Eat at the Central Cafe (Centrál Kávéház és Étterem) in Budapest!

Central Cafe Budapest

Lunch at the Central Cafe was something special. The cafe opened originially in 1887 and was one of the grand old cafe houses Budapest was so well known for.  It was a famous haven for artists and writers, so much so that a 1920s Hungarian newspaper sarcastically wrote, “There are so many real and fake writers in Cafe Centrál that Mészáros has started to build a new gallery – closer to Olympus – for them.”

Despite being an institution rich with history, it was shut down in 1949 when lands and properties were nationalized.  Fortunately, it was reopened and remodeled in 2000 and is a splendor to behold again.

I was invited to go wtih Gabor Banfalvi, owner and tour host of Taste Hungary.  Gabor and his wife Carolyn know the Budapest food scene inside and out and have even written two critically acclaimed books on it. 

In Gabor’s capable hands, I followed his recommendation and ordered the foie gras entree:

Kacsamáj serpenyőben sütve barackmártással és füstölt burgonyapürével 3600.-
Pan-fried duck liver with apricot sauce and smoked mashed potato

The plate came out with two huge pieces, an enormous amount of foie gras by any scale. Delicate, soft, and creamy, it was expertly prepared. Paired with a sweet and savory sauce and lightly cooked apricots/peaches, I couldn’t have imagined how well it would all harmonize. Pure perfection. (If you find yourself having foie gras in Hungary, do have it with Tokaji wine, which is also an exceptional pairing).

Inside Central Cafe Budapest

To top it off, the dish was served with a side of mashed potatoes…ho hum one might think, but these were the best damned mashed potatoes I’ve ever had. We asked what was in them as they had a smokey, bacony, oniony, cheesy flavor. It turns out they smoke their own salt and the amazing flavor was fully derived from this one ingredient. It was so good, I’m going to go back to the States and experiment replicating.

Carolyn and Gabor Banfalvi - Taste Hungary Owners

Espresso finished off the meal, which was one I won’t soon forget. Beautiful setting, exceptional food, and the company of someone as passionate about food as I am! It was a good day!

Coffee at Central Cafe

Centrál Kávéház és Étterem

Address: 1053 Budapest, Károlyi Mihály utca 9.
Area: 5. district
Opening Hours: everyday from 8-24h

Palinka – Special Hungarian Juice!

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Mexico has tequila, Italy has grappa…Hungary’s nectar of the Gods is Palinka.

A traditional fruit brandy, it dates back as far as the fourteenth century and is made from plums, apricots, apples, pears, peaches, or cherries (or as a Hungarian saying goes, anything that jelly can be made from).  Created via a double distillation process, the alcohol content can be as high as 86%. 

Hell, this stuff is so powerful, it even has its own patron saint, Saint Nicholas.  A traditional Hungarian greeting is “Pálinkás jó reggelt!” which means “Good morning with pálinka!”

While I didn’t hear that greeting, I felt it!  On a couple of occasions I had the pleasure of partaking – all in the name of research, right?!  Pear, plum, and cherry, but at some point along the way, after two or three or four, can you really taste the difference?

Budapest is known for its nightlife and whether your weakness is wine, beer, or palinka, there’s plenty to offer!

Egészségedre! (CHEERS!)

Where to Stay in Budapest – Hotel Gellert and the Gellert Baths

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The Hotel Gellert is located on the Danube, Buda side. I chose to stay here because it is an old, historic building, conveniently located, and is connected to the famed Gellert Baths.

The staff here are superb and were more than happy to help me with a number of difficult requests. If you decide to stay here, make sure you get an air-conditioned room (if not, request a fan), book on the internet for discounted rates, and sign up for the Danubius Hotel Groups frequent stay program as you’ll be more likely to be given a room upgrade upon checkin.

While my room was on the lower end available (about 80 euros), I was on the top floor and had a stunning view from a balcony of Gellert Hill, the Lady of Freedom, and the Danube. As it was cooler in the evenings, I took to getting a bottle of wine from the market and writing here very night.

