The Best European Destination this Year
There are few places in the world like Hungary. The capital city of Budapest has become an icon amongst other important European cities and a dream for travelers, with rich history, magnificent architecture and beautiful folk culture. Divided in half by the legendary Danube River, Hungary is landlocked in Central Europe, bordered by Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Ukraine, all of which have had a role in the development of what Hungary is today.
Hungary is a wonderful country with a long, significant history. Evidence suggests that the Carpathian Basin was inhabited since the Paleolithic period by Magyar hunting tribes that soon turned to agriculture as a way to survive climate changes. Through centuries, many nations introduced the use of copper, bronze and iron into their way of life, as both tools and weapons. Later on, they also began to use glass for art pieces; some of which are now exhibited at the most important museums in Hungary.
A few decades before the Christian era, Octavian commanded the Roman forces to invade the territory that today spans Hungary, part of Austria and some Balkan countries like Serbia and Croatia, thus establishing the province of Pannonia—west and north of the Danube River and later known as Pest. The mighty empire continued to expand and eventually conquered the east of the region and founded Dacia—also known as Buda. The territory suffered many changes. A century later, the Romans abandoned both Pannonia and Dacia, and the territory was overrun by Germanic tribes. These peoples were eventually conquered in the 6th century by the Avars, a group of Asian tribes that were subsequently submitted by Charlemagne and converted to Christianity.
Despite all of this, the native Magyar peoples prevail to this day, and they have been widely associated with Hungarian culture and roots throughout history. There came a time in which they had to adapt, though, and by the second half of the 900s, they had become civilized after the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great defeated them in battle. Hungary’s Grand Prince Géza brought peace with the Holy Roman Empire and implemented Christianity amongst his people. Little is known about the emergence of the Magyar royalty—the first known ruler from the Hungarian dynasty was Levedi, and the only record from his life was written by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus. But it was in the year of 1000 that Géza’s son, Stephen, ascended to the throne and became the first king of Hungary.
The new king, also called King Saint Stephen, wore the Holy Crown of Hungary, given to him by Pope Sylvester II, and which stands to this day as a national symbol of Hungary, safeguarded and on display at the Parliament in Budapest since the year of 2000. They say a Hungarian king wasn’t a true king unless crowned with this magnificent and historical piece.
The Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe in 1241 interrupted the 300-year rule by the Árpád, the first Hungarian dynasty. Batu Khan, the Mongol leader, defeated the armies of King Béla IV and pillaged the kingdom. However, a year later, the supreme khan died unexpectedly and the Mongol forces withdrew from the territory. King Béla, who had fled to a faraway fortress, returned to Hungary and began working on its restoration. He was named “The Second Founder of our Country” by his people due to his commitment to rebuild the kingdom. The Árpád Dynasty became extinct in 1301, and the coronation of Charles I nine years later marked the beginning of a period when kings from Luxembourg and Hapsburg, among others, ruled in Hungary for 216 years.
The Great Turkish War
The kingdom of Hungary came to an end with the death of the last king, Louis II, after losing a battle against Sultan Suleiman I, from the Ottoman Empire. Thus, Archduke of Austria Ferdinand of the House of Habsburg was crowned as king and Hungary became part of the Hapsburg Empire. Conflict with the Ottoman Empire increased during this period and, in 1529, the Turks successfully occupied Buda, the eastern side of Hungary, and ruled for almost 150 years.
The wars between Christianity and Islam grew in force. The Holy Roman Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Republic of Venice were on a mission to expel the Ottoman Turks from Europe. The conflict culminated in the Great Turkish War, which lasted fifteen years. During this time, most of Hungary’s territory was recovered, and the Turks ceded the rest through the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire
After the Ottomans cleared the territory, several conflicts arose between Hungarian rebels and Austrian forces. However, Hungary was finally defeated in the Battle of Trenčín in 1708. The Hapsburg Dynasty ruled over Hungary for over two centuries packed with discontent, rebel forces and anti-Austria groups. In 1849, the Hungarian Revolution failed to achieve the independence of the people, and they continued to live under the oppression of the then Austrian world power.
The Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 unified the two nations to create the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During this time, the new Empire experienced significant economic and technological growth; however, the two states were independent from the other, and in 1918, by the end of the Great War, Hungary finally regained independence and 72% of its lost territory through the Treaty of Trianon, signed in 1920.
