Written by former Travel Journo contributor, Sophia
Think of Budapest, and chances are, goulash will be one of the first things that springs to mind. It was for me, at any rate.
Thick, meaty, filling, and – depending on where you go – spicy. The pseudo-vegetarian in me isn’t keen on the idea of this particular dish, but I’m always up for trying something new, and I figured I couldn’t really visit Hungary without at least sampling their much-celebrated national dish.
So, when I arrived in the capital, not-so-fresh off the slow coach from Bratislava, I was a little surprised to find myself confronted with what was, by all intents and purposes, the Hungarian equivalent of Piccadilly Circus.
Emerging from the subway steps, armed with my suitcases and a burgeoning appetite, I saw nothing but fast food chains and coffee shops for what seemed like miles, and frankly I was starting to panic.
I often feel as though there are two types of people in the world: those who know the meaning of the world ‘hangry’, and those who have the misfortune to be around them when rations are scarce. I, unfortunately for my travelling companion, fall into the former category, and the prospect of having to resort to a Burger King for the first time in our lives was filling us both with dread.
Luckily, our accommodation was only a few minutes’ walk away, and the staff were more than happy to offer up their recommendations. Crisis averted – almost.
As it was getting on for 10pm, we opted for the place closest to where we were staying – a brightly lit buffet style restaurant that prided itself on its ‘authentic Hungarian cuisine.’
None of the dishes were labelled, so putting together a decent, non-flavour clashing meal took a bit of guesswork and a willingness to put – almost – anything into our mouths. Between us though, we managed to sample most of the 30 or so dishes on offer and collectively decided that although (at the time) we didn’t know what most of them were, they probably weren’t as authentic as they were made out to be. It’s safe to say we wouldn’t be going back for seconds.
The morning heralded much more potential, as we took a tram to the Central Market Hall in search of breakfast. Right next to Corvinus University on the left bank of the Danube, this restored neogothic building is one of the most visited attractions in Budapest. It’s also home to Hungary’s largest – and oldest – selection of food stalls, so of course, it was high on our list of places to see.
It also happened to be the meeting place for our pre-arranged ‘Bites and Sights’ food tour. Booked on a whim, this was the part of our trip we had been looking forward to the least. Namely because, well, neither of us particularly relished the idea of a guided tour – food or no food.
‘Tours are for old people’, we thought. ‘Or people who don’t like the hassle of planning their own itineraries, or people who don’t understand the thrill that comes with taking a wrong turn and exploring unplanned routes.’ (Apologies to any tour lovers out there).
As it turns out, we couldn’t have been more wrong. The tour we’d previously dreaded turned out to be the magical mystery tour of the food world.
We set off on foot around the Market Hall, where we sampled local meats, smoked cheeses, fruits and Palinka, a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy, swiftly bypassing the pigs’ trotters that seemed to hang from every corner.
Our route took us to a nearby fish bistro called Halkakas, famous for its tapas type snacks, gyros, fried catfish and homemade lemonade. Somewhat off the beaten track, this place is great for a quick bite in between sight-seeing.
For something a little bit retro, try Taskaradio Eszpresso for some Spritzers made with local wines. Located in the middle of the university district in Budapest, this ‘60s and ‘70s-inspired café transports visitors back in time with its quirky, colourful décor and selection of vintage toys.
On our way out, we made a quick detour to Rozavolgyi Chocolaterie, one of the best and oldest chocolatiers in Hungary, to stock up on souvenirs and handmade green tea white chocolate.
Before dinner, we visited one of the city’s iconic ruin bars, stopping off once again to sample some flódni – traditional poppy seed cake. Unique in flavour, this sweet treat combines layers of flaky pastry, crushed poppy seeds and thick sour cherry jam.
To end the food tour, we were treated to steaming bowls of goulash and fresh local bread at Baltazar Grill and Wine Bar in the city’s historic castle district. This followed by hand made apple, apricot, and cottage cheese strudels. It was a world away from the ‘authentic’ Hungarian cuisine we’d tasted less than 12 hours before.
Until next time x
To take the same culinary tour and find a range of other sightseeing options, visit UrbanAdventures.com, follow them on twitter @Urbanadventures and find them on Facebook. To find out more about our new contributor Sophia, head over to our contributors page.