As a guest you get free entrance to the Gellert Baths, an architectural marvel and a soft bathrobe to wear at the spa. I used the thermal baths, sauna, and cold pools twice. They’re newer and perhaps a bit cleaner than the Rudas Baths I posted about a few days ago. As with Rudas and other baths, the employees are not very friendly or helpful but there are signs in English which makes it so much easier.

All in all it was a good choice I would make again.


Gallert Bath Info:

  • Adult ticket on weekdays, with cabin 4100 HUF
  • Adult ticket on weekends, with cabin 4300 HUF
  • Prepaid massage ticket 3700 HUF
  • Aroma massage (20 min) 3100 HUF
  • Aroma massage (30 min) 4100 HUF
  • Aroma massage (40 min) 5100 HUF
  • Spa water massage (20 min) 3300 HUF
  • Spa water massage (30 min) 4300 HUF
  • Spa water massage (40 min) 5200 HUF
  • Manager massage (20 min) 3100 HUF
  • Manager massage (30 min) 4100 HUF
  • Manager massage (40 min) 5100 HUF
  • Hot stone massage (60 min) 9100 HUF
  • Chocolate spa treatment 9100 HUF
  • Undervater jet massage 2300 HUF
  • Footcare 2200 HUF
  • Spa pedicure 6000 HUF
  • Cleopatra bath (20 min) 3100 HUF
  • Herbal bath (20 min) 2600 HUF
  • Relaxing aroma bath 2800 HUF
  • Hydrus package 5500 HUF
  • Medical massage (20 min) 3100 HUF
  • Medical massage (30 min) 4100 HUF
  • Medical massage (40 min) 5100 HUF
Located on the southern part of the city centre, on the Buda side – the right bank of the Danube, very close to the Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd).
Address: H-1118 Budapest, Kelenhegyi út 4.
Telephone: (36-1) 466-6166
You can reach it by public transportation on tramways 18, 19, 47 and 49, or on buses 7, 7A and 86.

Badascony Balaton Wine Tasting, Henna Tattoos, Zsirokenyer, and Drunk Hungarians!

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While visiting the Hungarian region of Lake Balaton, my friends Viktor and Aniko took me to the west side of the lake for a day of wine tasting.  We took the double hulled ferry from Fenyod to Badascony (I think!).  The ferry was packed with Hungarians having one of their last holiday weekends, as the weather will soon change and children are now back in school.

Badascony is a well known wine area with a picturesque volcanic mountain.  As you leave the ferry, food and drink purveyors abound, as well as the trinkets you would expect in a tourist area.  As you meander up the mountain, you leave the trinkets behind and local wineries and vineyards pop up on every turn.

The wineries are lovely, rustic, and authentic – no Napa snobbery here.  The views up and down the mountain, as well as across the lake are breathtaking and the wines are exceptional.  I lost count of how many places we stopped at, each with its own charm.  Since I was with Viktor and Aniko, I didn’t have to figure things out for myself but each stop did have a list of wines and prices (not much English!) and they asked if I wanted red or white, dry or sweet.  This seemed to do the trick, so perhaps this is a good starting point if you don’t speak Hungarian.

Bread with Fat - Zsirokenyer

Now to the food part….If you’re drinking this much wine, you must have something in your belly to cushion it (and boy does this make a cushiony belly).  Many people, including us, love a Hungarian traditional snack called Zsirokenyer (bread and fat).  Yes, I said FAT.  The bread is thick, soft, and chewy.  On top, a room temperature pork or goose fat is spread (think along the lines of a more flavorful butter), sprinkled with chopped purple onions, and dusted with Hungarian paprika and salt.  Words cannot describe how utterly divine my first experience with this was.  Perhaps if I could remember my first time eating bread with butter it would be similar.  Throw in the towel, forget your diet, and go for this without thinking twice.  You won’t regret it!

Henna Tattoos!!! Promise it's henna, Mom!

