Budapest, mythic Budapest, occupies a special position in the western mind. The capital of Hungary, its name evokes both the glamour and affluence of 19th century Europe but also the darkness and misery of the Cold War. Freed from communism in the early 90s, Budapest has become an ideal place to visit. There one can experience European culture at affordable prices. I recently had the opportunity to visit and explore Budapest first hand.
A special thanks to the bloggers at 2foodtrippers. I found their entry on Budapest very handy and visited several of the restaurants that they recommended. Be sure to check out their blog.
I found dining in Budapest very warm and friendly. Even in places where they did not speak much English, everyone was welcoming. Language was not an issue in the center of the city, but outside of that it was quite common to find places where only Hungarian was spoken. One of my travelling companions speaks the language, so I did not have to overcome language barriers often. But I was grateful for the few phrases I did learn for the times I dined without him.
There are a couple of things to be aware of when dining in Hungary. First, they often have a special lunch menu. It won’t be on the printed menu, but is often written on a chalk board. It will be labelled either “Menu” or “Napi Menu.” This is a reduced selection menu for a two course meal at discount prices. The price is typically 1500 Forints (about $5 US), making for a great bargain. Be sure to be on the lookout for that.
The second thing to be aware of is that Hungarian portion sizes tend to be quite large. However, most restaurants will offer a 1/2 sized portion at 60% of the price. At one of the places we went, this option was only listed on the Hungarian menu and not on the English one. So if you don’t see it on the menu, ask for it.
One final note I want to make is about locations. Budapest is divided by the river Danube and was once two separate cities: Buda and Pest. I will occasionally use these names to indicate which side of the river a restaurant is on.
Most of the time, my friends and I ate breakfast at the apartment we were staying in. But we often stopped at one of the many cafés that can be found throughout the city for coffee and/or dessert. And once, we did it breakfast at one of the cafés.
The one time we went out for breakfast it was to a popular brunch spot called Törökméz. It is located on the Buda side, a short walk westward from the Margaret Island bridge. I recommend to getting there early, as it is a popular spot. We ended up waiting a good bit before we were seated.
But it is worth the wait. We were there on Sunday, and so had the choice of several lunch platters. My companions had the Meet Me On Sunday, a meat heavy platter with several different kinds of sausages (including blood pudding), an omelet, cheese and ham slices, and to top it off a BLT. They both liked this very much, although they had difficulty finishing it. I went with the much lighter French Kiss which consisted of a croissant, liverwurst, apricots, and some condiments. While quite good, this turned out to be too light so I ordered a dessert. I don’t know what it was called, but it was similar to a pound cake and hit the spot.
One morning, after running an errand, we stopped at a lovely little café called Kristaly Cukraszda, which can be found on József krt just a couple of blocks from the Applied Technology Museum. I’m not sure if Kristaly is a chain or not, as we did come across other cafés called Crystal in our travels. The decor was quite different, so I think Kritaly is not connected to the chain. Regardless, Kristaly is a delightful place to have a relaxed cup of coffee (or, in my case, tea) and some pastries.
Chocolate Museum Cafe
Right across the street from the Parliament building is the Chocolate Museum and its cafe called, appropriately enough, the Chocolate Museum Cafe. Both are operated by the Szamos family, Hungary’s premier chocolate maker. The elder Szamos has been making chocolate since the middle of the 20th century.
The museum itself is an ode to the history of chocolate, from pre-Columbian times, through European discovery and spread, to commercial popularization and modern production. The highlights of the museum are beautiful moulded statuary made out of marzipan (a confection made from almond butter). The photo shows a model of the Parliament building, but there is also a statue of a young lady and a reproduction of the Hungarian crown and scepter. Marzipan candies is what made the family famous.
The cafe has a wide variety of desserts to choose from. My friend had an expresso and a sort bread cookie. I had a marzipan ball covered with chocolate powder.
Ruszwurm is the most famous confectionary in Budapest. I sought it out based on the recommendation of the 2foodtrippers. It is a traditional café that has been running since 1827. Located a short walk down Szentháromság street from St. Mathias Cathedral, it is a popular spot for both tourists and locals. The cafe is now operated by the Szamos family, but still retains the decor and ambience of an old cafe. The wooden display case is still the original case from the 19th century.
