Before reaching Budapest the River Danube turns sharply between rocky hills providing one of the most scenic views of Hungary: the Danube Bend. It is definitely worth leaving the buzz of Budapest behind, and spend a couple of hours in the countryside learning about the history of Hungary on a fascinating day trip.
The Danube Bend is surrounded by historic and picturesque cities like Visegrad, Esztergom and Szentendre. Castle ruins, churches, pretty houses perching on the hills, thick forests reflected in the waters of the river make this section of the Danube a popular destination.
Visegrad & the Soaring Castle Ruin
The list of must-see sights in Visegrad starts with the medieval, triangular shaped Castle of Visegrad, called the Citadel, and a Bobsled Track 10 min walk from the castle.
The Castle with its 3 mighty towers was built from stones in the 13th century by King Bela IV of Hungary and his wife as a personal royal residence and refuge, after the Mongol Invasion of Europe led by Batu Khan. The partially reconstructed castle sits atop the 333 meter high steep hill soaring over the river Danube Bend, and features medieval exhibitions, wax works, and the ramparts of the Citadel, from where you can enjoy a bird’s eye view (lots of steps, after a rewarding steep climbing trail or an easy drive). Visegrad is also well-known for its festivals, and colourful knight’s tournaments, and a handful of great restaurants with generous portions.
Don’t miss the Brandy Museum in Visegrad, called the Zugfozde Palinkamuzeum for its tastings and historical insights. The tiny museum gives you behind the scene information about the period when the distillation of Hungary’s most charismatic spirit, the Palinka was banned. Visitors have a chance to taste and smell most of the different types, all made from different fruits.
Visegrad offers active fresh air programs in its beautiful green environment, like trekking (visiting the Citadel (Fellegvar) offers a steep, 1-2 hour climb uphill, if you don’t take a car). You can also have fun on the Visegrad Bobsled track (summer and winter), or explore the Canopy Extreme Fun.
Esztergom and the Mighty Basilica
Esztergom is the center of the Hungarian Roman Catholic church. The city has historical significance as St. Stephen, the first Hungarian king was crowned in Esztergom in 1001. The church, called the Esztergom Basilica, also contains a small treasury, where the actual skull of Saint Stephen himself can be seen. There is also a magnificent statue of King Stephen I, as one tourist described it “Pictures don’t do this statue justice. It was beautiful and the setting was perfect.”
Esztergom Basilica is the largest church in Hungary and third biggest in the world, so it is enormous, with the largest bell in it, weighing about 5800 kilograms (about the same weight as a female African elephant). The Basilica is not only famous for its majestic size, but also as burial place of famous cardinals, like Primate Jozsef Mindszenty, the martyr of Communist persecutions.
The Watertown in Esztergom is a beautiful old part of the town that sits underneath the Basilica providing nice views of the landscape from the small streets below. You can find the fascinating Danube Museum here with lots of interactive exhibits, ideal place with children.
The Turkish Mosque was built exactly where the Turks broke through the castle walls in 1543 starting a 150-year-long invasion of the Hungarian Kingdom. The mosque has a beautifully designed garden, definitely worth a visit if you are in Esztergom.
As Esztergom is the Northern gate of Hungary, it provides a glance across the river Danube, and more than a view over to Slovakia via the newly rebuilt Maria Valeria Bridge, connecting Hungary and Slovakia after nearly 50 years (the original bridge was destroyed in WWII). There is no visa needed for EU tourists to take a short visit from Hungary to Slovakia: you can easily walk or drive through the bridge, and end up in another country. Iconic and quirky experience.