Culturally and linguistically distinct from all of its immediate neighbours, Hungary is very much the ‘odd one out’ in Central Europe, but for all the most honourable reasons.
This is a nation whose capital, Budapest, can hold up a mirror to classical Vienna; it’s a world of well-preserved castles, seductively good wines and quiet stoic pride; a landscape of low-lying mountains, oak forests and thermal springs.
The Romans were the first to make use of the hot waters, originally for medicinal purposes. Today, the pursuit is relaxation and over time the bathhouses have grown into splendid architectural affairs, most notably in Budapest.
The capital is an elegant, stylish and lively city made up of two separate settlements clustered on either side of the Danube River: hilly Buda has a wealth of graceful Habsburg and neoclassical buildings, while sprawling Pest is its commercial centre with a generous scattering of art nouveau architecture and an ad-hoc party scene.
The city has long been the focus of Hungary’s artistic, musical and literary community and is by far the best place in the country for a choice of bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
Smaller cities are equally architecturally fascinating and deserving of a visit in their own right: Pécs for its museums; Eger for it’s fortifications and infamous Bull’s Blood Wine; and Györ whose grand Basilica houses the golden herm of László.
Beyond these urban centres, Hungary’s bathes in natural delights. South west of Budapest is Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest body of freshwater, where locals spend hot summers cooling off in waters that average 20°C (68°F).
In winter, Hungary freezes, and thrill seekers head north to the Bakony Hills for the chance to ski through the forests before unwinding with a dip in the thermal spa.
It may be landlocked, but Hungary is a country content on ploughing its own furrow no matter what seeds its neighbours are sewing and is all the better for it.
Religion in Hungary
Christianity: 52% Roman Catholic, 16% Calvinist, 3% Lutheran, 2.6% Greek Catholic and a small number of other Christian, Eastern Orthodox and Jewish minorities.
Social Conventions in Hungary
When meeting a Hungarian, handshaking is customary and both first name and surname should be used. At a meal, toasts are usually made and should be returned. Gifts such as flowers, chocolates, or a bottle of good quality wine are acceptable for hosts as a token of thanks – particularly when invited for a meal. Smoking, although popular in Hungary, is prohibited on public transport in towns and public buildings. English is quite widely spoken in tourist areas, but some knowledge of German can also prove useful.
Language in Hungary
Hungarian (Magyar) is the official language. German and English are widely spoken by both the older and younger generations. Some French is also spoken, mainly in western Hungary.
Weather and climate
Best time to visit
Hungary has a mild continental climate. There are four distinct seasons, with a very warm summer from June to August where temperatures can rise to as high as 35°C (95°F). Spring and autumn are mild, while winters are very cold, as low as -10°C (14°F), and not a good time to visit rural areas – although city breaks are enjoyable at any time of year. The south of the country around Pécs is a little warmer on average, although the region still experiences snowfall in winter. Annual rainfall is an average of 6cm (23 inches) and is relatively evenly distributed throughout the year, with snowfall common in winter.
Lightweights for summer, medium weight clothing for spring and heavier clothing for autumn and winter. Waterproofs can prove useful at any time of year. Long-sleeved shirts, trousers, boots and hats should be worn to protect exposed skin in forested, grassy and lakeside areas in summer to prevent bites from ticks.
Hungary is situated in Central Europe, sharing borders to the north with Slovakia, to the northeast with Ukraine, to the east with Romania, to the south with Croatia and Serbia, and to the west with Austria and Slovenia.
Despite much of the country lying lower than 200m (656ft), there are several ranges of hills, chiefly in the north and west. The country’s highest point is Kékes in the Matra Mountains northeast of Budapest, which is 1,014m (3,327ft) high. Other, relatively low, mountain ranges include the North Hungarian Mountains, the Transdanubian Mountains and Mecsek north of Pécs. The lowest point, near Szeged in southern Hungary, is just 77m (253ft) above sea level.
