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December 21, 2014, 3:21 pm

This place of zesty paprika, soothing thermal baths, vibrant, youthful nightlife and a cowboy culture in an urban environment, reflects a perfect contrast — the hottest of choices in the coolest of places.

Hungary is landlocked, like its neighbors Austria, Slovakia and Serbia, yet, it still deserves the nickname 'land of waters'. Mighty rivers cross, divide and define this region which cradles the largest lake in Europe (Lake Balaton). The Danube River splits the capital into 'Buda' (draped across hills to the west) from 'Pest' sprawling over the flat plain opposite. Located over a very active geo-thermal area, it has over a thousand thermal water springs and the second largest thermal lake in the world for bathing (Lake Hévíz).

These very same elemental forces that brought about its thermal springs, also created hundreds of kilometers of limestone caves through erosion. Acrobatics and heel-clicking folk songs, back-to-front surname-first monikers and an inscrutable language, the Hungarians remain entirely distinct from any of their neighbors. From the sandy beaches of Lake Balaton to Turkish-influenced Pécs and Kiskunság National Park, Hungary is elegant, romantic and a land of adventure.

Why to go?

Imagine bathing in a steaming hot, outdoor spa under a dark winter sky or sipping hot coffee in the glow of thousands of twinkling lights from the Christmas market at the Basilica. Imagine enjoying a hearty Hungarian dinner on the banks of the Danube with the historic Castle District lit up majestically in front of you.

More gentle than striking, more pretty than stunning, Hungary has always marched to a different drummer. Its scenery, architecturally, is a treasure trove, with everything from Roman ruins and medieval town houses to baroque churches, neoclassical public buildings and Art Nouveau bathhouses and schools. Walk through Szeged or Kecskemét, Debrecen or Sopron to discover an architectural gem at virtually every turn. Some people go out of their way for another glimpse of their 'hidden' favorites like the Reök Palace in Szeged, the buildings of KÅ‘szeg’s Jurisics tér or the Mosque Church in Pécs.

Top things to see

Fabulous views of Budapest's Parliament building and Danube River frontage from the Fisherman's Bastion on Castle Hill
Whip-cracking performances of csikos (cowboys) astride bareback horses
Almond trees in blossom and ceramics, embroidery and other folk arts in Tihany
The galleries, museums, mosques, beautifully preserved synagogue and Ottoman era baths of Pécs.
Week-long Sziget music festival, Europe's biggest, on a leafy island in the middle of the Danube.

Top things to do

Plunge in for a hot soak and rub down with the locals in the steamy surrounds of Budapest's elegant thermal baths
Cruise the Danube on a ferry from Budapest to Szentendre, a former artists' colony
Dip your toes in the northern shore of Lake Balaton, Hungary's freshwater ‘Riviera'

Race against time; participate in a szabadulós játék: a thrilling live escape game gone global, in which teams lock themselves in a room and then spend 60 minutes working through numerous riddles to get out again – not only by solving puzzles but also, crucially, identifying them in the first place.

Hungary Revealed

Great Plain and Northeast: The mysterious Nagyalföld (Great Plain) stretching from Budapest to the Tisza River has been the heart of Hungarian myth and legend for centuries, kept alive by Gypsy violinists, literature and fine art. The Plain and its horsemen and shepherds represent the Hungarian ethos through its poems, songs, paintings and stories. The annual horse and herding show at the national park recreates this pastoral tradition. The biggest attraction here is Lake Tisza, Hungary’s second-largest lake and a water-lover’s paradise. Much of the alföld, turned into farmland for growing apricots and raising geese, has other parts a little more than grassy, saline deserts sprouting juniper trees. Kiskunsági Nemzeti Park, including the Bugac Puszta, protects this unique environment.

Bükk Hills: Much of the Bükk range, taking its name from the beech (bükk) trees growing here, forms Bükk National Park. Karst formations, upland plateaus, thick pine forests and abundant wildlife attract hikers and cyclists to hillside villages of Szilvásvárad, famous for its Lipizzaner horses.

While the southern slopes support wine production, including the famous Bull’s Blood red, nearly in the dead-centre of Bükk National Park, Répáshuta makes an excellent base for exploring nearby caves and, further afield, the Bükk Plateau. The long and windy hillside village has a handful of guesthouses and private rooms, a game restaurant and a folk-craft exhibition. The hilly drive from Eger through Répáshuta to Miskolc is extremely enjoyable by the once-weekly bus journeys.

Pécs: Blessed with a mild climate – ideal for viticulture and fruit production, especially almonds, an illustrious past and a number of fine museums and monuments, Pécs is an interesting city to visit in Hungary. Its handful of universities nearby Mecsek Hills makes many travelers put it second only to Budapest on their Hungary ‘must-see’ list for a lively nightlife.

Zemplén Hills: The northern Zemplén Hills, on the border with Slovakia, is full of hiking opportunities and romantic castles and castle ruins at BoldogkÅ‘váralja and Sárospatak. The long-distance Eurovelo 11 cycling route skirts the hills, from Slovakia near Göncs and continuing east to Sátoraljaújhely following the Tisza River’s path south at Tokaj.

Eger: Beautifully preserved baroque architecture in Eger is a jewelry box of a town with loads to see and do. Explore the bloody history of Turkish occupation and defeat at the hilltop castle, climb an original Ottoman minaret, listen to an organ performance at the colossal basilica, or relax in a renovated Turkish bath. Then spend time traipsing from cellar to cellar in the Valley of Beautiful Women.

Lake Balaton: At Lake Balaton – in June or September – the water is warm, everything is open and it feels summery –without intense humidity. Outside of the high season it is easy to wing it, still for your best bet, keep an eye out for signs saying ‘szoba kiadó’ or ‘Zimmer frei’ (Hungarian and German, respectively, for ‘room for rent’) or many of its villas too.

Danube:  The Danube, Hungary's dustless highway and the second-largest river in Europe, cuts through hills to the north of Budapest. Over the millennia the unrelenting mass of a wild stretch of nature and an outdoor playground – the Börzsöny Hills, on the left bank and the Pilis Hills on the right have forced the river into a handful of tight, bunched curves, creating arguably the prettiest stretch of the Danube.

Esztergom: Now a sleepy town, but for so many years the Pope's 'eyes and ears' in Hungary, has the biggest basilica and a mammoth edifice containing artwork and a crypt worthy of age-old bishops. Visegrad too, once the seat of royals, nowadays sits in the intimidating ruin of a 15th-century palace and hilltop castle.


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