Bordered by seven countries, Hungary sits at the heart of Central Europe, but it has a strong cultural identity of its own. Most visitors will swoop into Budapest for a couple of days to hop between its thermal baths, ruins, and architectural wonders, but there is so much more to discover beyond the banks of the Danube. Make time to explore Hungary's spectacular lakes, vast wine regions, ancient cities, and cultural hubs.
Around an hour's drive southwest of Budapest, Lake Balaton is Central Europe's largest lake. Its shoreline is dotted with popular 'beach resorts' and the area is home to rolling hills, vineyards, and lavender fields. Known as the 'Hungarian Sea', Lake Balaton attracts landlocked sun-seekers from across the country to swim, sail, walk and cycle, and to eat and drink at its top-notch restaurants and wineries.
At the foot of the Bükk Mountains in northeastern Hungary, Eger is one of the country's best-known wine regions. The area's winemaking traditions date back to the 11th century and many of the ancient cellars are carved into limestone rock that forms a network of underground tunnels. The most famous wine produced in the region is Bull's Blood (Egri Bikavér), a blend of three or more grapes that have matured in oak barrels for at least 12 months. Head to Szépasszony-völgy (The Valley of the Beautiful Women) to hop between cellars for tours and tastings.
North of Budapest, the Danube Bend (Dunakanyar) is the most scenic stretch of Europe's second-longest river. The best way to explore it is on a boat trip when the river's at high tide between May and September. Traveling from the capital you'll pass picturesque peaks and lush riverbanks. On the west bank you can visit some of Hungary's oldest settlements: Szentendre, a small baroque town with cobblestone streets lined with art galleries, museums and shops; Visegrád, with its 13th-century hilltop citadel and Renaissance palace ruins, and Esztergom, the country's former capital city, home to Hungary's largest cathedral.
A few miles north of Lake Balaton, the pretty city of Veszprém was founded on seven hills and features a historic hilltop castle district. Known as the 'City of Queens', it's the former home of Queen Gizella, the first queen of Hungary. The castle district contains a 10th-century cathedral, a medieval chapel decorated with 13th-century frescos, a number of art galleries and an iconic fire tower which offers stunning skyline views from the top of its spiral staircase. Time a trip to coincide with Veszprém's popular Utcazene, a popular 4-day music festival that sees the city's cobblestone streets filled with musicians and bands.
At the foot of the Mecsek mountains in southwest Hungary, the ancient city of Pécs is a beautiful cultural hub. Home to Hungary's largest university, a magnificent national theater, a world-class modern concert hall and a number of excellent museums and galleries, the city served as the European Capital of Culture in 2010 and has twice been voted one of the world's most livable mid-sized cities. The main square features a 16th-century mosque built under Ottoman rule, and you can explore Roman ruins and an early Christian Mausoleum, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the northern shore of Lake Balaton, Hévíz is Europe's largest thermal lake. The healing sulphuric waters are naturally heated to around 86 degrees and are said to help promote relaxation and ease ailments like rheumatism. You can spend your time floating in the waters around the historic bathing house or book in for a soothing massage. There's also a hospital in the area for treatments based around water therapy.
Despite being ravaged by Ottoman Turks and bombed during World War II, Sopron is a charming city in northwest Hungary with an intact medieval old town. It sits on the border of Austria and forms part of a significant wine-producing region. Explore the city's colorful streets and take in the ancient Roman ruins and buildings that span medieval, Renaissance and Baroque styles. For a big dose of fresh air, follow the hiking trails in nearby Lővérek, a huge area of pine-forested hills, or take a trip out to Lake Fertő, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Around 55 miles northeast of Budapest in a valley of the Cserhát mountains, Hollókő is a traditional Hungarian village and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old part of the village is a conservation area of 55 houses that have been rebuilt in timber and stone to reflect the original Palóc rural architecture. The protected zone includes the 12th-century castle ruins that sit on a hilltop above the village. It's scooped the title of Hungary's Most Beautiful Village on several occasions, and there are a number of festivals throughout the year that celebrates local traditions and craftsmanship.