Budapest is really two cities either side of the River Danube; Buda and Pest. Buda is where most tourists stay, while Pest, with Castle Hill, is posher and more residential. I visited in the January low season when the weather is cold but the accommodation is cheap. I was accompanying my sister who was doing ‘dental tourism’, getting implants and veneers at a fraction of the price they’d cost here. We stayed in a chic two bedroom flat, four floors up around a central tiled courtyard, typical for central Buda, through Airbnb, at only £22 a night. Local transport, tram, bus and underground, is very reasonable; you can buy a five day pass.
A week was not enough. I didn’t visit any museums, didn’t drink enough wine, eat at enough restaurants, get drunk at ‘ruins’ (pubs) or visit enough spas. However I managed to try three spas out of the five main ones, and experience a couple of the best cafés.
The first thing I do on landing anywhere is visit the central market. You get an instant impression of a place by seeing what they eat, what they drink and how they shop. Often the best restaurants, cafes and bars are huddled around the market.
In Budapest, the Great Market Hall is in an enormous 19th century wrought iron space with several levels. Downstairs are food and drink stalls, selling caviar, paprika in all forms, pickles, oils, cheeses that look like corn on the cob, and fruit brandy known as ‘palinka’. Upstairs you will find craft stalls selling folk-art style embroidered cloth, exquisitely painted Easter eggs, souvenirs, red enamel bowls. There are also plenty of food stalls where you can eat gulyas (goulash) stews out of bread bowls, kebabs, langos, sauerkraut and other local foods. On the basement level is an Aldi supermarket. I always check out supermarkets too, and cheap discounters such as Aldi and Lidl will give you an idea of what ordinary people eat, what is considered absolutely essential in their shopping baskets. The market hall is closed on Sundays.
Hungary is known for paprika, either fresh, stuffed, pickled, dried or in a salty condiment. Paprika, high in vitamin C, originated, like the tomato and the potato, all nightshade ingredients, in the New World, but adapted well to Hungary. Although it comes in three ‘flavours’, hot, smoked and sweet, the latter is the most popular. It’s a key ingredient in goulash, and can even be used in desserts.
Noodles, cheese and langos
Below you can see a picture of typical cheeses, which have the texture of string cheese and mozzarella, comes in plain and smoked and look like corn on the cob. Noodles is a generic term for the fresh pasta which is added to many dishes in lieu of potatoes. Galuska are large and Gipetka are small, almost thumbnail sized.
Langos are large fried breads, which you can order with sweet or savoury toppings. Freshly fried, topped with sour cream, garlic and cheese, langos are deliciously untidy doughnuts. Above I ate them at ‘Langos Land’ in another market, Feny Street Market, which is less touristy and cheaper, on the Pest side of Budapest. This market also boasts pickle shops with rows of different kinds of sauerkraut, stuffed peppers with cottage cheese, pickled garlic cloves, gherkins, quail eggs, in a palate of green, khaki, mustard and deep orange. The Brussels sprouts were the size of my hand while wild mushrooms such as inky trompettes de la mort and flaxen chanterelles were still available.
Cafés and restaurants
Menza restaurant, with trendy 70s retro decor, was near the dental clinic. It served traditional Hungarian food with a modern twist. We had garlic soup with a langos on top, with sour cream and cheese. Ask for the paprika salsa, so good. I tasted an Obzidian Furmint Tokaji which was one of the nicest white wines I’ve ever had, mildly oaky, mineral, full-bodied.
The New York Palace cafe is a must-see, even if you are just going for the decor, which is splendidly Austro-Hungarian, gilt ceilings, ornate furnishings, pillars, curtains, paintings on the ceiling. There is a live band in the afternoon who play xylophone and violin. We sipped Hungarian champagne, tried their goulash with fresh noodles, and a traditional tea stand of cakes and chocolates. Yes it’s touristy and yes you should go. It’s popular with tourists for a reason.
