It doesn’t take much time in Budapest to learn that Hungarians are extremely proud of their food and wine, and for good reason: both are delicious and can easily occupy one’s time over a weekend in the country’s capital. Luckily, the city is also extremely pedestrian-friendly, so you have a chance to burn calories between food stops. Here’s how a friend and I recently tackled the city one step at a time…
We landed around dinner time and I suppose our impatient stomachs led us to take a car into the city, rather than brave the lengthy bus and metro transfer, but I promise that’s the only cheat! It also gave us a chance to chat with the friendly and informative Andrew of BXL Transfers, whose business benefits from the fact that there is no direct metro link to the airport. He dropped us at our AirBnB near the Hungarian State Opera House and my love affair with Budapest began immediately thereafter.
Matyas welcomed us warmly into the sleek (if slightly kitsch) apartment, nestled inside the courtyard of a charming historic building. His tour included an explanation on how to use the infrared sauna(!), a once-over of the laminated pages of recommendations and QR codes for the city’s best restaurants, and – best of all – a free bottle of wine from the temperature-controlled wine refrigerator in the kitchen. I was in heaven. I’d been in Budapest for less than an hour and already had tasted a glass of wine from Hungary’s King of Rose.
We thanked Matyas and began our walking weekend with a stroll over to New York Cafe for a late dinner. Tucked inside the stately Boscolo Budapest Hotel, it might have felt like we were countesses dining in court if not for all the other tourists. I would definitely recommend any Budapest visitor stopping into the cafe for a coffee to take in its grandeur and ornate beauty, but the food – while delicious – was incredibly overpriced.
We finished our evening with a stroll through the famed Jewish quarter, which has been reborn in recent years as a site for locals and drunk backpackers alike to mingle in the quarter’s many so-called “ruin bars.” The line outside of Szimpla Kert, the first and most famous of the bars established in the ruins of the quarter’s historic buildings, was a little intimidating, so we decided to call it an early night.
Given the short duration of our visit and my interest in learning about Hungarian food and wine, I decided to follow TripAdvisor’s advice and schedule a culinary walking tour that morning with Taste Hungary. After a beautiful sunny walk past St. Stephen’s Basilica and down the pedestrian-only Váci shopping street, we met our guide inside of Budapest’s grand Central Market Hall. After explaining the historical and modern uses of the market (where locals still get the freshest and most cost-effective produce), our guide walked us to a stall where the liquor was already flowing at 10am. To prepare our stomachs for the day’s eating adventure, we drank a shot of Unicum, a powerful spirit made from a top-secret recipe of 40+ herbs invented in 1790 by Habsburg family doctor József Zwack. Fortified by the liquor’s alleged medicinal properties, we continued on to our first food stop.
Our guide, Virág, was not shy about sharing her opinions through most of the tour, but this was especially true when she explained the proper way to eat lángos: with sour cream, cheese, garlic, and nothing else. “No tomatoes or vegetables,” she explained. “That’s just not Hungarian.” So we tried the fried dough treat her way, and I have to agree: it was simply perfect. The rest of the morning was a bit of a haze as we wound our way through the basement pickle stalls, sampled a selection of cured meats, and ventured to a fast food restaurant nearby for more fried food. Nearly ready to cry for mercy, we moved on to the dessert course: bonbons at the artistic family-owned chocolatier Rózsavölgyi and cake at the beautiful Auguszt Cafe.
Finally, we came to the part of the tour I was most looking forward to: wine-tasting at Tasting Table. Virág, who is studying to become a sommelier, explained how the different climates of Hungary’s major wine regions produce a wide variety of wines. Only six grape varietals can be grown in the most important of these regions, Tokaj, which is known internationally for its dessert wine made from Aszú grapes that are stricken with what is essentially a fungal infection. Disgusting, maybe, but they made for a pretty good wine. I also tasted my first of several Furmint wines of the weekend, which is reminiscent of Chardonnay to me.
After all the eating and drinking, we were both slightly antsy and happy to take the long walk over to the grand Hungarian Parliament Building. On our way, we stopped and reflected on the powerful Shoes on the Danube Bank, a memorial to Hungarian Jews who were killed along the river bank by Arrow Cross militiamen during World War II. In the late afternoon sun, we weren’t particularly interested in embarking on a tour of the Parliament building, so instead we snapped a few photos and headed back towards our weekend apartment for a quick rest. On the way, we enjoyed a glass of wine in the shadow of St. Stephen’s Basilica at the delightful Divino, which had come highly recommended by a friend.
Having spent the entirety of our time thus far on the Pest side of the Danube, that evening as the sun was setting, we ventured over to the Buda side. We joined dozens of lovers and sightseers making their way across the Chain Bridge to the foot of the magnificent Buda Castle. Though the funicular was closed for the day, it was a leisurely climb up the stairs to the castle’s courtyard, from which we were able to take in the incredible architecture of the 13th century royal palace, as well as the breathtaking view of the city across the river.
Somehow hungry again, we climbed back down to make our reservation at ZONA, which had come highly recommended by both Michelin and our culinary guide. The food was excellent (steak tartare and Seabass for me) and paired really well with a couple glasses of Szepsy Pince Furmint 2011, my favorite vintage of the grape that I had during my time in Hungary. Full and happy, we made our way back to our apartment to finish the king’s rose and drift off to dreams of lángos and mangalica.
… and on the third day, we (sort of) rested. After Saturday’s walking and eating marathon, we were really looking forward to a bit of exercise and relaxation in one of the city’s famed thermal baths. With our luggage in tow, we decided to take the metro rather than drag our bags on the 30 minute walk to the City Park. Budapest’s Line 1 (aka M1, Millennium Underground Railway) is the second oldest underground in the world (after the London Tube) and was built, like many of Budapest’s major attractions, at the end of the 19th century. After a quick but noisy ride, we arrived in the center of the park, which was bustling with joggers and families out for a stroll. We snapped a quick picture of the Vajdahunyad Castle, and made our way to the day’s main destination: the Széchenyi Thermal Bath.
As a novice, the price structure and operations of the bath can be a little confusing, so we decided to go all out with a VIP package that included a cabin (to change and store our luggage), access to the Palm House Spa (with unlimited tea and fruit), and a 30 minute massage. While my friend went off for a run in the park, I swam laps in the bath’s giant outdoor pool. Never thought I’d swim in the center of a historic Neo-Baroque building with gargoyles looking on, but now I can say that I have.
We reunited and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in the Palm House, rotating between the various indoor and outdoor pools, and getting massages. Definitely the best way to cap off a weekend of eating and walking!
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