Oh Hungary! How many stories do you hide in those beautiful cities and scenic landscapes? How many travelers have crossed your territory searching for Eastern Europe and Asia? I'm proud to say I'm part of those select explorers, I found Hungary to be one outstanding place to discover. Most travelers I've encountered understand Hungary as just it's capital, Budapest, but there's so much more to this nation, enough for me to regale you with some information that will come in handy when you decide to visit and fall in love, as I have, with this Eastern beauty.
Let us begin, shall we?
Hungary 101: Basics
Like other nations in Europe, Hungary does not ask a visa from Mexicans which eases the trip a lot and even entices us to visit. As before mentioned it's capital is Budapest, a city well-connected by trains and buses and also home to the biggest airport in the country. As you can see there are many ways to get to this fantastic place, but once there you'll need to know how to navigate. Don't worry, I got you.
Hungary doesn't use the Euro as its currency but the Hungarian Fornit, which you can exchange upon arrival and the language spoken is Hungarian. If you decide ton stay within Budapest's borders then you will meet a fair amount of people that speak English, however if you'd like to explore the amazing medieval towns and thermal spas (which I highly recommend) then learning some words in Hungarian will help you a lot! Plus Hungarians love when people make an extra effort to communicate with them in their language.
These are some words I learned:
Hello - Szia
Excuse me - Elnézést
Please - Kérem
Thank you - Köszönöm
You're welcome - Szívesen
Can I have a drink? - Kaphatok inni?
Yes/No - Igen/Nem
Goodbye - Viszlát
Learn them and you'll thank me later mate.
Hungary 101: What to visit in Budapest
Budapest is a lovely place and as much as I want to talk about every other place that seems to be forgotten in Hungary, I would be doing the nation a disservice if I didn't mention at least some of the best sights and places in this historic city. But before we start with the must see sights here's some information you'll find quite useful: in Budapest you can receive free maps and information from the Budapest Festival and Tourism Center at info-points. They also offer the Budapest Card which allows free public transit and discounts for several museums, restaurants and other places of interest, these cards are available for 24, 48 or 72 hour durations. Trust me, they will save you a lot of money and time!
The neo-Gothic Parliament is the biggest building in Hungary with its 268 meters length, arguably the most known building in the country, it also holds the Hungarian crown jewels and is the first place I recommend visiting here. Budapest is a city known for its variety of architectures going from the Classical to the Gothic and neo-Gothic, there's the Castle District were six museums (out of the 223 this city has) and three churches can be found as well as multiple squares and streets displaying such architectures. The former Royal Palace happens to be on this district, presently it houses two impressive museums and the National Széchenyi Library.
Ever wanted to shake the hand of a king? Budapest provides the next best thing! The Holy Right Hand of Hungary's first king, Saint Stephen, is on display inside the Saint Stephen's Basilica, the most important religious building of the city. Speaking of religious buildings, The Dohány Street Synagogue (the second largest active synagogue in the world with a seating capacity of 3,000) is located in the Jewish district in central Budapest bordered by Király utca, Wesselényi utca, Grand Boulevard and Bajcsy Zsilinszky road. Next to it is a sculpture of a weeping willow in steel to commemorate the Hungarian victims of the Holocaust.
If religious sites are not your cup of tea (like in my case) then enjoy a real cup of tea at the Gerbeaud Café! Hungarian cuisine and café culture is present in many restaurants and cafes such as the Százéves, Biarritz, Fortuna, Alabárdos, Arany Szarvas, Kárpátia and the world-famous Mátyás-pince.
If you decide to employ a tour guide remember to tip! 500 Fortin outta do it, if you also decide to move about with a taxi the driver will expect a 10% tip, don't forget! Now, having covered Budapest to the extent of my experience lets move on, shall we?
Hungary 101: Spas & Wine
Hungary is a land of thermal water, a treasure first discovered by the Romans and later exploited by the Turks and as a result Hungarian spa culture is multicultural. Thermal water can be found within 80% of Hungary's territory, many Roman, Greek and Turkish baths and spas can be found across the country. Some of these are in ruins whilst others are still in operation over a century later such as Király and Rudas Baths. The spa culture has a history of nearly 2,000 years some of these spas and baths' water is said to be medicinal making a visit a greatidea!
There is one open-air spa in the village of Egerszalók located in Heves County in northeastern Hungary with hot springs of up to 68 °C. What takes this place apart from the others is not only the open-air spa but it's location. In this region Egri Bikavér wine (also known as Bull's Blood wine) is made, spa visitors tend to enjoy bathing in the spa and drinking this exquisite wine as part of the experience. There's a fee to enter the spa but trust me again, it's worth it!
