Before you visit Hungary, learn a bit about the history, religion, geography, climate, and local traditions so you can be fully prepared for your journey abroad. Within this article, we provide the best overview of Hungary plus some first-hand travel tips along the way!
Welcome aboard to our Globally Educated Series where we focus on one nation at a time to give you the most comprehensive overview of each country before embarking on your journey. We look forward to helping you prepare for your trip to Hungary - so let's get started!
Imagine it: From postcard-ready scenery to luxurious thermal baths and the stunning Danube River, Hungary has a lot to offer any traveler. Spend your days soaking in the famous thermal baths of Budapest (Széchenyi Thermal Bath pictured above) and then let loose at an open-air ruins pub at night. Here’s what you need to know before traveling to Hungary.
Brief History of Hungary
When it comes to everything you need to know about Hungary before visiting, history is our first stop so let’s get into it!
Early Hungarian history
People from the Ural Mountains arrived in the Carpathian Basin (located mainly in modern-day Hungary) in 895-896. One hundred years later, Stephen, the country’s first king founded the Hungarian state and integrated the country into the European Christian nations, deeming it too a Christian kingdom.
Years later, During the ruling of the Árpád dynasty from 1301, medieval Hungary was flourishing. Hungarian King Mathias Corvinus made Hungary a Central European renaissance cultural hub, and one of the most desirable nations. Nonetheless, threats were up ahead. Hungary had an advantageous location for the Ottoman Turkish Empire, giving them easy access to the rest of Europe.
Hungary in the Ottoman Empire
The Ottomans achieved their first victory over the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohács in 1526. From there, the Empire laid claim to the southern and central parts of the country (including Hungary); these were conquered and ruled by the Turks from 1541 to 1699. In fact, the famous thermal spas in Budapest were built by the Turks during this time.
The country was divided into three parts during the Ottoman Empire. The Habsburgs were in the western and northern parts; Turks were predominately in the central area; and the Principality of Transylvania in the south-east as the stronghold of Hungarian culture and independence.
Hungarian Revolution & Independence
Royal Hungary became part of the Habsburg Empire, while Transylvania functioned as an independent entity. Then, at the beginning of the 18th century, Habsburgs were ready to strike back alongside native Hungarians to reunite the country by pushing the Turks back to the Balkan. In 1718, Hungary became reunited within the Habsburg Empire.
Nonetheless, Hungarians did not like how the Austrian Habsburg leaders ruled. This dissatisfaction inevitably led to a revolution and uprising against Habsburg, which broke out in Budapest on March 15, 1848. The revolution was later suppressed by the rulers with help from the Russian Czar, establishing an Austro-Hungarian Empire.
World War II and the Freedom Fight of 1956
Hungary fought with both Axis and Allies during WWII. After entering the war in 1941, Hungary suffered enormous losses again, including a death count of around one million. The Soviets drove the Germans out of the country in 1945, afterward they remained for the next four and a half decades, incorporating the country into the Soviet bloc.
Hungarians suffered under Communist rule, severely taking a hit on its economy. So, on October 23, 1956, courageous men and women stood up to communist oppression and fought for their freedom against the Soviets. After a few victorious days, the Revolution was eventually overpowered by military force. Nonetheless, the Freedom Fight set the stage for ending the oppression.
Hungary goes through changes
Rapid changes in the Soviet bloc along with international developments led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This act resulted in the freedom of countries until Soviet rule. As such, Hungary became a republic for the third time. With newfound independence, the first democratic, multi-party elections were held in 1990.
First joining NATO in 1991, Hungary became a member of the European Union in 2004. Nowadays, Hungary is a much sought-after country with its cosmopolitan capital, delicious cuisine, and nature sites.
During the Soviet regime, Hungary remained a communist country until 1989 when it re-opened its border with Western Europe.
Languages in Hungary
The majority of the Hungarian population speaks Hungary, the country’s official language. Hungarian serves as the native language of roughly 13 million native speakers, and it belongs to the Uralic language family which is not related to any neighboring country’s official language. Nonetheless, it has similarities to Finnish, which is also a Uralic language.
