The Best Hungarian Cities (Beyond Budapest)
Whenever we mention that we are from Hungary, people’s first reaction is: “Oh, Budapest, right?” Apparently, yes, and we are happy that they recognize and love the capital of our country. But Hungary has much more cool cities and towns! In this post we show you the best ones and help you choose which are for you.
So which are the best Hungarian cities?
Our favorites are Pécs, Sopron and Szeged. But there are many others like Debrecen, Győr, Eger, Esztergom, Székesfehérvár, Kőszeg or Keszthely. Each has its own charm and set of events throughout the year, but one thing is common: the pretty pastel-colored streets of their historical center,and their rich culture and history. They’re all significantly smaller than Budapest, and it makes them quite different, too. They show you another face of Hungary.
We tell you about them in detail below, and also link to sightseeing guides that we put together based on our own experience (just like everything on this blog).
Pécs, the city of culture
Pécs is probably our favorite Hungarian city besides Budapest. It has pretty streets, rich history, exciting museums. It was selected to be the European Capital of Culture in 2010 which resulted in a major renewal of its city center. The pastel colored buildings from the Middle Ages, Baroque, Classicism, Rococo and Art Nouveau are all nicely renovated, and the city’s exciting history dates back to the Roman times.
Also, no other Hungarian city is that rich in Turkish architecture as Pécs, including the unique Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim. It was originally a Gothic church, and today it operates as a Catholic church again, with the combination of Muslim crescent moon and Christian cross on its dome.
Sopron, the faithful city
Sopron fascinates with its history. Scarbantia, a city in the giant Roman Empire was the ancestor of today’s Sopron. Walls and foundations from the Roman times are still common in the city, and they blend together with the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque structures. Sopron could be a lovely stop – though a short detour – on your way from Budapest to Vienna.
And why is it called Hungary’s faithful city? The story in a nutshell is that by signing the Treaty of Trianon after the First World War Hungary lost 2/3 of its former territories. Sopron happened to be right on the newly defined border of Austria and Hungary, and a referendum was held to decide where it should belong. And yes, the people of Sopron voted for Hungary.
Szeged, the city of sunshine
Szeged is often called the city of sunshine. Located near the southern border of Hungary, it gets the most sunshine according to annual weather reports. I would add that it’s the city of flowers, too, because from early spring until late autumn the streets, parks and squares are full of flowers.
The Open-Air Festival of Szeged is the most famous in the country, and Szeged is also where world-famous Hungarian Paprika comes from. It’s no joke, once I’ve seen Szeged Hungarian Paprika in a Safeway store near San Francisco.
I have to confess I’m quite biased about Szeged, because I didn’t only grow up there, but we got to know each other with Csaba in Szeged, as well.
Eger, the city of heroes (and wine!)
Located on the hills of Bükk Mountains in Northern Hungary, Eger is the city of Hungarian heroes and wine. The famous historical novel “Eclipse of the Crescent Moon” takes you back to the age of Turkish occupation and tells you about the heroes of Eger, including some romance, too.
But wine lovers would be more interested in the fact that Hungary’s most famous wine region is located on the slopes of the South-West part of Bükk Mountains, and its center is Eger. The Valley of the Beautiful Women (Szépasszonyvölgy in Hungarian) is half an hour walk from the city center of Eger and has about 200 wine cellars, dozens of them are open to the public for wine tasting.
Debrecen, the doorstep of the Great Hungarian Plain
Debrecen is the second largest Hungarian city. It served as the capital of Hungary twice in our history: in 1848-1949 and 1944-1945. It’s at the doorstep of the Great Hungarian Plain, a place rich with folklore and cultural history. Part of it is Hortobágy National Park which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.
Its annual Flower Carnival is held on Hungary’s greatest national holiday, 20th of August each year. 20th of August is St Stephen’s Day – kind of Hungary’s 4th of July – when we celebrate the foundation of the Hungarian state with festivals and fireworks all over the country. Debrecen with millions of flowers.
Győr, the home of Hungary’s most beautiful Baroque city center
Here’s another city that tempts for a stop on your way from Budapest to Vienna: Győr. Its beautiful Baroque city center with cobbled streets and colorful houses, nicely renovated Baroque mansions and churches are perfect for romantic walks – or photographing architecture.
Esztergom, the city of kings
A city with a significant cultural heritage and an eventful history – and with Hungary’s largest church. Our first king, Saint Stephen was born here, and his coronation also took place in Esztergom on January 1, 1001 – this is the anniversary of the foundation of Hungary.
Esztergom was the heart of medieval Hungary – until it was destroyed in one of the many invasions. It was rebuilt as a lovely city later, but never got back its previous significance. The Basilica of Esztergom, however, is the most beautiful church in Hungary – and with its 72 metres high dome, also the largest church.
