Local Takes: Budapest
Seven notable locals, from a travel editor to a sculptor, show us their side of the city.
When Hapsburg Emperor Franz Josef unveiled what is now called Liberty Bridge in 1896, Budapest was an imperial capital in its pomp. The bridge stood as a testament to Hungarian achievement. Today, it is the venue for an annual city-wide picnic. Upriver, the Sziget Festival attracts half-a-million music lovers every August. Downriver, a new cultural quarter will soon be joined by the sports stadium being built to host the 2023 World Athletics Championships. Triumphalism has given way to a spirit of welcoming celebration. Here, we meet some
of the locals who are at the forefront of these changes.
A Culinary Constellation Downtown
Sandra Sandor, 37
The space could be a New York loft apartment: tan leather armchairs, exposed brick walls, track lighting. In reality, we’re in the recently opened flagship store of Nanushka, the fashion brand owned by designer Sandra Sandor, a local favorite who is fast gaining a global reputation.
When she’s not minding the store, Sandor enjoys exploring Budapest’s food scene, which is on a steep upward curve (the city has six Michelin-starred restaurants, up from four in 2018). “I love to eat well,” she says. “Here in Budapest, chefs experiment with new flavors, textures and techniques, but you can still find classic Hungarian cuisine.”
Today we’re heading to nearby Via Italia, an Italian gastronomic enclave downtown, to visit one of her favorite local restaurants. “I like fine dining, but what gives me the most happiness is trattoria-style, which obviously you find all around Italy, but not so much here in Budapest,” Sandor says. “One exception is Trattoria Pomo D’oro.”
We enter to a hail of hellos. “I know the owner, but the whole staff makes you feel at home,” Sandor says, examining the menu in a setting that evokes an Italian country kitchen: brick walls, wooden beams, decorative plates. “They do the simple stuff so well. My favorite is the papfojtó tészta, hand-rolled corkscrew pasta with tomato ragout, flambéed with Parmesan cheese.”
For business lunches, Sandor favors MÁK Bistro, a block south. “The concept is Nordic, very simple and precise,” she says, “but the food is based on Hungarian tradition, with mainly Hungarian ingredients.” The current menu features Mangalica, a revived and revered breed of domestic pig, as well as perch and trout, both popular in landlocked Hungary.
Sandor also eats at Babel, near Elisabeth Bridge, which was awarded its first Michelin star this year. “The difference came when they brought in a young chef from Transylvania, István Veres,” she says. “The bread is baked with dark ale and maple syrup, the butter is flavored with pine and leek, the tasting menu has egg galuska dumplings lathered in truffle-laced egg cream. It’s divine.”
For Sandor, a great dining experience does more than satisfy the tastebuds. What makes Babel really stand out for her, she says, is that the chef “brings to the table something of his childhood in the countryside.”
She likes the Michelin-starred Borkonyha for similar reasons. Here, the rotating menu includes traditional dishes like pigeon breast with lentils and cauliflower. Her personal favorite is the bean soup with veal, which brings back memories of her own childhood: “My mother makes the best bean soup.”
The Rocky Side of Town
Kamau Makumi, 32
Kamau Makumi walks into Cintányéros, a stripped-back wine bar-bistro in Budapest’s fashionable District VIII, and exchanges friendly greetings with the staff—“Szia, mizu?”—before taking a table near an upright piano. Almost immediately, a glass of green-gold Hárslevelű appears. “I know the guy who’s serving,” Makumi says. “Very much a local atmosphere.”
Makumi is a familiar face around here. He grew up on nearby Baross Street, which runs east-to-west toward the Palace District. “I’ve never moved too far away,” he says, sipping his wine. Another reason Makumi gets recognized a lot is that he’s the singer-guitarist for the indie band Mary PopKids—though this is not the kind of neighborhood where people stop and ask for selfies. “The area has a certain truth to it,” he says. “It feels like Berlin used to, kind of on the cusp.”
Our next stop is Gólya Presszó, a lively neighborhood bar a couple blocks north. “Yesterday
it was electronica, the night before, punk,” Makumi says, studying the samizdat-style program on the wall. The original Gólya, where the cult 1992 movie Roncsfilm was shot, typified the gloomy District VIII of old. Today, young people lounge around on mismatched furniture as a folk band warms up in the corner. The new Gólya is “underground and slightly edgy,” Makumi says, “but completely safe.”
