Going to Budapest on a gourmet trip. Yes, you heard it. I am talking about Hungarian cuisine. When you think about booking a city break to Budapest, a food fest will not be the first thing that springs to mind. So you're in for a lovely surprise as the influence of Ottomans, Austrians and many other influences left Hungary with a rich cuisine that seems to exist from comfort food only. Did you know that in fact, the croissant was invented in Hungary? During my last trip to Budapest, I was so utterly surprised by all the lovely and lush food and the fabulous restaurants, that I couldn't help but write you an eating and drinking guide. Jó étvágyat kívánunk!
Coffee culture in Budapest
Hungary has somewhat of a tumultuous past. Pretty much all the big world powers tried to rule over Hungary at some point in history, including the Ottomans. Their century-long reign did leave something positive though: coffee. Providing Budapest with the typical coffee culture that can also be enjoyed in Vienna, Prague and Turin. During a city break to Budapest, you simply must visit some of the 19th-century coffee houses that breathe old world charm and will make you wonder if Kafka, Einstein or Freud may come walking through the door for their daily brew. These are my favourite Budapest coffee houses.
For me, Centrál Kávéház is the best place to have my first coffee of the day. This rustic café is where most locals come and wake up while they read the paper and enjoy a freshly made cup of coffee and some pastries or breakfast. It's also a popular venue where companies like to interview their new staff, so if you see someone nervously looking around, be kind. They're on a job interview! I also had dinner at Centrál Kávéház one evening and ordered some fantastic Hungarian cuisine: a whole duck and pickled vegetables. Oh, and I couldn't skip dessert, now could I?
The side street tables make Művész Kávéház one of those places where you feel like you're actually in Paris. This feeling is only increased by the fact that the café is overlooking the Budapest Opera. It's, therefore, one of the best coffee houses to go people watching. Lots of locals come here before they go to the theatre and drink their first coffee here before they go to work. Before you order, go inside and take a look at all the pastries on offer. I highly recommend you order the poppy seed cake or the sour cherry cake.
The Great Market Hall
Look beyond all the tourists taking snapshots when you enter the mammoth food market of Budapest, the Great Market Hall. Because the place is not actually there for just the tourists: a lot of locals use the market on a daily or weekly basis to do their shopping in the three-storey hall. Having said that, it is the place to go shopping when you want to take back some edible souvenirs. Like proper paprika, dumplings, honey, sugared nuts and fruits or sausages. The main level is filled with produce vendors and most of the butchers.
The basement is not for the faint-hearted where the smells of vinegar and sauerkraut lead you to the stalls selling pickled vegetables and fruit. It's also where you see basins full of fish, mainly carp and trout. For a tasting feast, head up to the upper level for the sausages and lángos. You can sit down and enjoy the pastry, pancake-like, langós that you eat traditionally with cheese. You'll see lots of locals at the bars called borozós where they enjoy a cheap beer or wine or a shot of Unicum liquor. The souvenirs on this floor are mostly 'made in China' so not worth looking at. Go tasting instead!
Go for the goulash!
When you look inside Belvárosi Disznótoros seems like just your typical butcher shop or grocer. But the long queues around noon tell you that something else is going on in this otherwise so discreet shop. Students from the near university departments, office people and other locals absolutely don't mind standing in line for a bit to grab their lunch here. And once you get inside you'll know why. There are a couple of long tables and you can offer the very bust Hungarian cuisine has to offer. From steaming goulash with bread and rice, from duck and sausage to pickled vegetables and salted meat.
Okay, Apostolok is quite on the touristy side. But this cellar restaurant has cosy nooks to sit in, live gipsy music and some great and typical Hungarian dishes on offer. Whatever you order, you'll get way more than you're ready for. Are you ordering a schnitzel, you'll get three schnitzels. Ordered chicken paprika? You'll get bowls full of it. All in all, a great spot to have dinner or a large lunch when it's cold outside and you've built up a proper appetite.
Pozsonyi is a typical neighbourhood eatery which serves enormous portions of fabulous Hungarian food. To me, this was comfort food heaven. Everything that left the kitchen was well cooked, great smelling and plentiful. On the bright side: if you can't finish your plate (and there's no shame in this, portions are huge) you can just ask the kind staff if you can take the rest to go.
Wine tasting in Budapest
When you're going to Budapest, wine tasting won't come to mind immediately. And for years, that was pretty logical. Winemaking in Hungary dates back to Roman times, but during communism, all winemakers in Hungary were more or less forced to produce the same old wine, which tasted... well, not very nice to put it mildly. Though prejudice can be persistent, over the last decade a lot of winemakers have taken up the art of winemaking again, filling the shelves of Budapest restaurants, wine bars and cafés again with beautiful bottles.
Tasting Table Shop
This atmospheric cellar in a 19th-century building houses a wine shop and tasting room all in one. As a shop, the Tasting Table Shop focuses on wines and grape varieties of Central Europe. There are almost 100 wines for sale, most of them aren't available anywhere else. The Tasting Table Shop doesn't pour wine from behind the bar, just sit at the big tables, taste a special wine and learn all about their history, their makers and their terroirs.
This contemporary wine cellar in the middle of the city, just behind St. Stephens Cathedral is a must visit, especially if you feel like having a good night out. The walls are bare, the ceiling is arched, the smells are sweet and the lights nice and warm. Innio has a strong selection of wines, both classics and more daring kinds. The staff is very helpful in explaining more about the Hungarian wines they pour.
Some more fun for food lovers in Budapest
- New York Café
The name 'café' seems very out of place for the New York, which just oozes old world charm and outlived all the terror and regimes since the day it opened its doors in the late 19th century. If you feel like splurging, go on and make reservations for the high tea with champagne.
A warm and funky restaurant with a retro interior and a fine menu. It's where the young crowd meets up for a drink in the afternoon. A great place to go for lunch, especially when the sun is the terrace is very luring.
- Book Café
Think frescos, swift and efficient staff, hundreds of books nearby and comfy Chesterfield chairs. Sounds good right? The Book Café is right above the Alexandra bookshop and is an absolute must visit during your Budapest city break.
- Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé
What happens when 2 graphic designers, travels and a love for chocolate comes together. Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé, that's what. In this shop, you buy the finest and most beautiful handmade chocolates in Budapest, all beautifully wrapped.
- Taste Hungary
I took a great food tour with Taste Hungary, meeting up in the Great Market Hall and onwards on a foodfest past all kinds of great pastry shops, coffee houses, candy shops, ice cream makers and restaurants. You'll meet up and the morning, and trust me: having breakfast prior is really not necessary. Prepare to taste the best Budapest has to offer.
Where I stayed: Estilo Fashion Hotel
When I was preparing for my last city break to Budapest I couldn't help but notice that the amount of well affordable boutique hotels seemed to have quadrupled since my former visit, 4 years prior. I picked the Estilo Fashion Hotel for its location and wasn't disappointed. It's actually across from the great market hall and just across the Freedom Bridge, you see the glorious old world charm building of the Gellert Hotel looming. Check the lowest rates now.
I can't recommend staying in the Estilo Fashion Hotel enough. The rooms are spacious, clean and nicely furnished. The staff is extremely friendly and helpful. In the afternoon or before you go to bed you can just nip downstairs for a glass of wine in the Italian restaurant, where the scrumptious breakfast is also served in the mornings.
Have you been to Budapest? Any great cafés and restaurants you visited?