Budapest, an old-world city with a throbbing urban pulse, is a must-stop on any trip to Central Europe. Szentendre and Eger have their own charms, including majestic hilltop castles and cobblestone streets winding among lovely baroque buildings. All this, and the generosity of the Magyar soul, sustains visitors to this land of vital spirit and beauty.
Hungary sits at the crossroads of Central Europe, having retained its own identity by absorbing countless invasions and foreign occupations. Its industrious, resilient people have a history of brave but unfortunate uprisings: against the Turks in the 17th century, the Habsburgs in 1848, and the Soviet Union in 1956. With the withdrawal of the last Soviet soldiers from Hungarian soil in 1991, Hungary embarked on a decade of sweeping changes. The adjustment to a free-market economy has not all been easy sailing, but Hungary at long last has regained self-determination and a chance to rebuild an economy devastated by years of communist misrule.
Hungary joined NATO in 1999, and the country joined the European Union (EU) in May 2004. In 2002, then 39-year-old Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was the subject of gentle mockery when he suggested that the Hungarian economy was like a guided missile that had taken off and which could not be shot down. Orbán’s increasingly right-wing FIDESZ party won the 2010 parliamentary elections, achieving a supermajority, and the party has since redrawn the Hungarian constitution.
Two rivers cross the country: the famous Duna (Danube) flows from the west through Budapest on its way to the southern frontier, and the smaller Tisza flows from the northeast across the Nagyalföld (Great Plain). What Hungary lacks in size it makes up for in beauty and charm. Hungarians are known for their hospitality. Although their unusual and difficult language is anything but a quick study, English is fast becoming the second language of Hungary, even superseding German. But what all Hungarians share is a deep love of music, and the calendar is studded with it, from Budapest’s famous opera to its annual spring music festival. And at many more touristy restaurants Gypsy violinists serenade you during your evening meal.
There are no nonstop flights to Hungary from the United States, so travelers generally connect in another European airport and get a nonstop flight to Budapest’s Liszt Ferenc Airport (BUD). Several airlines offer connecting service from North America, including Air Berlin (via Berlin), Air France (via Paris CDG), Austrian Airlines (via Vienna), British Airways (via London LHR), Czech Airlines (via Prague), Finnair (via Helsinki), KLM (via Amsterdam), and Lufthansa (via Frankfurt or Munich).
Many hotels offer their guests car or minibus transportation to and from Liszt Ferenc Airport, but all of them charge for the service. You should arrange for a pickup in advance. If you’re taking a taxi, allow anywhere between just 25 minutes during nonpeak hours and at least an hour during rush hours (7 am–9 am from the airport, 4 pm–6 pm from the city).
From mid-May through late September, a hydrofoil leaves Vienna Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays at 9 am. Return journeys from Budapest to Vienna are on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. After a 5½-hour journey downriver, with a stop in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, and views of Hungary’s largest church, the cathedral in Esztergom, the boats head into Budapest via its main artery, the Danube. The upriver journey takes about an hour longer.
The main routes into Budapest are the M1 from Vienna (via Győr), the M3 from near Gyöngyös, the M5 from Kecskemét, and the M7 from the Balaton; the M3 and M5 are being upgraded and extended to Hungary’s borders with Slovakia and Yugoslavia, respectively. Budapest, like any Western city, is plagued by traffic jams during the day, but motorists should have no problem later in the evening. Motorists not accustomed to sharing the city streets with trams should pay extra attention. You should be prepared to be flagged down numerous times by police conducting routine checks for drunk driving and stolen cars. Be sure all of your papers are in order and readily accessible; unfortunately, the police have been known to give foreigners a hard time. Don’t rent a car on arrival if your sole destination is Budapest, but it may be worthwhile to have one if you want to explore the countryside.
International trains—and there is a steady stream of them, from all directions—are routed to two stations in Budapest. Keleti Pályaudvar (East Station) receives most international rail traffic coming in from the west, including Vienna but also south to Pécs. Nyugati Pályaudvar (West Station) handles a combination of international and domestic trains. Déli handles trains to the Lake Balaton region and to Pécs. Within Hungary, there is frequent and convenient rail service to many smaller cities and towns on the many routes that radiate in all directions from Budapest.
WHEN TO GO
The ideal times to visit Hungary are in the spring (May–June) and end of summer and early fall (late August–September). July and August, peak vacation season for Hungarians as well as foreign tourists, can be extremely hot and humid; Budapest is stuffy and crowded, and other vacation destinations are overrun with vacationers. Many of Hungary’s major fairs and festivals take place during the spring and fall, including the Spring Festival (in many cities and towns) from late March to early April and the myriad wine-harvest festivals in late summer and early fall. Summer holds the unforgettable and quintessentially Hungarian sights of sweeping fields of swaying golden sunflowers and giant white storks summering in their bushy nests built on chimney tops.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.