Finding places to recommend in the countryside is not easier than do the same in Budapest. There are tons of wonderfully inspiring regions worth visiting for their artisan crafts, healing thermal baths (Hungary has more than a 1000 thermal hot springs), wine culture (like wines of Tokaj), horse riding experience or simply their natural beauties. The following are a few of my favourites that I intimately know and adore.
Szentendre is a small riverside town just north of the capital city Budapest. It is known for its museums (like the Open-Air Ethnographic Museum), and several galleries. Since the early 20th century generations of Hungarian artists chose Szentendre as their home and inspiration. Artist schools, workshops stand witness to that as they are part of the town’s cultural heritage, be it painting, pottery or other artisan crafts. If you like contemporary visual art, you come to the right place (e.g.: Margit Kovács Ceramic Collection, Jenő Barcsay Collection, etc.). Since it’s close to Budapest, you can even take a river boat from the capital operating on a regular schedule to get to town.
I used to come here to relax, to take a walk through the winding cobblestone streets and along the Danube, or just to have a nice meal in one of the riverside cafes or restaurants. Alternatively visit the local Marzipan Museum, or enjoy one of the summer festivals, like the Annual Beer Festival offering mostly local artisan and flavoured beer, open-air theatre performances and much more. When you visit here however, come with a purpose, otherwise it’s easy to get sucked into one of the many souvenir stores offering local goodies. Sure enough, most of these stores are overpriced, sometimes not always authentic. Also the town tends to be quite crowded on sunny summer days.
Szeged is my second favourite city after Budapest. I was born and spent the first 10 years of my life here. I don’t remember much of those times, but what I do, always triggers a strong emotional response. This city, no matter how much it changed since I left, is part of me, as I am part of it. Coming back here always feels like coming home. Szeged is situated near the southern border of Hungary, and it’s been here since ancient times. Even when still surrounded by swamps it was still an important transit town, and served many times as the first line of defence against enemy hordes and troops approaching from the Balkan. After the Great Flood of 1879, which literally wiped away the whole town (barely 250 of the more than 5700 houses remained standing), emperor Franz Joseph promised that Szeged will be more beautiful than it ever used to be. He kept his promise. During the next years a modern city emerged, with palaces and improved infrastructure. Today streets bear the names of the cities that helped Szeged in the restoration (Berlin, Paris, Moscow, etc.)
Szeged is also known as the home of red powdered paprika spice. Paprika arrived in Hungary and was cultivated in the late 16th century; today it’s one of the signature ingredients of the region (both vegetable and spice), and is coveted globally. The other world famous specialty of Szeged is the Pick salami (also called Winter Salami); made of pork, spiced according to a secret recipe, cold smoked and ripened, finally the salami becomes covered with noble mould giving it its unique flavour. Today the ripening process is achieved in a controlled environment, but traditionally salami masters were employed to look after the perfect humidity conditions throughout the ripening process, by opening and closing the windows of the storeroom overlooking the river. Szeged is also famous for its Halászlé, a fish soup made of carp and catfish. Trust me, you get the best in Szeged, if you know where to look, like the restaurant Sótartó. Don’t miss the annual International Tisza Fish Festival (a halászlé cooking and tasting event) in September, or the opening event of the Szeged Summer Festival, the 10 days long Szeged Wine Festival in May with 120 wine makers, 200 artisans, and 250 different programs. Both well worth the trip.
Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe, located in the Transdanubian region of Hungary. Its size and climate make it one of the country’s most visited tourist destinations. The mountain region on the northern shore bears great character and is one of the country’s many major wine regions. The lake acts as a giant mirror reflecting the sunlight, and the large water surface increases humidity in the region; these conditions combined with the volcanic soil create a Mediterranean-like microclimate providing excellent conditions for the grapes. Don’t take my word for it, go and try it yourself. One of my favourite of the picturesque towns of the northern shore is Tihany, since it has the best view of the lake. It’s also famous (at least used to be) for the echo: anything shouted from the “echo stone” would reverberate from the walls of the nearby Benedictine abbey and come around in 2 seconds. Unfortunately due to changes in the landscape and infrastructural developments the echo has abated. Interesting trivia: as of 2013 the town’s inhabitants have the highest average income per capita, and the town has the highest housing prices in all of Hungary. Another favourite of mine is Keszthely, one of the more important cultural hubs in the region, famous for its baroque castle, Festetics Palace.
The flat southern shore is girdled with charming resort towns. Also Balaton Sound, one of Europe’s largest open air music festivals is held here every year. During the summer months there are several activities available, including sailing, fishing, “water biking”, even wind surfing. The lake also hosts several major sport events, like the annual Super Marathon event around the lake, or the Lake Balaton cross swimming competition. The lake’s surface usually freezes over during the winter, which makes it safe for ice skating (within the official perimeters of course), and ice fishing. If you’re not into sports, visit the wineries on the north coast, climb the hills to enjoy the magnificent panorama, or submerge yourself in the nightlife on the southern shore.
Other beautiful must see locations in the countryside: the Caves of Aggtelek Karst, Eger and the Bükk National Park (include Szilvásvárad and Lillafüred), Tokaj and the surrounding wine region, Hollókő, City of Pécs and the Villány wine region, Tokaj and the surrounding wine region, Sopron. The list of things to see and do is almost endless.
If you’re interested in programs (festivals, sport events, etc.) across the country, visit http://www.hungaryprogramtourism.com for more information.
Next time I’ll take a look at Hungary’s booming food culture and its best
culinary delights. In the meantime, enjoy my gallery here.