The Great Hungarian Plain, which stretches northeast from the Danube to the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, east to the mountains of Transylvania in Romania, and south to the Fruška Gora range in Serbia, covers more than half of Hungary’s total territory. It is flat and low-lying throughout, never exceeding more than 183m (591ft) in height. The Little Hungarian Plain is similar, but much smaller, and lies in northwest Hungary next to the Austrian and Slovakian borders.
Two major European rivers run through Hungary, the Danube and the Tisza. The former flows through Budapest on its way to the Black Sea via Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. The River Tisza, which has its source in Ukraine, flows south through Hungary into Vojvodina in northern Serbia, where it joins with the Danube. Both rivers are navigable in Hungary. Smaller rivers include the Rába, Szamos, Sío and the Drava, which largely defines the Croatian border.
Hungary has no coastline, but the country is home to Lake Balaton in west-central Hungary, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘Hungarian Sea’. Lake Balaton is a regionally important freshwater lake, the largest in Central Europe, with a surface area of 592 sq km (229 sq miles). At 78km (48 miles) long and up to 14km (9 miles) wide, it’s Hungary’s largest recreational area and a popular destination for both summer swimming and winter sports. Hungary also has two much smaller lakes: Lake Velence, which is a bird reserve, and Lake Fertö, which straddles the Austrian border near Sopron.
Safety and security
Take sensible precautions against petty crime. Bag snatching and pick-pocketing are common, especially in Budapest. Be particularly careful on busy public transport, in train stations, at markets and at other places frequented by tourists. Theft of and from vehicles is common. Don’t carry large amounts of cash.
Always ask to see the menu and price list before ordering drinks or food and check your bill carefully before settling up. Some restaurants and bars have been known to charge extortionate amounts and take tourists to cash points to demand more money. You should report any such incident to the police.
Some taxi drivers are accomplices in these frauds. They may receive a commission to recommend certain bars, clubs and restaurants to passengers. Never ask a taxi driver to recommend a bar or club. If a driver offers to take you to one, or you are approached on the street with an invitation to enter a club, treat that advice with caution. As a general rule it is better to phone for a taxi from a reputable local company. Be careful in establishments where menus do not properly display prices.
There have been some reported instances of drinks being spiked. Be sure to buy your own drinks and keep sight of them at all times.
Although there is no recent history of terrorism in Hungary, attacks can’t be ruled out. You should be aware of the risk of indiscriminate terrorist attacks which could be in public areas, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers.
There is a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.
Find out more about the global threat from terrorism, how to minimise your risk and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack.
In 2016 there were 607 road deaths in Hungary (source: Department for Transport). This equates to 6.2 road deaths per 100,000 of population and compares to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2016.
It is illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol. You must use headlights on roads outside towns even in daytime. In winter, you must equip your car for severe conditions.
Hungary operates a toll system for the use of some major roads in the country. You must buy a motorway vignette at a petrol station, post office or online in advance, in order to use these roads. Further information about driving in Hungary can be found in the guides provided by the AA, RAC and European Commission
If you travel by overnight train, try to avoid travelling alone and secure your compartment from the inside.
Public transport in Budapest
Foreign visitors are often caught out by the ticket system in Budapest, and fined by ticket inspectors. Follow the passenger information notices, which are usually printed in English. Validate your ticket before starting your journey (before you get to the platform if travelling by Metro; and immediately after boarding buses, trams or trolley buses). Keep your ticket until the end of your journey and show it to inspectors on request. You have to validate another ticket every time you change lines.
A special ticket is required for use on the night service network.
For more information on ticket conditions and prices, visit the website of the Budapest Transport Authority.
Community regulations ensure the free movement of goods between EU member states. This means that no customs procedures are required for exporting goods from Hungary to another EU member state and/or for importing goods from a member state to Hungary. The export and import of goods purchased for non-commercial purposes (for personal use or as gifts) while travelling is not restricted, however, the transport of certain goods (such as: pets, hunting weapons, alcohol and tobacco products, medicines containing drugs, etc.) within the European Union is restricted or subject to special permissions.
