Today we are traveling to an amazing country where we will discover wellness opportunities, off the beaten path locations, gastronomy and more. And speaking of gastronomy, I guarantee you will not actually go hungry – although the name of this destination happens to be – Hungary!
I had the absolute pleasure of having one of my fabulous contacts and colleagues – Zsuzsanna Sarmon the Regional Head of Business Development, North America at WOW Hungary on my video chat series to chat with us about everything and anything we need to see and do when we visit her marvelous country. Zsuzsanna is my on the ground eyes and ears go to who assists me in curating the most incredible itineraries for my clients.
Let’s hit the ground running and whet our appetites for Hungary!
Transportation – Getting There and While There. There’s so much accessibility into the country itself including plenty of non-stop flights from the East Coast and easy connections throughout the US. Once you’re there you’ve got an amazing rail system to help you get around or if you prefer you can hire a driver – or heck – even drive yourself! One of the cool things about Hungary is that there’s so many countries that connect to it – and it can boast of something quite rare in Europe – there are three capital cities within a three-hour driving radius – Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest – so in reality you can cover three different countries by car!
Budapest – the Spice of Europe! At one time Budapest was actually three separate cities – Bud, Pest and Old Buda. At the end of the 19th century, they came together as one and was then named the capital city of Hungary. Zsuzsanna shared that what she really loves about Budapest is that it’s walkable despite the fact that it is really spread out. She went on to explain that if you just pick one part of the city to explore for a day then you can easily walk around. To give us an idea of what is in store for us here she broke it down into The Five Brand Pillars of Budapest and they are as such:
- The Amazing Architecture: To start with there is the stunning Gresham Palace which is now The Four Seasons Hotel and is the most amazing art nouveau masterpiece Zsuzsanna has ever seen. It sits just at the foot of the Danube River overlooking the Buda Castle and the Chain Bridge in a spectacular neighborhood.Moving on to the Jewish District you’ll find the Dohány Street Synagogue which is actually the largest synagogue in Europe. It has a unique architectural style and is a must see while in the city.Next is The Hungarian Parliament Building – which is the third largest parliament in Europe and features lots of gold elements, beautiful arches and a dazzling dome. Tours of the Parliament are available and highly recommended.
Now onto what Zsuzsanna described as the best Instagram spot in the city – Fisherman’s Bastion. Here you can just sit underneath the arch with the Danube, Parliament and the whole city behind you making for a great photo op! On a side note, I was on the Danube when I took an AmaWaterways Cruise and loved spending time on it. The Danube really is amazing and it’s just a completely different vantage point of the city. I absolutely suggest partaking in a sunset river cruise while you are here – if you are not coming in by cruise. Just you and your companion, the sunset and a glass of champagne in your hand floating down the magical Danube – quite the experience!
- Exciting and Diverse Gastronomy: Hey I said it before, and I will say it again – just because the country’s name is Hungary doesn’t mean that you’re going to go hungry while you are there. There is so much food here and it’s mouthwatering! I like how Zsuzsanna noted that the food there is much bigger – in other words they are not known or famous for light fare. The best part about it though is that it is all local so it’s farm to table or sea to table and there are no GMO’s so it’s absolutely clean.Budapest can also brag about its Michelin star restaurants – there are six in Budapest which just so happens to be the largest amount of Michelin starred restaurants in Central Europe within a city! In addition to the Michelin star restaurants really any place you go you will find great dishes. Now most of us – when we think of Hungarian food probably think of goulash. But they do have a lot of fabulous food other than that goulash – including great fish dishes. Zsuzsanna also mentioned that they tend to use a lot of cottage cheese in their cooking – which is more like the Italian type of cottage cheese or ricotta as opposed to the cottage cheese we think of here in the US. They use it for dumplings and for pasta and for strudel too – just to name a few of the many different ways it is incorporated into their dishes.
- Thriving Cultural Life: Lots going on here! There is the Hungarian State Opera House, the Franz Liszt Academy of Music and tons of live events and festivals in the city. Actually, the whole country is full of music festivals with the biggest one being the Sziget Festival. Sziget means island and is thus named because it is actually held on a northern island of Budapest. The festival happens the second week of August each year and runs for a week. It features close to 200 bands from all over the world and has brought in big names in the past such as Lady Gaga, Prince and George Michael to name drop a few! They have people coming to these festivals from all over the world but it’s not only music festivals. They host a Formula One event at the Hungarian Grand Prix along with other great sporting events. Indeed, they have no problem catering to large events and on another side note it is a very safe city. As a solo woman traveling alone in Budapest, I never felt scared and Zsuzsanna said she too walks downtown after a night out and uses the public transport and never has any worries.