Outside, we hop on a bus and 10 minutes later arrive at Akvárium Klub, a sprawling nightspot in the heart of the city. “Akvárium is one of the major places we play,” Makumi says, finding a spare table on the outdoor terrace, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Multicolored chairs are arranged around a sunken area, alongside a large shallow pool whose glass floor provides a window into the club below. “In summer, everyone hangs out around the edges,” Makumi says, gesturing at a crowd that, even during the week, in the late-afternoon, is considerable.
There’s an aquatic theme at the District XI restaurant-club A38, too—in that it is set in a converted Ukrainian cargo ship, afloat on the Danube. “It’s always a pleasure to play here,” says Makumi as we sit on the deck and take in the sunset. On a good night, he adds, the place literally rocks: “You can feel the ship swaying and the floor bouncing. It’s completely unique.”
Upriver from here is Hajógyári Island, site of the annual Sziget Festival—“the pride of Budapest,” says Makumi, who co-created the event’s anthem in 2017. “When we first started going, as teenagers, it was mainly Hungarian bands, with a couple of foreign ones thrown in. Now it’s really big names. And it’s not just music—there’s theater, film, circuses. Everyone gets into the mood and becomes immersed in the island for a week. You don’t just see a band and go home.”
We close the night at the Vittula cellar bar, a tram ride away on the Pest side of town. “A lot of us end up here after-hours,” Makumi says over a raucous rockabilly number. “It attracts all sorts.” Not long ago, he adds, a friend of his was in the bar when Jennifer Lawrence came in. When asked if his friend met the actress, Makumi shrugs. “He was too busy making a video of a local punk band.”
Bartók and Bistros on the Danube
Csaba Káel, 58
CEO, Müpa Budapest
Saba Káel is standing beside the Danube River in downtown Budapest, the starting point for an unusually picturesque daily commute. An accomplished film and opera director, Káel also serves as CEO of Müpa Budapest, one of the best known cultural institutions in Hungary. Opened in 2005, the center occupies an imposing building near Rákóczi Bridge, about a mile south of where we are now—a location that raised eyebrows when it was first announced.
“When locals got wind of where the complex was going to be, they were horrified,” Káel says with a laugh, referring to the fact that Budapest’s big-ticket cultural venues have traditionally been clustered around the city center. “‘Outside the Grand Boulevard?’ they said. ‘You must be joking!’” With this, we board the vehicle that takes Káel to work in the mornings—the mustard-yellow, quaintly retro Tram No. 2, which has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
The tram’s route runs parallel to the Danube from Jászai Mari Square to Közvágó Bridge, a 20-minute ride that provides sweeping views of the city’s great landmarks—Parliament, Gresham Palace, Buda Castle—and costs less than a cup of coffee. Even the commercial buildings here seem determined to put on a show, in particular the oddly grand Zwack factory, which for two centuries has produced Hungary’s iconic herbal liqueur Unicum (and which now houses a museum devoted to the drink).
About 10 minutes after we boarded the tram—near the Vigadó Concert Hall, where Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner famously staged a concert in 1875—we reach the terminal point of Káel’s daily journey. “The idea was to create something along American lines, like Lincoln Center in Manhattan,” he says, standing before Müpa’s soaring glass facade. “We wanted something that would be unique in Central Europe—a cultural meeting place.”
The center comprises three venues: the Belá Bartók National Concert Hall, the Festival Theatre and the Ludwig Museum of contemporary art. In the lobby, a schedule presents a broad variety of events—from modern dance performances to concerts by the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra. “We are lucky in that Liszt spent his last years here, and Joseph Haydn lived for nearly three decades in Hungary,” Káel says. “Our ears are particularly receptive to music.”
After a slice of apple-walnut cake at the center’s P’Art Café & Bistro, we head up to Káel’s top-floor office, the Danube stretching out beyond its windows. “The plan is to place the riverside train tracks underground and line this part of the river with cafés and bistros,” he says. “There will be a hotel here and a rail station so that people can come directly from Vienna.”
