Sopron lies just over the Austrian border, an hour's train ride from Vienna. I fitted in a flying two day visit and found a gem of a town that merits more time to fully appreciate its charm
If you are visiting Vienna and have a couple of days to spare, consider a visit to nearby Sopron in Hungary. If you have never visited Hungary then it's a good chance to get a taste of the country and it's only an hour and a half away by train. There are, on average, two or three trains each hour from Vienna's Sudbahnhof Station. Check with Austrian Railways - they have a very useful English website: http://www.oebb.at/en/index.jsp - I paid €27 for a return but there were other reduced fare offers for students, railcard holders and pensioners, etc.
Sopron lies very close to the Neusiedler Lake - Lake Ferto to the Hungarians. This is a beautiful lake which is well worth a visit if time permits.
Sopron was badly damaged during the WW2 but much of the old town centre is still, thankfully, preserved. Sopron dates back to Roman times and, over the centuries, has been fought over many times. The Ottoman Turks ravaged it in 1529 and later, in 1676, the town was destroyed by fire. The Sopron we see today grew from those ashes - medieval buildings being replaced by Baroque ones.
Under Soviet rule since 1945 Sopron became one of so many industrialised grey Communist towns, its Austrian/Germanic heritage suppressed and its historical treasures ignored. Sopron has come through all that and it's hard to believe that it could shine so brightly as it now does. The EU has brought new wealth and the town is now a warm welcoming place to visitors with its restored buildings and pedestrian only streets revealing new sights at almost every turning within the old city centre.
Where to stay
We arrived at the main station and, already equipped with a map, walked the half mile to the Hotel Palatinus. You only need a good pair of walking shoes to get around the centre of Sopron. It is very compact with traffic-free pedestrian areas, broad pavements and, even in the peak of the summer season, didn't seem at all busy.
Our small hotel was in the heart of the historical city centre. It offers reasonably priced, comfortable accommodation and we were pleasantly surprised. We spent two days just mooching around the city centre: window shopping, sampling Hungarian cuisine and also the local Hungarian wine and Sopron brewed beer. There were lots of tourists about but it never felt crowded.
Our hotel represented fantastic value for money - roughly €40 for a double room with breakfast. The rooms were very comfortable, modern and spotlessly clean with Satellite TV and full en suite. The hotel staff were all very friendly and the receptionist spoke very good English. Breakfast was typically continental with a good choice of cereals and fruit along with the usual jam, cold meats, etc. As always, if you are fussy tea drinker then take your own. Teas on the Continent, no matter where you go, are always weak to the English palate. The hotel does offer half board but we prefer the flexibility of eating out and not being tied down.
The Hotel Wollner was close by and we had a meal there one evening on the recommendation of our hotel receptionist. Whoa - what a good recommendation - this is a little gem of a hotel. More expensive than our hotel but worth every penny - it simply oozes character! This hotel exudes olde worlde charm and elegance - thoughtfully restored and updated and we took the manager up on his offer of a tour around.
The rooms were all spacious and elegantly appointed. We were shown the hotel's garden which is part of the remains of a Roman fortress and also part of the old medieval city wall. The garden was a delight with a small pond, a fountain and a children's play area. Some people were taking their dinner outside and the garden exuded an air of peace and tranquillity right in the middle of the old town. The restaurant had a range of Hungarian and International food. It was excellent, though more expensive than any of the other restaurants we tried. But, to be fair, the sheer quality, presentation and elegant Baroque style surroundings turned it into a real event for the family. We finished off the evening in the 200 year old wine cellar sampling delicious locally made wines. We made ourselves a promise to stay here next time but to leave the kids at home.
What to see
We visited the 60m high Firewatch Tower which was close to our hotel. The Firewatch Tower is the symbol of Sopron and is a must see! We climbed up the 200 steps of the narrow circular staircase and were greeted by superb views over the rooftops of the old city. We were fortunate to have a bright clear day and could see the Austrian Alps in the far distance and the panorama of the Lover Hills. This Tower was used by fire watchmen dates back to the 12th century - though it has been modified over the centuries. It's worth the trek up if only for the view. It cost 700 HUF to get in and climb the Tower and also to visit the exhibition of the history of the Tower.
Across the square from the Firewatch Tower is Fabricius House, a museum showing mock-ups of rooms from the 17th century and later. There were all sorts of Museums around the square but, as the weather was so hot, we opted to continue our walking tour to see more of the beautiful churches and other buildings.
Where to eat
There are lots of restaurant to suit all pockets and we found a few that were particularly good value. The Forum which occupies a large courtyard and serves pizzas and pasta - all very tasty and very good value. The Cezar Pince, which was recommended by the hotel receptionist, was also surprisingly good value for money. It was delightful sitting outside while enjoying a real Hungarian Goulash.
I would say prices in Sopron are in the order of a half to two thirds of UK prices and represented excellent value. Service was very good though few people speak English. Fortunately a little German goes a long way and often saved the day.
Our two days in Sopron went too quickly. Sopron deserves four or five days to do it justice. But as a Hungarian 'taster' I recommend it. Having said that, on my next trip, I shall be exploring the local hills and visiting some wine makers on the outskirts of the city.