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Hungary Family Holidays & Breaks

Horseman at the Puszta Animal Park.Horseman at the Puszta Animal Park.© Hungary Tourism
Sunset at Lake Balaton.Sunset at Lake Balaton.© Hungary Tourism
Birdlife at Hortobágyi National Park.Birdlife at Hortobágyi National Park.© Hortobágyi Nemzeti Park Igazgatóság/Molnar Peter
Sziget Festival, Budapest.Sziget Festival, Budapest.© Hungary Tourism
Capital City Budapest
Flying Time 2.5hrs
Carbon Footprint 1.34 CO2
Timezone GMT +1
Currency Forint

Today

Overview

Hungary isn’t an obvious choice for family holidays, but Lake Balaton, central Europe’s largest lake, is just made for those with kids – tucked in among the pretty historical towns and villages that dot its shores are family-friendly resorts with private beaches and amenities for children and parents. A city break in the capital Budapest followed by a ‘beach’ holiday at Balaton has the makings of a great family holiday with something for everyone.

Hungary has a compelling variety of landscapes, from huge lakes to vast plains, and a rich history that includes occupation by Romans, onslaughts by Mongols, Turks, Habsburgs, Germans and Soviets, and home-grown dictatorships. It’s currently one of the best-value destinations in Europe because it’s still outside the Eurozone. On the minus side, the Magyar language is difficult to pick up (and pronounce), and few people speak English, especially outside major cities. This is beginning to change now English is obligatory in schools, but knowledge of German helps, especially around Balaton, which is popular with German holidaymakers.

Hungarians are of the old-fashioned ‘children should be seen and not heard’ mentality. The older generation, in particular, expect kids to behave in public. That is not to say that Hungarians don’t like children – you may find strangers commenting on your children in the street, remarking how cute they are. But overall, Hungarians are less tolerant of childish waywardness than Brits.

Things to do with kids in Hungary

Discover family-friendly Lake Balaton with its resorts offering relaxation and wellness for parents in conjunction with activities and amenities for children. The lake itself is shallow with gently sloping beaches and blissfully warm water in summer. Activities on the water or the sand include pedaloing, windsurfing, wakeboarding, fishing and volleyball. Siófok is the biggest resort, on the lake’s southern shore, and has a good choice of villas for family holidays. On the northern shore, Balatonfüred is a friendly town with a pretty harbour, a promenade, parks, homely restaurants, and good family hotels. On a rainy day, head for Keszthely at the western end of the lake, with its marzipan museum and equally sweet doll museum, and, for the gruesomely minded, a museum of torture.

Away from the shores of the lake, there’s a huge waterpark at Zalaegerszeg, with wave machines and a 300m artificial river, and at Tapolca a subterranean cave lake that you can explore by boat ride. There’s loads of scope for horse-riding or cycling in the area, and for exploring the castles at Nagyvázsony or Szigliget, which sometimes host displays of jousting and archery.

Venture east of Budapest (185km), to the Hortobágy National Park, Europe’s biggest protected steppe (it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Here, Hungarian grey cattle, stud horses, the spiral horned Racka sheep and buffalo herds graze on open pastures. Head for the Puszta Animal Park, where you can see grey cattle, water buffalo, goats and mangalica pigs in open-air folds and pens. You might also get the chance to watch some csikósok – Hungarian-style cowboys – crack whips and perform bareback stunts in traditional dress at the Szálkahalom Nature Reserve. This latter offers trips out into the seemingly endless flat-lands by horse-drawn wagon, and wonderful views of the bird life of the forests and salt lakes from its former patrolman’s lodge, where there’s an exhibition on local curiosities.

At the village of Hortobágy itself, the Herdsman’s Museum has displays about the hardy local shepherds, who used to live outside in summer and winter alike. Also here is the Máta Stud Farm and Animal Farm, where Nonius horses have been bred for three centuries.