- Lively and Authentic Character: In terms of the residents in Budapest I felt that everyone I met while I was visiting had the most wonderful lively personalities and were so friendly. I just loved the people there – they were just amazing. In terms of transportation there is the Budapest Castle Hill Funicular which is a cable car that takes you from the foot of the Chain Bridge to Buda Castle that just screams charming.Zsuzsanna noted that she feels the character comes from the mixture of the historic city along with the modern, youthful character that it has nowadays which also resulted in loads of renovations throughout the city.One of the things the locals love the most are all the Ruin Bars. Zsuzsanna said she would describe them as something that looks like grandma’s living room – they have that really retro feeling. They reside in the ruins of old buildings – that were not restored after the World War and from the outside look like someone’s home. But inside they are filled with colorful, bold decorations and furniture. The great thing about them is that they are not only used by the young generation. When you go into one of these bars – there are hundreds of them – you feel comfortable even whether you are 21 or 51. It’s a place where everybody can have fun!
- Historical Spas: One of the things that Budapest – and Hungary overall – are known for are their amazing spas and hot springs. And how wonderfully they place into the wellness piece of the puzzle that I always include when I am curating your trip. After all – thermal water is all about helping us to get that timeless ageless beauty and we are all searching for that fountain of youth and I think we found it right here in Hungary!As far as this Hungarian bath culture, Hungary is actually the fifth largest thermal water reserve in the world. Throughout the whole country you find more than a thousand thermal springs and because of this they have pretty much every kind of thermal water that exists within the world. The thermal baths are actually public baths that each have different water temperatures. They are large and are mainly used as a place where locals go after work, when they’re tired and want to relax and hang out with their friends. Zsuzsanna shared that the one thing that she loves about them is that many of the spas have outside pools which can be utilize in the winter because the water is so hot. So, for her the best experience is actually going from late fall to early spring when the weather isn’t that warm.
Climate Change, Christmas Markets and … Sustainability! Just so you guys know that while the temperature does change in Hungary – it is still a year-round destination. So, depending on the time of year you go just dress appropriately and you can really enjoy it all year round. In fact – one perfect time to go is around the holidays as they have some great Christmas markets to frequent. And Zsuzsanna noted that one of the things that she loves about the Budapest Christmas markets is that you can only buy handmade Hungarian products at them – giving the Hungarian manufacturers an opportunity to showcase their products. And for us – this is an opportunity to practice sustainable travel – which is what Book Here, Give Here is all about – socially responsible, sustainable travel.
Let’s Go Off the Beaten Path! I asked Zsuzsanna to let us in on some spots that are not as well known to tourists – some secret but fascinating areas within Budapest and she did not disappoint. In fact, she let us in on three of them and added that even the locals may not be aware of their appeal.
- Tomb of Gul Baba: Recently renovated and a perfect spot for a romantic rendezvous as its surrounded by beautiful gardens this landmark honors Gul Baba – an Ottoman era poet and philosopher who died shortly after the Turkish conquest of Buda. Looking out from his statue here you have a panoramic view that stretches all the way to the Danube. It can be easily accessed by a walkway on the Buda side of the Margaret Bridge it and is a great spot that is in the city but away from the crowds.
- Philosophers’ Garden: Zsuzsanna remarked that this is her favorite place in the city. And suggests a run, jog or walk – to start your day with a cultural workout experience offered by the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest called Buda Before Breakfast. Starting from the hotel the staff members will take you on a run from the hotel across the Chain Bridge, to the Philosophers’ Garden where you will ascend quite a number of stairs to reach it. She assures us the beautiful views of the entire city from the gardens are totally worth it as is the peaceful atmosphere that includes sculptures of Jesus Christ, Buddha and Gandhi designed help us all have a better understanding of each other. She also added that she will sometimes see locals walking their dogs here – but that it’s perfect place as well to do your morning yoga as you won’t be actually disturbed by anyone.
