One of the most interesting phenomena in my adulthood is watching things that weren’t considered particularly cool in my childhood, become the definition of cool today. The city of Budapest is one of those.
Budapest is popping up on the radar of international visitors and thanks to the efforts of the tech/startup community, is hosting large tech gatherings like Brain Bar Budapest and Crunch Conf, to name two.
My parents are Hungarian émigrés to the States. I speak Hungarian fairly well albeit not perfectly and most summers find me and my family visiting relatives in Budapest. I have visited (and even lived in Budapest sporadically) since 1976. Budapest is, without question, my favorite city in the world.
Friends of mine who pop into Bp to speak often ask to me to give them tips and recommendations before they show up so they can enjoy the city. I have compiled these notes and posted here. If you’re a conference speaker or startupper, and you plan to be in Bp. soon — this guide’s for you.
NOTE: This guide will be subjective, incomplete and may even be incorrect at times. I will do my best to update it. Let me know if I have made an especially egregious errors or if you have better tips or ideas.
My buddy and fellow Hungaro-American Mike Globits put together this wonderful video short love-letter to Budapest. He captures the romance of a Budapestian summer perfectly.
Abbreviated Notes on Budapest History
Budapest is the unification of three, not two, cities. Most people know that the hilly area west of the Danube is Buda. And the flat area east of the Danube is Pest. Buda-Pest. Budapest.
Turns out that in 1873, Buda and Pest officially merged with Óbuda (Old/Ancient Buda). Remember three cities, not two.
At the turn of the 20th century, Budapest was the 6th largest city in Europe and a thriving metropolis of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Commercially and culturally speaking, that was probably the zenith of Budapestian life. Looking at pictures of Budapest of yesteryear, it is plain as day that after WWI Budapest entered a decline from which it emerged, slowly, in 1989.
While today, 99.9999% of the population speaks Hungarian as their first language. Historically, Budapest had seen large numbers of native German and Yiddish speakers. In fact, the Greatest Hungarian™, István Széchenyi didn’t learn to speak Hungarian till he was a teenager. He was born in Vienna and as a member of the nobility spoke mostly German. The reason I point this is to highlight the Austrian nobility’s role in shaping the Budapest cityscape. (If you have even an elementary grasp of Hungarian, you will notice that many of the plaques on the buildings built pre-1900 cite the architect, and a non-trivial amount are ethnic Austrian or German names.)
You can catch glimpses of that era and hold-over effects of the old k. u. k. monarchy in the city’s plan, architecture, and food. If you’re wondering why today Hungarians appear to eat more tortes and delicious confectionaries than the average European — it is precisely because the economy was set up around the Hungarian Royal (and Austrian Imperial) courts more than 150 years ago. To say that cultural knowledge about the manufacture of confections is strong in Budapest (and the rest of Hungary) is an understatement.
Quick Budapest Geography
The Danube cuts through Budapest almost precisely from north to south. Buda, the residential hilly portion is to the west. Pest lies flat to the east. Buda and Pest are connected by a number of bridges. On the Buda side, there are two unmissable hills (there are other hills too but unimportant for the casual tourist), Gellert Hill and Castle Hill. Atop of Castle Hill in Buda rests, you guessed it, Buda Castle — while on Gellert Hill, to the south of Castle Hill, sits the Citadel.
Fun fact: The Austrians erected the Citadel on Gellert Hill to keep their eyes (and cannons) trained on unruly Hungarians following the revolution of 1848. The Citadel replaced an existing celestial observatory on site.
Almost exactly due north of the citadel is Margaret Island. Think of it like NYC Central Park. Except on an island in the middle of the Danube. This is why the lookout spot looking north over the Danube on Gellert Hill is such a tourist attraction. It affords a fabulous view of the Budapest core. Over on the Pest side, clearly visible on the Danube banks is the Hungarian parliament building.
Hungarian Food and Restaurants
Hungarians love sweets, and Budapest is filled with bakeries and confectionaries. Marzipan is popular as a dessert as well as a flavoring. If I am not mistaken, I have seen Hungarian McDonalds and Starbucks advertising marzipan-flavored shakes and coffees.
The Szamos family is well-known for its high quality marzipan and has multiple confectionaries in and around Budapest. There are two in District V, albeit my favorite Szamos is the one in District XII at Böszörményi út 44.
When in a Budapest cafe, I recommend a cappucino and a slice of the Cake of Kings, The King of Cakes, and my close, personal friend: The Dobos Torta.
Where to go? Some of my go-to spots are:
Daubner. No frills. Almost exclusively locals-only spot as it is mostly out of the way for the random tourist in Budapest. Down the street from my in-laws. Some consider this to be the best confectionary in all of Budapest.
Gerbeaud. Don’t be taken aback by the surly waitstaff, tourist-based pricing (5-10x more expensive than a local confectionary) and highly-trafficked location. If you’re walking through Vörösmarty square — and on a visit to Budapest, there is a 97% probability you will be – it makes absolute sense to pop in for a cap and cake. This was my grandmother’s favorite spot.
I’ll add some more later, but rest assured, there are more than plenty of confectionaries in Budapest that are better than good.
In terms of savory dishes, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that anyone can make any food Hungarian by adding the Hungarian Holy Trinity: Lard, Paprika and Sour Cream.
Let us kneel and pray. And VOILA! Insta-Hungarian-dish!
Let’s start with the most famous Hungarian dish. Goulash. Now pay close attention here. Goulash is soup, not a stew. I know. I know. Your grandmama made the best goulash stew ever. Believe me, every outside Hungary thinks goulash is a stew — it’s not. It’s a soup. And it’s delicious. So when you order it, expect a soup.
But you wanted a meat stew? Plenty of meat stews in Hungarian cookery. Stews are called pörkölt in Hungarian.