I went with their signature drink, the Ruszworm caffee: coffee with hot chocolate, whipped cream, and a shot of cherry liquor. After a day of hiking in the hills around both the Citadel and Buda castle, this was just what I needed. I also got a cherry strudel, one of the signature desserts of Hungary.
Central Café and Restaurant
Located in the center of the downtown in Pest is the Central Cafe and Restaurant. I can make no comments about the restaurant, as we went there after we had eaten for some apertifs and a dessert. Central Cafe has a good selection of palinka, the national liqour of Hungary and a fabulous display case of desserts. I went with a slice of Dobostorta, which has been the favorite dessert of my Hungarian friend since his childhood. With thin layers of chocolate and cake, it reminded me of Smith Island Cake, the official state dessert of Maryland. Although the hard carmel layer on top is a key difference. Nevertheless, it was quite delicious. My freind had a sour cherry torte.
Located on the Buda side of the Danube, on Bartók Street not far after crossing Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd) at the Central Market, is a neat little cafe named Kelet. I did not get a chance to eat there, as I briefly stopped there while waiting for friends for dinner. Kelet is a booked themed cafe with a modern, yet casual, ambience. One of my friends did eat and spend some time there. He found it a great place to hang out and get some work done.
Site-seeing throughout the day, I had many opportunities to have lunch in Budapest. Here are a few of my favorite lunch spots. This section is limited to sit down restaurants. More choices can be found in the Fast Food section.
The Gray Goose can be found around the corner from the Chocolate Museum, on Nádor utca among a strip of restaurants and stores. It is an upscale place with a modern ambience, and ordering from the menu can be a bit pricey. Fortunately, they had a lunch menu which we ordered from. I had their bean soup for an appetizer and a trio of crepes for my entrée. The bean soup was fantastic. Filled with not just beans but also heaping amounts of sausage, it is a hearty dish. The crepes were of three flavors: apricot, cheese, and chocolate. All three were quite good, but apricot was my favorite. But having the three together made for a good blend of flavors.
Kispiac Bistro is another one of the 2foodtripper recommendations. Located right behind the American Embassy on Hold Street, it is a tiny place but with great ambience and great food.
Following the 2foodtrippers’ recommendation, we had the house made pickles as a starter. These are no ordinary pickles. All sorts of vegetables were pickled and not just cucumbers. This included red and white onions, sweet and hot peppers, carrots, and even garlic. Our first course was the bean soup, which was quickly becoming a favorite of mine. As the entree, I had deer goulash and my friend had the sour cherry steak (steak covered with a sour cherry sauce). Both were absolutely fabulous. For dessert, we had the cream pudding with berry sauce. Light and refreshing, it was a perfect way to end the meal.
Köleves Vendeglö is a casual restaurant located in the Jewish Quarter on Kazinczy utca. The name has an interesting translation. It means “Stone Soup restaurant” I was in the area after touring the Grand Synagogue, and sought this out after reading the 2foodtrippers description. This also enabled me to walk around the quarter, which is well worth doing.
Köleves Vendeglö did have a lunch menu, but I wanted to try the dishes the 2foodtrippers recommended. First up was the Matza ball soup, made with goose broth. It was every bit as good as described. I also tried the Cholent, a traditional Jewish dish that Köleves specializes in. It is a thick bean stew and it really hit the spot.
In addition to sit down restaurants, there are many places throughout Budapest where you can get fast food. By this, I don’t mean US chains, although they are present as well. Ther are several local fast food chains. Vendors selling street foods are also common.
Langos (pronounced langosh) is not a restaurant, but a popular Hungarian street food. I had never heard of it before coming to the country, but quickly became passionate about it. It was everywhere: vendors selling it at the side of the road ; at train stations ; in parks ; at festivals. There are even restaurants specializing it.
Lengos is long, thin sheet of fried dough topped with sour cream and cheese. There are variants, especially at restaurants, but that is the classic version. It is hearty food for a hearty people. I found it divine. It is too rich and heavy to have too often, and is best to share. But it is the perfect food for a hike. In fact, I tasted my favorite version on a hike, at a roadside stand by the hiking trails in Normafa.