- Citadella: The Citadella is actually a fortification located on top of Gellert Hill that was constructed in 1854. Fun fact: Citadella is the Hungarian word for Citadel, a kind of fortress. You can walk to the Citadella from the Philosophers’ Garden on a route that is typically not utilized by tourists as they usually arrive via bus or private transfer and are not walking to it. It can also be accessed by walking up the stairs found right off of the Liberty Bridge. Your reward for climbing to the top – from this sprawling fortress you will have the most incredible panoramic views of Budapest.
Budapest Isn’t the Only City in Hungary… Many American tourists arrive in Hungary via river cruises which means that they have just one or two days to see the main sights of Budapest and not enough time to go outside of the city. For those who have at least a five day stay here they can visit what is referred to as Grand Budapest. Grand Budapest is actually the surrounding towns in the grander Budapest area that are really close – like a 30-40 minutes’ drive – and they offer you very different atmospheres.
- Szentendre: Going to north from Budapest you will arrive in Szentendre – which is the first village outside Budapest on the Danube. It is a quaint, charming, artistic village thanks to the fact that many artists moved out here from Budapest a very long time ago. They ended up founding this community as a place where they could create in a quieter atmosphere. Nowadays it’s full of small, charming streets to walk through that feature lots of nice gallery’s and great restaurants. Szentendre is also a great place to buy authentic souvenirs. What I really like about this is that it really lends itself to social distancing and we’re in that time when people are looking for less crowds so here’s a great opportunity where you can have that experience. And Zsuzsanna added that if you are a really active tourist you can bike out from Budapest to Szentendre on a very scenic route.
- Visegrad: The next town after Szentendre is Visegrad which was the capital city of Hungary for ages. Here you will find the Visegrad Castle that offers a great history lesson on Hungary’s kings and queens as well as beautiful views of the Danube Bend. For our more active travelers – you can take a spin on the Visegrad bobsleds or fly high on a zip line – both are fun for all ages! And since this once was the capital you have plenty of opportunity for that living classroom experience.
- Esztergom: The next town – Esztergom – is the third one on the Danube and is home to the largest basilica in Hungary. As you may or may not know Hungary is dominantly a Christian Roman Catholic country and many of their kings have been coronated in this basilica. Within the basilica you can learn all about them and view a large collection of artifacts as well. Esztergom is a really cute town to just to walk around in too and the city often offers a treasure hunt that can be downloaded from their web page that allows you to search for treasures while you are exploring.
- Godollo: During our chat Zsuzsanna shared that she had just returned from Godollo which is about a 45-minute drive outside of Budapest. Its claim to fame is that here you will find the largest baroque castle in Hungary – The Royal Palace of Godollo or Grassalkovich Castle. It’s stunning simply because of its size but there is an interesting story about the palace too. Sisi – or Queen Elisabeth of Austria – spent more days here in this palace than in her own. The number of days were once counted, and it came out to seven and a half years altogether. So, yeah – she spent a lot of time here and the Hungarians loved her. The reason she loved to be here was because Vienna more royal and stuffier and there she had to behave. However, when she was here, she felt freer and could basically do anything she wanted. Fun Fact: You can actually “meet” Sisi when you tour the palace – as it is she who will take you on the tour and let you in on all the details of her life in the palace as well as the rumors making for a very fun and interesting tour!
- Etyek: A little further south off the river you will find Etyek. What many people are unaware of is that Hungary has six big wine regions as well as 22 smaller wine regions. The closest one to Budapest is the Godollo wine region but if you have more time, Zsuzsanna really recommends Etyek. This small-town features amazing streets filled family-owned wine cellars. You can easily spend a half a day here tasting wines, enjoying a wonderful lunch or dinner and walking through the vineyards. And since Budapest is the second most popular movie shooting destination for Hollywood movies after London – you can visit a movie studio here as well – Korda Studios. Lots of movies have been filmed here with the latest one starring Will Smith who even had his movie premiere here in Budapest. So, for my movie buffs here’s a place where you can go you have wine and movies – what more do you need!
North, South, East or West?
- East Hungary: Going farther out to East Hungary – about a three-hour drive from Budapest or you can always opt to travel via the train or bus – there are definitely great opportunities for off the beaten path adventures where you can easily socially distance. As Zsuzsanna noted two million people live in Budapest out of the country’s population of less than ten million, so the countryside is never crowded. Not only that but it is filled with calming nature, great castles, fabulous fortresses and lots of history.