Toasted and full of zsirokenyer, we headed back down the mountain to catch the last ferry home.  With a few minutes to kill, Aniko and I decided to get matching henna tattoos.  With the sun setting over the water as we crossed the lake, we were not the only ones filled with merriment and cheer.  A big group of Hungarians began singing traditional songs, dancing in a circle, and started what I’ll call a congo line! 

All in all this was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a day.  Badascony – I hope I get to see you again!

For information on the ferry, click here:

Lake Balaton, A Beautiful Hungarian Retreat

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I’m fortunate to have extended family in Hungary. They were kind enough to welcome me to stay with them at their vacation home at Lake Balaton, about 2 hours outside of Budapest. Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe and peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of Budapest.

En route to Balaton (note – they don’t say ‘Lake Balaton’ just ‘Balaton’), we stopped at Rege Cukrazda.  In a picturesque small town, this cafe was the perfect place to stop.  Perched atop a mountain (or tall hill?) the cafe has a view nearly as good as its desserts.  I think it had been a long day for everyone so the espresso and cakes were precisely what was needed.  If you find yourself on the west side of Balaton, meader to Rege and you won’t be disappointed!

The west side of the lake is mountainous with deeper water while the east side is flat with more shallow waters. I stayed in idyllic Fenvyes, on the southeast side. As it was September, the tourist season was over but fortunately the weather was perfect, about 80 degrees, sunny, with a gentle breeze. The sunsets from this side of the lake are stunning, with a view of the mountains in the background and the water glistening in the foreground.

Along the waterfront are restaurants (etterems), food and drink stands, souvenirs, water bikes and boats, as well as a sidewalk stretching the length of the waterfront. As motorboats are not permitted (sailboats only), the water is much more peaceful and serene than I am accustomed to…Swans glide by, windsurfers dot the horizon, families wade out far from the shore in the shallow waters, fisherman abound, and sun bathers basque.

While I was only there for a weekend, it was a much needed respite in the middle of my trip. Along the waterfront we ordered the best lemonade I’ve ever had. Each individual glass is made fresh with mineral water, something sweet, limes, and lemons. It was a refreshing, sublime thirst quencher.

If you do go to Balaton, you can reach either side by train. The trains are a bit old but they run along the water and provide a beautifully scenic view the whole way. I took the train back to Budapest and the first class ticket cost 3850 HUF or about $18.75.

While I by no means am an expert, I feel confident in asserting that to only go to Budapest is to miss out on so much of what Hungary has to offer. Don’t miss Balaton!

20th Budapest International Wine Festival (Budavari Borfesztival)

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Hungary is home to 22 different wine regions, despite being a small country. I was wholly impressed with the quality of wines, one of the best kept secrets in the wine world.  One can only imagine what they could do with aggressive marketing.

I wish I could say I properly planned my Budapest visit around the 20th Budapest International Wine Festival but basically I lucked into it during my pretrip research. Held on the Buda Castle Palace grounds atop the majestic Gellert/Castle Hill, the festival was a veritable plethura of orgasmic foodie gluttony. The most skilled winemakers come to this event to provide tastings, answer questions, and engage in wholehearted merriment. Oh, I do so feel at home at events like these and local markets!

Folk dancers


The festival included roaming muscians, a 500 winemaker strong march representing the knights of the wine order, folk dances, and performances that cross almost all genres of music. The winemakers sample their wares in quaint little wooden houses and chef concoctions of the most amazing smells abound.

Slab of bacon (as thick as a steak) and duck leg

My first foray included food as it was 3pm and I had yet to eat anything during the day other than coffee and an apple. I chose a Pinot Noir from Vyvlan (winery of the year 2008) which was exceptional, paired with a roasted slab of bacon (half an inch thick with crusty chewy rind, mouthwatering fat, and smokey meat) and sous vide duck leg (with impossibly crunchy skin on the outside and the moistest fatty marble inside. Together these were enough pleasure on one plate to roll Anthony Bourdain’s eyes to the back of his head or cause a coronary, or both! It certainly exemplified the meaty, calorific culture of Hungary…and why I’m trying to only eat one meal a day here.