A European Nation
When World War II began in 1939, Hungary, led by Miklós Horthy, became Germany’s ally. Together they invaded Russia and Yugoslavia, and enacted antisemitic laws, deporting over 20,000 Jews. Hungary supported Germany for most of the war, until 1944 when the Allies were gaining advantage; this prompted Horthy to try to cut ties with Hitler, but his decision resulted in the invasion of Hungary by Nazi Germany. A new government was implemented, and Adolf Eichmann, a Senior Assault Unit Leader for the SS, was in charge of imprisoning more than 80,000 people in Poland’s concentration camps. Around 200 camps were built in Hungary and over 40,000 Jews were taken to Auschwitz.
On December 1944, Soviet troops freed the country from the German occupation. And by the end of the war, Hungary remained under Communist Russia. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Hungary hoped to be freed. In 1955, the Warsaw Pact was signed as a Treaty of friendship between the Soviet Union and eastern countries: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Romania and Hungary. A year later, following Poland’s example, the people of Queen of the Danubebegan to protest, demanding democracy and freedom from the Soviet Union.
Imre Nagy was appointed by the Communist Party to lead and appease the revolts. However, he was the one who announced the withdrawal of Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. On November 4, 1956, the Soviet Union invaded the Magyar nation armed with 6,000 tanks and the uprising was quelled violently, resulting in the deaths of 2,500 Hungarians and the capture and murder of Nagy. The country lived under the oppressing hand of Communist Russia, until 1989, the year the USSR collapsed.
Hungary is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and you can visit all of them. The whole city of Budapest is one of them. Yes, despite a grueling past of invasions, war, violence, genocide and loss, the capital city of Hungary, Budapest, has risen above the unexpected and has been designated, along with the Danube River, as cultural patrimony since 1987. It has also become a top tourist destination for people searching for uniqueThey Call her Queen of the Danubeures that range from historic tours to a modern urban experience.
The first stop in our journey across the land of the Magyar must be the Hungarian Parliament Building. A tour through its grandiose halls will allow you to appreciate the true Gothic and Renaissance revival that comprise this impressive piece of architecture, decorated with more than 40kg of 23 carat gold. The Holy Crown of Hungary is majestically displayed in the central Dome Hall. When Germany invaded Hungary during the Second War, the Crown was taken to the US to protect it, and it remained there until US President Jimmy Carter decided to return it in 1978, a decision that was met with controversy because Hungary was still under the Soviet rule. However, President Carter believed the Crown belonged to the Hungarian people and thus it returned home. Now you can’t miss the chance to visit this historic relic that symbolized the grandeur of the former kingdom.
Equally imposing is St. Stephen's Basilica, 96 meters tall with capacity for 8,500 people. It took more than 50 years to build. You can visit the cathedral and pay a small fee to access the observation deck or you can take a guided tour to learn about its history. You can also attend classical music concerts throughout the year. Most of what you see in Hungary will most likely be a cultural experience. So rest assured that there will be plenty to choose from in terms or art, music, dance and historical sites.
The Millenary Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma and its Natural Environment was first established by monks in 996. This monastic building is significant because the role it played in the diffusion of Christianity in medieval times, and to this day it continues to teach the Rule of St. Benedict, implemented nearly 1500 years ago. It was denominated as World Heritage for its outstanding value by UNESCO in 1996. You can hire a private guide for a tour through sites of interest that include the Archabbey Winery, the Chapel of Our Lady, the Millennium Monument, the Abbey Restaurant and Wine Bar, and the Abbey Museum and Gallery.
Similarly, the spectacular Buda Castle, home of the former kings of Hungary, sits on Castle Hill and harbors the Hungarian National Gallery and The Budapest History Museum. The site offers several tours that cover interesting and relevant locations worth visiting. These include the Fisherman’s Bastion, which offers the best views of the whole city, the lovely Matthias Church, founded by St. Stephen in 1015 and featuring Neo-gothic paintings depicting the war with the Turks. You can also pay a visit to locations like Disz Square, Holy Trinity Square and Hess Andras Square.
