining change is appropriate.


Highlights of a vacation in Hungary


While this is by no means an exhaustive look at everything you can find to do while traveling in Hungary, here are some highlights:


  • Explore Budapest. Wander through the magnificent Parliament Building in Pest. Other interesting sites on this side of the river include the Jewish Quarter and St. Stephen’s Basilica, where the mummified hand of Hungary’s first king is kept under a dome of glistening mosaics. The Andrássy út boulevard is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes among its attractions the State Opera House, with reputedly one of the best acoustics in the world, and the House of Terror, a museum that revisits Hungary’s occupation by the Nazis and Communists alike. On the Buda side of the Danube, you’ll find the ancient styles of the city’s architecture preserved. Visit Castle Hill, where you can explore Buda Castle, a national art gallery, and numerous museums. On Margaret Island are quiet parks where you can relax after a busy day touring the city. When it gets dark, head back over to Pest to enjoy the vibrant nightlife.
  • Delve deep under the ground. Throughout Hungary are thermal springs which have created an extensive network of caves. Near the village of Aggtelek is the World Heritage Site of Aggtelek and Slovak Karst featuring a number of caves including Baradia Cave, one of the largest caves in the world. Another spectacular cave system lies in the hills around Lake Balaton near the town of Balatonederics. Even if you never leave Budapest, you still have some underground options in Matyas caves or the Hospital in the Rock. The labyrinth beneath Buda Castle was once a highlight for any trip to Budapest, but it recently underwent a management change which has limited access to it. Nevertheless, there are numerous opportunities to grab a head lamp and go underground in Hungary.
  • Take a bath. Budapest is the spa capital of the world, with Roman and Turkish style baths and numerous others as well, including the famous Szechenyi baths. Lake Hévíz is the second largest thermal lake in the world, or for a unique experience, take a dip in the thermal cave bath of Miskolc-Tapolca near the Bükk Mountains. For a much colder swim, or other kind of water sport, visit Lake Balaton, the largest lake in central Europe.
  • Drink the “king of wines.” Hungary is a wine drinking country and one that produces a diverse range of wines. The northeastern Hungarian region of Tokaj is known for making sweet wines including a golden wine called the “king of wines” or alternatively, “the wine of kings”, Tokaji Aszú. Another wine that Hungary is known for is Bikavér, which is also referred to as “Bulls Blood.” Every July in the town of Eger local wineries hold a festival to show off their versions of “Bulls Blood.”
  • Wander through ruins and graveyards. The southwestern town of Pécs features yet another UNESCO World Heritage site in the Early Christian Necropolis and the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Sopianae.


With all of these highlights, many more, and one of the least expensive places to vacation in the world, the wonders of Hungary await any traveler regardless of income.