Now that I’ve bored you with the details of our trials, tribulations, and family reunion in Budapest, it’s time to get to the important stuff: the food. Since we were there such a short time and met with so many complications I have a much shorter list of places worth eating than in Berlin or Prague. I can’t in good conscience tell you to go to the crappy Italian restaurant we succumbed to because apparently we can’t go two weeks without carbonara. This isn’t to say that Budapest doesn’t have good food – we had some great food – we just weren’t at the top of our game.
The one place any food lover must visit when they go to Budapest is the Great Market Hall, also called the Central Market Hall. After being accidentally stood up, a visit here was my only solace. The largest indoor market in Budapest, it’s essentially the Hungarian version of the shuk. Upwards of 200 stalls line the aisles of the beautiful building.
The ground level has all the produce, meat, paprika, and baked goods you could want. Need a huge piece of pork fat? A can of decadent local pate? Perhaps a swig of local Tocai wine. Whatever your poison, they’ve got it.
They also specialize in all matter of culinary souvenirs, with stand after stand offering cutely packaged paprika and other local delicacies. It’s important to be patient when shopping around as we noticed vastly different prices between stalls. Go to the back corner of the market for the best prices. I went home with some hot and sweet Hungarian Paprika (how could I resist) as well as a small package of what they call Hungarian saffron. I later learned that Hungarian saffron is mostly packaged and sold to tourists under this name; it is more commonly known as safflower, and less commonly referred to as false or bastard saffron. Its main use in cooking is as a coloring agent since it lends little to no flavor to the food. I also came away with a whole, fresh black truffle purchased for dirt cheap that I grated onto pasta as soon as I got home. Its flavor was far more mild than Italian truffles, but was lovely nonetheless.
The second level of the massive market has a number of delicious if slightly touristy looking food stalls where hungry shoppers can rest their feet (if they can find a seat) and indulge in all manner of traditional Hungarian food from goulash to langos, a fried bread that looks similar to funnel cake. There is also a huge tourist market with vendors hawking Hungarian folk clothing, textiles, fur hats, and chotchkies. The Central Market is a great experience, but nothing holds a candle to any of Israel’s beautiful, frenetic shuks.
I had been hoping to get a real sense of the market through a culinary tour with Agnes Barath of Culinary Hungary followed by a Hungarian cooking class (I’ve been a little obsessed with culinary tours since going on three fabulous ones in Israel for this article). Unfortunately, as mentioned, we had to cancel at the last minute due to every possible unforeseen circumstance. But even having not attended the class I cannot recommend it enough – Agnes works with you to develop the menu you will prepare, sent me a list of her favorite restaurants in Budapest, and was amazingly flexible and understanding as I changed plans on her far more than I would have liked. The next time I am in Budapest I am not leaving without doing a tour and class with her.
The place that became our local haunt – we went there at least three times – was Eco Cafe (Andrássy út 68, 1062 Budapest). I don’t know why we became so enamored with this place, it’s just a cafe, but they serve really good drip (organic) coffee in huge mugs, have free wifi, and have excellent baked goods and panini. They even serve wine. It’s down the block from the Terror House on Andrassy.
Another great place we went to was Cafe Kor (Sas Utca 17, 1051 Budapest, Tel: 311-0053). Recommended to us both by Agnes and by a woman we met on the train from Prague, Cafe Kor – which means Circle Cafe – has long been one of the most popular restaurants in town. We enjoyed a leisurely late lunch so it was not crowded and we were able to snag a seat outside to enjoy the beautiful day and people watch. Breaded chicken thigh filets were perfectly fried and crispy, not oily, and served with parsley potatoes and peach compote. And a tender, flavorful chicken breast skewer was the perfect accompaniment to a light salad with yogurt dressing. A glass of white wine (cheaper than water) rounded out the pleasant meal.
Beyond those two places we also stopped at plenty of other cafes to get our caffeine fix. Radi (21 Karoly Krt, near Deak Sq) was by far the cheapest with 180 HUF cappuccinos and decent pastries that appear to be baked on premises. I’ve already waxed poetic about our new favorite coffee chain, Costa (2 Andrassy), which offers free wifi, Australian-style “flat whites”, and a comfortable atmosphere. And close to the Great Market Hall, Charlotte Cafe (Vamhaz Krt 14, 1053 Budapest) offers a reprieve from the tourist hustle and bustle with free wifi, hot pink walls with whimsical designs, and a lovely selection of gelatos and sorbets with flavors like green apple and Snickers.
Finally, this is in no way food related but no trip to Budapest would be complete without a visit to the famed baths. Working off the tip of a Budapest resident I randomly met, we made a beeline for the Szecheny Baths (H-1146 Budapest, Állatkerti krt. 11, Tel: (36-1) 363-3210) in City Park. The oldest of Pest’s thermal baths, it is also the largest, its maze-like, neo-Baroque interior filled with coed baths, saunas and steam rooms of all temperatures. There is also a huge outdoor pool that is hot in the winter and cold in summer. Best. Layover. Ever.