Fast food crepes? Not only is there a restaurant that serves them 24×7, but it is a chain. I went to two of Nagyi Palacsintázója ‘s (Grandma’s Crepes) locations: the one on Szent István krt. near Nyugati Pályaudvar and the one on Batthyány tér . Both had good crepes, although the one at Batthyány tér was the most scenic of the two, having beautiful wooden tables, an atrium with a circular stair, and a window overlooking the plaza.
In both locations, the crepes were not made fresh. Pre-made crepes are taken out of plastic bags, filled with the ingredients corresponding to your order, and then heated up. Both sweet and savory crepes are offered, with dozens of choices for each. At separate visits, I had one of each.
On my visit to the Szent István location, I had the sour cherry and poppy seed crepe. This was not a little bit of poppy seeds sprinkled on top. This was a sea of poppy seeds grounded into a sweet sauce. This complimented the sour cherries quite nicely, and made for a great dish.
At the Batthyány tér, I had a savory Hungarian crepe. This was billed as vegetarian, but I’m not sure it was. The crepe was filled with a meat like substance (maybe beans?) in a thin goulash style sauce. It was mediocre. I wished I went with one of the other choices.
Since the food is not made fresh, you are not getting top quality crepes. However, with a couple of exceptions they are of good quality. And they are open 24×7, making it a convienient place to stop for a quick bite to eat.
There are other options for fast food in Budapest. One I highly recommend is eating at one of the food markets that can be found throughout the city. These are indoor markets consisting of one giant hall where vendors sell fresh vegetables, meats, and other food products. You will also find food stalls and even sit down restaurants. The most famous of the markets is the Central Market, where you will also find vendors selling souvenirs. But there are similar, albeit smaller, markets in every section of the city.
There are many fine restaurants in the Central Market. But I ended up eating elsewhere, at the Mercado Belvarosi (Downtown market). It is right next to Kispiac Bistro on Hold utca. The place I intended to eat at, the Stand25 Bisztro, did not have any seats available. It is run by a Michelin starred chef so that was not too surprising. I ate at one of the many restaurants on the upper balcony, overlooking and ringing the main hall. Many cuisines are available from traditional Hungarian, Russian, and even Asian noodles. I went with traditional Hungarian, getting a wiener schnitzel with a side of red cabbage. Quite heavy, but delicious. My companion got a big bowl of borscht from the Russian place.
Pubs and Ruin Pubs
Without a doubt, the most unique dining experience in Budapest is their Ruin pubs. They are exactly that: bars that are built in decaying old buildings. They started in the early 21st century in the Jewish Quarter. After decades of neglect, many buildings were crumbling. Ábel Zsendovits and his friends bought a condemned building to set up a bar in. But rather than demolishing and rebuilding from scratch, they kept the original structure and worked the ruins into the decor. The results were a smash hit and ruin pubs have become a central part of the cultural fabric in Budapest.
Szimpla Kertz is the original Ruin Pub, started by Ábel Zsendovits in 2004. Seeing a lively social gathering in the midst of what appears to be ruins is a site to behold. I did not get a chance to eat a meal or even have a drink at Szimpla Kertz, but I did get a chance to see it on Sunday, when they have a lively farmers market there. It is a place that should not be missed.
Trapez Kalfikócsma, located on Imre utca behind the Central Market, is outside the Jewish quarter so I’m not sure it qualifies as a ruin pub. But it is a great place to get drinks and have some pub food in a relaxed atmosphere. I had a burger which, in the Hungarian style, was gigantic. It was also juicy and delicious. My friend had the BLT which he quite enjoyed.
Also found in the streets behind Central Market, Cech In is definitely not a Ruin Pub. But it had some great Czech beers, so I am mentioning it. I did not eat anything, but my my friends had the beet soup and a chocolate crepe. They gave both good reviews.
Csinos Presszó is not in Budapest, but in the Hungarian city of Pécs. But it is a Ruin Pub, a very good one, so I am including it here. Located on a Antal utca not too far from the heart of downtown, it has a memorable mural commemorating the 1956 uprising on the outside. On the inside, it has large area with outdoor seating, in the classic Ruin Pub style. The selection on the menu is small, but the food is quite good. I had the ham wrap (which was a bit of a surprise, as my hosts did not know the English translation and merely said “pork behind”). My friend wanted something light and so ordered a vegetarian hamburger. What he got was a block of cheese, grilled, on a bun. That tells you all you need to know about Hungarian cuisine. It is not light. Overall, with good food and fantastic ambience, Csinos is the perfect spot for a relaxing meal.
