One look at Budapest, and most travelers will see why it is often regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Its wide boulevards and stunning architecture are enough to have earned it the title of “Pearl of the Danube,” while the smoky bars, fancy restaurants, and chic outdoor cafes make the “Paris of the East” moniker make immediate sense. Add to that busy markets and an unforgettable old world charm, and there's no wonder that visitors find themselves drawn back to the city time and time again. This is, after all, the home to both the the largest Synagogue in Europe and the first subway line in mainland Europe.
But there's more than architecture and engineering to enjoy; Budapest has quickly become a culinary hotbed. Hungary has one of the most vibrant restaurant scenes in East/Central Europe. In the past couple years, the prestigious Michelin Guide has awarded several stars and Bib Gourmands to the city's best establishments, and food writers from around the globe have stopped by to try out the most raved-about restaurants. So while a glass of Tokaji and a bowl of goulash should be on everyone’s to-try list, there is a lot more to Hungarian cuisine than one might initially assume. Wine lovers will be happy to know that Hungary produces award-winning reds and whites, and that the good vintages are still considered cheap by Western standards. In fact, Budapest has a lot to offer overall, and the fact that it still it remains a bargain for visitors is merely one more reason to come explore. With a blend of old and modern, thermal baths and design fairs, Budapest has a vibrancy and vitality that never slows.
Where to Stay
Like the rest of Budapest, the choice between old and new is one of the major deciding factors in booking a room. Better yet, contemporary style no longer means picking a major chain. While most major players like the Four Seasons, Marriott, and Hilton are present in Budapest, there are a growing number of independent boutique hotels offering personalized accommodation and intimate service at moderate prices. For fashionistas and gourmets alike, the Hotel Palazzo Zichy is a great pick. This former palace turned chic hotel is located in the very heart of Budapest and manages to keep those crucial touches of the building's original splendor while adding modern twists. It's the perfect place to unwind after a day of exploring the city, and its demure sense of style is a sight for sore eyes, no matter how many times one has visited before.
Chic architects, design geeks, and anyone into excellent use of space will adore the chance to stay at the Atrium Fashion Hotel, a vibrant design hotel with excellent light and a fabulous mix of warm colors and natural wood. Located right next to the Grand Boulevard, it's the perfect jumping-off point for getting to know the city.
The Hotel Castle Garden, tucked away on Castle Hill, offers travelers who want a bit more serenity the perfect space to go at the end of the day. With reasonable rates, spacious rooms, and a marked lack of volume coming from the nearby neighborhood, it's a private little paradise in the heart of Budapest.
Where to Eat
Before beginning your culinary exploration, here are some Hungarian phrases you should know. 'Jó étvágyat,' which means 'bon appétit' and 'Egészségedre' (cheers) are both are often used in Hungary. So to compliment the chef or blend into a dinner party, use both accordingly.
The restaurants, cafes and bars on Liszt Ferenc Square are popular with both locals and tourists, and while prices may sometimes be a bit higher here, you can’t really go wrong with any of the eateries when it comes to a filling snack or quick bite. My personal favorite is Menza (Liszt Ferenc tér 2), which serves Hungarian classics in a relaxed, retro atmosphere. Their Hungarian beef stew followed by a somlo sponge cake makes a delicious lunch. When the weather is nice, grab a table on the outdoor terrace and take in the city from an ideal vantage point.
Bock Bistro (Erzsébet körút 43-49) on the Grand Boulevard is perfect for wine tasting. Adventurous types should try some appetizers here, like Hungarian cracklings with red onion, or lard of Mangalica pork. Klassz (Andrássy út 41) on Andrássy Avenue is also well known for its great wine list, which includes a selection of Hungarian and international vintages. Klassz also promises discerning gourmets the chance to enjoy some fantastic mains and appetizers. For a truly traditional fine dining experience, visit Gundel (Állatkerti út 2), a Budapest institution since 1894. Be sure to save room for their trademark dessert, the Gundel palacsinta, a special crepe filled with walnuts and covered in chocolate sauce.
For Hungarian classics, try Café Kör (Sas utca 17), located near the Basilica, or 21 Restaurant (Fortuna utca 21) in the Castle District. Both serve hearty soups and good portions of traditional Hungarian dishes. Try crepe Hortobagy style, or just tuck into a decadent chesnut dessert. Cozy and comforting on a chilly day, these are two picks that will leave travelers feeling contented and full.
For an outstanding gourmet experience, foodies need to dine at Onyx (Vörösmarty tér 7-8), one of the restaurants in the city that's been awarded the prestigious Michelin Star. Under the watchful eye of a fantastic chef who isn't afraid to mix things up, a skilled kitchen serves contemporary Hungarian dishes and offers fantastic tasting menus and lunch specials. Treat yourself to the Hungarian Evolution, a menu of fine dishes with Foie Gras, lamb, goat cheese, and rabbit. Reservations are recommended, as Onyx is well-known, which can make getting a table day-of quite difficult.
To stay abreast of the latest trends be sure to visit a retro bistro, like Most Bistro (Zichy Jeno utca 17), for a unique dining experience followed by a night out on the city at one of the famous Ruin Pubs. Most Bistro is also great for brunch, whether it’s quiche lorraine, eggs benedict or good old-fashioned American pancakes.
Finally, no visit to Hungary would be complete without experiencing one of the legendary grand cafes. Try the New York Café (Erzsébetkörút 9-11) for its traditional splendor or Ruszwurm (Szentháromság utca 7) for some mouthwatering desserts and a cozy atmosphere in the Castle District. Nibble some of their Dobos cake or sour cherry strudel, enjoy the chance to people-watch, and revel in how classic the entire experience feels.
What to Do
Budapest offers a lot to see and do and with all the food, wine and palinka you will need some exercise between meals. So be sure to put on some comfortable shoes and spend some time exploring the major points of interest. A stroll through the Castle District is one of the best ways to witness the city’s rich history, and is also a great way to get oriented. The cobblestone streets lead past Baroque palaces, medieval ruins, and Gothic remains. Take a walk along Andrássy Avenue, past the famous Opera House and Art Nouveau palaces, and wander into some of the many museums and theatres. After this, you will surely understand why Budapest is often referred to as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Markets in Budapest are bustling with fresh, homegrown products and Central Market Hall (Vámház Körút 1) should be on every foodie’s itinerary. Built in the 19th century, this glass-and-steel superstructure houses the largest indoor market in Budapest. Vendors sell fresh local produce, meats, cheese, fruits, vegetables and typical Hungarian delicacies like paprika and salami. For a quick bite of delicious Hungarian fare, try the food court on the second floor.
While in the city, learn to cook a Hungarian meal! Chefparade Cooking School (Páva utca 13) offers three-hour English-language cooking courses, which are also a fun way to meet fellow gourmets and aspiring chefs. Courses start with an optional market tour and end with lunch, where students eat what they just cooked.
For a unique experience, visit the Zwack Museum (Soroksári út 26), home to the famous aperitif called Unicum, or make an appointment to tour the Törley (Háros utca 2-6) cellars, Hungary’s oldest producer of sparkling wines. For a different experience, visit the House of Terror Museum (Andrassy út 60), which provides an insight into the country's recent history, including 40 years of oppression by the communist regime.