The next night the concierge at my hotel invited me to go with him. It was a richer experience with someone who speaks the language. We chatted with winemakers, shared different tastes of wine, and sampled foods I wouldn’t have known to order. In all, I must have tried at least a sip of more than 20 different Hungarian wines, and only found one I didn’t like.

Some of the many dishes I tried were:
Stropachka – a creamy sauce made from cottage cheese, flavored with bacon, and loaded with little potato dumplings
Some kind of latke – a large round of potato mixture fried and smeared with a tangy, cheesy sour cream mixture (sour cream here is different than in the US)
Name unknown!- like a Hungarian pizza, has thick bread on the bottom, topped with onion, tangy sour cream, bacon, cheeses, and other toppings. It’s cooked in large sheet pans in an outdoor wood burning oven and comes out bubbling
Scones made with pork cracklings or cottage cheese
Retes – strudel made with poppy seeds, apple, and walnut
Lemon basil cake – also made with cottage cheese which may sound strange, but utterly light, creamy, and delightful

Heaven on a plate

The most wonderful morsel I put in my mouth was unexpected. It was thick, soft, chewy bread with tangy, oniony sour cream spread on thick, topped with aged thinly slice ham so savory and delicate it nearly melted in my mouth. The most simple dish I ate, yes, but also perfection on a plate.

Two night of amazing foods and wine aplenty was a slice of heaven I’ll never forget. If you come to Budapest, timing it around this festival would be advisable. Should you not have that opportunity, at least seek out Hungarian wines in your local market, they are a bargain for the exceptional quality. I suggest trying a bottle from the Villany region, which was my favorite, especially the cabernets and pinots.

Other very good wines I found:
Grand Cabernet from Balla Geza
Hungaria dry prosecco
Polgar Cuvee Barrique 2005
Admission is 2,500 HUF per day or 7,000 for five day pass and tasting tickets are 100 HUF (the average glass costs 400).

Free City Walking Tours – A MUST When Abroad!

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In many countries now you can take free city walking tours. I’ve found them to be very informative, fun, and helpful in providing both orientation and advice during the first day or two of my visit to a new place. The free walking tours in Budapest are no exception, in fact they are the #1 item in TripAdvisor’s Things to Do in Budapest.

I joined one my second day, meeting at the Lion Fountain in Vorosmarty Square, on the Pest side of the city. The group was so large they split us into two separate tours, mine was led by Gee who did a phenomenal job. Her narration was interesting, funny, and gave us the fundamentals to successfully navigate during our stay.

The tour took us across both sides of the river. On the Pest side she explained the history of Hungary, shared info about the Jewish Quarter, Andrassy (a beautiful long avenue to the famed Heroe’s Square), walked around the Parliament Building (one of the largest in the world), showed us St. Stephen’s Basilica and led us along the Danube.  On the Buda side of the river, we went Gellert Hill to see the palace, Fisherman’s Bastion, cathedral, and view the Buda Hill vista.

I’ll post more on each of these sights, but these pictures are a sneak preview!

I highly recommend these tours for the first or second day of your trip. After all, there is nothing to lose as they are free (guides work for tips only), and a two-hour walk is oft needed after a long travel.  To top it off, I’ve met a number of other single travelers on these tours.  During this one, I met a student from Japan, a guy from Poland, and another guy from San Francisco.  We wound up all having lunch afterwards on top of Castle Hill and exchanged travel stories, ideas, and advice.  Always a good thing!

Shoes on the Danube Promenade, Budapest, Hungary

Shoes on the Danube

Shoes on the Danube

Among the many sights and sounds I’ve experienced in Budapest, the most compelling thus far has been the Shoes on the Danube installation.  A sculptural permanent art exhibit, it consists of iron shoes scattered along the river wall.  From afar, it simply looks as if people have left their shoes behind.  As you get closer, you begin to realize something much more poignant is afoot.