You can find good places for dinners throughout Budapest. Here are some of my favorite locations.
Angelo’s is one of the many restaurants on Raday Street, off of the popular Kálvin ter. area. It is an Italian restaurant, but we stuck with Hungarian food. I honestly do not remember what my appetizer was, but it was delicious. I believe it was a giant cheese dumpling, but very different from the other cheese dumplings I had in Budapest (which are small, the same size as gnochi).
For my meal, I had Lesco. Lesco is a very traditional Hungarian stew made from peppers and tomatoes. I loved it. My companions had fish soup and chicken paprika, both of which are also very traditional Hungarian staples. The stew was chock full of fish; the chicken was juicy and tender.
Most of the other diners were ordering the pizza. That seemed to be popular, as their was a steady stream of people coming in and ordering it. Sometimes they ate it there ; sometimes it was to go.
Hadik is a gem of a find. It is located on Bartók utca right across the street from Kelet. The atmosphere is fantastic and the waiters are very friendly. One of them has spent time in the United States and liked to practice his English with guests. The friendly service, the relaxed ambience, and traditional Hungarian cuisine made it a great dining experience.
For my appetizer, I had the apple soup. Cold fruit soups are common in Hungary, but this was the first time I had one made with apples. The tartness of the apple complimented the creaminess of the soup very well.
For my entree, I had a potato casserole. The portion size was not large, but it was quite dense and filling. My friends had the duck, which looked divine, and a hamburger.
Pozsonyi Kisvendegio can be found on Radnóti Miklós utca, on the edges of central Budapest just a little north of the road going to Margaret Island. While the outside of the building is a plain looking, the inside has stone walls and large wooden planks in the ceiling giving Pozsonyi the atmosphere of an old lodge. Fittingly enough, the restaurant serves traditional Hungarian food. My friend and I both went this route. I had the sour cherry beef while he had the stuffed pepper. The sour cherry beef was fantastic: the beef being very tender and the sour cherry sauce added great depth of flavor. The stuffed pepper was not as good ; I found it a bit bland. But it was stuffed with meat and quite filling. We also ordered the dessert, a chocolate roll with coconut sprinkles. It was divine. While I recommend Pozsonyi Kisvendeglo, it is with the warning that the waiters do not speak English well. I had a little trouble communicating how much change I wanted, but other than that we had no difficulties.
While I did not go there, one of my travelling companions did eat at Budapest Bistro and highly recommended it. The bistro is located on Vecsey utsa, right in the center of Budapest, just north of Liberty Square (Szabadság tér). It is a high end restaurant, much more pricey than the places we had been going (but still inexpensive by US standards). He describe it as having live music and a pleasant ambience. My friend liked the spread that came with the bread: whipped potato with bits of bacon in it, although he noted that the bacon did dominated the taste. As is typical in Europe, the bread is not complimentary and has to be specifically ordered. For his entrée, he had duck with raspberries which he related as being quite good. Overall, my friend concluded that he would definitely go back.
While there are plenty of good places to eat in central Budapest, I was able to visit other parts of the Hungary. Not only are there fun places to visit, there a are also some great places to dine. In addition to other cities and towns in Hungary, I am also including places that are in Budapest, but in the outlying areas.
Szentlélek Tér (Holy Trinity square) is an active area in the northern outskirts of Budapest. It can be reached by the commuter train M4, which is covered by the metro pass as long as you stay in Budapest. We stopped there after a trip outside the city. The way to the restaurant we were planning on eating at was blocked because of a concert that was occurring in the square. Searching nearby we found a restaurant called Kéhli Vendéglő in a residential area not too far away but on the other side of the highway. Although Kéhli Vendéglő was our second choice that night, it was here that I had my favorite meal of the entire trip.
It is quite an upscale place; it even has live classical music being performed by a violinist and a clarinet player. Despite this, the meal was extremely inexpensive. All told, we paid about $20 per person.