My advice for foreigners traveling to Hungary is to do what I do. Eat and sample foods that I cannot normally get access to. In Budapest, for most people, that means traditional Hungarian dishes like goulash-soup, Chicken Paprikash — but don’t forget that the Hungarian culinary tradition is experienced with cooking game and goose-liver too. Goose-liver being relatively affordable to foreign tourists when priced against the rest of the western world.
Café Kör serves the tourist, business-lunchers and locals. The general style is traditional Hungarian meets French cooking techniques. I try to pop in whenever I am in District V.
If you want a ‘traditional Hungarian’ restaurant, which means the gypsy musicians come by your table and play for you (and then you tip them), then one of my father-in-law’s restaurants, Margitkert might be a good fit.
This summer of 2016, I had a few wonderful meals at Fioka. Modern versions of Hungarian stand-bys. Not sure what Fioka is like in winter, but when I was there, the food and service were strong.
Minimal Viable Budapest Tour (you can break this up into multiple walks):
As I mentioned before, a lot of what can one easily appreciate is Budapest’s past — specifically, the Belle Epoque, from late 1800s to outbreak of WWI. During that time, Budapest was a thriving, growing metropolis with all sorts of beautiful luxuries seen in its restaurants, architecture, confections, baths, hotels etc etc
SO when you come to Budapest, what you can really get a taste of, literally, is what life looked, smelled like in early 1900s.
Generally, Budapest is very, very, VERY safe — just know you will stick out and potentially be targeted for pickpocketing. So keep passports in hotel safe and wallet in front pocket. On public transport, I keep my hand on my wallet because I am a bit paranoid. Also, purses should be kept near their owners, preferably with owner between purse and public space.
Nothing to worry about — but there is some small probability that your pocket encounters a pick-pocket.
On the Pest side (easily walkable):
Start at Gerbaud at Vorosmarty ter.
Walk south down:
Vaci utca (Vaci Street) — this is on the Pest side, parallel to to Danube and roughly one block east of the river. At the north end, it terminates at Vorosmarty ter (Vorosmarty Square) while at the south end it ends at the Vasarcsanok (Central Market Hall)
This is a main tourist-y shopping drag. There are various boutiques and tourist shops selling Hungarian knickknacks. Walking down it is quite pleasant, as the architecture is scenic and there is a lot to see. There are many over-priced restaurants on the street. I haven’t eaten at any of them, with the exception of Fatál. Not fatal. But ‘fa’ + ‘tál’ = wooden platter.
It is certainly tourist-y and provides over-sized portions, but generally aims to please with its offerings. Not a bad place to eat a massive meal and down a few (or more) beers.
End up at:
Vasarcsarnok (Central Market Hall)
A huge public market hall with vendors selling everything from goose liver to Hungarian salami to fresh fruit and vegetables. Fun to stroll around. I remember buying fish there with grandfather as a 4 year old.
Further south, below the Vasarcsarnok is the ‘Balna‘ (means whale in Hungarian), where you can find restaurants overlooking the Danube. Grab a bite there. FUN FACT: The NASA control room scenes in the Matt Damon film, The Martian, were shot in the Balna.
Crossing to the Buda side, you can also walk across the Szabadsag hid (“Freedom Bridge”) which is next to Vasarcsarnok and arrive at the Gellert Hotel and Thermal Spa. This was the finest hotel in the 1900s in Bp (abeit beat-up these days), it also sits on top of a thermal spring, so has a beautiful indoor thermal bathing area. The Gellert was one of the many ‘Grand Hotels’ built during the Belle Epoque that inspired Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.
Walk up Gellert Hill (or take taxi) to:
Citadella (The Citadel)
Great views. Walk around a bit and take in the view to the south over Csepel Island too. From there, grab a cab over to the Varkert Bazar (Castle Garden Bazaar) and hike up into the castle.
This is on Varhegy (Castle Hill) on the Buda side prominently overlooking the city, it faces eastward looking over the river and Pest. You can’t miss it. At night, when it is lit up, it is absolutely gorgeous. This is the site of the various royal palace and castle throughout Hungarian history. .
You are now at the south end of Castle Hill, and can walk north across Castle Hill to Matyas Templom (Matthias Church)
Beautiful, well-preserved church in the Buda Castle and stop in at Ruszwurm, another famous confectionery.
From there walk across the chain bridge (Lanchid) to
Szent Istvan Baszilika (St. Steven’s Basilica)
Budapest’s most beautiful Catholic cathedral/basilica. My three kiddos were baptized there. This is on Szent Istvan Square. Around the corner from the cathedral is Cafe Kor, which I love.
From there walk to the Hungarian Parliament (Kossuth Lajos Square) — site of the beginnings of the Hungarian revolution in 1956.
Then walk down to the korut (inner boulevard) to Andrassy ut (Andrassy Boulevard)
A typical attractive European boulevard which boasts many nice cafes and restaurants. Most scenic portion is between Deak Ferenc Square and Oktogon square. Site of the Hungarian opera house. The first underground metro on the European continent runs directly underneath the length of Andrassy.
Continue down Andrassy to:
Hosok tere (Heroes’ Square)
East terminus of Andrassy Boulevard. Iconic representations of the seven tribal chiefs that led the Hungarians to present day Hungary. Also site of the Hungarian National Museum.
After Heroes’ Square, take a thermal outdoor bath at:
Szechenyi Furdok (Szechenyi Baths) — across from Budapest Zoo and behind Heroes’ Square. Budapest is teeming with thermal hot springs and Hungary is a bathing culture. These public baths are remarkable for their beautiful architecture. Their waters are said to have healing powers. It really is quite pleasant, especially in cold weather.
More coming soon.