Also visible from Káel’s window is the National Theater, a ship-shaped structure built to replace the neoclassical gem demolished by the Soviets in the 1960s. “They said it was to make way for the metro,” Káel says. “This was the real heart of the city. It was such a loss.” A small boat glides by, rippling the smooth water, and his expression brightens. “Artists love coming and spending time here,” he says, gesturing at the view. “There’s absolutely no need to oversell it.”
The Artful Tapestry of Buda
Gábor Miklós Szőke, 34
Várkert Kiosk may be the grandest pump house in the world. Built in the 1870s by Miklós Ybl—the architect behind the Budapest Opera House—the Neo-Renaissance structure now serves a more fitting purpose, as home to the city’s newest upscale restaurant, Felix. Right next door, meanwhile, is Ybl’s grander still Várket Bázar, a shopping, dining and cultural complex on Castle Hill.
With its monumental architecture, famous museums, cobbled streets and panoramic views, this UNESCO World Heritage site is Budapest’s blockbuster tourist attraction. It is also a well-trodden haunt for local sculptor Gábor Miklós Szőke, who today is sitting on a sunny terrace at Várket, seemingly oblivious to the big cat rearing up behind him.
Szőke’s six-foot Jumping Lion is just one of the 25 towering, stylized animal sculptures he has installed around Budapest, pieced together from strips of steel or wood. In 2014, he gained global attention with the huge eagle he erected at the city’s Groupama Arena soccer stadium. “That animal strength, that dynamism, has a lot of parallels with sport,” says Szőke, who went on to create a 41-foot steel falcon at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the venue for the 2019 Super Bowl. His most common motif, though, is the dog.
Last year, not far from where he is sitting now, Szőke installed a 32-foot-high likeness of Dante, the Doberman he raised from a puppy, who died aged 9 in 2014 but remains the artist's biggest muse. “I staged the Dante exhibition as a depiction of the mythology I created around him,” he says. “Because I had imagined him as the head of a great empire, he had to be truly impressive.”
Szőke works out of a hangar-sized studio—a former machine factory—south of the city on Csepel Island, an old industrial zone that he is aiming to transform into an arts hub. But it is in the Castle District that his ideas often take shape. To demonstrate, Szőke leads me away from his lion sculpture toward Chain Bridge, built in the 1840s by Scottish engineer Adam Clark, and the recently opened Hotel Clark beside it.
“The lion theme is taken from the revered statues on Clark’s bridge,” Szőke says, pointing to the metallic cats on the hotel’s entrance doors. Upstairs, the rooftop bar Leo looks down on those same lions. The hotel’s logo is a lion. Beside the reception desk stands a lion-head sculpture created by Szőke. Outside is a tunnel, also built by Clark, which—Hungarian children are told—is used to keep the bridge’s lions dry when it rains.
We head to the nearby Zero Kilometre Stone, supposedly the geographical center of Budapest. Here, a boxy funicular hauls us up Castle Hill, passing the spot above the tunnel entrance where locals gather for sunset views. “We come here every August 20th to see the show,” says Szőke, referring to the spectacular St. Stephen’s Day firework display in the Hungarian colors of red, white and green.
We emerge from the funicular next to Buda Castle, the former royal palace, now a museum. Beside this stands a bronze statue by the artist György Vastagh, showing a wild horse being wrangled by a man in the traditional garb of Csikós herdsmen. “I was brought to see this when I was a small boy,” Szőke recalls. “First it frightened me, but later I began to appreciate how Vastagh had managed to capture movement, that sheer animal power.”
With this, he smiles and tells me that he is planning to install a bronze sculpture of his own not far from here, adding yet another thread to the elaborate weave of places, people, eras and ideas coming together in the center of Budapest.
Village Life in District XIII
Regina Papp, 31
As co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online city guide We Love Budapest, Regina Papp makes a living by indulging in one of her passions. “I love it when people see the Danube for the first time, or the Parliament building, or Gellért Hill,” she says between bites of a kakaós csiga, the spiral chocolate pastry she describes as “a national treasure.”
