25 fascinating things you probably didn't know about Hungary

Zoe Johnson
Being completely landlocked doesn't stop Hungary from being a beach destination -

To mark Hungarian National Day, which remembers the uprising of 1956, here are a few things you might not know about the Eastern European country.

1. It's an unlikely place for a beach holiday

Yes, Hungary is landlocked. However, at almost 600 square kilometres, Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe – so big, in fact, that it's often referred to as the Hungarian Sea, and sunseekers have flocked to its shores for decades. The nearby sulphuric waters of Heviz, meanwhile, are said to have medicinal qualities, and are believed to cure rheumatic ailments, aches and pains.

Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe Credit: Credit: Peter Forsberg / Alamy Stock Photo/Peter Forsberg / Alamy Stock Photo

2. You can make the most of the healing waters indoors, too

Thanks to an abundance of natural hot springs, Hungary can boast around 450 public spas and bathhouses. A prominent bathing culture has existed since Roman times; it is supposedly the best cure for a hangover – or “cat’s wail” as the Hungarian term macskajaj translates.

Budapest's Art Nouveau Gellert Baths are a grand place for a dip Credit: Credit: Sorin Colac / Alamy Stock Photo/Sorin Colac / Alamy Stock Photo

3. Hungarians are mightily inventive

Notable inventions include the Rubik's Cube (by sculptor and professor Erno Rubik, 1974), the krypton electric bulb (by physicist Imre Brody in 1937), and the biro, patented in 1938 by journalist László Bíró.

Disclaimer: not the real Erno Rubik Credit: Credit: Svyatoslav Lypynskyy / Alamy Stock Photo/Svyatoslav Lypynskyy / Alamy Stock Photo

4. And jolly Nobel, too

Hungary has produced 13 Nobel laureates to date - more per capita than the likes of Finland, Spain, Canada and Australia - bagging every category except peace.

5. There’s a statue that will make you a great writer

Touching the pen of the statue of Anonymus in Budapest's City Park will, legend has it, bless you with great writing abilities. You may not believe it, but the shiny surface of the pen suggests that many still do.

6. It is home to the world’s first official wine region

Put your glass of Bordeaux aside; King Karoly made official Hungary’s Tokaj region - where wine has been produced since the 5th century - 120 years earlier.

Vineyards in the Tokaj region Credit: Credit: imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo/imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

7. And the master of escapology

Erich Weisz, better known as illusionist Harry Houdini, was born in Budapest in 1874 before earning his fame escaping from handcuffs, strait jackets and a Chinese Water Cell.

8. Pálinka is considered the cure of all ails

Refuse a shot of the ubiquitous fruit brandy and risk causing great insult - not to mention confusion. Hungarian nagymamák (grandmas) swear by its powers. Have a headache? Pálinka. Menstrual pains? Pálinka. Feeling nervous? Pálinka. As the saying goes: “Palinka in small amounts is a medicine, in large amounts a remedy”.

Palinka is the cure of that headache, not the cause Credit: Credit: Gareth Dewar / Alamy Stock Photo/Gareth Dewar / Alamy Stock Photo

9. It is considered rude to clink your beer glasses

Legend has it that when the 1848 Hungarian revolution against the Habsburgs was defeated, 13 Hungarian generals were executed, with the Austrians clinking their beer glasses after each execution. As a result, Hungarians vowed not to cheers with beer for 150 years - and while the time has passed, the custom remains. Eye contact is a must when Egeszsegedre-ing anything else, though.

10. Water polo is a national sport

Quite possibly the most famous game of water polo in history was the bloody play-off between Hungary and the USSR at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, in which Hungary won 4-0 before the game was called off to avoid a riot. The 2000 Olympics (held in Sydney) also introduced a women’s tournament to the sport.

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11. The world’s greatest female chess champion is Hungarian

Judit Polgar acquired the title of grandmaster at the tender age of 15 in 1991 - a record. The game is played everywhere in Hungary - including on floating boards in its thermal baths.

