Since the average visitor to Hungary usually spends a few days in the country, we've opted to give you a few side-trip options from Budapest, rather than a 1-week or longer tour of the entire country. All rail tracks lead to Budapest, so regardless of which direction you go chances are you will have to return to Budapest when changing from one geographical area to another, making a full Hungarian tour both difficult and time-consuming. You'd need several weeks to see it all. Traveling by bus is even more time-consuming and not as comfortable as the train. Driving a car can be downright dangerous if you're not used to European driving, not to mention the cost. Trains, though not quite luxurious, are easy and safe, and they usually cost less than 6,000 Ft round-trip, depending on the destination.
Option 1: A Day in Szentendre
After some time in Budapest, you might visit Szentendre (pronounced Sen-ten-dreh), just north of Budapest on the Danube and one of the most-visited spots in all of Hungary. Take the HÉV (regional train) from Budapest's Batthyány tér metro for a 45-minute ride.
Visit the Margit Kovács Museum and see the interesting collection of the late Margit Kovács. She was primarily a ceramicist, and her depictions of peasant life in Hungary are charming. Have a late lunch at the Aranysárkány Vendéglo, and take a walk along the river. Then spend your afternoon exploring the many shops, museums, churches, and galleries in town. Fo tér, the main drag, is enticing, but explore all the side streets of this small, manageable town. Try Chez Nicolas Restaurant Kígyó utca 10.
Option 2: A Day in Vác
Just past Szentendre along the Danube, but actually faster to reach, Vác can be reached by direct train from Budapest in as little as 25 minutes. This is a very historic town, and it also has one of the most beautiful Danube parks I have seen. All along the river is a wide promenade with winding walking and biking paths with play areas for children interspersed along the way. To the side of these are wide sidewalks providing a relaxing walk under the chestnut-tree-lined street.
Vác is a town for strolling, since most of the historic sites are to be seen from the outside, with the exception of peeking through the glass of the doorways of churches and one must-see museum. Starting at the main square, Március 15 tér, there is the historic White Friar's Church and the impressive statute and fountain of St. Hedwig on the side of the church. Directly across from the church is the Memento Mori with the preserved crypts that were uncovered accidentally when renovations took place on White Friar's Church. Also on the square are many historic and interesting baroque buildings. The Cathedral of the Assumption on Konstantin tér is the only building in Hungary influenced by Parisian revolutionary architecture. At Géza Király tér is the Franciscan or "Brown" Church, which sits next to the castle, the oldest building in Vác. An Italian architect designed the synagogue on Eötvös utca in romantic style. The river walk is a glorious relaxing escape.
Option 3: A Few Hours in Gödöllo
Gödöllo is the home to the largest baroque palace in Hungary, which was originally built for the aristocratic Grassalkovich family. Later Franz Josef, emperor of Austria, king of Hungary, and his wife Elisabeth, or "Sisi" as she was affectionately known, used this as their summer residence. Gödöllo is less than an hour away from Budapest by HÉV, making this an ideal getaway for a short day trip. At Christmastime, the decoration of the palace is well worth seeing. While in Gödöllo, you may want to have dinner at Kastélykert Étterem (Palace Park Restaurant) at Szabadság út 4; tel. 28/527-020. They are open daily from noon to 11pm.
Option 4: Visit the Bears
Medve Otthon or Bear Sanctuary is the place to go when the kids, or the adults for that matter, are tired of the city and need some nature-loving activity. Here you can visit the 42 brown bears at the bear sanctuary, just 50 minutes from Nyugati Station. Some of the bears were stars in Hungarian films, but were rescued due to mistreatment. Don't ask for their autographs, but you can feed them honey bought from the gift shop using a long spoon. If you find this unbearable, there are two packs of 26 wolves living here also. On weekends, there are pony rides, a bouncy castle, and face painting. The sanctuary is located at Patak u. 39, Veresegyház and it is open daily from 8am to 7pm. Take the train from Nyugati Station to Ivacs, the nearest station. Depending on the train, the tickets will cost either 480 Ft or 955 Ft with the less expensive trains actually being faster: 45 minutes as opposed to 1 hour and 5 minutes. From the train station, follow the clearly marked route 2km (1.2 miles) to the sanctuary. Admission is 200 Ft per person. Hours are March to September 8am to 7pm. October to February 9am to dark.
Option 5: Gyor
Gyor is located halfway between Budapest and Vienna (131km/81 miles) in the northwestern corner, making it a perfect stop if you are coming from or going to Vienna. Considered one of the more important cities in Hungary, it is known as the town of rivers; it sits at the meeting point of three rivers, the Danube, Rába, and Rábca. There are six fast trains leaving Budapest, which will get you into Gyor in 1 1/2 hours for 2,700 Ft, but you will need a reservation for these trains.
First inhabited by the Celts, then the Romans in the 1st century B.C., Gyor has been populated ever since. During the Ottoman invasion, the commander of the town didn't think it was worth defending, so he ordered the entire town to be burned to the ground. When the Ottomans arrived, they only found piles of ashes. When they left, the town was rebuilt and the top Italian builders completed the work, filling the city with baroque buildings. World War II brought destruction, but a massive campaign in the '70s renewed the buildings to their former status, thus earning them the European Award for monument protection. Buildings surrounding each square give them a unique feel from the others.
