We recently spent a long weekend in Budapest, Hungary. Our 3-year old daughter’s standing punch line became, “Say, are we going to be hungry in Hungary?”
We travelled with little knowledge about the destination and uncertain expectations. A two-hour direct flight from London’s Luton Airport landed us in a city scarred by world war, communism, and revolutions. The half hour taxi ride to the city centre was mostly littered with trash, impoverished villages, and gypsy style campsites visible through the bare trees.
As we neared the city centre, the scenes along the banks of the Danube River were a welcomed contrast to the dingy motorway. Historic buildings displayed grand architecture from the past, while refined bridges bathed in the morning sunshine connected Buda and Pest across the river.
We arrived at our hotel, Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, with its breathtaking Art Nouveau design. The hotel is perfectly positioned for exploring many of the city’s sites on foot, and a tranquil retreat for retiring to after a full day of touring.
We spent the afternoon exploring Central Pest with its charming cafés and boutiques, and felt comfortable with our toddler freely walking along pedestrian only Zrinyi Street. Over the last decade, Budapest has made great stride in cleaning up the city centre and providing its residents with litter-free streets, manicured parks, and well equipped playgrounds.
New construction is underway across the city with high-end retailers lining Andrássy Avenue. If you crave familiar high street brands like H&M, Zara and, Marks & Spencer they are all at your fingertips.
We visited the largest indoor market, Central Market, in hopes of finding quality souvenirs. We were disappointed as most stalls carried the same mass produced handicrafts. Herend porcelain is produced in Hungary and there are several stores around the city. It is not the most affordable souvenir in town, but it just might be the prettiest.
The city boasts many beautifully restored coffee houses to include Lotz-terem (Lotz Hall) in the Párizsi Nagy Áruház building (Andrássy Avenue). There we sipped aperitifs while gazing up at the 19th century fresco painted by German/Hungarian painter Károly Lotz.
For our first dinner, Chef handpicked Paulaner’s Platz Beerstation which sits adjacent to St. Stephen’s Basilica. Our table was next to the window offering views of the basilica’s illuminated dome. We sampled a variety of local flavours to include wiener schnitzel and homemade pickles. The quality of food and wine, for very moderate prices, had us returning two nights later to sample the pork knuckle. We highly recommend Platz but advise at weekends a DJ spins records making the ambience not as family friendly.
Two doors down from Platz is the charming, and amazingly delicious, Gelarto Rosa where we enjoyed dessert. The owner, Niki Szokron, studied the art of making gelato in Italy and brought the secrets of the recipes back to her home country. Each cone is lovingly prepared and artfully scooped into flavourful treats. If you love ice cream, get your fix at Gelarto Rosa.
Aside from taxis, we got around town on a Hop On-Hop Off city tour bus. While the driving tour provided a historical overview and familiarised us with the city’s plan, it did nothing to help our pronunciation of the Hungarian street names.
Asking for directions was mastered by pointing to street’s names on the map and then watching the local point us in the right direction. I’ll be honest, Hungarian is not a language you can easily pick up and follow. Fortunately, the Hungarians are very welcoming and many speak English. To all bi-lingual Hungarians I say, “Köszönöm!” (Thank YOU!).
On day two, a funicular carried us up to the Buda hills which offered fantastic views of Pest across the Danube and positioned us for touring some of the sites of Castle Hill including: Matthias Church, Halászbástya or Fisherman’s Bastion, and the Royal Palace.
There are several restaurants in Castle Hill including Pest-Buda which is one of the oldest restaurants in the city. The restaurant prides itself on being “Grandma’s home-style Hungarian cooking”. They source the freshest produce and serve only select regional wines.
We sampled several main dishes and unanimously agreed the beef onglet was the winner. Our waiter’s suggested a bottle of Weninger, Sopron, Syrah. It was spot on. (So we ordered a second bottle.)
The Hungarians have a flare for wine making. Their prized dessert wine, Tokaji, is a must try. During our stay, we did not find a Hungarian wine we did not enjoy. In fact, we enjoyed them so we bought a few bottles to enjoy at the cottage.
Chef and I felt we just skimmed the surface of the city and would have enjoyed a few extra days for relaxing in the city’s traditional Turkish baths and visiting more museums. Hopefully we will return.
The Hungarians are working hard to boost tourism. While the country’s history is stained with blood and senseless loss of lives, its future is youthful and eager to catch up with the western world. For their great efforts I say, “kedves egészségére!” (Cheers!)