Check the customs regulations before entering or leaving Hungary on the National Tax and Customs Administration of Hungary website.
Local laws and customs
Carry your passport at all times. You must be able to show some form of ID if requested. A photocopy is not acceptable.
Hungarian laws on the possession and use of drugs are strict.
Same-sex relationships and civil partnerships are legal in Hungary but same-sex marriages aren’t recognised in Hungarian law. Budapest is generally tolerant and open; the city hosts the largest Pride Festival in Central Europe with an annual turnout of over 10,000 people. You should be aware that outside of Budapest public displays of affection may be frowned upon or attract unwanted attention. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.
Your passport should be valid for the proposed duration of your stay; you do not need any additional period of validity on your passport beyond this.
If you’re a British citizen, you don’t need a visa to enter Hungary. If you intend to stay more than 90 days, you must register with the nearest regional Immigration Office.
The local currency is Hungarian Forint.
Legislation on the controls of cash entering or leaving the EU applies in all Member States. Any person entering or leaving the EU will have to declare the cash that they are carrying if this amounts to 10,000 Euros (or equivalent) or more; this includes cheques, travellers’ cheques, money orders, etc. This will not apply to anyone travelling via the EU to a non-EU country, as long as the original journey started outside of the EU and will not apply to those travelling within the EU.
Don’t use street money changers. Take care not to accept bank notes that are no longer valid but which are still in circulation. There have been a small number of reports of taxi drivers deliberately passing these notes to tourists – as well as notes from neighbouring countries that are not valid in Hungary.
Hungarian National Tourist Office (HNTO) in the USA
Address: 447 Broadway, 5th floor, New York, 10013
Telephone: (212) 695 1221.
By appointment only.
Hungarian National Tourist Office (HNTO) in the UK
Address: 46 Eaton Place, London, SW1X 8AL
Telephone: (800) 3600 0000 (24-hour English-language free enquiry line).
By appointment only.
Brace yourself for brandy at Kecskemét
En route to Szeged from Budapest, Kecskemét is an attractive town with several museums and a fine selection of art nouveau architecture. At the centre of Hungary’s fruit growing region, the town is renowned for its many varieties of pálinka (fruit brandy). “In small amounts a medicine, in large amounts a remedy,” the locals tend to slur.
Discover both halves of the capital
Explore Buda’s elevated cobbled streets and take in the spectacular view of the Danube from the Fisherman’s Bastion. In Pest, admire the Hungarian Parliament and Museum of Applied Arts, or unearth the treasures at the Hungarian National Museum. Fans of Socialist-era statuary should take a trip out to the suburbs to visit Memento Statue Park.
Explore a former European Capital of Culture, Pécs
Pécs, the fifth largest city in the country, is also home to one of the oldest universities in Europe and has many fine examples of architecture from the Ottoman period, most notably the 16th-century mosque of Gázi Kászim Pasha. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Early Christian Necropolis is also located here, alongside many fine examples of Habsburg period buildings.
Explore the architecture of Eger
Pay a visit to Eger in northern Hungary, one of the country’s oldest and most colourful cities, which boasts around 200 historical monuments that include a castle, a 14-sided Ottoman minaret and a classically-finished basilica, complete with outstanding frecos, domed ceiling and mighty columned entrance.
Find fine fishing at the River Tisza
Fish in the River Tisza, regarded as one of Europe’s premier angling spots. At points, wide and wild, it can seem like you have the whole river to yourself. Accommodation for anglers is readily available, and guides can be hired if required. Species such as carp, bream, pike, trout and tench are abundant.
Get to know glorious Györ
In the northwest of Hungary, close to the Slovakian and Austrian borders, Györ has cobbled pedestrian shopping streets and an attractive baroque city centre. Just an hour and a half by train from Budapest, the city makes for a pleasant day trip from the capital.