Things to see include the Gyo Basilica on Káptalandomb, where King Stephen established the Episcopate in his first decade as king. The baroque church with its Blessed Virgin picture is one of the most significant pilgrimage sites in Hungary. It is open 8am to noon and 2pm to 6pm. The Esterházy Palace at Király u. 17 (tel. 96/322-695), consists of three monumental buildings from the 18th century. Originally the palace of Count Gábor Esterházy, it is now the City Art Museum, open Tuesday through Sunday 10am to 6pm. At the Zichy-Palota on Liszt Ferenc utca 20 (tel. 96/311-316), you will find the permanent puppet collection of 72 puppets, accessories, and furniture. It is open Tuesday through Thursday 8am to 3:30pm and Friday 8am to 1pm. If you miss the bath experience in Budapest, you can visit the Rába-Quelle Medicinal, Thermal and Pleasure Bath at Fürdo tér 1 (tel. 96/514-900). It is open 9am to 10pm. If your visit brings you here between April and August, the city has a number of fairs and celebrations. One dining option among the many is Komédiás Étterem at Czuczor G. utca 30 (tel. 96/527-217). It is open 11am to midnight and accepts all credit cards.
For hotel recommendations or further information, contact Tourinform in Gyor at Árpád utca 32 (tel. 96/311-771; www.gyortourism.hu). From June through August it's open weekdays from 8am to 8pm and weekends 9am to 6pm, and during the rest of the year, it's open weekdays 9am to 5pm and weekends 9am to 1pm.
Option 6: Two Days in Keszthely & Héviz
Keszthely and Héviz are located on the western corner of Hungary's very own "sea," Lake Balaton, almost 200km (124 miles) from Budapest. The towns sit right in a microclimate area, with warm summers, clear skies, and beautiful vistas and hills.
From Budapest, take a 3-hour express (gyors) train from Déli or Keleti stations to Keszthely. Then explore the Festetics Mansion, Carriage Museum, or try the Dolls Museum, which has Europe's largest collection of dolls, with the Parliament of Snails.
After roaming around Keszthely, have a traditional Hungarian meal, with a traditional Unicum, at the Margaréta Étterem. At night, you may want to consider an event at the Balaton Congress Center and Theater, and stay either in a "private room" or at the Barbara Wellness Pension.
The next day take a bus to Héviz, 8km (5 miles) northeast of Keszthely. Here you'll find a wide range of hotel choices from pensions to five-star luxury hotels to fit any budget. One choice is Hotel Erzsébet in the town center. Take a dip in Europe's largest thermal lake, or spend your whole day unwinding at the hotel. Spa treatments include a selection of health cures, sports, wellness, or even medical treatment programs.
You might shorten this trip by heading straight to Héviz, then tour Keszthely and relax in the spa hotel at night.
Option 7: Two Days in Pécs
The popular Pécs is the most culturally vibrant Hungarian city outside of the capital -- warm and arid, with lots of museums, galleries, and a large student population from the university.
Take an early morning InterCity train from Budapest's Déli Station to Pécs, a 3-hour ride. Walk down Káptalan utca, the street of museums which are all housed in medieval houses. Visit the Tivadar Csontváry Museum, the institution that celebrates one of Hungary's most notable artists. In the Zsolnay Museum, housed in a Gothic residence, you'll find displays of the finest pieces of award-winning porcelain, even paintings. Then check out the hustle and bustle of the Pécsi Vásár flea market, and shop for traditional Hungarian wares. Head uphill for dinner at the Vadasztanya (Hunters' Lodge), where you can enjoy a fine Hungarian wine before checking in at the fun, centrally located Hotel Fonix.
For a mid-morning snack, stop for coffee and pastry at the Mecsek Cukrászda before checking out Pécs' houses of worship, the Pécs Cathedral, the Pécs Synagogue, and the largest-standing Turkish structure, the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kassim.
Option 8: Two Days in Szeged
The southeastern town of Szeged is the cultural center of the region. With a thriving university, it is overflowing with students. If you're in Hungary in the summer, come for the Szeged Summer Open Air Festival in Dóm tér, which offers rock operas, classical music, ballet, and contemporary dance in July and August, making it the largest festival of its kind in Hungary.
From Budapest, take the train from Nyugati Station for a 2 1/2-hour ride. Start off with a coffee and pastry at the famous Virág Cukrászda. Enjoy some of the impressive architecture; visit the Votive Church of Our Lady of Hungary, the cathedral built in Hungarian Ecclesiastic architecture.
Take a walk on the river's edge, then head back to Kárász utca, the main walking street which is usually bustling with students. Have a casual dinner on the terrace at the Gödör Restaurant or for a more upscale meal try Göry Restaurant & Terrace. Try to get a room at the reasonably priced and clean Family Pension, not far from the train station and Dóm tér.
On your second day here, check out the Polish Market (Lengyel Piac) on the southern edge of town and visit the beautiful and historic synagogue. Then head for some hearty fish stew at Kiskörössy Halaszcsarda for which Szeged is famous, which uses fish from the Tiza River, not the Danube.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.