Other minority languages are spoken throughout various communities in Hungary. These primarily include Russian, Romanian, Croatian, Serbian, Slovak, and Ukrainian. German and English are popular foreign languages.
When traveling in Hungary, English is not widely spoken until you’re in the capital city of Budapest. There, you can easily get around speaking only English. However, when traveling in other parts of Hungary, roughly 20% of the population speak some degree of English.
Here's a tiny Hungarian language lesson: One word you’ll hear a lot of on a trip to Hungary is “Szia” (see-ya), which means both “hi” and “bye” if you’re saying it to just one person. You can say “Sziasztok” (See-ya-tok) if you’re greeting or saying goodbye to a group.
For more Hungarian travel words and phrases to know, check out this handy guide.
Demographics of Hungary
Hungary has a population of roughly 9.6 million, which is average for a European country. Like much of Europe, the population is set to decline to roughly 6.87 million by the end of the century. In fact, Hungary has one of the lowest birth rates in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Nonetheless, the largest percentage of the population can be found in Budapest, the country’s vibrant capital. The second largest city in Hungary has only one-fourth of the population of Budapest. So, when you visit Hungary, you’ll find most people living in and around Budapest.
The majority of the population is Hungarian. However, minorities in the country, according to 2011 census data, include Roma 3.2%, Germans 1.9%, Slovaks and Romanians 0.4%. Then there are even smaller minorities of Croatians, Serbs, Ukrainians, Poles, Bulgarians, Ruthenians, Armenians, and Slovene living in Hungary.
Of course, you’ll also find native English speakers calling Hungary home! Budapest is full of international communities, meetup groups, and big businesses that lure in immigrants from around the world.
Cities in Hungary
Before you travel to Hungary, you’ll probably already have Budapest on your list. However, there are some other incredible cities to see in Hungary. Let’s get into the details.
Hungary’s most famous destination and its beloved capital, Budapest is a city with a punch. From its historic bathhouses like Széchenyi to its ruined pubs (more on this later), views of the Danube River, and superior Parliament building, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the top cities in Europe.
When you visit Hungary, spend a few days exploring the eclectic charm of Budapest. But don’t forget, Hungary is a decently sized country and there’s a lot more to see!
Debrecen is the second largest city in Hungary, and it’s nestled within the Northern Great Plain. As such, it’s a great base for exploring the Hortobágyi National Park, which is one of the largest areas of national parkland in the country. In fact, this area is famous for its rich cultural heritage and strong agricultural tradition. So, it’s one of the best places to visit in Hungary.
As for the city of Debrecen itself, explore the beautiful Reformed Great Church of Debrecen and check out the archaeological Deri Museum – these are two of its most excellent attractions.
The country’s third largest city, Szeged is at the center of the Southern Great Plain lying on the Tisza River. It is home to the University of Szeged, one of the most distinguished universities in Hungary.
There is plenty of beauty to discover when visiting Szeged! See the Votive Church and its clock towers, cross the Bridge of Sighs, see the Szeged Synagogue and explore Szechenyi Square.
Pécs is a marvelously picturesque city in Hungary, making it one of the best places to visit on your trip. Truly, there is much to see and appreciate, including the UNESCO-listed ancient necropolis, the city’s enchanting cathedral, or a former mosque converted into a Catholic church.
Geography of Hungary
A landlocked country home to thermal springs and striking plains, let’s get into the geography of Hungary.
Hungary is located in central Europe, bordered by Slovakia and Austria to the north, Ukraine and Romania to the east, Slovenia to the west, and Croatia and Serbia to the south.
With its several plains, particularly a southeastern area known as the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld), Hungary is mostly flat, fertile, and ideal for agriculture. The Little Alföld (Little Hungarian Plain) lies in the northwest meeting the easternmost portion of the sub-Alps along the border with Austria. The Little is separated from the Great by a low mountain system, Transdanubia and the Northern Mountains.
Of course, the famous Danube River runs through the middle of the country and is Hungary’s largest river. It flows for nearly 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers), passing through ten nations on its way to the Black Sea. Actually, no other river passes through as many countries.
