Budapest and Beyond: Chart an Epic Course Through Hungary

Dec 16, 2019

For a landlocked nation, Hungary spends a lot of its life on the water. In fact, some of the most iconic and amazing experiences to be had there spring from the local lakes and rivers. So chart your own course along the nation’s waterways—ideally, this coming spring or summer. For all kinds of inspiration, read on.

Bask on the banks in Budapest

To quote no less than UNESCO, “This stretch of the Danube has been the location of human settlement since the Palaeolithic.” Impressive, sure—but not the only reason Budapest’s riverbanks earned World Heritage status: “The scenic view of the banks of the Danube as part of the historic urban landscape is a unique example of the harmonious interaction between human society and a natural environment.” Put otherwise, these are some seriously bucket-listy banks.

Of course, just strolling along them is transcendent, but to max out your experience, explore them from a multitude of angles: Hit the Fellini Kultúrbisztro (read: culture bistro) on the Buda-side Római shore, where—from May to October—you can kick back in the deck chairs, dip your toes in the Danube, and bliss out as the boats pass you by. Over on the Pest side, check out Pontoon—a mini-festival with alfresco movie screenings, live music and tasty treats. But arguably the greatest spectacle at Pontoon is Buda skyline itself, best observed with a fröccs wine spritzer in hand.

Once you’ve fallen for the Danube, which will take about a nanosecond, tops, you’re not going to want to stop at the shores. Some of the city’s best finds are on the water. Bike, tram or walk to lovely Margaret Island, Budapest’s water-surrounded answer to Central Park, where you’ll find everything from Franciscan ruins to classical music. Nearby Óbuda Island is famous in its own right as the home of the epic Sziget Festival. The 2020 edition is slated for Aug. 5–11, and though the lineup has yet to be confirmed, just know that past headliners have included everyone from Rihanna to Post Malone. Even the city’s iconic bridges get in on the mid-river festival scene: The Liberty Bridge, specifically, becomes pedestrian-only on certain balmy weekends, when it hosts concerts, yoga and picnics.

For one of the most sublime experiences to be had on the Danube, however, book a SUP Budapest tour between May and August, when you can paddle along the river at sunrise. Watching the sun gradually illuminate the dramatic cityscape from the water is something no Insta-story can properly capture.

Take a water to winery tour

There’s a certain alchemy to the confluence of the Tisza and Bodrog rivers at Tokaj: the kind, apparently, that yields some of the best (and oldest) sweet white wines on earth. In fact, this UNESCO World Heritage-designated region (noticing a theme?) has been producing them for more than four centuries—one reason there’s also rich Jewish heritage here. By the late 1700s, Polish Jews had assumed “a decisive role in the Tokaj wine trade,” according to UNESCO, and you’ll find relics of that once-thriving community throughout the region, from synagogues to cemeteries. In fact, one of the most famous local winemakers, Royal Tokaji, occupies the onetime home of the Zimmermann family, whose own wines had been gold medal winners in Berlin and Paris in the 1890s. Little wonder that Jewish heritage tours of the region are also lessons in viticultural history.

For more of the latter, visit the World Heritage Wine Museum—where you’ll learn about centuries’ worth of regional and European wine-making traditions in a high-tech, interactive setting. Among the likely takeaways from your visit: Tokaj packs quite the variety of flavor variety into not a lot of real estate (21 square miles, give or take): The soil’s ancient volcanic past has left behind a veritable cocktail of minerals. You’ll also no doubt learn about aszú, Tokaj’s “king of wine and wine of kings.” A royal favorite through the centuries, this amber-colored ambrosia pairs wonderfully with all manner of treats (our suggestion: blue cheese), but also shines alone.

As for how to approach your tastings, our favorite way is by water. One cruise down the Bodrog River leads to a sipping tour the Dereszla Winery. Of course, you may well want a broader overview, in which case, the three-stop Wine Bus is the way to go. Or go for the actual gusto and show up for Tokaj Wine Festival in June, when you can meet a multitude of top producers in the main square—and that’s just for starters.

Fall in love with Lake Balaton

Stretching across the south end of the beech-covered Bakony Hills, the so-called “Sea of Hungary” is a top pick for nature and wellness lovers, with a cluster of historic sights (and fabulous local food and wine) to keep things extra-interesting. One of the most classic pursuits here? Sail or windsurf across the lake—you’ll easily find tutorials in both if you’re a novice—then reward yourself for your efforts with an exploration of the area’s gastronomic boom. Vitorlás restaurant, in a former shipbuilding workshop and yacht clubhouse, is an excellent starting point, where Balaton-area wines pair perfectly with the likes of grilled garlicky catfish and saffron risotto.

If you want to take your exploration underground, head to Balaton Uplands National Park, where you can explore four miles’ worth of crystalline pool-filled caves—complete with surreal formations—by headlamp. Another below-the-surface area specialty: mineral-rich thermal springs, which have attracted bathers since the Roman era. There are countless places to take the waters, as the Europeans say, but a few favorites include Hévíz’s Lake Bath.

To sprinkle in some history and culture, check out the baroque Festetics Palace, a ducal palace from the 18th century that now houses the aristocracy-focused Helikon Palace Museum and Balatoni Borok Háza (Balaton Wine House). Then there’s the Convent of the Benedictine Abbey and its adjacent museum, where the art collection comes with bonus lake views.

Discover the City of the Waters

Győr sits at the confluence of three rivers—Moson-Danube, Rába and Rábca—in northwestern Hungary. Little wonder people call this spot the City of the Waters. Shortlisted for the European Capital of Culture 2023, Győr is an under-the-radar gem and gorgeous gateway to the Pannonhalma Protected Area. This bucolic stretch includes the oak-filled Pannonhalma Hills, the wildlife-happy Rába River wetlands and—most notably—the ancient Pannonhalma Benedictine Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (lest you go more than a minute without visiting one in Hungary). 

At the abbey’s Pannonhalma Basilica, which dates back to the 1200s, meander through the arboretum and herb garden, visit the monastic libraries and take a monk-led tour of the wine cellar and lavender distillery, where herbal teas and liquors and other seemingly magic potions are handcrafted. Put otherwise: This region, like so many in Hungary, gives new meaning to liquid assets.

Ready to go? Discover even more reasons to be wowed by Hungary, as well as the below deals to visit Budapest and beyond.

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