Make a jaunt northwest of Hortobágy, to check out Hungary's largest artificial lake, Lake Tisza. Since being built in the 1970s, this has been popular with Hungarians as a cheaper and less crowded alternative to Balaton – like Balaton, it offers beaches with toddler-friendly shallow bathing areas, watersports facilities, play areas, open-air baths, campsites and places to hire equipment.

Head due north of Hortobágy, to Eger, best known for its wines but also home to an impressive castle where locals, despite being heavily outnumbered, held off the Turks in 1552, partly though the local women showering rocks, hot soup and boiling fat onto the foe. The siege is said to have given the local Bikavé or ‘Bull’s Blood’ wine its name. The best time to come to Eger is mid June, for the Border Castle festivities, with martial arts demonstrations, stilt-walkers, giant puppets, and a recreation of life in Turkish times, including belly dancing, music, food and a prayer call from the surviving Turkish mosque.

Travel due north of Eger, to the border with Slovakia, where the Aggtelek Nemzeti National Park is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, this time by virtue of its gorgeous caves full of stalactites and stalagmites. The 26km Baradla Cave, which runs into Slovakia, is Europe’s largest stalactite cave.

In the south of the country, Pécs is a lovely, friendly town with Hungary’s Natural History Museum and a zoo, as well as the UNESCO listed Necropolis of Sopiane, with spooky underground tombs with murals on Christian themes. Its being a university town means that most people speak English.

Eat

Restaurants in Hungary usually have highchairs, and although kids’ menus are rare, you’ll find staff very happy to provide half-portions. Hungarian tap water is drinkable.

Larger cities have familiar chains such as Pizza Hut, Subway and TGI Friday’s, and Italian food is increasingly popular in the country – a handy fallback on family holidays. However, do try to introduce children to Hungarian food, including gulyás, a light soup with paprika, pörkölt, the thick stew with paprika that we know as goulash, paprikás csirke, chicken with paprika, and halászlé, paprika fish soup. Paprika, in case you haven’t guessed, is the national spice. It comes in a variety of heats, but Hungarian dishes are rarely fiery. The most popular accompaniments to the above are potatoes, rice or dumplings.

Other popular dishes are goose, kolbász smoked sausage, stuffed veg (töltött), savoury or sweet pancakes (palacsinta; hortobágyi pancakes are meat-filled and covered in sauce), and lángos, deep-fried dough topped by sour cream, cheese and/or garlic. Outside the major cities, vegetarians may struggle a bit – you may be limited to the staples rántott sajt (fried cheese) and gombafejek rántva (fried mushrooms).

Hungary is also heaven for lovers of cake and coffee – head for a cukrászda (pastry shop) to try a Krémes (a flaky butter pastry with vanilla cream), an Eszterházy (a tart with butter cream and nuts) or a Somlói Galuska (a chocolate and brandy cake with cream). Kávé is a strong, espresso-like coffee to most Hungarians; American-style coffee is hosszú kávé.

And don’t forget to sample wines from the regions of Villány, Eger, Badacsony, Tokaj (dessert wines) and Szekszárd, which are usually great value. Make sure you order your wine száraz (dry) – many wines and champagnes are sweet (edes). A sociable drink that you may be offered in someone’s house, in lieu of a cup of tea, is the brandy-like pálinka, made from apricots, pears or plums.

When to go to Hungary

Summers in Hungary can be scorching hot with heavy storms at the end of the day, winters are very cold but atmospheric. May and September are more temperate, and the crowds at the resort towns of Balaton will be fewer (find out German school holiday dates if you want to avoid the most crowded times at Balaton).

Among the special events worth timing family holidays with are the Kabóciádé Children's Festival in Veszprém, in June, with an opening ceremony featuring the fictional King Habakkuk and Queen Boróka, concerts, puppet shows, a parade, and more. Then there’s Christmas, which is especially good in Budapest.

Cost

Hungary is currently a great-value destination for family holidays, with a low cost of living and easy accessibility by low-cost airline. Although you can pay in Euros in many hotels, restaurants, and shops, you’re better off using the national currency, forints, to take advantage of the fact that Hungary is outside the Eurozone.

By Rhonda Carrier

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