Székesfehérvár, another ancient royal city with an unreal castle
Székesfehérvár is one of the most ancient cities in Hungary. From the Ruins Garden of the Coronation Basilica to the old Clockworks with legendary kings and well-known figures of Hungarian history, its old center is a pretty piece of history. The narrow streets impress with large churches tucked between the Baroque and Rococo buildings.
But our favorite sight in the city is Bory Castle. Unlike all the medieval castles in the country, this one is not in ruins. Well, this is because it’s not medieval – and not a historical monument either. It’s a monument of art and love built in the 20th century.
Kőszeg, a pretty small town at the foot of Kőszeg Mountains
Close to the Hungarian-Austrian border, Kőszeg has a little jewel box of an old town. The historical houses are nicely renovated, we especially liked the beautiful Baroque Jurisics Square, Main Square, Chernel and Rajnis Streets. Then it has Kőszeg Mountains nearby for some lovely hikes – and if you hike far enough, you end up in Austria.
Veszprém, another Baroque jewel
The old town of Veszprém is small, but quite picturesque as it’s located on a hill. The castle district is one street – but it’s one of the most preserved Baroque streets in Hungary! You can walk around in Veszprém within half a day, then explore other lesser-known gems in the area – like the 12th-century Cistercian abbey in Zirc or the newly renovated Esterházy Palace of Pápa. Lake Balaton is also close.
Keszthely, the capital of Lake Balaton
Keszthely is on the shore of Lake Balaton, Hungary’s largest lake, and it’s home to one of the most spectacular castles in the country: Festetics Palace. It has a lovely walking street with restaurants, too, and a long beach with shallow water. (Lake Balaton is famous for its shallow water that gets warm easily, anyway.) However, our favorite Balaton beaches are at Gyenesdiás and Vonyarcvashegy, two holiday towns a few minutes drive away from Keszthely.
You can use Keszthely as your base to visit Lake Hévíz, the largest thermal lake in Europe that’s available for swimming, explore unspoilt Lake Little Balaton (Kis-Balaton) or hike in the Keszthely Mountains.
How to get around: car, bus or train?
All these cities and towns are actually not so far from each other – Hungary is a small country. They’re easily reachable from Budapest, as well, because Hungary’s road and railway system is centered around the capital. This fact can be the downside when you’d like to travel from one town to another by train: most probably you need to travel through Budapest, even if that’s not the optimal route.
So which is better then: car, train or bus? It depends. We’re huge fans of road trips, but cars only cause headaches in cities, because parking spaces are limited – most probably expensive, too – and public transport in the cities is good. We’d recommend a car only if there’s no direct train, or you’d like to do some hiking in the area you visit. Most trailheads can be reached by bus, but it’s not that straightforward and comfortable.
Each of the major cities have quite frequent train connections with Budapest, but not with each other. If there’s direct train connection, it’s usually faster to take the train than the bus (trains have less stops). But it doesn’t matter that much in case of shorter routes. Just make sure to check which train or bus station it leaves as Budapest has several main train and bus stations.
I’ve already mentioned that Hungary is centralized, and this means that the train from Szeged to Pécs goes through Budapest, even though both cities are in the south. Just an example. You’re better with the bus in this case.
More tips and useful links for getting around in Hungary
You have to pay for services in advance when using public transport or toll roads. Purchase your train ticket before getting on the train. Buy e-vignettes for toll roads before actually using them. The only exception is buses – there you can buy tickets when you get on, but you need cash and preferably the exact amount as drivers don’t have much change. It’s more convenient to use the ticketing machines at bus stations.
Use the Simple app to buy parking tickets with your phone. Of course, the app tells you whether you’re in a toll zone or whether a toll is charged on that particular day. You can also use this app to pay for toll roads, taxi, or buy different kinds of tickets.
Parking is usually free in the cities on weekends. It’s usually true for weekday evenings, too, but there are a few exceptions.
Über is not available in Hungary, but you can use Taxify/Bolt. Download the app to your phone, request a taxi and pay through the app. It’s the safest way to get a taxi for a reasonable price.
You have to pay a road toll to use the highways. There are different options for validity. 10 days is the shortest validity period, but you can buy monthly or annual vignette, as well. You can also choose to buy the vignette for the whole country or only for a certain region. You can check the toll roads here in each county. Buy a 10 days or a monthly vignette for the whole country if you plan to do a road trip.
E-vignettes for toll roads can be purchased at gas stations or online. The license plate number of your car will be registered during the process, there’s no sticker to be applied on the vehicle. But make sure to keep your receipt.
Have you ever been to Hungary? Would you love to visit?