To get up to Castle Hill when you don’t feel like hiking, you can ride the Buda funicular, built in 1870. It’s a fun historical ride, albeit slow that will make you feel like you’re back in the 19th century. It was rebuilt after it was destroyed by bombings during WWII. At the foot of the funicular, you’ll find the Chain Bridge—the first bridge that connected Buda and Pest. When the two cities became the capital we know today in 1873, the bridge stood as a symbol of unity. János Marschalkó sculpted the lions that guard each side of the bridge and which represent power. A boat ride down the Danube will provide amazing views of both sides of the river and the bridge itself.
The Ones Who Will Never Be Forgotten
Although Christianity has deep roots in the history of Hungary, this central European country is also home to a large Jewish community. Budapest is home to the second largest synagogue in the world and largest in Europe. The Great Synagogue of Budapest in Dohány Street, along with the Jewish Museum, located in the same building, offers tours for anyone who wants to learn about Jewish heritage. It was built at the site of an old guetto from World War II—nearly 2,600 Jewish people, victims of the holocaust, were buried in what today is the Raul Wallenberg Memorial Garden. The Tree of Life Memorial, designed by Imre Varga in 1991, honors the victims, with their family names inscribed in its metal leaves.
You will find another memorial of the victims of the Holocaust along the Danube Promenade, by the river banks. When the Nazi took control of Hungary, around 20,000 Jews were forced to take their shoes off before being executed by the river. A monument to the victims that consist of 60 pairs of shoes from that period, sculpted in iron, was created by film director Can Togay and the sculptor Gyula Pauer. Despite this, the promenade is a beautiful space where you can also watch a sunset and walk along the Danube, appreciating the grand views.
Also, The House of Terror is a museum that, named accordingly, serves as a reminder of the horrors the Hungarian community has gone through. The conflict between the far left and the far right had deadly consequences, and it’s important to remember who the victims were as well as the ones responsible. Once, the Hungarian Nazi Party used this building as a headquarters where hundreds were killed. Nowadays, it exposes in glaring detail all the crimes committed during the war by both Nazi and Communist rulers. Dark and imposing, the building became a museum in 2002, featuring shocking and emotional exhibitions of suffering.
But Hungary has found intelligent ways to deal with its heartbreaking history. One of them is Memento Park, an outdoor museum on the outskirts of the city that displays the statues and monuments of former Communist figures. This nation isn’t trying to forget a past of tyranny; it’s succeeding in moving past it. We all need to look at the mistakes made to learn and move on.
So this statue park is a testament of the growth of a country and what it took to get to where it stands today. Here you will find Lenin and Marx, plus Stalin’s boots (the rest of the statue was torn down) in all their lost glory, ironically crammed together in a graveyard of statues that will make for a good instagram post.
A Cultural and Commercial Hub
And well, they say you can’t go to Hungary and miss the chance to visit one of its famous thermal baths—a tradition Hungary inherited from the Ottoman occupation. Throughout history, thermal baths have been used for medicinal purposes, and thousands of tourists travel each year to this city just to experience their healing properties and relaxing nature. Szechenyi Bath is the biggest and more popular of them, and though its 21 pools provide an overall great experience, it can get too overcrowded. Szechenyi dates back to over a hundred years. You can get the whole spa package, if you wish, featuring massages, treatments and more. The Gellért Baths are another option in the wellness sector. Outside of the city, Hévíz is the largest natural thermal lake in the world, rich in minerals like calcium and magnesium that have been used for healing ailments such as arthritis and rheumatism for centuries.
On the other hand, Vörösmarty tér, or square, is definitely the place you need to visit. Located right at the heart of Budapest, is cultural space where you can experience the Hungrian chic way of life—you will find cafés, shops, live events and wonderful architecture all around. The famous Millennium Underground, the first subway in continental Europe, starts here. Completed in 1896, it’s still in use today and you can learn all about its history in the Underground Railway Museum at the Deák Ferenc Square station.