Hark back to Hungary’s rural heritage at Hollókő
Travel back in time at Hollókő, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed ethnographic village. Spread over 145 hectares (358 acres), the settlement has been deliberately preserved as an example of life before the agricultural revolution. Northeast of Budapest, there is around 60 wattle and daub houses and the substantial remnants of a 13th-century castle.
Hike the heights of Hungary
Go hiking in Hungary’s mountainous northeast region. The Zemplén, Bükk and Mátra ranges northeast of Budapest are popular for their stunning verdant landscapes, with the latter containing Hungary’s highest peak, Kékes (1,014m/3,327ft). For easier terrain, head to the hills north and south of Lake Balaton.
Keep your hawk’s eye peeled at Hortobágy National Park
Go birdwatching in Hortobágy National Park, a vast area of grassland in eastern Hungary. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1999, around 350 species have been spotted here, including storks, warblers, eagles, herons and rare great bustards. Motorised vehicles are not allowed in some parts of the park, while other parts require a guide.
Luxuriate in Budapest’s beautiful baths
Relax at one of Budapest’s thermal springs and medicinal baths, of which there are over 100 in the city. The elegant Gellért Baths, with a domed hall and frescoed ceilings, are the most famous. Other good options include the Király Medicinal Baths, which date from the Middle Ages; the historic Rudas Medicinal Baths; and Széchenyi Baths’ splendid outdoor pools.
Ride the Great Plain on horseback
Take to the saddle and explore the Great Hungarian Plain. Head to Puszta, home to several stud farms and the infamous “Putszta Five” technique, where a single rider stands to gallop five horses simultaneously. Excursions along horse riding trails can be arranged through riding schools all over the country. Worry not: saddles are included.
Seek out Szeged for a spot of sunshine
Visit Hungary’s sunniest city is the lively university town of Szeged. Straddling the Tisza River, this cultured city is home to many fine churches and a pleasant, pedestrianised cafe culture. Each summer, below the twin-towered Dóm tér, its main square transforms into a large open-air theatre.
Sink your teeth into Sopron
Head west to the delightful medieval cities of Sopron and Kőszeg. Sopron boasts 240 listed buildings, including the 12th-century Firewatch Tower, Storno House and the Gothic Goat Church, while Kőszeg’s Jurisics tér contains a treasure-trove of baroque, renaissance and Gothic architecture. With over 300 clinics, Sopron is also the self-proclaimed ‘dental capital of the world’.
Sip Hungary’s famous Bull’s Blood wine
Spend time exploring the Szépasszony Valley vineyards, one of the country’s numerous wine regions, where Hungary’s famous Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) wine can be sampled. Some of the country’s very best reds can be found around Villány in the far south, whilst Miskolc in the northeast (part of the Tokaj region) is famous for its distinctive dessert wines.
Soak yourself healthy in Hévíz thermal lake
Soak away the stress in the large thermal lake at Hévíz near Lake Balaton. The soothing waters, which rarely drop below 23°C (73°F) in winter and 33°C (91°F) in summer, will certainly leave you feeling refreshed – some even consider them to have health-giving properties.
Stay outside for culture at Sóstói Open-Air Museum
Get a taste of the rural Hungary of old at the Open-Air Museum at Sóstói, a suburb of the city of Nyíregyháza in eastern Hungary. The architecture here preserves the rural traditions and culture of the region and the museum also holds several festivals each summer.
Take a beach break at Lake Balaton
Lake Balaton in Hungary’s Transdanubian region is Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake. Visit one of the resorts that surround the shores such as Siófok, popular with the young for its beaches and nightlife; or the more sedate market town of Keszthely, with its elegant Festetics Palace. Lake Balaton also has plentiful sandy beaches that bustle in summer.
Travel around the Danube Bend
Visit the historic towns along the Danube Bend. Szentendre is famous for its south European atmosphere, large artists’ colony and numerous museums. Visegrád has a small castle and the remains of an early Renaissance palace. Esztergom is home to the impressive Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumed Into Heaven and St Adalbert, Hungary’s tallest building.