Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Hungary, similar to nearby Czech Republic, is a country which is known chiefly for its capital, which dwarfs all other cities in the country in terms of size and significance. Indeed, a whopping 90% of visitors to the country visit Budapest, leaving only a trickle of tourists elsewhere. Which is a pity, because the rest of the country has much to offer, and Eger (pronounced 'Egg-air') - in the (relatively) hilly north of Hungary, a town of some 55,000 - has more to offer than most. Just three hours by road or train from Budapest, it's off the beaten track and yet boasts a great tourist infrastructure with plenty of high-quality eating establishments and comfortable accommodation. It's a treasure-trove of baroque architecture, cobbled streets and pretty pastel-coloured houses, and is overlooked in a different way by a castle which was used as a bastion against the Turks, as well as several reminders of the 90 years of Turkish occupation including a mosque, minaret and baths – all bequeathed and absorbed into the fabric of the city, giving it a somewhat Mediterranean flavour. The main draw-card of the city however is its wine-making tradition, and its dark red wine, known as 'bull's blood' ('Egri Bikaver') affectionately by locals and wine connoisseurs alike, is drunk in huge quantities in and around the town.
A visit to Eger isn't complete without a trip to the warren of wine cellars just west of the centre, where generous samples straight from the cask can be had for a handful of Forints. Just don't lose count of this tricky currency and its confusing notes when you've had a few glasses of the stuff! Combine this with a slew of fine dining options – Hungarians are central Europe's gastronomes – and foodies will not leave Eger disappointed. And when you're finished wondering the town and its outskirts, you can escape to the Bukk Hills, which rise above the town, and explore some of Hungary's prettiest countryside and most appealing villages, perhaps pausing for a relaxing thermal bath. Eager yet?
In a town the size of Eger, pretty much everything is on the beaten track, although wherever you go you won't be bothered too much by tourists except at peak times. The most obvious starting point for visitors new to the town is Eger's castle. Perched atop the town, which is somewhat huddled beneath, it has a proud history, and affords superb views and photographic opportunities. The castle itself is mostly ruins now, but the castle ramparts are quite intact and impressive. There is also an interesting museum where you can glean some information about the 1552 siege of Eger, during which 2000 soldiers held out bravely against 100,000 Turks (and when Bull's Blood got its name), and the 17th century occupation which followed. The Basilica will probably be your second port of call. It's a real highlight of the town's amazing architecture – a neoclassical monolith designed in 1836. Its pale yellow dome houses some exquisite works of religious art and stained glass, and is best visited during one of the daily half-hour organ concerts which show off its acoustics to maximum effect. Right under the entrance to the basilica is the City Under the City – the former archbishop's cellars. A 45 minute guided tour takes you on a fascinating trip through the history of the town via its caverns. A stroll down Kossuth Lajos Utca is a must; this street is lined with dozens of baroque buildings. The Orthodox Synagogue at No.17 and the former neoclassical synagogue at No.7 remind you of the town's former Jewish significance (the pre-war Jewish population was 25% of Eger's total).
Other buildings of interest are the County Hall and the rococo Provost's Palace with its lovely wrought iron gate. Still in the centre, the Lyceum warrants a visit due to the fact that it affords more spectacular views from its 6th floor balcony in addition to a diverting astronomy museum and planetarium with a camera obscura, 'the eye of Eger', designed in 1776 to entertain (and spy on) the residents of Eger. Finally, not to be missed is Eger's somewhat out-of-place minaret – reputedly Europe's northernmost one - which is 40m tall and topped incongruously by a cross. Claustrophobes will find the 97 step (very) narrow stairway hellish, and those of a larger build should forget it, but the views at the top are stunning.
Away From the Crowds
There are a few other attractions in Eger slightly out of the centre. First of all, the adjacent sets of baths which are a sure sign of Turkish occupation. Eger's outdoor thermal baths (Egri Termalfurdo) cost only a handful of Euros and can provide hours of family-friendly fun, whatever the weather. Surrounded by the pleasant Archbishop's Garden, admission gains you access to a variety of pools, including bubbling massage pools, a kids' pool and various spa features. Nearby is the indoor Turkish Bath – housed in a building dating from 1617 – where you can soak and relax in several pools, saunas, steam rooms and even a hamam (Turkish bath). Various types of massage and treatments are also available.
Ideal after a hard day's sightseeing and wine-tasting. Speaking of which, the Valley of the Beautiful Women (Szepasszony Volgy - don't try pronouncing this or any of the names of the places you visit, for this most alien of tongues will almost certainly befuddle you more than the wine) is not to be missed. It may come as a disappointment to some as it is neither a valley as such, nor does it contain outstanding women, but to wine connoisseurs, it is viticultural heaven. One of the best places in the country to sample wine (along with Tokaj), what it does contain is cellar after cellar of locally-produced wine. Over two dozen pincek (cellars) sell a range of mainly reds such as Bull's Blood, but also whites such as Olaszrizling and Harslevelu. Cellars 40, 43 and 46 are personal favourites, where service is superb, surrounds atmospheric (if not plush) and wine mostly quaffable and inexpensive – if not world-class. But then, who cares about being a connoisseur? On average, 2 decilitre glasses cost 200-300 Forints (0.65-0.96 Euro). Hic.
Finally, for those with a car, touring the nearby Bukk Hills is an absolute pleasure and gives an insight into the culture of the surrounding countryside. Villages such as Szilvasvarad, famous for its Lippizzaner horses, is a pretty place surrounded by slopes of vines producing Bull's Blood, whilst Repashuta makes an excellent base for exploring nearby caves and the Bukk Plateau. This is also an excellent area to find traditional folk crafts and handiwork such as the colourful local embroidery. Just driving around these pretty villages in the rolling hills and stopping for the odd stroll and wine-tasting (make sure there's a designated driver!) is a great day out.
Events and Experiences
Most of your time spent in Eger will involve strolling around and enjoying the many cafes, bars and cellars around the old town, but for a town of its relative obscurity, Eger has a lively cultural life. Predictably, this revolves around wine and the sampling thereof. The main event each year is the Bull's Blood Festival which takes place July 6th-9th in 2019. It's a family-oriented event which has plenty of fun for the little ones as well as providing endless opportunities for adults to imbibe Bull's Blood, sample local food and listen to Hungarian bands and DJs. It's well-attended, so book well ahead, or plan to visit on a day trip from somewhere else such as Budapest. A street food festival takes place between May 4th and 7th, and focuses on the cuisine of the area, arguably some of Central Europe's finest, culminating with a large free concert on the Saturday night. Finally, a beer festival happens on 17th-18th August; Hungarian beer is often overlooked by visitors focussed on the wine, but some fine craft beers can be sampled here, from stout darks to cloudy white beers, along with delicious snacks and traditional Hungarian handicrafts.