7 Places to Eat in Budapest

In between trying out as many Easter markets as we could, we fit in a surprising number of restaurants on our recent trip to Budapest.  And I could have eaten at many more—at the time my great-grandfather was born in Slovakia, it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so the food very closely mimics much of what I have been eating my entire life.  Especially the stuffed cabbage, which is a family favorite and something I tried at every opportunity in Budapest.  Among many, many other things.

1. Paprika Vendéglő

Being a short walk from Keleti, the main train station in Budapest, Paprika makes for a great first or last stop in the city. The corner restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside is fashioned to look like an old country home, with cozy traditional Hungarian food to match.  This was our final meal in Budapest, so I’d already tried most of the local food and, with a train ride to Bratislava on the horizon, didn’t want to overdo it, so I only tried to goulash over spaetzel, which was delicious.  The place was packed, so be prepared to either wait or go during off-hours.  Dozsa Gyoergy ut 72, Budapest 1071

vendeglo

2. Belvárosi Disznótoros

This one was care of Anthony Bourdain, and with a name that translates to “Downtown Pig Slaughter,” it’s not hard to see why.  One half of the counter is food that is ready to go and be plated up right away, the other half is a selection of marinated meats that they will cook to order—though you have to order from each counter separately, which can be confusing.  We stuck with the ready-to-go food and ate upstairs (where it was hard to find a seat), feasting on a pile of red cabbage, mashed potatoes, sausage, pickles, and a healthy schmear of mustard.  I opted for blood sausage, which was delicious, though like all Eastern European food, the meal was extremely heavy.  Be ready to nap afterwards. Király ut 1d, Budapest 1075

disznotoros

3. Szimpla Kert

Budapest is known for its “ruin bars”—cheap drink spots that pop up in old, rundown spaces—and Szimpla Kert is the original and most well-known of them.  Tucked into the Jewish Quarter, the spot offers plenty of options for cheap beer and a relaxed place to hang out for a night.  There are food options (as well as a weekly farmer’s market), but the real draw here is the drinking.  Swing by with some friends—or to make some friends—before or after your meal. Kazinczy ut 14, Budapest 1075

kert

4. Hungarikum Bisztró

Another restaurant offering traditional Hungarian food in a quaint checkered-tablecloth setting, Hungarikum Bisztró was still well worth stopping by.  It felt almost as if we were eating in someone’s home.  I, of course, had the stuffed cabbage (and immediately fell in love with the Hungarians’ propensity for topping everything with incredible amounts of fresh sour cream), which turned out to be the best stuffed cabbage I’ve ever had.  We also tried the Hungarian spaetzel and sausage, braided pork loin with spaetzel and paprika sauce, and our first sample of langós—fried bread with various toppings—that had me searching it out at every opportunity afterwards.  Whether it’s because we had just come from a long wine tasting or because it really was that good, this was one of the best meals we had our entire time in Budapest. Steindl Imre ut 13, Budapest 1051

hungarikum

5. Faust Wine Cellar

Located below the Hilton in the Buda Castle District, the stairs to this small wine cave lead through the remnants of a 13 century Dominican Cloister.  The atmosphere could not be better or more relaxed as one of the proprietors, Gabor, pours you Hungarian wine and explains the varietal and where you can find the region on a map.  I would strongly recommend going for the full tasting of 9 wines (which comes with water and small snacks), which also has the final option of a “call back” so you can re-taste your favorite.  Needless to say, these were all new wines to me and I learned quite a bit (and reinforced my love for the Hungarian sweet wine Tokaji). There are very few tables, so I would strongly recommend booking in advance, which you can do for 2pm or 5pm.  The 5pm booking is especially nice when you leave and walk out into the castle district at dusk, slightly buzzed, and take in the lighted beauty of the area. Hess András tér 1, Budapest 1014

faust

6. Café Ruszwurm

Also in the Buda Castle District, this small pastry shop seems to always be packed, so be ready to hang around and vulture a seat when someone gets up.  The wait is worth it, though, for some solid coffee and amazing pastry—especially Ruszwurm‘s cream cake.  The cream cake is a cooked egg cream mixed with vanilla and then cooled and mixed with whipped cream, making it one of the fluffiest, most delicious cakes I’ve ever had.  Cake isn’t even an apt description—more like “clouds between phyllo.” This is easily one of my fondest food memories from our trip, and should be considered a must-have.  We also tried the caramel cake, which was layers of caramel custard cream between layers of salty, chocolate sponge cake.  While fantastic, this was overshadowed by the cream cake. Szentháromság ut 7, Budapest 1014

ruszwurm

7. Great Market Hall

If you’re not quite sure what you want, swing by the Great Market Hall, where you’ll be able to get anything that catches your eye.  There are a bunch of touristy stands with knick-knacks and Budapest shirts, but there are also tons of food stalls, selling anything you would imagine a market would sell (and now may be a good time to pick up some paprika).  Upstairs there are some quality food stands, and a lot that feature langós with a variety of toppings to add on.  A great way to get a quick meal and also do some quality browsing and shopping. Vámház krt. 1-3, Budapest 1093

gmh

Decisions, decisions.

An Ode to Anthony Bourdain

When today started, I thought the saddest thing that was going to happen to me would be sitting through the new Dave Matthews Band album. Unfortunately, I was incredibly wrong.  I don’t usually get upset over celebrity deaths—while most of them have entertained me at some point, that’s the strongest connection we have—but since Bourdain is one of two recent celebrity deaths I’ve actually become emotional over (the other being Gord Downie), I feel I should write something.