The main attraction at Vörösmarty Square, however, is the legendary Café Gerbeaud, with a history of over 150 years. Visitors from all over the world come here to taste the delicious pastries on offer and high quality coffee. The square will inevitably lead you to Váci Utca, a pedestrian shopping street that will charm you with its elegance, sophistication and wide variety of cafés, restaurants, designer boutiques, shops, and atmosphere. Also near Vörösmarty tér, the State Opera House stands as one of the most characteristic Neo-Renaissance buildings in Hungary. It’s located on Andrássy Avenue and it was build from 1875 to 1884 by Hungarian architect Miklós Ybl. You can attend opera and ballet performances or you can visit on a guided tour, to appreciate the stunning sculptures of some of the best European musicians like Mozart and Beethoven, or Ferenc Erkel—the composer of the Hungarian national anthem. The opera house can accommodate over 1,200 people and events are hosted here almost every day, so don’t miss the chance to see this prestigious musical institution.
The most popular attraction in the city is the Budapest Zoo & Botanical Garden. Inaugurated in 1866, it’s one of the oldest zoos in the world. It spans 12 hectares, where you can get involved in countless activities, learning about both animal and plant species, with 850 and 2,500 species respectively, as well as training and feeding programs, educational presentations and an aquarium. It’s perfect for families with children.
If you’re a fan of gastronomic adventures, you should head over to the Great Market Hall, built in 1897 and located at the center of the city as well. There are guided tours available, through which you can learn about the historical importance of the market, enjoy food and wine tastings, try a bowl of the best goulash soup you’ll ever find, interact with Budapesti people and more. One of the highlights is the iconic Hungarian paprika—whether it’s spicy or sweet, you will find it in abundance here.
From Dusk to Dawn
When the night comes is when the fun begins. A city like Budapest can’t be complete without a ffun party, and luckily for anyone looking for a good time and a couple of cocktails, the city has plenty to offer. Whether it’s at a club, bar, one of the famous rooftop bars or a boat traveling across the Danube, you are likely to have a great time. With a vast offer of bars, clubs, dance halls, cafés, and even bath house parties, you will enjoy the lively atmosphere, with karaoke, music, dancing, drinks and snacks. Peaches and Cream Club, Mazel Tov, Morrison’s 2 and MAD Budapest are some of the hottest venues in the city.
Another cause of celebration and endless partying is Farsang: the carnival season in Hungary. Marred with festivities, masquerades, colorful parades, extravagant balls and much more, its a way to celebrate the arrival of spring. The carnival season is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. The season concludes with Busójárás Festival, which lasts six days and features locals dressed in traditional costumes with masks dancing to folk music and parading, masquerading and participating in different rituals.
Hungary is also home to one of the biggest music festivals in Europe: the Sziget Festival. It is held every August and it lasts a whole week. The biggest musicians in the world headline the main stage each year, covering a wide range of genres, from pop, to hip-hop, EDM and alternative rock—there’s something for everyone. Thousands of people travel to Hungary just to experience this well-organized week-long party.
The UNESCO Natural Wonders
Aside from the luxury, the shopping, the architectonic magnificence that is Budapest, the rich enthralling history, music, art and folklore, Hungary is also home to amazing natural landscapes and formations that you can’t miss on your visit. The Hortobágy National Park is one of the most important for wildlife. It was designated as World Heritage by UNESCO in 1999, and it encompasses 82 thousand hectares of protected land—the largest in Europe. Another natural site included in the World Heritage List is the Fertö/Neusiedler Lake, significant due to its natural value and diversity. The Caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst are also exceptional natural formations that span 25km, the largest cave system in Europe. Over 1,000 caves have formed after million years of erosion, now boasting colorful stalactites and stalagmites. Some say the caves have healing properties for those suffering respiratory disorders.
Hungary has also become one of the most important wine producers in central Europe and the Tokaj Wine Region is considered as the producer of some of the highest quality wines in the world. With a long tradition in winemaking, this region, along with its vineyards, cellars, villages and farms, is a must for wine tasting tours and to enjoy the Hungarian countryside. The diversity in soil, along with the volcanic slopes and the wetlands, have proved favorable for unique grape cultivation. It was inscribed by UNESCO in 2002.
A Destination to Remember
Budapest isn’t known as the Queen of the Danube for nothing. The River splits the city in two and each half has its own distinct personality and atmosphere. You can experience all of this if you immerse yourself in the Magyar culture, the wonder of its architecture, the long arduous history, and a glorious city that will enthrall your senses, charm and captivate you with its elegance and grandeur.
Text: ± Photo: Amura