I started the meal with an appetizer of bone marrow. I was expecting to get a tiny piece of bone with a little marrow. Not in Hungary! I was served a whole shank that was completely filled with marrow, along with a plate of toast to eat it with. Words cannot describe how delicious this was! I thoroughly enjoyed it! For their appetizers, my friends both had the goulash soup.
For my main meal, I had a side of cucumber salad along with goulash and spaetzle. I’m not sure if that is the Hungarian word for it, and the English menu just had a description of the dish. But spaetzle accurately describes what it is. Both the goulash and the spaetzle were quite good, although I think the bone marrow stole the show. My friend had fried fish as his meal.
For dessert, I had what meringue with cream sauce. This was not a hard meringue, but was soft and creamy. It was a light way to end the meal. Quite nice.
Normafa is an suburban area on the western edge of Budapest. Near public parks and hiking trails, it is a popular spot for locals. The number 21 bus will take you there from downtown Budapest.
My friend informed me that rustic restaurants are often found near the hiking trails in Budapest. He calls them “hunting lodges”, which is probably the closest US equivalent. But no hunting is done in these areas. We ate at one such restaurant, Normakert Vendeglö.
The servers at Normakert are gregarious and pleasant. We were short on time when we arrived, but they were able to quickly serve us. We got the daily lunch special, which consisted of a soup and a pasta dish. The soup, the name of which when translated into English is “Young man’s soup”, was a hearty dish of meat, mushrooms, carrots and tomatoes. Exactly the kind of nourishing meal you would want before a hike. The pasta was linguini in a light poppy seed sauce. The sauce is somewhat sweet, and the dish can be eaten as a dessert or, like we had it, as an entrée. Normakert is a pleasant restaurant in a scenic area ; a great place to enjoy a relaxed meal.
Szentendre is a small town north of Budapest, right on the Danube river. Famous for its 18th century architecture and filled with shops and restaurants, it is a popular spot for tourists. It can be reached by the M4 train, but as it is outside of Budapest it is not covered by the metro pass.
We were in town for a beer festival and did not eat a meal there. (In fact, it was on our way back from Szentendre that we stopped in Szentlélek Tér and ate at Kéhli Vendéglő). We did however stop at the Levendula (Lavender) ice cream shop, which is my friend’s favorite place in Szentendre. I did see other Levendula’s in Hungary so I think it is a chain. They have many varieties of ice cream available, but I had to get the lavender. It is as good as my friend said it is.
Pécs (pronounced “Paytch”) is a small, historic city south west of Budapest. It is known for its ceramic industry. It is a short train ride to Pécs so we made a day trip there. We found good food at many fine establishments. I already mentioned Csinos. Here are the rest.
Our first stop in Pécs was Jókai Cukrászda. It is located in the center of town, at the end of Jókai street and around the corner from the famed Széchenyi square , this confectionary had come highly recommended. Like the other confectionaires we had visited, this place has a dizzying array of desserts available.
I went with a raspberry torte while my friend ordered a cream torte (somewhat like a Napoleon). The raspberry torte had two layers, a fruit layer and a brownie layer. The fruit layer was gelatanous and had a strong raspberry flavor, and the brownie was decadent The “Napoleon” was excellent; very butterry with a rich cream filling. Both were good, although the Napoleon was my clear favorite.
For drinks, we had the lemonade. Lemonade is quite common in Hungary. It is not sweet and can be found with a variety of different fruit flavors. It is the perfect drink for a sunny day.
For lunch, we ate at the Rundó Restaurant. It is on the edge of the historic center of town, on Citrom street just off Jókai. Rundó has both indoor and outdoor seating. The outdoor area is quite scenic and the day we were there was quite beautiful, so we decided to eat outside.
For appetizers, my friends had soup. One had the mushroom soup while the other had a meat soup. The mushroom soup was unlike any I have had before. The mushrooms were plentiful and were chopped into tiny bits, giving the soup an almost creamy texture. Served in a strong broth, it was flavorful and delicious. The meat soup is a traditional Hungarian dish ; my friend had it all the time while growing up. He said Rundo’s was pretty good, although I expect he preferred his Mother’s version.
