Never thought of visiting Hungary? Well, you might be soon. In our Breakout Role series, we take a look at places that have seen huge increases in tourism in the last few years, and try to figure out what’s causing all the hype.
At the beginning of the century, Hungary was a tourism powerhouse. By some estimates, the country was the world’s twelfth most visited destination in 2001, and by 2004 more than 12 million international visitors were pouring into the Central European nation each year.
But in 2008, just four years after Hungary joined the European Union, the country’s ability to borrow in foreign currencies made it especially vulnerable to the global financial crisis. Tourism was forced to take a backseat, and the number of annual foreign tourists dropped off by the millions.
However, Hungarian tourism has bounced back in a major way. With nearly 16 million inbound tourists in 2015, the country has seemingly begun to exceed its pre-2008 numbers. As the nation’s international visitors grew by seven percent between September 2015 and September 2016, it doesn’t seem as though this positive trend is slowing down any time soon.
Photo: Marcell Katona, CC-BY
Gabor Banfalvi, co-founder of Taste Hungary, a Hungarian food and wine tour company and The Tasting Table, a Budapest-based wine shop and tasting room, says some of Hungary’s success is rooted in its accessibility and affordability. According to Banfalvi, the country’s entry into the EU has made travel more convenient. This, combined, with a highly favorable exchange rate (glass of white wine costs, on average, barely more than a dollar) makes Hungary a formidably inexpensive option when planning a European vacation.
However, this growth isn’t necessarily being experienced on the same level everywhere. Budapest, the country’s capital and largest city, is by and large the primary destination that draws visitors to Hungary.
“When I say Hungary, I mean first and foremost Budapest, because in terms of tourists coming to Hungary it’s very Budapest-dominated,” says Laszlo Biro, managing director for Excalibur Tours Hungary, an incoming tourism company founded in Budapest in 1989.
Biro’s company offers group tours to a pretty diverse customer base, ranging from school trips to stag parties, but he says Budapest is almost always the main focus of international travellers. He isn’t wrong either—62 percent of all nights spent in Hungary by international tourists in 2015 were spent in Budapest, and about 75% of all spending on accommodations took place in the capital as well.
Biro points to access as one of the factors driving this tendency: most international flights come in through Budapest, and most vacations simply don’t last long enough for tourists to venture out beyond the city.
Photo: Alex Proimos, CC-BY
As one might assume, the fact that tourism is so centered on Budapest has led to a transformation within the capital, one that Banfalvi—a longtime resident of the city—has easily noticed.
“The city has changed pretty fast—and for the better,” Banfalvi says. “When I was growing up in the 1990s it was a heavily polluted city—buildings falling apart—I’m not saying it’s totally there yet, but it’s almost there.”
Banfalvi says much of this growth has come from the businesses themselves, with private enterprises such as hotels, restaurants and tour companies leading the charge in marketing themselves to tourists. Additionally, despite becoming the butt of more than a few jokes due to its famously confusing tourism slogan (which, and this is not a typo, is “Think Hungary more than”), the Hungarian government seems to be emphasizing tourism as well, even prioritizing new regions outside of Budapest in recent marketing plans.
Overcrowding has become a bit of a problem though, and Biro says accommodations are becoming more and more difficult to book, especially in months such as May and September, which are considered peak times for Budapest.
“A couple of years ago if we had a request for a certain hotel category, it took one phone call and you could sort it out, Biro says. “Now it takes 10 to 15 phone calls, until eventually it’s like finding the needle in the hay.”
Photo: Torsten Scholz, CC-BY
There is, of course, a reason Budapest draws so many more visitors than the rest of the country. The city is full of can’t-miss attractions—from architecture to history to dining—that make it a standout travel stop. Thermal spas are an absolute must in the capital, with the Szechenyi Baths standing out as the most famous choice for a warm water dip.
Additionally, sights such as the Hungarian parliament building, Fisherman’s Bastion (a string of idyllic towers overlooking the Danube River) and historical draws including the Hospital in the Rock and the House of Terror museums make for incredible day trips in and of themselves. Eating—and drinking—well is also a must in Budapest, as no trip to Hungary is complete without few bowls of true, authentic Goulash, as well as a trip to some of the city’s increasingly popular ruin pubs, which are essentially large bars formed out of formerly run-down or destroyed buildings.
Outside of the city, Hungary’s breathtaking Lake Balaton is a widely popular summer resort destination, especially for regional tourists. The nation’s emerging wine country and a number of small, relaxing spa towns make a compelling case for travel outside the capital as well.
Flight Rates: Current prices (round trip) can be found for between $542 and $1,306.
Travel Concerns: There are no current major safety threats, and travel visas are not required for stays of less than 90 days.
Currency Exchange: 1 USD = 293 Hungarian Forints
More Info: Hungary’s tourism website offers both general, logistical information about travel as well as trip ideas, hotel suggestions and major attractions.
Top photo: Dennis Jarvis, CC-BY
Dillon Thompson is a University of Georgia student and freelance writer with a love for travel and an addiction to coffee and hip-hop music.