Hungary and Budapest: Alternative Guide and Travel Story

I had the opportunity to tour a large part of Hungary on a pleasant trip with the objective of enjoying the main wine regions and some of the spas that this beautiful Central European region has. We started in Budapest, where we had a short stay of just over 24 hours, because the Hungarian capital was not, as I said, the main objective of this trip. There we rented a car and the following days we toured almost the whole country, stopping in specific areas.

Our trip begins in the Hungarian capital. Budapest is a fascinating city designed largely during the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the nineteenth century. Hungary then was a world power and celebrated the millennium of the arrival of the Hungarians in Europe. So no resources were spared to build majestic imperial buildings.

Two very hard blows, from which the country has not yet recovered, have caused Budapest to show itself today as the capital of a decadent empire. For all this, elegant and luxurious imperial buildings accumulate dust and are slowly peeling. Trabants and Ferraris share a bumpy asphalt. The old trolleybuses and modern metro lines transport citizens through the city. The beautiful bridges connect Buda and Pest across the city over the Danube.

Given its location, in Hungary dawns and dusk is early. So to enjoy this country it is important to get up early, ending the day at a reasonable time, and with it to go to bed soon. This way we will be able to adjust our biological clock to the schedule of the active tourist that this beautiful country requires.

On the other hand, visiting the Hungarian capital in a day is almost impossible. This trip was aimed at the Hungarian regions outside the capital. So I reduced Budapest to only 24 hours but of course, I lived there a season and I have traveled many times there. So for those who come for the first time, it is better if you extend your stay in the Hungarian capital.

We started the first day (and the only one of this trip in the capital) having breakfast at the New York Café. It without a doubt is the most spectacular cafe in Budapest and one of the most beautiful in the world. Inaugurated in 1894 inside the building constructed by the New York Insurance Company (hence its name), it brought together important Hungarian writers.

It is now a luxury hotel, with a cafeteria that maintains its original essence and design. Today one almost feels like the Empress Sissi having a delicious Caffe Latte, one of the delicious cakes offered by the Hungarian pastry, or a full breakfast. Although yes, the Hungarian nobility has been replaced by European, Americans and Asians tourists. The prices are quite high.

Once we have gathered strength, we begin our tour of Budapest for the jewel in the crown. We move to the Hungarian Parliament (the third largest in the world due to its size, after that of Bucharest and Buenos Aires). The visit is not free that lasts about 45 minutes, and is done in guided groups. We go there in the morning to the visitor center (going down some stairs in the street, on the north side of the parliament). We buy the tickets and return at the time of the visit. We cannot take photos of the sacred Hungarian crown either.

Very close to the parliament is the impressive St. Stephen's Basilica (Szent István Bazilika), second visit of our tour. The entrance to the basilica is free, but it is worth paying the 2 euros to climb the spectacular viewpoint of its dome. It gives one of the best views of Budapest (probably the best after the Bastion of fishermen).

Near the ticket office, located at the right entrance of the cathedral, almost 300 steps start. We save it by climbing the elevator located on the left side, which allows us to climb about 8-10 steps only instead of the almost 300. There is no price difference for climbing or stairs or using the elevator.

The third stop is the Budapest Opera. Located on the elegant Andrássy Avenue, it offers guided tours, where they explain how Austria allowed its construction on the condition that the dimensions could not be greater than those of the Vienna Opera. So the Hungarians devoted all their effort to the interior of the same, achieving an acoustic and a beauty that far exceeds those of neighboring Austria.

To regain strength, I eat Mazel Tov and Kőleves at one of the restaurants in the Jewish quarter of Budapest. Then, in the afternoon, we relax in one of the elegant spas of Budapest, next to the Szabadság bridge. We go to the Rudas (Turkish baths), which also have a swimming pool on the roof, outdoors, with views of the Danube that take away the hiccups. We learn men or women can enter according to the day of the week, although at night boys and girls can go together.

