Paprika-hued gulyás (goulash) served in a metal bogrács cooking pot is considered an important part of Hungary’s national heritage
One of Europe’s great capitals, Budapest combines the drama of its Danube-spanning location with the mystique of a city that has witnessed great events in history. Ottoman conquerors, Habsburg monarchs, and Communist planners have all left their mark, but it is in Budapest’s markets, coffeehouses, and restaurants that you will find the ebb and flow of Hungarian life.
The name Budapest literally links a city of two halves: tranquil, hilly Buda on the west bank of the Danube, and bustling Pest, with its shops, cafés, and museums, on the eastern bank. The castle district on Buda Hill recalls the glory days of Hungary’s medieval monarchs and their Habsburg successors, while over the river in Pest, boulevards heavy with 19th-century buildings convey a palpable sense of national pride. Elsewhere, downtown facades are studded with decorative motifs, constituting a three-dimensional pattern book of early Hungarian (Magyar) folk art. Modern buildings such as the wonderful Ludwig Museum of Modern Art on the banks of the Danube River reveal that Budapest is a restlessly contemporary city too.
Hungarians take their food very seriously. Bakery counters groan under the weight of speckled loaves and rolls, café windows contain displays of delicate pastries and cakes, and chalkboards outside restaurants deliver the rich promise of roast breast of duck or fried liver of goose. However, no dish sums up Hungarian culinary culture more than goulash, the ubiquitous paprika-flavored stew whose origins are as old as the Hungarian nation.
This is most often made with chunks of veal (borjúpörkölt), although there are many variations – pörkölt featuring huge, scaly chunks of freshwater fish is a favorite in the south. There is also a silkier version of goulash known as paprikás, thickened with lots of cream. All of these dishes originated in the simple stews prepared by Hungarian cattle-drovers over campfires, and you’ll still see them served in traditional metal dishes, or bogrács, with a huge ladle protruding from the rim.
In Budapest you’ll find goulash on menus everywhere, from bus station buffets to high-class restaurants. The one essential ingredient is paprika, the frequently fiery spice grown on a huge scale throughout southern Hungary. Strings of dried paprikas are a colorful feature of Budapest’s markets, where they are labeled according to their heat and flavor – there are eight grades, ranging from the sweet and mild különleges to the maroon-colored, tongueblisteringly hot erős.
Best Places to Eat GoulashBock Bisztró expensive With a bright creamy interior lined with cookbooks and wine magazines, Bock Bisztró doesn’t at first sight look like the average Hungarian tavern. However, once you receive your “pre-appetizer” (a pot of spicy pork lard with plenty of crusty bread to smear it on), you quickly realize that there is more in the way of Magyar tradition here than at first meets the eye. By putting traditional national recipes and modern Mediterranean dishes on the same menu, Bock has done a great deal to make old-school Hungarian cooking fashionable again.
Head chef Lajos Bíró is something of a national culinary celebrity, with several TV shows and coffee-table books to his name. Entrées like veal paprikash (borjúpaprikás) delight with their velvety texture and delicate paprika tones – extra spice is provided on the side if you feel the need to increase the temperature. Bock is also a wine shop, so you can get good advice on which Hungarian red to drink with your meal and the chance to buy a bottle as you leave.
Erzsebet korut 43–49, Budapest; open noon– midnight Mon–Sat; www.bockbisztro.hu
Also in Budapest
Ostentatiously decorated with Transylvanian folk motifs, 19th-century relic Kárpátia (www.karpatia.hu; expensive) is a longestablished favorite with both locals and tourists, and its goulashes remain of unimpeachably high quality. Away from the tourist trail, Régi Sipos (www.regisipos.hu; moderate) serves up homey southern Hungarian delights such as carp goulash (pontypörkölt) or the much-prized catfish stew (harcsapaprikás), accompanied by lasagna-like sheets of delicious cheesy noodles.
Also in Hungary
Gulyás and pörkölt can be found throughout the country, but are at their best in the rural south and east. Located in Kecskemét, close to the paprika-growing plains of the south, Kecskeméti Csárda és Borház (+36 76 417 640; moderate) excels in spicy traditional cooking. The southern town of Baja is famous for its paprika-meets-fish cuisine, with riverside restaurants like Vendio (www.vendio.hu; moderate) drawing in customers with catfish stew with cheesy noodles.
Around the World
One Hungarian restaurant that is the absolute equal of any establishment in Budapest is the Gay Hussar (www.gayhussar.co.uk; expensive) in London’s Soho, famous not just for its fine goulashes and duck roasts but also for a clientele that has included media types and many a leading politician over the years.
A Day in Budapest
Bisected by the mighty Danube, Budapest has been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries, giving it an eclectic appearance and elegant feel. The banks of the river have UNESCO World Heritage status, justifying the city’s name, the “Pearl of the Danube.”
Start off by visiting Buda, a historical quarter of 18th-century mansions and cobbled squares. The parapets of the Fishermen’s Bastion provide sumptuous views across the Danube River.
Cross the river to Pest and its animated main shopping street, Váci utca, pausing for coffee and cake in one of the many fine café-patisseries. Afterward, take a trip on the 100-year-old M1 metro line to leafy Városliget Park, where both a zoo and a reconstructed Transylvanian castle await. If you have time for a gallery, the Museum of Applied Arts is the ideal introduction to Hungarian visual style.
Promenade along Pest’s Danube shore and admire the illuminated bridges before heading for Ráday utca, an up-and-coming area of cafés and restaurants.
Getting to BudapestFlights arrive at Ferihegy Airport; buses travel the 10 miles (16 km) to the downtown.
Where to stay in BudapestAnna (inexpensive) is a small, homey B&B in a central Pest location. www.annahotel.hu
Ibis Centrum (moderate) is in a lively part of Pest. www.ibis-centrum.hu
Danubius Hotel Gellért (expensive) combines Art Nouveau elegance with proximity to the world-famous Gellért thermal baths complex.
Sütő u. 2, Deák tér; www.budapestinfo.hu