Beyond its rivers, Hungary is also home to three major freshwater lakes, particularly Lake Balaton, the largest lake in central Europe. Lake Hévíz is also significant, as it is one of the largest thermal lakes in the world. Easily, it is one of the best places to visit on a trip to Hungary!
Despite its vast flatlands, Hungary’s highest peak is Mount Kékes at 3,327 feet (1,014 meters) tall. It’s part of the Mátra Mountains that are nestled between the towns Gyöngyös and Eger.
A quick note about Budapest’s geography: The city is split down the middle by the Danube River. The western side is Buda, home to one of the oldest bathhouses, the Buda Castle, the must-see Fisherman’s Bastion, and a more residential atmosphere. The eastern side, Pest, is sprawling with lively ruins pubs, the picturesque Parliament, and the famous Széchenyi bath house. You’ll hear people talk about the two sides, so it’s definitely one of the best things to know before visiting Budapest.
What is the climate like in Hungary?
Something you should know before visiting Hungary is how to pack, but first you need to understand the climate. Hungary’s climate is continental, meaning cold, humid winters and warm to hot summers. Spring and autumn tend to be mild, but there are frequent temperature changes. Precipitation is frequent, especially during the winter months with snow or sleet followed by thunderstorms in spring. There are three climatic zones: continental, oceanic and Mediterranean climates that affect the weather conditions.
Like much of central Europe, you won't see much sun during the winters in Hungary, but summertime tends to be bright and sunny.
Let’s look at the average temperatures in Budapest.
Odds are you’re visiting Budapest on your trip to Hungary, so let’s layer up and take a look at the weather conditions in the capital.
Summer in Budapest: The summer averages temperatures between 59 to 82°F (15 to 28°C), meaning its temperatures tend to drop at night. However, the city does have several heat waves with highs of over 86°F (30°C). Bring your sunscreen, too! You’ll be looking at 10 hours of sunlight during summer in Budapest.
Winter in Budapest: Brr, it gets cold! Expect freezing low temperatures in the mid-20s (around -4°C) and highs between 37 to 42°F (3 to 5.5°C). Wear base layers that wick away moisture because the winters can be humid.
Religion in Hungary
Modern Hungary is a religiously diverse country, with an increasing number of people identifying as non-religious. So, before you visit Hungary, here’s what you need to know about religion in the country.
The largest religion the country identifies with is Roman Catholic (37%). The remaining population is quite diverse. Roughly 12% identify as Calvinist, 2% identify as Lutheran, 1.8% identify as Greek Catholic and 2% identify with some other religion. As mentioned, however, nearly a fifth of the population identifies with no religion or considers themselves atheist or agnostic (18%) and nearly a third did not choose an affiliation (27%).
The country’s shift from Roman Catholic to a more indecisive or non-religious approach is in line with the majority of Europe. While many still practice and celebrate religious holidays and festivals, it is done more so out of cultural fun than for beliefs.
Economy & Major Exports in Hungary
Hungary's economy is currently ranked 29th among 45 countries in Europe. So, here’s what you should know before traveling to Hungary.
Historically, before World War II, Hungary’s economy relied predominantly on agriculture. Then, beginning in 1948, a forced Soviet industrialization policy changed the economic structure of the country. A centrally planned economy was introduced, and millions of new jobs were created in industry and services.
According to recent data, the country’s top five export products are electrical machinery, vehicles, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and mineral fuels. Trade with other EU countries now comprises over 79% of its business. With that, Germany is Hungary's largest trading partner.
What is Hungary famous for?
From its cuisine (more on that soon) to its cosmopolitan capital and thermal bath houses, Hungary is constantly making its presence known – in the best way! Prepare for your trip by getting to know some of the top things Hungary is famous for. Hey, some of these can make amazing travel experiences or souvenirs.
One of the most notable things to do in Hungary is visit at least one of its thermal spas. But trust us, once you visit one, you just can’t stop! So, if you have the time, we highly recommend visiting more than one bath house on your trip to Hungary. You can find these spas throughout the country offering a variety of thermal bathing pools, cold pools, saunas, and even spa packages. The best part, the buildings are beautifully historic and a treat to experience.
