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Archive for the ‘Hungary’ Category

Palinka at Cafe Panoramia, Buda, Budapest, Hungary

There are lots of foods I love to eat, but even my favorites get boring if I eat it multiple days in a row. So having just come back from Russia (the land of smoked fish, hot soups and hearty stews), I was a little reluctant to dive right into the Budapest food scene, thinking it’d be more of the same. In fact, I was gearing myself up to eat just a lot of non-eastern-European food while we were in Budapest, but after talking to a friend of a friend from Budapest and reading both this NYT “36 Hours in Budapest” article and this excellent Budapest food blog (check especially its “Top 33″ list), I saw it’d be wrong to go to Budapest and not eat Hungarian food.

While in Budapest, we ate at Cafe Kor, Bagolyvar, Noir et L’Or, Ristorante Krizia, and Restaurant Hanna. Most of our food was pretty good, and all our meals were reasonably priced, even if you thought in dollar terms.

Decor came in all shapes and sizes: from old-fashioned wood paneling like that of Bagolyvar to the airy modern bistro style of Cafe Kor to the sleek and chic of Noir et L’Or. Our best meals (Cafe Kor, Bagolyvar) were simple and traditional with few culinary fireworks, and our worst meal (Noir et L’Or) was when things got too ambitious and “international.”

One thing I’d urge you to do before you arrive in Budapest is to make dinner reservations! On Saturday afternoon, we called five or six places culled from the “Top 33″ and the New York Times article, hoping to get a Saturday evening reservation, but hearing repeatedly that everything was full.

Cafe Kor Budapest

Cafe Kor was my favorite meal in Budapest. On a mild, sunny day, all the cafe doors open out onto sidewalk seating, and despite how often Cafe Kor is described in guidebooks and travel articles, there’s still a good mix of diners there (at least, that was the case at lunchtime). Two tables near ours seated men in suits speaking in Hungarian, and there were a few old ladies there dining with other old ladies. I liked that the restaurant was busy but not overly loud.

Food included simple, international dishes like asparagus with hollandaise (delish, by the way) as well as classic Hungarian dishes (e.g., goose crackling, goulash, veal paprika stew). The low point was the goose crackling, which tasted like stale fat. It wasn’t very crispy or goose-tasting. But the goose crackling was outweighed by the generally well-executed dishes, including my veal paprika stew, served with a chewy-but-light potato dumpling that was pretty much a cross between gnocchi and spaetzel. (more…)

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Szechnyi Baths, Budapest

Last weekend, Jon and I travelled with our friends, Russell and Johanna, to Budapest. When we booked our tickets a few months ago, I was a little ambivalent because I’d heard several times that Budapest was “just like Prague,” and honestly, I had an eh time when I visited Prague. (In Prague’s defense, I was there in March 2006, and let’s just say that Prague in March was a little too cold and gray to inspire much love. Wandering the streets in that weather was unpleasant and sitting at an outdoor café table impossible).

Well, I really shouldn’t have worried. Budapest is now one of my favorite cities in Europe. Here’s why:

  1. We lucked out and had three days of 70-degrees-and-sunny weather.
  2. Budapest’s buildings are beautiful, lots of Baroque and Renaissance gorgeousness.
  3. The city has a strong bath-and-spa culture, and admission and services at bath complexes are priced so you can go every day if you want. (We visited both the Gellert Bath and Spa and the Szechenyi Baths because the ever-stylish DailyCandy Travel made them sound so appealing).
  4. The nightlife has something for everyone. For me, highlights included fancy cocktails at the art deco Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel; generous pours at the energetic biergarten-in-a-warehouse, Szimpla, in the old Jewish quarter; sampling Hungarian wines at Klassz Etterem Wine Bar; and touristy sunset drinks at Café Panoramia with a stunning view of the Danube river and the Hungarian Parliament building.
  5. Getting around by metro or taxi is easy and cheap. 1200 Hungarian Forents ($7.60 at 156 HUF to $1) will get you from one end of Pest to the other via taxi; and an unlimited 3-day public transport pass costs 3500 HUF ($22).

