The small landlocked country of Hungary in eastern Central Europe is very much the 'odd one out' in the region. Surrounded by Slavs on all sides, apart from Austria to the west, the country is culturally and linguistically distinct from all of its immediate neighbours.
Hungarians today are direct descendents of the Magyars that arrived here, by way of Russia, in the ninth century. Hailing originally from the Central Asian steppe, these Magyars brought with them a fiendishly difficult language that has few links to any other, except a very distant relationship to Finnish. Along with the language came a unique culture, which, despite invasion by Mongols in the 13th century, occupation by Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries, Austrian Habsburg rule in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Communist domination following World War II, has survived more or less intact.
Most Hungarians display a quiet but stoic pride for their nation and cling determinedly to a culture that remains undiminished despite centuries of foreign domination. Such pride is not without foundation: the country is home to some outstanding historic towns and cities, numerous elegant castles, palaces and churches, as well as some attractive – albeit mostly flat – countryside. This bucolic rural landscape is also home to many highly regarded winegrowing regions such as those at Tokaj. Thermal springs are another notable feature of the Hungarian landscape. As a consequence, there are more than 150 thermal spas – some of which date back to Roman times – and elegant bathhouses in some urban areas, most notably in the capital, Budapest.
Budapest is an elegant, stylish and lively city made up of two separate settlements clustered on either side of the Danube River. Buda, west of the river, is hillier and older, with a wealth of graceful Habsburg and neoclassical buildings, while Pest, the commercial centre on the opposite bank, is flatter and more sprawling with a generous scattering of art nouveau architecture. The city has long been the focus of Hungary’s artistic, musical and literary community, and is by far the best place in the country for a choice of bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
Although Budapest, with a population of around two million, is by far the country’s largest and most important urban centre, smaller cities like Eger, Pécs, Szentendre, Sopron, Györ and Szeged are all fascinating historical places to visit in their own right, with equally attractive architecture.
Beyond these urban centres, Hungary’s terrain is surprisingly varied. The flat open prairie of the Great Hungarian Plain (Nagy Alföld) characterises the southeast of the country and spreads far beyond Hungary’s political boundary into Serbia, Romania and Ukraine. The smaller Little Hungarian Plain (Kisalföld) is found in the northwest of the country next to the Austrian and Slovak borders. In contrast, the Transdanubian region of central and western Hungary is a gently rolling landscape that’s also home to Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest body of fresh water – a popular holiday destination for many Hungarians. The country’s highest mountains, which rise to a little over 1,000m (3,281ft), are located in the Carpathian region along the Slovak border.