The oldest and most well-known bath of Hungary is Lake Hévíz, the largest active natural thermal lake in the world with temperatures of 23–25 °C in winter and 33–36 °C in summer. It's also home of the medicinal Hévíz mud, unique of its kind. It contains organic and inorganic substances, radium-salts and reduced sulfuric solutions that provide special medicinal factors. If you want to enjoy skincare like no other then Lake Hévíz has to be in your destination list!
After a nice dip a good drink is in order and what better than a Hungarian wine! Hungary can be divided into six large wine regions and them into 22 smaller ones. We have covered the Egri Bikavér wine but now it's turn for the most famous wine produced in Hungary: Tokaji. Meaning "from Tokaj", a wine region notorious for its sweet wines, it's made from Tokaj grapes subjected to a process called noble rot that produces a "nectar" later used in wine making. The cultural impact of this wine can be first seen when Romans called it "a wine for Kings, the King of wine" and later as the "nectar" coming from the grapes of Tokaj is mentioned in the national anthem of Hungary. Now that last part was told to me by a drunk in a söröző in Obuda, nice lad I might add, nonetheless If you want to feel like a king have a cup or two of Tokaji!
Hungary 101: Food & Drink
Now, I'm not much of a wine guy if I'm honest but I do love me some spirits and good food! Of which Hungary has plenty to offer but you'll have to know first where to go to find them. There're lots of different places to enjoy a nice drink or a warm meal by readiny the signs you will know in which one you are stepping in:
Csárda - A traditional Hungarian old-style tavern that offers local cuisine and beverages. This is a must, the food one can find here is made with ancient recipes passed down through generations, the real experience is right here!
Borozó - An old-fashioned wine tavern. Great place to sample the different wines each region has to offer. A must for any wine snob out there,
Pince - A beer or wine cellar. There are five known breweries in Hungary, I only got to sample two of them: Borsodi and Dreher, real good I might add.
Söröző - A pub offering beer and sometimes meals. This is the most common in the eye of a tourist as is nothing too different from what it's offered at home, I would recommend visiting the more local varieties.
Bisztró - A self-service inexpensive kind of restaurant. Perfect for low budget travelers and backpackers.
Büfé - There is a chance you might have to eat standing at a counter but it's the cheapest of options.
Cukrászda - A cafe of some sort that serves pastries, cake, and coffee. If you have a sweet tooth this is the place for you.
In most places service is not included so a 10% tip should do the trick but do remember to hand your tip directly to your waiter as it's considered rude to just leave it at the table. Hungarians are friendly people and a couple of drinks will make them even friendlier! Greet them with a handshake and expect very personal questions, it's all in good fun I assure you, you might even be invited to dine at their place! Remember to be on time in that case.
Having now covered how to recognize all the options and how to behave yourself allow me to now recommend some great dishes and drinks:
Goulash - This is a no brainer, It is one of the national dishes of Hungary and a symbol of the country, a stew of meat and vegetables seasoned with paprika and spices. It can be made out of sheep, pork, beef or only vegetables.
Pörkölt - There are many recipes to make this stew but it's two main differences with a goulash are the use of boneless meat and more gravy or a soup in it. In most parts of Hungary pörkölt is made with beef or pork, one variation is made of meat, onion, and sweet paprika powder another with tomatoes or tomato paste, green pepper, marjoram, and garlic. Both exquisite, both a must try.
Csirkepaprikás - Also known as Chicken Paprikash it's chicken stew with a lot of sweet paprika and tejföl, a type of heavy sour cream found in Central and Eastern Europe.
Lángos - This one can be found in Greek and Turkish as well, it's a deep-fried flatbread.
Somlói galuska - An extremely sweet type of sponge-cake, best enjoyed with a cup of coffee or tea.
Pálinka - A traditional fruit spirit made with apricots, apples, plums, cherries and pears. It has quite the strong taste and it's normally presented in a shot glass, best enjoyed sip by sip.
Unicum - Known as one of the national drinks of Hungary. It's a liqueur made with more than forty herbs and aged in oak casks, according to a secret formula, presented as a digestif or aperitif depending on the occasion. Fancy a tasting? The production facility offers tours which include tasting sessions.
There're other great dishes such as cabbage rolls and lecsó but I wanted to focus on those I have actually eaten and even tried to cook, to various levels of success I would say.
The Land of Magyars
When you listen to a Hungarian talk about his country you would hear the word Magyarország meaning land of Magyars, the endonym Hungarians gave themselves. Many peoples and tribes have passed through this land over the years such as Huns, Ottomans, Turks, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Romanis, just to name a few. And as a result Hungary is a country rich in culture.
The fact that Magyar sounds a lot like "magia" (Spanish for magic) is extremely fitting, Hungary is indeed a magical land and it's people sure are magicians in the art of food, wine and a good time! My stay was fast but you can be sure I will visit Hungary as soon as I can and you should too! Nagyon köszönöm Magyarországot!