We plan a boat trip on the Danube coinciding with the sunset, since that is when they turn on the lights and the illumination of the monuments. The boats depart from Vigadó. So we move to where the jetty is. We buy tickets in that same place where there is a small office. They also give a token to be exchanged on the boat for a drink. We see almost all the architectural gems of the capital, as well as its spectacular bridges. It lasts about 45 minutes with a drink on board.

And finally, to close the day, after 24 intense hours in Budapest, we visit a pub, where we taste a good Hungarian beer and a Shot of Pálina (Hungarian brandy). We thus end our first day in the Hungarian capital.

After an intense day in Budapest, it is time to leave behind the frenetic Hungarian capital to start a journey through the Hungarian provinces and enjoy its tranquility, its people, its gastronomy, its wine regions and its thermal springs. And, although the spas of Budapest enjoy worldwide fame, there are dozens of spas in the provinces, much cheaper and quieter.

Of the Hungarian wines, some like those of Tokaj is world famous. Hungarian wines are of very good quality in general, and many of them with quite competitive prices. In almost all areas of the country, there are vineyards and wineries. Uniting these two liquids, the wine, and the thermal water, we begin this journey.

After 24 hours in Budapest, we rented the next day a car that would take us for a week through Hungary. In the blink of an eye, we were driving along the northeast highway, the M3, towards the city of Eger, our first stop on the trip. Located about 150 kilometers from Budapest (just under 2 hours by car), this small town is the capital of the province of Heves.

It is located at the foot of the Bükk mountains. It despite the low elevation (960 meters maximum altitude), boasts of forests, lakes, valleys, and villages of great beauty. They are also the prelude to the Carpathian mountain range. Eger is famous for its castle, the battle to which it gives its name, its Bikavér wine, and its spas.

If to all this, in addition, we add that the best area to taste it is a place called the Valley of beautiful women (Szépasszonyvölgy), located on the outskirts of the city. It is clear that Eger has to be a fundamental stop in every trip winemaking to Hungary. As I mentioned, this valley is located on the outskirts of the city, so to visit it, either a person is left without drinking and drive the car back, or it goes and comes by taxi.

Generally, the second option is the most used, and the one we chose, since, in addition, it is quite economical. The valley, which is accessed by walking down a street full of restaurants that starts from the taxi stand, is more or less circular. In the small hills that surround it are the wineries, dug into the rock, located next to each other to the other.

Within these cellars are mixed the smell of the stone, the humidity of the interior of the mountain, and the taste of wine, under the dim lighting of the lamps, which gives it a special charm. The broths are accompanied in many cellars of cheese boards, zsiróskenyér, which is a slice of a loaf of bread greased with fat, sprinkled with paprika and sliced ​​onions. In recent times, they have begun to add many more things to zsíroskenyér, from vegetables to meats.

It is advisable between wine and wine snacks, to mitigate the effects of alcohol, since there are more than 40 wineries, although not all are open to the public. Some of my favorites are Hagymási, Petrény, and Sike, but as I said there are a lot, they are all followed. The entrance to them is rather intuitive unless one is an expert in Bikavér wines.

We visit around evening, although not too late, because many close relatively soon, and after a certain hour, they give nothing to eat to accompany the wine. The wineries travel music bands play traditional Hungarian songs, or the Hungarian groups themselves, after a few wines, they dare to sing.

Returning to the city of Eger, we visit the castle, located in the upper part of the city, with excellent views of it. The sunset offers, in my opinion, the best views, and the price of the entrance is cheaper at this time since the museum is closed.

Eger ended up falling under the Ottoman Empire, and mosques, minarets, and Turkish baths were built, giving this small town a special charm. The central axis of the city is Dobó tér, a square of great beauty located under the castle. The terraces that cross the river from this square are highly recommended. We taste the Bikavér, as well as walk the little streets that go up through the old town.

