Don’t say Hungary is part of Eastern Europe if Hungarians are around. They consider themselves Central Europeans, with more in common with the Austrians and Czechs than those Russian barbarians.
When you get off the train and step into whatever city in Hungary you’re visiting, you won’t see much different from any other Eastern European city at first. You’ll probably wander around the platform a bit, trying to ignore the beggars and the wannabe tour guides. You’ll eventually find a money-changing booth where you’ll receive a lot of high-denomination bills of some colorful currency in exchange for your euros or dollars.
When you finally make it outside the station, you’ll see the difference. Look at the buildings around you. If you’re in Budapest, they’re not the block after block of styleless gray concrete that you’re probably used to or have always imagined. They’re older. And they have color. Budapest looks more like Vienna than Russia.
Don’t say Hungary’s Eastern Europe if Hungarians are around. They consider themselves Central Europeans, with more in common with the Austrians and Czechs than those Russian barbarians. Thanks to the bipolar Cold War, Americans think in terms of a contrast between the West and East, but that was only 40 years. The Hapsburg Empire that ruled Central Europe lasted much longer, and those 400 years left an enormous stamp visible in architecture, cuisine, and the use of German as a lingua franca (germanica?).
Hungary has always been a transition zone, the farthest outpost of the Catholic, non-Slavic west. In the Middle Ages, Hungary was on Christendom’s front lines, keeping the Turks out of Europe. They’ve since accomplished through guest-worker programs what the Sultans couldn’t, but that’s not Hungary’s fault.
Budapest is full of coffeehouses looking like Vienna’s”but the usual coffee is a bitter espresso like in Turkey. Budapest has become a popular tourist destination since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Theme bars, discos, casinos and brothels are everywhere. Then you step into a pub with posters of Stalin on the yellowed walls and you remember you’re not in Holland.
Hungarians are an anomaly in Europe. They’re descended from Asian nomads who settled here in the 10th century. Hungarian is related to some Siberian languages, and is closer to Klingon than English. It’s agglutinative: things we express with different words are explained with prefixes and suffixes. You should try to learn a bit anyway.
The majority of people only speak Hungarian. Even waiters and ticket sellers in train stations. More Hungarians speak German than English; you may find yourself in a situation where you’ll go hungry in Hungary unless you know a few phrases of German. Older people sometimes speak Russian, but don’t use it unless you’re on fire and the folks around you can’t understand “water” or “Wasser.” They’re not fond of the people who turned their country into one huge prison for 40 years.
Everywhere you go, you’ll find castles, ornate medieval churches, and museums of local history, arts and folk crafts. Hungarians know a lot about their history. If you want to discuss the 1848 Revolution over a liter of schnapps, come here.
Most tourists go to Budapest, the Paris of Eastern Europe. It would be quicker to list what Budapest doesn’t have than what it does. Like museums? The Terror Museum, which tells the story of the victims of the fascist and communist regimes here, may be the most moving museum you’ll ever visit. Castles? Budapest’s is big enough to get lost in. Are you the subterranean type? Budapest sits on hundreds of underground caves, many of which are thermal spas now. Like clubbing? Pub hopping? Jazz clubs? Gambling? It’s here, and with significantly fewer pissed English chaps looking for a fight than Prague.
Most importantly, Budapest’s fairly inexpensive. You’ll fill up at a restaurant, including a drink or two, for less than $10, and a bed at a hostel will be less than $15. The rest of the country’s even cheaper.
The other major tourist attraction is Lake Balaton, which is the best place to be this side of the Mediterranean in the summer. Its warm waters are popular for swimming and sailing. The towns on the south shore are full of bars and discos, the ones on the north side are quiet and more suited to hiking.
Hungary’s a great springboard to travel to the seven bordering countries. Its rail system is one of the best-maintained in Eastern Europe. The toilets have some kind of flush mechanism instead of just being open holes in the floor like on Romanian trains, the padded seats are only half-deflated or less, and hardly anyone smokes in the non-smoking cars. If you demand more comfort than that, Eastern Europe isn’t for you.