Three Weeks in Hungary, Zagreb, and Slovenia

We flew from Istanbul to Budapest at the beginning of July. It was going to be difficult to top the adventure and excitement of our time in Turkey, but we’re always game for a challenge. The weeks that followed took us to three different Hungarian cities, Croatia’s capital city and most popular national park, and the small but stunning country of Slovenia.

Hungary-Zagreb-Slovenia

It wasn’t until we stepped off the metro in Budapest that we realized just how foreign Turkey had felt. The streets and sidewalks of Hungary’s capital were active yet calm. Cars weren’t honking their horns, and they even stopped to let pedestrians through crosswalks. Locals were wearing shorts and drinking beer at sidewalk cafes. Compared to Istanbul, it almost felt like home.

Hungary-Zagreb-Slovenia-map

Hungary

We used our first day in Budapest to explore tourist-heavy Buda, on the west side of the Danube, enjoying a long walk around the city’s castle and main square. We spent most of our visit, though, in Pest — the more modern, active eastern side of the city.

Budapest’s 20th century history alone was captivating: from Austro-Hungarian power to World War II Nazi occupation to decades of so-called “Goulash Communism.” We visited the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, with its moving memorials to the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The House of Terror Museum shed light on the plight of the people through Fascist and Communist rule.

Upon leaving the museum, we were approached by two police officers. They told us we needed to leave Andrássy út, the major boulevard where the museum is located. It was Budapest Pride, and due to prior threats and security concerns, spectators were not allowed within a block of the march’s route. Curious to see the event, we found seats at a sidewalk restaurant (the only place where police were allowing onlookers) and watched the march. It was a far cry from the estimated 400,000 people who peacefully attended this year’s Seattle Pride, but also a substantial upgrade from the march-busting police in riot gear we witnessed in Turkey.

Hungary's Museum of Ethnography in Kossuth Lajos Square

Kossuth Lajos Square

Budapest-03

St. Stephen’s Basilica

Beautiful Communist architecture

Beautiful Communist architecture

Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial, where Jews were ordered to take off their shoes before being shot at the water's edge

“Shoes on the Danube Bank” memorial, where Jews were ordered to take off their shoes before being shot at the water’s edge by Arrow Cross militiamen

Budapest-07

Crowd watching UEFA Euro 2016

How to get sick in Budapest: eat lángos, fried dough topped with sour cream and cheese

How to get sick in Budapest: eat lángos, fried dough topped with sour cream and cheese

Budapest Pride: More of a march than a parade

Budapest Pride: More of a march than a parade

Hungarian Parliament Building on the Danube

Hungarian Parliament Building on the Danube

From Budapest, we took a train to the small town of Eger, in northern Hungary. The region is known for its red wines, and it was fun to sample the legendary “Bull’s Blood” (Egri Bikavér) in person as we hopped from tasting room to tasting room.

Eger-01

One of dozens of wineries in Eger

After one more night in Budapest, we headed south to Pécs, near the Croatian border. Hungary’s fifth largest city, Pécs felt absent of tourists and provided a nice respite from our busy days in larger cities.

Széchenyi Square in Pécs

Széchenyi Square in Pécs

Croatia

We took a train west from Pécs into Croatia and ended up spending an entire week in the charming capital city of Zagreb. What the city lacks in traditional tourist venues it more than makes up for with colorful street art, 24-hour pedestrian activity, and seemingly endless outdoor dining.

We also used Zagreb as a base for a long bus trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park, a beautiful series of lakes and waterfalls across sixteen travertine terraces.

Sculpture of Josip Jelačić, 19th century army general and Ban of Croatia

Sculpture of Josip Jelačić, 19th century army general and Ban of Croatia

Ban Jelačić Square packed for the UEFA Euro 2016 final

Ban Jelačić Square packed for the UEFA Euro 2016 final

Part of the small but charming collection at the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art

Part of the small but charming collection at the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art

Plitviče Lakes National Park

Plitviče Lakes National Park

Slovenia

Perhaps the greatest pleasant surprise of our trip was Slovenia. By land area, the entire country is smaller than the state of New Jersey — but Slovenia impressed us with its endearing capital city of Ljubljana, unreal natural beauty in the Julian Alps, and fascinating but oft-forgotten World War I history.

We spent five nights in Ljubljana before exploring the rest of Slovenia by rental car, spending two nights in the mountain towns of Bled and Kobarid.

Our drive took us up and down the 51 switchbacks of Vršič Pass, where the highway is known as the “Russian Road,” commemorating the ten thousand Russian POWs who built it. Amidst all this natural beauty, it was hard to imagine hundreds of thousands of soldiers dying there just a hundred years prior in one of the bloodiest fronts of World War I. Over sixty thousand soldiers were killed in avalanches alone, and years of warfare resulted in only a few kilometers’ movement of the battle lines.