- Holloko: Holloko – the first stop – is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to the fact that it is pretty much living proof the country’s traditions. Here you will be exposed to how the Hungarian people in the countryside lived in the past. You can see the architecture. You can see the jobs they had. And you can see how their fashion and how they dressed. And not only will you see the folk clothes of Hungarians you will also witness the dancing that went with those fabulous outfits – especially at Easter when they have big festivals.
- Eger: This is a town of great Ottoman heritage and has loads of stories about how Eger actually fought against the Ottoman Empire and won the siege against the Turks. In fact, the Ottoman era minaret tower still stands there to this day. The architecture is amazing here and one of those 22 wine regions I mentioned before is here in this area. And according to Zsuzsanna you must try their amazing red wine here which is called Bull’s Blood – interestingly enough.
- Szalajka Valley and Lillafured: There are plenty of activities to do in the countryside – especially in these two areas. Zsuzsanna joked that their highest mountain is here – which is still obviously a hill – but it’s the highest peak of Hungary. Containing lots of forests with great hiking possibilities here nature and waterfalls abound making these areas around the Eger region perfect for wellness and some soft adventure.
- Tokaji: Here in the Tokaji wine region you’ll find numerous like castles with different stories about the noble man who had once owned them. For those who are interested in castles this is a great place to come to see the different types of architecture, a different era and hear all of the tales that go along with them. As for the Tokaji wine region – it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And if you know of any Hungarian wines it is most likely the Tokaj wine. This fabulous wine can be found in many of the Michelin star restaurants all over the world for the small fee of $300 or $400! In this wine region there are six grape types that you will not find anywhere else in the world making it a quite unique natural sweet wine. Fun Fact: In this region you can only grow white grapes.
- West Hungary: Getting to West Hungary from Budapest is about an hour and a half car ride or once again – you have the train or bus option. Here you are going to experience something a little different – a little bit of a new flavor to add to Hungary.
- Balaton: The Lake Balaton area is the ultimate vacation place for Hungarians as it is the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe. On the northern shore you have amazing views of the whole lake and the hill tops. There are plenty of marvelous wines and great gastronomy here and Zsuzsanna pointed out that after Budapest the Lake Balaton area is really the country’s gastronomic hotspot. The restaurants here are small but quite famous throughout Hungary and it’s not uncommon for those who live in Budapest to head out there for lunch or dinner on a summer day.The lake offers plenty of possibilities for active vacationers such as swimming and sailing and if you are really into it there is a 120-mile-long cycling route around the lake that you can bike! Plenty of culture here too – for example, the Tihany Abbey overlooking Lake Balaton is a 1000-year-old monastery. In fact – it is the oldest working monastery in Hungary with the monks who reside there actually giving you the tours of the abbey while relating its history. Fun Fact: They have a lavender field so many of the products that they make are from that garden – sustainability at its best! You also have Festetics Palace – still in Lake Balaton. However, because the lake is so big at its closest point to Budapest it is one and a half hours away – but at the point where the palace sits – which is the most western part of the lake – it is a two and a half to three-hour drive from Budapest.
- South Hungary: Going south, now we are talking about a three-hour drive by car with train or bus still options. This is referred to as the Mediterranean region and it’s the closest region to Croatia and Slovenia.
- Pec: Per Zsuzsanna it seems like they have more sunny days in this area and perhaps this is why they have amazing red wine in this charming town. Pecs is an amazing place, and it was even a cultural capital of Europe a few years back. A tremendous number of improvements were made here too. For example, you can find a UNESCO World Heritage Site of early Christian mausoleums here like the Christian tombs that you would find in the Vatican City. Fun Fact: Those are the ONLY two places in the world where you can find this kind of relics.
- Villany Wine Region: This region is filled with more big hills for some great hiking and then when you are ready for a break you can go wine tasting! Zsuzsanna’s favorite wine destination in Hungary is here – Palkonya – a small town of only around 600 residents. The best part? Every single family has their own vineyard and wine cellar and make their own wines. They sell them in their wine cellars, but they also do different kind of festivals, wine showings and tastings to. They also have truffle hunting in this area where you can find great truffles thanks to their proximity to Croatia and the perfect climate for them.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Hungary.
What do you think? About ready to put it on your vacation list? It really is a colorful country that caters to all different types of vacationing – active, cultural, gastronomical, historical (nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites!), travel as a living classroom, wellness, wine tasting – gosh – I think it’s time for me to go back!
For more details on things to see and do in Hungary, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!