In fact, it is  a memorial created by Gyula Pauer and Can Togay to the Jews who lost their lives when the Danube ran red. It is located on the Pest side of the Danube Promenade, about 300 m south of the Hungarian Parliament and near the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

If this doesn't cause a lump in your throat, nothing will.

“The composition entitled Shoes on the Danube Bank gives remembrance to the people shot into the Danube during the time of the Arrow Cross terror. The sculptor created sixty pairs of period-appropriate shoes out of iron. The shoes are attached to the stone embankment, and behind them lies a 40 meter long, 70 cm high stone bench. At three points are cast iron signs, with the following text in Hungarian, English, and Hebrew:  “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45. Erected 16 April 2005” (source: MTI, Saturday, April 16, 2005.)

Child's Shoes

This is the site where many Jewish men, women, and children lost their lives. They were shot and thrown into the icy winter waters as a means of extermination only after they removed their shoes, which were quite valuable in those days.  I found the children’s shoes particularly difficult to see.
While many did lose their lives here, there was one story of Hungarian perserverance and determination along the river.  According to Wikipedia and other accounts, “During World War II, Raoul Wallenberg and 250 coworkers were working around the clock to save the Jewish population from being sent to Nazi concentration camps; this figure later rose to approximately 400.  On the night of January 8, 1945, all of the inhabitants of the building on Üllöi Street were rounded up and dragged away to the banks of the Danube by an Arrow Cross execution brigade. At midnight, Karoly Szabo and 20 policemen with drawn bayonets broke into the Arrow Cross house and rescued everyone there.”
Even when on holiday it is good to take time to pause, reflect, give reverence, and be thankful for all we have.
I’ve since put two and two together and realized this sculpture is dedicated to Mr. Wallenberg’s efforts:

Metallic Weeping Willow Memorial

Rudas Baths – A Must Visit While in Budapest

Rudas Baths

Hungary is one of the few countries in the world with an excess of water resources. Having been invaded and occupied many times throughout the centuries, each group of conquerers added something unique to the culture of Hungary. The Turks brought their tradition of baths and the natural mineral waters here went hand in hand.

Main Thermal Bath - Rudas, Budapest

The city is dotted with bath houses, many of them along the Danu (Danube) where there is a natural thermal fault.  Built by the Turks in 1550, the Rudas (pronounced Rudash) Baths are quite famous. I recommend going but warn that it may be a bit complicated as the culture of service isn’t as helpful as one might imagine and very little English is spoken at this facility. It took me a bit to figure things out and then I had to help three different women as I was leaving.

The baths contain a thermal pool area and a larger, more traditional pool.  I went on ladies day and used the thermal pool (traditional pool is open on the weekend for both sexes).  The thermal baths themselves are beautiful, with one large pool in the center situated under an arched dome sparkling in the dim light with colored glass and beautiful mosaic tiles. The saunas (wet and dry options) are sublime and by the time I got out of them (I couldn’t handle more than a couple of minutes) I was like a rag doll, utterly relaxed.  There are also five smaller pools of varying temperatures, from very cold to very hot.  As usual, I found it most effective to go from very hot to very cold, which relaxes the major muscles in a way nothing else does.

Rudas Pool - On Coed Days

If you decide to go, here’s a tourists guide:-

– Tuesday is ladies day while weekends are mixed and the remainder of days are reserved for men, in the tradition of Turkish baths.

– It is located below Gellert Hill right by the Danube, close to Elisabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd), on the Buda side of Budapest.
– Address: Rudas Gyógyfürdő és Uszoda, H-1013 Budapest, Döbrentei tér 9.
Phone number: 0036-1-3561322
– Take the 86 bus along the Buda (west) side of the river, which stops right in front of the building.
– When you hop off the bus, don’t be too alarmed that the exterior and lobby look a little worse for wear, the baths themselves are very clean and architecturally/historically beautiful.

PRICES (200 HUF ~$1)
– Morning swimming pool tickets cost 1350 HUF, all day tickets cost between 1800-2000 HUF.
– Steam room tickets cost between 2100-3000 HUF.

