Budapest, Hungary’s capital, ranks high on many European itineraries, thanks to its historical character, esteemed thermal baths, vibrant ruin bars, world-class museums, and picturesque setting on the Danube River. But we recommend also exploring the country’s smaller cities, villages, and diverse nature offerings -- all of which complement the big-city attractions. After all, Hungary has long functioned as a European crossroads, having been shaped by Hapsburg rule, Soviet-style Communism, and the fact that it shares borders with seven countries (Austria, Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine). Here are five day-trip destinations to keep in mind when planning your next visit to the “Pearl of the Danube.”
Hungary’s former capital is a must-see for history and architecture buffs. Having served as the royal seat for 300 years (from the 10th to 13th centuries), as well as the center for Roman Catholicism in the region, Esztergom is dominated by marvelous historical relics. The Castle Hill area is home to many of the main attractions — notably the Esztergom Basilica, whose 236-foot-high dome is likely the first sign of the city you’ll see when coming from Budapest. The original church structure was destroyed by Ottoman invaders, but much of the chapel survived, including scores of Renaissance sculptures and carvings (with just a few missing cherub heads). A 17th-century mosque stands as proof that not all Ottoman influence was destructive — the ornate structure functions as a museum today. Speaking of which, Esztergom is packed with museums covering many aspects of its rich history, including the Danube, Castle, and Christian Museums.
The city is situated on the banks of the Danube, just across from the Slovakian border. It’s an easy walk across the Mária Valéria bridge to Štúrovo, a modestly sized city in Slovakia that’s known for its thermal baths that also grant the best views of Esztergom.
2. Lake Balaton
Lake Balaton extends nearly 48 miles through western Hungary, giving it the distinction of being Central Europe’s largest lake. Lucky for landlocked Hungary, Lake Balaton’s shoreline features numerous beaches and tranquil swimming spots. The southern shore is much more developed, including Siófok — Hungary’s liveliest resort town. During the summer months, quaint Siófok’s beach clubs and bars come alive as the town swells from 25,000 to nearly 200,000. However, with 147 miles of coastline, it’s not too hard to beat the crowds.
Across the lake on the northern shores, Balatonfüred offers a more relaxed getaway with its Baroque old town and proximity to some of Hungary’s finest vineyards. On the far western shores, charming Keszthely was a popular summer retreat for Hungarian royalty, demonstrated by the Festetics Palace. Today, the public can enjoy the palace’s extravagant gardens during summer concerts or visit the palace cellar. Lake Balaton’s most western point — Keszthely — can be reached in just two hours by car or by daily train connections from Budapest, which make stops in the main towns and villages along the way.
This incredibly picturesque town is well worth the two-hour train journey into Hungary’s eastern hill country. Eger’s compact old town includes scores of well-preserved Baroque buildings, Eger Castle, and a Turkish minaret. The fortified castle, which includes a Gothic palace, art gallery, and numerous underground passageways, is a must-see. One of the best views of the castle can be had after a claustrophobic climb up the 137-foot Turkish minaret — a stunning symbol of Ottoman occupation. Meanwhile, Eger’s thermal baths and wine cellars provide relaxing respite from a busy itinerary. For wine tasting, head to the Valley of the Beautiful Women to sample the local vinos in a handful of cellars. While Lake Balaton is known for its whites, Eger is renowned for its red wine. The robust Egri Bikavér, which translates to Bull’s Blood, is made by blending local Kékfrankos grapes with two or more varieties. Legend has it that Egri Bikavér helped Eger deter Ottoman invaders, who believed it was actually bull’s blood. Avid hikers should consider extending their stay in Eger to explore nearby Bükki Nemzeti Park, which features swaths of dense forest and numerous caves and ravines carved out of the limestone mountains.
Lying just north of Budapest along the Danube, Szentendre has been a popular getaway among Hungarian artists for nearly a century. Today, the town’s pastel-hued buildings largely operate as art galleries, craft shops, and cafes catering to tourists. Starting from the riverfront promenade, Szentendre can be easily covered by foot. Meander uphill through the cobblestoned lanes to earn a view over the red-roofed homes and church spires. Be sure to stop in at some of Szentendre’s most revered art museums, such as the Ferenczy Museum, which is housed in a historic villa, or ArtMill to inspect Hungary’s contemporary art movement. Beyond the museums, the galleries and shops verge on tacky, but the beautifully preserved town and plethora of Hungarian art make it worth a visit. Szentendre’s proximity to the capital has accelerated tourism development here, causing the cobblestoned streets and craft markets to swell in the summer months, especially on weekends. Consider making the roughly 12-mile journey from Budapest by bicycle or ferry boat as well.
Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, has long been overshadowed by other capital cities, such as Vienna, Prague, and Budapest. To be fair, Bratislava only became a capital city in 1993, after the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into modern-day Czech Republic and Slovakia. The urban center features the standard trimmings of other Central European cities: a colorful old town, a castle perched above town, and charming cafes. That being said, Bratislava has some less-conventional attractions, such as the UFO-style observation deck atop the Most SNP bridge. Enter the Danube-adjacent Old Town through the surviving medieval gate. Further in, Baroque palaces, university buildings, and numerous street-side cafes line the historic cobblestoned streets. During Christmas and Easter, connecting town squares hold lively holiday markets. Though it’s impossible to visit Bratislava without spotting the looming Bratislava Castle, it’s worth trekking uphill to access the castle grounds for a view of the city. The castle also houses the Slovak National Museum and lies a short walk from the ominous Slavín monument. This massive landmark honors thousands of Soviet soldiers who died while liberating the city from Nazi forces — over 6,000 of the soldiers are buried in the shadow of the obelisk. The Hotel Galéria Spirit, a more cheerful attraction, is made up of various materials and colors and houses an art gallery. Bratislava is a two-and-a-half-hour train trip from Budapest, making it a possible day trip or stopover between Vienna and the Hungarian capital.
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