But if the wineries in the valley of beautiful women are fascinating, even more so is the nearby spa of Egerszalók. It all began decades ago, with some oil prospects, which, by drilling the hill next to the town, instead of black gold, found thermal springs. After leaving the area, these waters began to flow freely down the slope, and their mineral salts were, over the years, deposited and forming a series of terraces modifying the landscape.

The price of the ticket for a full day is about 19 euros, although there are cheaper options, such as the 3-hour ticket or the ticket after 5:00 pm. At dusk, a lighting system is lit from this peculiar hillside that changes color. Watching it submerged in a pool of hot water was a spectacle. In addition to the external swimming pools, there are others inside the building. The sauna is very interesting. It also has a small pool under a dome that imitates the style of a Turkish bath.

After the intense day in Eger and its surroundings, we decided to spend a day of rest in the resort of Miskolctapolca. So we set off in our rental car, traveling along the picturesque and winding road that crosses the Bükk National Park with its mountains. It was full autumn and the variety of colors and the mantle of the leaves of the trees gave even more charm to this section. It is probably one of the roads with the best landscape in all of Hungary. We reach Miskolc, a path of greater beauty than the M3 motorway (fastest option). It is quite an experience to visit it.

Miskolc is in one of the most beautiful areas of Hungary located at the foot of the Bükk mountains, in a beautiful valley, with its own wine-growing areas and other nearby ones such as Tokaj, spectacular spas such as Tapolca, and a restored urban center. Squares like the Szinva Terrace, Hősök Tere, the Szechényi avenue, the Deryné street have a special charm.

The nearby villages of Lillafüred or Alsohamor also treasure great beauty. As for wineries, the city of Miskolc itself has a small area of ​​wineries, specifically in the part of the city that is on the slope of the Avas hill. In these small and steep streets, we taste some good Hungarian wines. In addition, nearby is the town of Tokaj, famous worldwide for its wines, especially the Aszú variety, a sweet wine.

Our day had no more pretensions than enjoying a pleasant day of rest in the small thermal village of Miskolctapolca, enjoying its spa, its parks, and its artificial lake. Instead of being the classic open-air spa, it is excavated inside a mountain, through galleries and interior rooms under the rock. In addition, it has an outdoor part. We park the car at the entrance, in one of the paid parking areas. I do not remember the exact price, but it was not expensive.

There are lots of people and children, so sometimes it seems more like a water park than a real spa. Inside the spa, there are drink and food bars. Here we taste typical dishes such as langos, mojitos, ice creams, hamburgers and hot dogs. Although having a limited time of 4 hours we do not spend a lot of time here. In the surroundings of the spa, there are a number of parks and gardens where we take a pleasant walk. There is also an artificial pond with ducks and where we rent small boats.

In short, Miskolctapolca offered us a unique spa experience, in the interior of the mountain.

After the days in Budapest, the visit to the vineyards and the castle of Eger, and the spa of Miskolctapolca, we went from the east of Hungary to the west of the country, to the region of Lake Balaton. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful. In particular, its northern coast fascinated me. Lake Balaton is the largest lake in central Europe, and in fact, it is nicknamed the Hungarian Sea.

It is the main holiday destination for Hungarians and a good part of Austrians and Germans. Due to its elongated shape, it is basically divided into the north coast and the south coast. The north is characterized by its gentle mountains, wine regions, abbeys and a discreet and restful tourism.

The south coast, totally flat, concentrates the biggest hotels, discos, festivals, and tourists who seek sun, beach, and party. The most populated city is Siófok, which is de facto known as the "capital". Before reaching Balatonfüred we see a curious cemetery whose tombstones have a heart shape. It is located in the village of Balatonudvari.

Our destination was Balatonfüred, the main town on the north coast. Our visit coincided with the Wine Festival held every summer on the Tagore promenade, next to the lake. It was a perfect place to taste the Hungarian wines at the wooden tables and benches. There was also the typical Magyar cuisine such as sausages, meats, langos and the popular Hekk.

