Hungary stands distinct in Middle Europe: it doesn't resemble its Slavic, Germanic or Romanian neighbors in language or features. Even more rare for this region, Hungarians like heat – in their food, in their baths, and even in their relationships (Hungarians are known to take public displays of affection to a whole new level).
Although we visited Budapest, Hungary's grand capital, several times in 2000 as we transited from Western to Eastern Europe, our visit this year proved more rewarding.
From the fresh markets to the grand open baths, here's why.
Lehel Market: Where Budapest Locals Shop
Surprisingly unpleasant experiences greeted us at outdoor markets in the Baltic capitals (Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius). Memories of dour, paranoid vendors – forbidding photographs of their produce and eschewing conversation with their frowns – fueled our apprehension as we approached Budapest's Lehel Market (Lehel Csarnok) with our cameras.
Aside: In fairness to outdoor markets in the Baltic states, a note of explanation: many vendors in these markets are not ethnic Lithuanians, Latvians or Estonians. Our Baltic friends suggested that vendors might be concerned about having their photograph taken because their paperwork is not in order.
Instead, we found courteous shoppers stopping in their tracks to avoid ruining our photographs and friendly vendors agreeing to be photographed. They didn't mind us snapping away at their gorgeous peppers and massive cabbages. For this we breathed a sigh of relief. The atmosphere at Lehel Market reaffirmed the impressions we had collected while walking Budapest's streets.
The variety and quality of produce was impressive: pepper mountains in yellow, orange and fire engine red, cabbages the size of medicine balls, and stuffed pickled vegetables in electrifying hues. Not to mention the thousands of Hungarian sausage links (kolbasz). And this was November. We can only imagine this market as it bursts at the seams in the height of summer.
Lehel vs. Central Market
The following day we paid a visit to Budapest's Central Market (Nagyvásárcsarnok) with the purpose of assembling the ingredients – chicken and vegetables – for the evening meal we had planned for our hosts.
They had warned us to arrive early since the tour buses pull up en masse at mid morning. Unfortunately, we aren't morning people. Our late arrival ensured our share of bobbing and weaving through the tourist throngs – between the waving arms of gesticulating Italians and around the imposing footlong camera lenses of the of the shutter-happy Asians.
Budapesters (yes, our research indicates that's what they are called) did their fruit and vegetable shopping at the stands along the edge. We joined them in line. One kilo of small tomatoes, four sweet peppers, four onions and two zucchinis later, our wallets were a mere $2 lighter.
Ironically enough, the variety and choice of food at Lehel Market was actually much better than at Central Market. Regardless, Budapest features some of the best fresh markets and produce we've seen in Eastern Europe. We joked with our friends – recent arrivals to Budapest – that they will receive absolutely no sympathy from us should we hear complaints about the food.
Bath Time, Like a Dream
Our last night in Budapest featured a visit to the Szechenyi Baths in City Park on the Pest side of town. Puffs of steam rose from huge outdoor hot pools set amidst the Neo-Baroque architectural splendor. After sampling a chokingly hot dry sauna and various pools, we took a spin around the whirlpool. To signal closing time, a 1960s Hungarian childhood tune warbled in the night. Hungarians sang along as they exited the pool, laughing at the song…and themselves.
Budapest Travel Tips: Restaurants, Markets and Baths
Where to Eat in Budapest:
- Frici Papa Kifőzdéje – inexpensive, quick and filling. We enjoyed the mushroom gulash with mashed potatoes. Address: Király u. 55
- Szent Jupats: Recommended by two Hungarian women we met. Bean soup, tasty mushroom/paprika gulash, bugaci chicken with dumplings (halusky/strapacky). Don’t pay attention to reviews that claim that the kitchen only serves fried meat. Address: Moscow Square (Moszkva Ter)
- Hummus Bar: Ok, so hummus isn't Hungarian food, but Hummus Bar dishes out some authentic and memorable hummus and falafel. Ask for the hot sauce and enjoy the endless shots of mint/ginger tea. A real treat when you need a change from gulash. Address: Alkotmany Street 20 (behind the Parliament).
- Langos Centrum: Located in the middle of Lehel Market on the ground floor, this place dishes out fresh langos (flat, circular fried bread) with a variety of toppings – sour cream, cabbage, beans, cheese – all day long. Grab a draft beer to accompany your langos and enjoy the experience.
Where to Shop (Fresh Markets):
- Lehel Market (Lehel Csarnok): Located outside the Lehel metro station, Lehel Market is the big building that's shaped like a boat. If you want something sweet to finish you off after a dose of langos, head to the Turkish stand in the back and take your pick of five varieties of fresh baklava and halvah.
- Central Market (Nagyvásárcsarnok): Located near Kalvin Ter metro station near the river. The middle aisle is geared towards tourists – paprika stands, Hungarian sausages, Hungarian foie gras, traditional-looking Hungarian ceramics, etc. The stands in the outer ring feature the best produce. Pay a visit to the strudel stand halfway up the main aisle (on the left if entering from Vamhaz krt.) and try the cabbage (kaposztas) and poppy/apple varieties. Truly delicious.
Szechenyi Baths: Take the metro to Szechenyi furdo and walk past the circus (on the left) to the entrance. Cost is 2,600 HUF, but if you stay less than two hours, you get a 400 HUF refund. Closes at 10 PM to a fabulously catchy children’s song.