5 Unexpected Highlights of Budapest, Hungary

February 7, 2012 by

Europe, List Mania: Viator's Top Picks, Walking Tours, Wine Tasting

In many ways, Budapest is a perfect city break destination. Like many perennial favourites, it is pretty – there are numerous spots for the postcard shot – but there’s also plenty to do. The city has two distinctive characters, split by the River Danube.

On the western bank there is staid, leafy and traditional Buda. This is where a lot of the eye candy – such as the Castle District, Matthias Church and Citadel – can be found. Pest, on the eastern bank of the Danube, is where the city’s action and life is to be found. There are some pretty impressive tourist attractions here too, but it’s shopping, eating and drinking that give Pest its hugely enjoyable edge.

Perhaps Budapest’s best quality, however, is that you never feel like you’ve ‘done’ it.  Spend a long weekend there, and you’ll probably only get a fraction of the way down the list of things that grab your interest and attention. That’s no bad thing, and there are a few things about Budapest that may come as a rather pleasant surprise. These include:

1. The Great Market Hall

Great Market Hall Budapest

The Great Market Hall

It would be fair to say that markets can be of variable quality across the world. For every one bursting with life gem, full of fresh gourmet treats and skilfully made handcrafts, there’s another sad barn of bleak, smelly utilitarianism. Budapest’s is mercifully at the more impressive end of the scale. Part of this is down to the building – it looks like one of the world’s grandest railway stations. Even empty, it’d be worth a visit. But the food quality is high too.

The main floor is largely dedicated to food. There are massive salami sausages dangling down, cheeses sourced from across Europe, goose and duck liver patés and multi-coloured paprika peppers. It’s also the right spot to buy seasoning packets of dried paprika.

The upper floor is more for arts, crafts and clothing. You do have to sift amongst the tat for the good stuff, but it’s still a good spot to get gifts and souvenirs for relatively little expenditure.

If downstairs has got you hungry, then the upstairs food stalls are the place to indulge. Sandwiches and crepes are amongst the obvious options, but it’s worth trying the special Hungarian hamburgers, goulashes and something unique – the langos. A langos is somewhere between a pizza and a doughnut – the garlic ones are something of an acquired taste, but become rather moreish. They’ll ruin a diet, keep in mind.

Read more: Free Things to Do in Budapest

2. Wine tasting

Budapest Wine Tasting

Wines from the tasting

The Great Market Hall is the first stop on Viator’s Budapest Wine Tasting and Lunch tour, which then heads farther into Pest to an underground cellar. This is where the wine comes in. It might not be what instantly comes to mind when you think of Hungary, but the country is rather proud of its wines. It’s certainly a grape rather than grain kinda place, and there are 22 wine regions across Hungary. Whites predominate over reds, although the Bikaver blends (known as Bull’s Blood) are enjoyably meaty.

The real stars are the Tokaji wines, however. French kings raved about these sweet – but not overly sticky – dessert wines as being the best in the world. Have a sip, and you can begin to see their point.

Read more about Wine Tasting in and around Budapest

3. Food

Paprika in Great Market Hall

Paprika peppers in the Great Market Hall

Central European fare has an unfortunate (and often entirely justified) reputation for being hearty stodge with an obsession with pork and dumplings. Whilst you’ll not struggle for that in Budapest if you want it, the city has a genuinely international culinary outlook. You’ll find French cuisine, Argentinean steaks and Indian curries without having to look too hard, whilst the top end restaurants take their influences from across the planet.

But the one dish that Hungary is best known for is goulash soup, and it’s fairly ubiquitous in Budapest. You get to try it on the last stop of the Wine Tasting and Lunch tour. In many tourist-focused restaurants, the goulash soup can be watery and bland, but at Kiado Kocsma it’s delicious. Arriving with large hunks of bread and a side dish of peppers with which you can spice things up to your own personal level of bravery, the paprika-heavy dish is delicious – more stew than soup, and warming without being artery-clogging.

4. The kerts

Budapest kert

One of Budapest's kerts - photo credit: Alex Barrow via Flickr

Budapest is one of those cities that feels both safe and fun to stroll through at night. The Buda side of the Danube is rather sleepy, but Pest is full of life. To get a good look, a night time walking tour is a good way of checking out Pest’s main areas, while an hour-long Danube cruise allows you to see the city’s most prominent buildings, bridges and churches lit up spectacularly. Do both on a Budapest Night Walking Tour and River Cruise.

That’s fine as an orientation evening, but to enjoy the nightlife fully, it’s an idea to hit the kerts. These ‘garden bars’ are often only temporary affairs, but some are open year-round. Some of them are essentially beer gardens tacked onto already existing bars, but the true spirit remains in the standalone affairs that have been built into abandoned courtyards. Décor tends to be rough and ready, furniture utterly random and floors left as bumpy and debris-strewn as they were initially found. This leads to some quirky personalisations, however, and the atmosphere in the kerts tends to be one of great community. A number of them are clustered on Kazinczy utca, with the Szimpla kert being both one of the scene’s stalwarts and one of its most enjoyable examples.

Read more about things to do in Budapest

5. The Vasarely Museum

Victor Vasarely

Art by Victor Vasarely - photo credit: Procsilas Moscas via Flickr

There are plenty of other art museums and galleries in Budapest, but none are quite as interesting or as focused as the Vasarely Museum. It’s a bit of a trek to get to – you’ll find it in the northern suburb of Obuda – but it’s unquestionably worth it.

Victor Vasarely was a pioneer of Op Art, and many of the works on display will seem strangely familiar. Op Art is a rather design-led and mathematical approach to art – using color and pattern to make the image look slightly different from wherever you’re standing. The geometry, repetition and use of 2D to 3D techniques play with your perception – and there are over 400 of Vasarely’s paintings, tapestries and sculptures on display.

Read more: 5 Ways to Chill Out in Budapest

David Whitley

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