Ruszwurm is humbler and homelier, one of Budapest’s oldest cafés, near the Castle. It’s a warm steamy place to hang out, drink tall hot chocolates with real cream, piqued with liqueur and fork delicately through light-as-air thin and crispy sour cherry strudel while being served by a pink-haired waitress with Heidi plaits. The home made marzipan liqueur, served in a sherry glass, was creamy, sweet with just a hint of bitter almond.
This you have to do. It’s not that cheap but the decor and atmosphere are very special and I had some of the best massages of my life. It made me realise that no matter how good a female masseur is, a man’s strength is a whole other experience. There are reasonably priced massage parlours everywhere, my sister had an ayuverdic session where you are doused in fragrant healing oils. We even discussed if we had the courage to go for a ‘yoni’ massage. Which is when some bloke massages your downstairs department. We didn’t. We are cowards. But if you are single it often means you never get touched, neither affectionately or sexually. Massage is the answer to the plight of the middle-aged loner.
The spas usually have a package of entrance, shoes, a towel, a ‘cabin’ or locker and a 20 minute massage in a wooden booth. I’m the kind of person who can easily have a two hour massage but here 20 minutes is actually enough. It feels a great deal longer. Big, warm strong hands digging deep into your neck and shoulder blades while you lay there silently covered by a slip of a towel, mute with relaxation.
My favourite spa was the glorious, huge, Szechenyi Baths, a complex of baths both indoor and out, with sulphured water and different temperatures from zero degrees to 40 degrees centigrade. The steam room was like being hit with a shovel as soon as you walked in. Outside, floodlit statues stood over couples canoodling, vapour extending into the wintery night. Waterproof shoes puddled beside the pools, people drifted around rapid whirlpools and stood under powerful geysers of steamy water. There were many young people in groups, it’s obviously an after-work activity in Budapest and why not? It boosts your immune system and alleviates the long grey winter.
Here you can even have a beer spa. I thought that meant you bathe in beer, but it turns out, slightly disappointingly, that you stew in wooden bath tubs which have a beer tap installed. You drink the beer.
Gellert Spa is around the corner from the hotel. Again I took the package of entry and a 20 minute massage. To save money I packed flip-flops and while I usually took a towel, this time I forgot and had no cash to hire one inside. So I resorted to drying myself with my underwear (I’m so my dad). To swim in the swimming baths, you will need a swimming hat too, which you can hire.
Gellert is almost as glamorous as Szechenyi and in summer, opens up outside too. You will bathe beneath blue and green ceramic cherubs and turtles, water spouting from the mouths of pink marble beasts.
Rudas is more modern, but has a rooftop heated jacuzzi where you can watch the traffic speed by, both cars and boats along the river. I couldn’t get access to everywhere as Rudas still has separate days for men and women. Check that the day you visit is for your sex/gender.
Next visit I will try the ancient Turkish baths, the 16th century Kiraly spa, which is less luxurious and cheaper and the Veli Bej Spa. Hungary was once part of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps you get the scrub and wash hamman that I experienced in Istanbul. One time, they literally scrubbed my skin raw – I had scabs!
Most of the spas are open till 9 or 10pm so this is an all-season, daytime or evening activity.
Wine, schnapps and other Booze
Hungarian wine is very good. Some of you will know about the famous Tokaji, a sweet wine, that is so much cheaper than Bordeaux. While you can order great wine everywhere, paying for a wine experience at Tasting Table will provide a background history and shortcut. Sebastien, our teacher, led us through four wines: a sparkling, 2 whites, a red and a sweet and platters of cured meats, pickles and cheeses. I also tried poppy seed oil and Styrian pumpkin seed oil. Tasting Table was started in 2008 by American food writer Carolyn Banfalvi and her Hungarian husband Gabriel Banfalvi. They split their time between Hungary and the states. Eastern European and Hungarian food and wine traditions have been overlooked for many years and is only just recovering from communism. Tasting table, located in the cellar of a palace, is a wine shop/wine education space that does tours and visits. I bought a selection of Hungarian wines and the oils to bring home.
I hope I get a chance to visit again. Do let me know what you think of this post in the comments.