I’ve never agreed with everything Tony said or wrote.  I read too many “this is how you SHOULD do things” article and interviews involving him, and I don’t believe there is one right way for anything.  You do things your way.  If you want to eat sushi by dunking it in soy sauce, knock yourself out.  I also didn’t agree with his incredibly obnoxious views on vegans and vegetarians—people are just trying to live their lives the best way they see fit, and if someone wants to live in such a way as not to harm animals, who are we to judge?

But what I did like—and, probably, loved—about Anthony Bourdain was his constant traveling.  Not even necessarily for the food, which is my main focus on the road, but just going places.  Places that could be incredibly uncomfortable.  I firmly believe no place is as savage as we think it is, but I still wouldn’t go to Iran.  Especially for a major news source with a camera crew.  But Bourdain did it, he talked to people, and he revealed the one universal truth about the entire world: we’re all basically the same, trying to do the best we can.  There are, of course, pockets of bad people who are trying to upend that, but people on the whole are just trying to do what is best.  We’re not so different, you and I.

I thought his recent episode of Parts Unknown in West Virginia was incredible.  Having lived there for over 10 years, trying my hardest to get out, and then going back as infrequently as possible, he painted the state—and its people—in a wonderful light.  I can’t say that I’m dying to go back because of the show, but I do have a newfound respect for the people struggling there, as I think anyone who watched the show would.

A lot of times, people ask me for tips on traveling, or how I plan a vacation.  Once a location is decided on, the first thing I do is find the episode of whichever show Bourdain did there, whether it was No Reservations or The Layover or Parts Unknown, and take copious notes.  It’s because of him that I knew about bun cha in Vietnam.  He’s the reason I had amazing sausage at Belvárosi Disznótoros in Budapest.  He is why I dragged LeeAnne to Plachutta Restaurant in Vienna for a large meal of tafelspitz, despite already eating a massive wienerschnitzel (also gleaned from the episode) and being incredibly underdressed for the restaurant.

Food and travel are two of my favorite things, and some of my greatest memories of those two things can be linked directly back to Anthony Bourdain.  I’ve had some of the best meals of my life, and some great times, all thanks to his recommendations.  Selfishly, I wish I would have been able to meet him, if for no other reason than to shake his hand and tell him thank you.  Luckily, though, I will not stop traveling or eating, and he will certainly be able to leave his mark on all of my future trips the same way he has in the past.

I will keep wandering, Tony, I will keep eating great food, and I will keep writing about it.  And I will keep thanking you for leading the way.

On Colombia, and Traveling Without Fear

Above: Fernando Botero’s “Birds of Peace” – there is another one exactly like it next to it. This one was used in a bombing in 1995 that killed 29, whose names are listed below it. They are both on display to represent the changes Medellin has undergone.

When my then-wife LeeAnne decided our next vacation would be to Colombia, a variety of friends and family gave us the same response: “Why?” Whether they had been hearing about the drug cartels and violence for the last 50 years or had just been watching too much Narcos, everyone seemed to believe we would be landing in a war zone.  I admit, as a seasoned traveler, I even let the nervousness get the best of me and had to have to good people of r/travel on Reddit cool me down.

The entire time, I should’ve just remembered my favorite travel quote: “No place is as savage as you think it is.”  I really wish I remembered who said this, because they deserve infinite credit.  Nowhere is ever as bad as you hear or think it is; and besides, isn’t traveling about getting out of your comfort zone a bit? Experience new things that may make you feel nervous or uncomfortable?  It brings to mind another favorite travel quote, this one from Anthony Bourdain:

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”

And the marks that Colombia left were all beautiful.  The people were some of the nicest we’ve encountered in our travels, and most seemed genuinely happy to have outsiders experience their country which had been getting such a bad rep for so long.  Even Medellin—ground zero for the drug cartels and once known as the most dangerous city in the world—was a vibrant and lively city that was intensely walkable.

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A kitty cat mural on the mean streets of Bogota.

Bogota was no different.  The few warnings I had received revolved around the La Candelaria neighborhood (where we happened to be staying, unbeknownst to the people warning us) and being careful at night, but despite walking all over the city and specifically that area at all hours of the day and night, I never once got the creeping nervousness you sometimes get when your body feels you may have entered a dangerous situation.

It really all comes down to situational awareness.  Keep your eyes open to your surroundings, especially at night.  Don’t walk away from an ATM counting your money.  Don’t flash your iPhone all over the place to take pictures.  Keep any valuables—wallet or passport—in some kind of zippered or fastened pocket.  It doesn’t make it impossible for someone to rob you, but it makes it more difficult for pick-pockets.

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Night in a small square in Cartagena: breakdancing in the street.  Super dangerous people.

Over our 10 days in Colombia, only once (in Cartegena) was I propositioned to buy cocaine.  One time.  In Colombia.  And even in that heavily-touristed city, the type of city where petty crimes usually thrive, I didn’t feel ill-at-ease.

I don’t know if this post is more about traveling smart or about going to Colombia, but I will say you need to do both—be aware of your surroundings as you travel, and definitely go to Colombia.  See the cities, learn the history and what the people have been through, and watch Narcos if you haven’t just to see how drastically things have improved. Just don’t expect much from the food—its boringness is inversely proportional to the vibrancy of the cities and especially the people.

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One of the vibrant streets of Guatape.
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A street in the walled portion of Cartagena, where the most dangerous thing was the heat.

All photos courtesy LeeAnne Mullins.