Most famously, Budapest is home to numerous thermal spas dating back to the Ottoman Empire when Turks settled in the land. One of the oldest, Rudas Thermal Bath was built around 1550 and is beautifully situated on the Buda side of Budapest right at the edge of the Danube. Visitors can enjoy male-only, female-only, and mixed days at the baths, and there is a pool with views of the city on the top floor where everyone is welcome.
The city’s most famous thermal spa, however, is the yellow-painted Széchenyi Thermal Bath (featured photo at the top of this article) on the Pest side. It can get quite busy and touristy, so arrive early to really take advantage of this massive bathhouse with a generous 18 pools. And if you like to party, the spa hosts summer night spa parties with DJ sets, drinks, and more.
Tokaji (or sometimes Tokay) is one of the most famous wine regions in the world and is arguably the oldest official wine region in the world. The Tokaji region of Hungary produces a spectacular wine noted for its sweet tones made from grapes affected by noble rot. As such, it is typically a dessert wine.
An interesting fact about Hungary is that it is full of Olympic medalists. Hungary has won more Summer Olympic medals than any other nation never to have hosted the Games, and after overtaking Finland during the recent 2020 Olympic Games, the country now has the highest number of gold medals won per capita.
Uniquely Budapest, ruins bars are one of the best things to experience on your trip. Szimpla Kert was the first of the ruins bars in Budapest, and the idea behind it was simple brilliance – find an abandoned building that is on the brink of demolition and save it by offering drinks and music to the city’s young and creative.
That was in 2004, and the concept took off around the city’s Jewish Quarter. Now you’ll find ruins bars with quirky bathtubs in them, old cars, and all the aesthetically eclectic flair you’re craving.
Food in Hungary
You’ve probably heard of Hungary’s famous Goulash, but your knowledge of Hungarian cuisine might stop there. No worries, here are some of the best foods to look out for on your trip to Budapest and beyond!
Goulash or gulyás
A compilation of food to try in Hungary is certainly incomplete without mentioning goulash, so why not kick it off with a classic? Goulash or gulyás is Hungary’s national dish, and it’s well-known around the world. Somewhere between a soup and stew, the dish involves chunks of beef and vegetables that are cooked with a dash of paprika. Literally translating to herdsman, historically, herdsmen butchered weaker cows that would not survive the journey back. So, instead, they used their meat to make the dish – cooked on an open fire – that would later become goulash.
Here’s a guilty pleasure of a dish that you’re bound to love as much as Hungarians do. There’s a good reason why this savory treat has spread around Central and Eastern Europe, it is a circular-shaped fried dough that is usually topped with garlic sauce, sour cream, and cheese. Definitely not healthy, but wildly delicious.
Chimney cakes or Kürtőskalács
You might see these at Christmas markets in other European countries, particularly in the Czech Republic, but the delicious kürtőskalács chimney cakes are Hungarian.
And if you don’t know these tasty treats, they are made from sweet dough shaped into cylinder spirals then baked and coated with powdered sugar, cocoa, nuts, or cinnamon.
Find them at an excellent little bakery on the Buda side.
Essential Tips for Visiting Hungary
Before you go on your grand adventure, we have some essential Hungary travel tips you need to know before you embark.
- Hungary uses the Hungarian forint, but many places accept payment by card. However, it is still a good idea to have a little bit of cash on you in the off-chance someplace doesn’t accept cards. Check the current exchange rates here. Usually, $1 is equal to roughly 400 Hungarian forints.
- Pickpocketing is less prevalent in Hungary – but as much of Europe – it can still be an issue in the busiest areas of Budapest and other touristic places.
- Water in Hungary is safe to consume, so no worries there!
- Hungary is well-connected with trains and buses going to all parts of the country (and other countries).
- The best way to get around Budapest is by walking or cycling, but there is also an extensive bus service provided by Volanbusz along with several train stations.
- Tipping isn’t necessary but it’s not uncommon for people to round up the bill or leave some extra money on the table.
- Call 112 for emergencies.