– The night-bath ticket is 3500 HUF
– Massage prices vary from 2900 to 4800 HUF for 20-40 minute treatments.

– Upon entering, ask for thermal bath ticket. They’ll provide you with a plastic device which you will put on like a watch and wear during your entire bath visit.  
– Scan the ‘watch’ at the turnstile to get in, and proceed to your right where you will pick up a sheet (to be used as a towel) and a thin apron like cloth.  Turn to your left to go into the locker room and scan your watch at the white device on the wall (you may have to hold it there for a few seconds). The machine will flash a number, this is the dressing room that has been assigned to you.
– Find the dressing room with the number and scan your watch again to open the door. You can disrobe in the dressing room and leave your things here, it will lock as you close the door again. To get back in your dressing room, simply scan your watch at the door.

– On single sex days, go nude….when in Rome after all!  For my fellow American women, there is no need to be shy, there will be bathing beauties yes, but many more will be women whose breasts have long been laying atop of their rounded bellies. There is nothing to be shy about!
– You can, of course, wear your bathing suit, but there is no need. Do wear your flip flops, though, and bring your sheet along as well as the small apron like sheet (which I found useful to sit on in the sauna as it protected my girlie bits!).
– I think it is best to visit in the afternoon as you’ll likely leave quite wet. Their hairdryers may be okay for very short hair but after two full cycles, mine was still dripping.
– Also bring water with you as you’ll need to hydrate often. If you don’t bring it, buy it before entering the dressing room (in the entry hall) as you cannot reenter later.
– Finally, be prepared for a bit of a mineral smell. This is what makes the waters so therapeutic so don’t be alarmed.

Drinking Waters

Relax, enjoy, and soak in this extraordinary bit of Hungarian culture.  It’s unlike any other experience I’ve ever had and well worth it!

**Note, I had to borrow pix off the web, it would have been terribly uncouth to take pictures whilst ladies were bathing au natural!

Rudas Thermal Baths

Margitsziget Island A Wonderful Welcome to Budapest

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Day one of my latest adventure. I love the start of a new trip, especially when it is to somewhere I’ve never been. There’s a certain electric charge and anticipation that creates an excitement like no other.

I arrived in Budapest early in the morning and headed straight to my hotel, the Danubius Grand Hotel and Spa on Margaret (Margitsziget) Island. The island is in the middle of the Danube (Duna), smack in the center of Budapest, an oasis of nature and relaxation in the midst of big city chaos swirling all around it.

Since my trip to Indonesia a few years ago I’ve instituted a tradition of starting my holidays with utter relaxation. Usually this means decompressing from work insanity, recuperating from many hours on a plane, and the unknotting of muscles tightened with the weight of schlepping bags across the pond. So off to spa I headed.

Hungary is known for it’s therapeutic waters, ancient baths, and health remedies at spas. The spa at my hotel had a massive menu of options in addition to general areas which included pools of varying temperatures, a cold water stone foot walk, sauna, and sun terrace. I opted for the salt cave (a first!), a therapeutic aromatic bath, and a short massage.

It’s been interesting visiting spas around the world, experiencing different etiquette and standards. In Hungary the typical USA standards of a quiet, serene environment and lack of nudity are not the same. In the salt cave, I found myself with three older Russian couples who chatted the whole time and during both the bath and massage the male therapists asked me to undress and lay down (insert joke about how many drinks it usually takes me to do this!). I think of myself as pretty liberal and well traveled, but I must admit it was a reminder how uptight we Americans are about our bodies.

The salt cave experience as I mentioned was new. Think of a room with sand on the floor like a beach, lounge chairs that tilt even farther back than your grandads barkalounger, ocean soundtrack, darkened lighting with intermittent colored lights, whilst cocooned in blankets. At first I wasn’t sure what it did for me but later I did feel a strange but not unpleasant coating down my throat.

With every ounce of tension released, I headed out for a stroll around Margitsziget, and found a beer and schnitzel to complete a wonderful first day. I’ll post more on it later but the island really is something special.