Image credit: humblenick
Offering one of Europe’s best value city breaks, a river that has its own theme tune and a history that stretches back through the Hapsburg Empire to the Celts, this exquisite city has it all. But to really appreciate all that Hungary has got going for it, you’ll just have to turn your gaze away from the capital and a little further afield, where lakeside settlements, hand-painted homes and warm, relaxing waters await.
With its painted houses in shades of terracotta and ochre, cobblestone alleys and Mediterranean-style churches, Szentendre is almost in danger of becoming a victim of its own prettiness. Located on the wind of the Danube, its charm and proximity to the capital city attracts summer visitors by the boatload, not least for its museums dedicated to ceramics and confectionary.
Explore the town by horse and carriage and get a feel for rural life at Skanzen, the open air exhibition of traditional peasant homes and mills, before stopping for a late lunch at the picturesque main square, where the plague cross proffers a stark reminder of the area’s more turbulent past.
History buffs and pleasure seekers alike will find solace at Visegrád on the banks of the Danube, as it winds through the magnificent Börzsöny and Visegrád Hills. It was here that King Charles I commissioned a royal place, updated in the Renaissance style in the 15th century, and whose heyday is celebrated during the Royal Palace Festival which takes place annually in the second week of July.
Reminders of the town’s status as an important strategic site are everywhere, from the Soloman Tower, which forms part of the town’s lower castle, to the striking 13th century citadel above. Outside the town, the terraced beaches of Lepence Spa sooth the weary with their purportedly anti-inflammatory thermal waters.
It’s not just the spectacular cathedral that makes a journey to Esztergom worthwhile, although the impressive basilica, built on the site where Hungary’s first king, St Stephen, was baptised over a thousand years ago, should not be missed.
Now one of the nation’s oldest towns, it houses a wonderful variety of unique districts. Víziváros, it’s most vivacious, is known for its watercolour houses, churches and museums, of which the Danube Museum is often a surprise hit with families. Relax at the thermal pools east of the Little Danube, where grassy beaches offer respite from the crowds. Combine rest and recreation at the Termál Sörkert (beer garden) where music plays over throngs of young folk enjoying a dip.
Step back in time to a world before the industrial revolution in the preserved village of Hollókő, deep in the Cserhát Mountains. Literally translated as ‘Raven-stone’, the village, which was awarded world heritage status in 1987, is home to around 400 residents living in traditionally build thatch roof cottages. All villagers speak a minority dialect and uphold folk customs and crafts in their long-established way of life.
Visit during Easter to get a full flavour of their conventions and costumes, or in October for the Vintage Parade which celebrates the end of the grape harvest. For those who want a taste of the simple life, it’s possible to rent a thatched cottage with shared facilities, but be sure to book ahead.
1 hour 15 minutes
Looking at the turquoise water of Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe, it is hard to believe that its name is derived from the Slavic word for ‘swamp’. The lake’s shallow, silty bed has made it ideal for bathing, and has led to an increasing number of resorts springing up around its edges, particularly on the southern shore. Fishing and sailing are on offer in the summer months and swimming is a joy in the wonderfully warm waters – reaching 25 °C on a good day. When the cold sets in, ice skating and sledging take over.
Siófok, known as the capital of Balaton, remains the most popular resort, while Keszthely (to the west) also offers the beautiful Palace of the Festetics. Keen partiers might wish to check out Zamárdi, which plays host to the Balaton Sound dance festival each year.
1 hour 20 minutes