For entrées, my friends had the catfish and the pork with rice. I had the stuffed pork chop. This came with two, although I later found out I could have gotten a half sized portion with just one. The sides were cabbage salad, “golden noodles” (another name for spaetzel?), and pickles. My friend declared his pickles “cool and refreshing on a summer day.” Everything was delicious and quite filling.
Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Hungary and a popular place to vacation for Hungarians. It is surrounded by small towns and wineries and is unbelievably scenic. You can get to it by train, but I do recommend renting a car so that you can tour the area and visit the many small wineries surrounding the lake.
Maurus Étterem és Borbár
Our first stop on our trip around Lake Balaton was in the town of Balatonfured. There we ate at a very high end restaurant, Maurus Étterem és Borbár. While the food was very, very good it was quite pricey and the service was very slow. As such, this is not my favorite restaurant in Hungary. But the food was so good I had to mention it. if you do want to splurge, this is the place to do it.
I had the sour beef soup as an appetizer. This was a cold soup, with thin slices of beef in it. I liked it, but felt the two items did not mix well. For my entrée, I had catfish. The area is known for its fish, although Lake Balaton itself is not fished commercially. The catfish was quite good. One friend had quail with duck liver (foie gras?) and cheese dumplings. He liked the quail but thought that the duck liver was bland. The cheese dumplings were amazing. I could have eaten them all day. One of my other other friends had ordered the beet quinoi salad, but the beet rissoto came out instead. The rissoto was excellent, but very heavy with cheese. Eventually, they brought out the beet salad free of charge.
Káli Kövek Borászat
While touring around Lake Balaton, we stopped in a small winery called Káli Kövek. It is in the town of Köveskáli. We were there early in the morning, and so all we had was coffee and some pastries. But the atmosphere was pleasant and the scenery to die for. I would recommend going there for a full meal.
My favorite meal around Lake Balaton was on its far western shore, in the town of Keszthely. There, on a spacious patio, we ate at the restaurant Halászcsárda. This a surf and turf style restaurant with a wide variety of options available. I had the wild boar ragout, which was akin to a small stew. One of my friends had the fish soup. He quite enjoyed it, reporting that the soup had huge chunks of fish and was so thick, it was almost a stew. Another had the chicken breast. Two of my friends split a meat platter. This contained a whole duck, chicken breast, eggs, rice, bacon, stuffed pork chops, and cabbage. Remarkably, none of the meat was overcooked. Everything was moist and succulent. It was too much food for the two of them, and they ended up sharing it.
Halászcsárda also has the distinction of having the best lemonade of all the places we drank it. Theirs was chuck full or fruit, much more than we found at other restaurants.
During my trip we mainly went to Hungarian restaurants and stuck to Hungarian cuisine But there are many other types of food available in Budapest. I recommend trying either Turkish or Greek, as there are places serving those kinds of food throughout the city and they seemed to be quite popular. Another cuisine I saw a lot of was Italian. In addition to the ruin pubs, British style pubs are common in the central part of the city.
There were also several areas of the city that had a lot of restaurants that I did not get to explore. Here are the ones I recommend seeking out.
On the Buda side of the rive, a block or so northwest of Széll Kálmán tér is Lövőház street. Lövőház is a pedestrian area and had many restaurants that looked quite good. We did not eat a meal there, but we did stop at Anjuna Ice Pops to get a popcycle. They have dozens of flavors and are a perfect treat on a hot day.
The area around Kálvin tér is also brimming with restaurants, although mostly of the fast food variety. At the intersection of two major roads, this is not a closed off pedestrian area. But there are wide sidewalks with ample seating and plenty of options available.
Also in the fast food arena is Street Food Karavan Located in the Jewish quarter, not far from Simpla Kertz is an alley filled with shacks selling all kinds of food. I wish I had time to check it out.
For a place a little bit further out, venturing north on the Danube, will get you to the the Roman ruins in Romaifurdo. In addition to the ruins, there are lots of restaurants in a boardwalk like area right on the Danube.
Finally, no trip to Budapest would be complete without walking Váci utca. It is the most famous street in Budapest ; a major pedestrian thoroughfare filled with restaurants and shops. I recommend walking the street, doing some browsing and/or shopping, but not eating there as it can get quite expensive.