Judit Polgar is considered the best female chess player of all time Credit: HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY

12. The number 96 is very important

The crowning of Arpad as first king of the Magyars (Hungarian people) marked the beginning of the Hungarian state in 896. Budapest’s metro was built on the country’s millennial anniversary in 1896. By law, buildings in Budapest must not exceed 96 feet, and the Hungarian national anthem should be sung in 96 seconds - if done at the proper tempo.

13. So is paprika

Once traded with communists for hard currency, today more than 1,000 tons of the spice are produced annually in Hungary. There are two paprika museums, Szeged and Molnar, which give an insight into the industry as well as a spicy sample.

Paprika, best served with: everything Credit: Credit: Arpad Radoczy / Alamy Stock Photo/Arpad Radoczy / Alamy Stock Photo

14. It’s where the word ‘coach’ comes from

Or Kocs to be precise - the town where the vehicles are said to have first appeared in the 16th century.

15. Budapest has continental Europe’s oldest metro

Beginning operations in 1896, it is also the second oldest electrically operated underground railway in the world, predated only by the London Underground.

They love coaches and metros Credit: Credit: Brian_Kinney / Alamy Stock Photo/Brian_Kinney / Alamy Stock Photo

16. As well as a natural underground labyrinth

The world’s largest geothermal cave system can be found underneath the capital and is made up of some 200 subterranean chambers. While most explorations are only available to qualified visitors, a number of show caves such as Szemlo-hegy and Molnar Janos can be viewed from a distance with just a hard hat.

17. Budapest has the second largest synagogue in the world

Seating 3,000, the Dohany Street Synagogue is the largest in Europe and part of the Budapest Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Dohány Street Synagogue survived substantial bombing during Nazi Occupation but was restored - and remains one of the most impressive synagogues in the world Credit: serg_did - Fotolia/Didenko Sergey

18. And some of the most intriguing watering holes

A beer in one of Budapest’s ruin pubs is a must when visiting the city. The pubs or kerts quite literally sit inside the many bombed out and bullet marked “ruins” of buildings, and as well as being an interesting place for a Palinka, many hold farmers’ markets and community gatherings too.

19. Hollywood would not be Hollywood without Hungarians

Paramount Pictures founder Adolf Zukor, Vilmos Fried (more commonly known as William Fox), and Casablanca director Michael Curtiz (formerly Mano Kaminer) all heralded from Hungary.

20. Neither would Dracula

Count Dracula is believed to have been based on the 15th century villain Vlad the Impaler, who terrorized Wallachia (formerly part of Hungary) until he was jailed by King Matthias.

Dracula wouldn't be Dracula without Hungary

21. Elvis Presley is an honorary citizen of Budapest

Posthumous citizenship was awarded to the musician in 2011 in recognition of his somewhat heroic status after a performance of “Peace in the Valley” on American television brought attention to the 1956 revolution. The accolade is also recognised in a local landmark, Elvis Presley Boulevard, dedicated to the star.

22. Tourists to the capital prefer pinball to historic sites

Opened in 2015, Budapest Pinball Museum houses over 130 classic machines and scores higher on TripAdvisor's attraction ratings than Heroes Square, Buda Castle or the Liberty Bridge.

23. It has some real railway children

The Gyermekvasut Railway that runs through Buda hills between Széchenyi Hill and Hűvösvölgy stations is run almost exclusively by 10-14 year-olds from local schools who make up the ticket sellers and conductors, man the switch points and sell station memorabilia.

24. Hungarian names are regulated by law

Parents are subject to a naming law when it comes to choosing what to call their children. Names must come from a pre-approved list - any deviations from which must be approved by application to the Research Institute for Linguistics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. No Apples or Brooklyns there, then.

25. The language is very, very tricky

The Hungarian language is part of the Finno-Ugrian language family and thought to be one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. It is said that English has more in common with Russian.


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