A note on the baths. Jon and I thought this 2004 New York Times article about all the major Budapest baths was useful for an overview of the many Budapest bath options. That said, if you can choose only one bath, I’d recommend the Szechenyi Baths (pictured at the top of this post). It’s located in the City Park, and we were there with a lot of locals: old men playing checkers and young men strutting their stuff. I was worried that because it’s so big and relatively cheap (2000 HUF/$13 for two hours) that it’d be unsanitary, but actually, if you bring flip flops and your own towel, you’re all set. [Flip flops because the shower room floors are wet and a tad muddy and a towel because the Szechenyi Bath doesn’t seem to rent any). The outdoor thermal pools are the star attraction at Szechenyi, very pretty (see photo at the top of this post) and fed by hot springs at a toasty 100F.

Pool at the Gellert Hotel and Spa, Budapest, Hungary

The Gellert Bath and Spa (photo above) was also nice in its Art Deco glory, but it was much more touristy than Szechenyi, and the highlights at Gellert were the indoor pools, not the outdoor ones. Also, the Gellert has separate male and female facilities, so if you go with someone of the opposite sex, you won’t be hanging out together.

I actually would’ve loved Gellert because of its calm, beautifully-restored indoor pools, but the service there was so unfriendly and the processes so confusing that I had a hard time relaxing. We walked in, paid for admission at the cashier, and then we were told that if you wanted extra services like facials or massages, you booked those just off the main lobby after entering the spa. And the services only took cash, so if you don’t have enough on you, you have to exit the spa, find an ATM and then re-enter.

After booking our services, we walked underground to reach a series of small, metallic cabins (they were dark and dank) to change into our swimsuits and store our valuables. The major hassle is that every time you need to get something from the cabin, you have to convince a very-unfriendly cabin attendant to come unlock your cabin with a master key. Given our confusion about when and where we needed to use cash or show tickets for our towel rentals, etc., we ended up making multiple trips to the cabin. It was slow and unpleasant having to ask the attendant to repeatedly unlock our cabin. I much preferred the lockers and keys at the Szechenyi Baths.

And now, just a few parting images of some of the beauties of Budapest, because my next post will be the usual food roundup.

Gresham Palace Four Seasons, Budapest

The Gresham Palace Four Seasons, a recently-restored art deco beauty. I usually avoid hotel bars because they can be so anonymous, but the iron curlicues, soaring ceilings and whimsical chandeliers inside the Gresham are worth a gawk. We enjoyed our $20 cocktails at the Gresham (Four Seasons pricing, all right), though we could’ve used a slightly-less-surly server.

Budapest Parliament building

Drinks at sunset from the Cafe Panoramia gave us gorgeous views of the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament Building (photo above). Surprisingly, despite the views, prices weren’t bad and the service was pretty attentive. Definitely not your usual tourist magnet-kind-of-place, and I’d say that generally, Budapest was tourist friendly without being tourist schlocky.

Interior of Budapest\'s Great Synagogue

The interior of the Great Synagogue (photo above) was a sleeper hit for me. Both our TimeOut Budapest and DK Eyewitness guidebooks said that the Synagogue is the 2d largest in the world, next to Temple Emanu-el in New York. But they failed to mention that the Synagogue’s elaborate interior is as gorgeous as that of any cathedral. Definitely worth at least a 30-minute stop.

And handily enough, just down the block from the Synagogue is Budapest Bikes, where for 2,000 HUF/$13, you can rent a bike, helmet and lock for six hours and toodle along the Danube and explore leafy Margaret Island. The bikes were in great condition, and the staff there were super friendly and helpful with suggestions on where to bike.

We had such a fun trip that I’m already looking forward to re-visiting Budapest one day.

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