We taste them in the shade of the huge trees that cover this walk with the beautiful views of the lake, the swans and the Tihany abbey in the background. Our accommodation was typical of this place. It was a large house of a Hungarian couple that has converted part of the building into guest rooms, located near the center. Of course, the usual dip was not lacking in one of the "beaches" conditioned by the lake. It was a pleasure to dive into these warm waters that exceed 25ºC.

In addition to taking the scorching sun of the Hungarian summer, we sit in the grass tasting an ice cream or a Bozda lemonade. We also visited the nearby peninsula of Tihany (in my opinion the most beautiful place in the whole lake), located a few kilometers from Balatonfüred. We take a walk along the hill where the famous abbey is located, contemplating from the heights the lake and the sailing boats that dot its calm turquoise waters.

In this same place, we visit many craft stalls and the spectacular lavender store. The tourist train that ascends to the town of Tihany from the port saves us the climb on foot to the abbey. We choose the boat to go to Tihany, which departs from Balatonfüred.

In the second part of our stay on the north coast of Balaton, we visited the town of Badacsony, famous for its wineries and restaurants. We leave the car in the parking lot next to the main road to go around the small port. Then we go up the road to taste some wines in the winery Laposa, which offers spectacular views of the Balaton and surroundings thanks to the height at which it is, as well as good wine and cheese and sausages.

After this, we returned to the car to continue up the road to the end, where is the restaurant, and it is well worth visiting. We eat at a table next to the huge balcony that offers the best views of the lake.

In the next stage of the trip, and last, of it, we had to say goodbye to the wonderful lake Balaton and go south, specifically to the county of Baranya, to enjoy the wineries and spas of this region of the country, next to the border with Croatia. We left behind the extensive central plains to submerge ourselves in a landscape of gently undulating hills, extensive forests, and sloping villages. We were at the gates of the Balkans.

After a couple of hours driving on secondary roads, we arrived at the city of Pécs, which is the capital of Baranya County. We were only for a few hours in this city. It was a pleasure to walk along the slopes and streets of the old part, located on the side of a mountain, between majestic buildings. The mixture of students, locals, and tourists (especially Croats and Serbs) make up a peculiar atmosphere. The great central square has a beautiful mosque (today converted into a cathedral).

After a visit to the mosque, the beer of rigor and touring the old part, we reached a great and sudden storm, so typical of the Hungarian summer, just visiting the cathedral. We barely had time to take refuge in a cafe, until the rain stopped. It was a perfect time to eat at one of the restaurants on Király Street. After this, we took the car we had left in the parking lot of a large commercial area (the nearby Árkád). We traveled the few kilometers that separate Pécs from the Villány wine-making village, where our lodging was.

Its main street has full of wineries on both sides, all of them followed by one another, with its lively atmosphere from the afternoon. In one of those cellars on the main street was our accommodation, located at the back of the building, sheltered from the bustle.

Before nightfall, we went out to enjoy the wines of this region. We tasted several sausages and cheeses, well watered with wines made by the owners. A large group celebrating a dinner, and several small groups filled the small place. On the street of the village, some Hungarians sang typical regional songs, on the way to their lodgings, after having tasted wines. We returned to our accommodation well into the night, where we had a quiet drink of the last glass of wine before going to bed. Any winery on this street is worth it as they are all similar.

The last day of the trip we enjoyed in the resort of Harkány. I was surprised by its enormous size, considering that it was in the provinces, away from the majestic and imperial Budapest. Harkány is a small thermal town of about 4,000 inhabitants. It focuses its economy on the tourism that generates from its large spa. It is very popular among the elderly. Inside there are two huge outdoor thermal pools, one more temperate and one hotter, connected to the interior of the building.

Finally, before getting into the car and traveling back to Budapest, we toured the market and the fair that was held these days in the town, coinciding with our visit, and putting an end to unforgettable holidays in Hungary.
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