On a continent of beautiful cities, Budapest is a gold-medal contender. It rises in an ensemble of neo-Gothic architecture, battlements hills and church spires on either side of the Danube, knitted together by elegant Victorian-era bridges. Join locals in forking up cream cakes in ornate coffeehouses, dining in newly revived Jewish restaurants, and enjoying Hungarian wine in pop-up bars. Art Nouveau buildings provide a wonderful alternative to Europe’s mostly medieval centres.
Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake starts 100 kilometres south of Budapest and runs for another 100 kilometres southwards, surrounded by historic towns and vineyards. It has been a holiday destination since Roman times, and its southern shores are favoured by partying university students. Stick to the more scenic north shore for gorgeous views over this milky-blue lake, hilltop castles and several graceful, flower-filled, nineteenth-century resort towns.
For a quintessential Hungarian experience, take to the baths. Hungarians have enjoyed hot springs for 2,000 years. The Ottomans added distinctive architecture, the Hapsburgs ornate embellishment. Locals spend hours wallowing in the waters as they playing chess and chat. Top spa towns include Hévíz with its thermal lake, Makó for astonishing architecture and Egerszalok for unusual salt deposits. In Budapest, Gellért and Széchenyi baths are magnificent.
One of Central Europe’s most delightful provincial cities, Szeged is a progressive, arty university city lively with cafés and festivals and boasting Hungary’s sunniest weather. The city has a wonderful collection of Art Nouveau buildings and squares with facades in green and purple, studded with stylized flowers, sunbursts and muscled ladies in robes, as well as a splendid synagogue richly decorated in wood, metal and stained glass.
Don’t underestimate Hungary’s lovely smaller towns. Szentendre near Budapest is jammed with churches and museums, while ancient Esztergom is Hungary’s former capital and religious centre, pleasantly sited on the Danube and boasting an enormous cathedral and gold-laden treasury. Other fine towns include alpine Sopron with its Austrian influences, baroque Eger topped by a ruined castle, and relaxing Pécs, which has pretty squares and an Ottoman-influenced history.