Updated September 20, 2006
For most North Americans, their visit to Budapest is their entire stay in Hungary. Some ride a boat up the Danube to the enormous cathedral at Estergom and the dramatic ruins of Visegrad Castle. But few make it to the small towns of the south and east where you will get a better sense of life in this country where people work hard and play harder.
Those who arrive by boat often consider Budapest one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and our sunset cruise up and down the Danube led us to the same conclusion. But our arrival by car gave us a chance to see rural Hungary, the farmland and small town that struggled so hard for independence in the 20th Century.
For almost two decades, Hungary has welcomed travelers from western Europe and North America. It has greeted their guests with open arms and has quickly adopted many of the customs that are so familiar in our daily lives. You will feel at home in Budapest until to you try to speak in the local tongue. All of these changes have raised the cost of travel in Budapest, a buzzing tourist hub, but once you leave downtown Budapest, you will experience a more traditional Hungary, dotted with quaint medieval towns and charming villages on the shores of Europe's largest lake. Still, you can find great Travel Deals if you do your homework and shop around.
Though Hungary is quickly modernizing and shedding the shackles of Soviet dominion, it is still a nation of limited economic development and some of the things we take for granted in more developed nations are sometimes in short supply in the country. Still, it is easy for a foreigner to travel to Budapest and the surrounding regions where tourists are common. As you head into more rural areas, you will find the driving easy but may have more trouble negotiating the basic arrangements for travel.
Like many other European countries, Hugary produces delicious wines. It celebrates the harvest and serves the delightful wines each year. Just east of Budapest is the wine-growing region where the country's famous tokay grapes are grown and the savory red wine is produced.
Like Vienna, Budapest sits on the banks of the Danube providing tourists with spectacular scenic views. The river divides the city into to main areas, Buda and Pest. The western side, Buda, is home to the castle, Gellert Baths, the fairy-tale creation known as the Fisherman's Bastion and nearby St. Mattias Cathedral, an beautiful ancient church reflected in the mirrored facade of the Budapest Hilton. From the hilltop bastion, you get dramatic views across the Danube to the Pest side. There, the Parliament Building and St. Stephen's Cathedral stand as memorials to the spirit of the Hungarian people.
Two of the best ways to enjoy the beauty of Budapest are:
Getting around town is relatively easy on public transportation. A well-designed system includes the subway-U-bahn, trams and busses. Like Paris, you can buy a pass for the system that allows unlimited rides and gives you discounts to museums, shops and restaurants.
One of the most pleasant ways to reach Budapest is by the hydrofoil that travels between the city and Vienna
Europe's largest freshwater lake is the shallow, spring-fed Lake Balaton that lies not far Budapest. During the summer, the shores of the lake fill with Hungarians trying to escape the humidity and heat of the cities. There are many small towns along the shores of the lake, often with comfortable tourist hotels. But for those on a budget, camping may be a cost-saving alternative to motels and other lodging.