View of the city from Ljubljana Castle

View of the city from Ljubljana Castle

Fantastic street food at Ljubljana's weekly Open Kitchen market

Fantastic street food at Ljubljana’s weekly Open Kitchen market

Afternoon drinks at a cafe on one of the many pedestrian-only streets along the Ljubljanica river

Afternoon drinks on one of the many pedestrian-only streets along the Ljubljanica river

Ljubljana Cathedral

Ljubljana Cathedral

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Waterfall in Triglav National Park, Slovenia's only national park

Waterfall in Triglav National Park, Slovenia’s only national park

Hiking trail near the Italian and Austrian borders

Hiking trail near the Italian and Austrian borders

Julian Alps

Julian Alps

Škocjan Caves, one of the largest known underground canyons in the world

Škocjan Caves, one of the largest known underground canyons in the world

Predjama Castle, an impregnable 13th century castle built into a cliff

Predjama Castle, an impregnable 13th century castle built into a cliff

We ended our Slovenian journey in Piran, a town on the country’s tiny 47-kilometer (29-mile) Adriatic coast. From the highest point in town, you can see both Italy and Croatia. Governed by Venice for much of the past millennium, Piran felt far more Italian than Slovenian and was a perfect preview of our next destinations down the Croatian coastline.

Waterfront walkway in Piran

Waterfront walkway in Piran

24 Comments

  1. Wow – this post makes me want to hop on a plane and go back!! I hiked from Austria to Italy in 2014 stopping in each of these countries. Ljubljana was one of my favorite cities!! Wanderlust is such a beautiful thing… It’s funny how a place you have no idea existed can make such a permanent mark on your soul. 🙂 Thanks for taking me back!! Where to next?

    • That sounds like an incredible trip! At some point, I’d love to do some real outdoorsy backpacking in Europe — we love exploring cities, but we do miss being out in nature. Ljubljana ended up being one of our favorite spots, too! We’re working our way south through Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania over the next few weeks… should be fun 🙂

  2. If a picture is worth 1000 words….WOW! So we’ve never been overseas (but its in the plan for two years from now!) Those pictures are incredible and thanks for all of the details in the post. My favorite picture is that waterfall in Slovenia and I love the tidbits from history too!

    • Haha, thanks, Vicki! I’m glad you’re planning on some time overseas. There’s nothing that can quite prepare you for how eye-opening it can be. And the history everywhere is just remarkable… we love geeking out on it.

  3. Loved the photo of the “Shoes on the Danube bank”. It is a healthy dose of perspective that the scenes we enjoy ( and rightfully so) on our travels were the scenes of so much pain by others who went before us. I often find myself reflecting a lot when enjoying such moments and at the same time wondering at what might have happened before. We can’t ever walk in their shoes but we can save a moment to reflect a little and be thankful for what we have.

    Great photos and what a world we have around us. Loved reading this post.

    • Yeah, the amount of turmoil and change some of these places have seen is almost unfathomable, especially coming from a part of the world with only a couple hundred years of recorded history. We really enjoy learning more about the past as we explore. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. As always, I’m loving all the pictures! Keep them coming! That castle in the mountain is my favorite (also the shoes… but in a different way).

    • I’m trying not to go overboard with the travel posts, since I know not everyone reading is into them, but happy to hear that you’re enjoying the photos!

  5. Uh oh, looks like I’m going to have to add Slovenia to my ever-growing list of places to visit.

  6. These beautiful photos just brightened my day. My sister worked for several months in Croatia and Bosnia (at film festivals) and is back there visiting now. She absolutely loves it, and I can see why. Glad you had a great trip!

    • How cool! I’m not averse to the idea of finding some seasonal work in one of these destinations at some point — mostly for the fun and socializing with locals.

  7. If you ever run out of appetite for van life, I think you could do quite well as a photographer 😉

  8. Loving these pictures. I’ve been wanting to go to Hungary for a very long long time, would also love to go to Croatia and Slovenia one of these days too. We were actually thinking taking an extended vacation in Croatia this winter before or after we head to Denmark for Christmas but had to ditch that idea due to not sufficient vacation time and logistics with kids.

    • They’re all worth the visit when you’re able to make it work. I can see how the logistics of hopping from place to place would be a lot more difficult with the kids. It would be very nice to be in Croatia without the summertime crowds, although we’d also be missing out on jumping in the Adriatic every day. Trade-offs 😉

  9. Very nice and looks like you had a great time. Croatia is definitely on my list and I may be adding Slovenia too. I am having vacation envy just looking at these pictures.

  10. Thx for the write up. I will save the itinary for future inspiration!

    On one point i disagree: langos! Ours did not make us sick. I guess it dends on where you eat it. There is a big variety in quality between tbe street vendors.

    • Haha, our langos were delicious, don’t get me wrong! And we didn’t get food poisoning or anything… just felt a little queasy from a big pile of fried dough and dairy 🙂

  11. I have never researched travel in this area – thanks for all the tidbits I learned! The photography is also stunning, as others have mentioned. FI blogs tend to be about a lot of the same stuff – don’t worry about skimping on the travel stuff – we’re all eating it up!!

    • I knew embarrassingly little about the whole Balkans region before our trip, but that’s one of the most rewarding parts of travel for us — exploring new places and learning about history and culture along the way. Thanks for the encouragement! There would seem to be a correlation between my follower count and the content I post (money makes it go up, travel makes it go down!), but hey, we’re just sharing what’s important to us 🙂

  12. Always amazed by your pictures! Keep them coming.

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