We are at the Ébresztő café in the up-and-coming Újlipótváros neighborhood in District XIII, and Papp is eager to show me around. “Budapest’s popularity can only be understood by those who immerse themselves in its stories, its architecture, the local life,” she says. “The city has a natural, elusive feeling that cannot be embodied in a ruin pub, a spa or the Castle District—many different atmospheres make up the whole thing.”
One thing Újlipótváros adds to the mix is a laid-back sense of community. “This is a village within the city,” Papp says. “Many of the typical buildings here have garden courtyards and were built in art deco or Bauhaus style. There’s a separate subculture, too, a rather strong self-awareness that gives rise to funny stereotypes.” When asked to elaborate, she says that locals are known for “being proud of where they live, and are always walking a dog and/or a kid,” often on their way to a new-wave bakery.
On tree-lined Pozsonyi Road, we pass the dog walkers and pram pushers, along with shop signs advertising furriers and violin repairs. At one point, Papp stops and gestures at a red-and-yellow facade: “That’s the Fischer Confectionery, where old Fischer in his white coat—over 80 now—still makes classic Hungarian sweets. It’s something that’s in everyone’s collective memory.”
Farther down, we come to Pozsonyi Kisvendéglő, a no-frills eatery that, according to Papp, perfectly captures the Újlipótváros spirit. “The red-checked tablecloths let you know that this is a real Hungarian restaurant, nothing new or reinvented,” she says. “Meat stew and bone marrow are the staples here, followed by Gundel pancakes or cheese-curd dumplings. This is for locals, at local rates. If you’re sitting inside, the smell of the frying pan is part of the experience.”
At nearby Szent István park, we stop to admire one of Budapest’s most striking architectural landmarks, Dunapark House, a looming modernist “mansion” comprised of two adjoined buildings, whose austere exterior belies the elegance within. “When they were unveiled in the ’30s,” Papp says, “these were the city’s most sought-after residences, attracting Hungarian celebrities.” Today, people mostly come to eat at the Dunapark Café, which looks more or less as it did upon its opening in 1937.
We end our walk at the northern end of the neighborhood, at Lehel Market Hall, a colorful, asymmetrical structure that looks like a kid’s drawing of a multi-story parking garage. “This building always divides local opinion,” says Papp. “It’s a controversial piece of postmodern architecture.” Inside, she stops to buy a disc of deep-fried dough smothered in sour cheese and garlic. “This might also divide local opinion,” she says with a smile.
“But this is one of the best lángos in town.”
The Humans of Budapest
Marcus Goldson, 49
In the kitchen of his district IX apartment, Marcus Goldson is working on one of the wry, colorful caricatures that have made him the unofficial chronicler of Budapest life. Born in Kenya and raised partly in Wales, Goldson has lived in the city since the early 1990s, but there can be few artists here who have so lovingly captured the spirit of a culture that, as he sees it, is in need of preservation.
“The irony is that tourists provide me with much of my income: the postcards, prints and bike bags we sell,” he says. “Yet Budapest’s rapid development”—he gestures at a tall, light-obstructing hotel being built across the street—“means this.”
Trained as a sculptor, Goldson hit upon his real vocation when he began to sketch people in bars and spas—his works are invariably crammed with fully realized figures enacting a pantomime of local life. “The camera picks up everything,” he says of his elaborate style. “The human eye is instinctively drawn to detail.”
There’s no shortage of detail at our first stop, Café Jedermann, a jazz bar cluttered with bric-a-brac and a motley collection of regulars who have frequently appeared in Goldson’s work. “Over coffee in the morning or a drink in the evening, I draw a lot of my ideas here,” he says. “The jazz-themed décor is easy on the eye, and they serve what I think is the best goulash in town, for the price.”
We find a quiet spot in the small garden out back, where Goldson recalls his early days in Budapest. “I felt like an explorer,” he says. “The spas were a completely new experience, for example—the steam, the ornate architecture, but also the bathers, their costumes, their behavior.”
Oddly, in a city where the memory of communist rule was still fresh, Goldson found that locals were unfazed by being stared at by a guy with a notebook. “If anything, they felt flattered by the attention,” he says. “They were a little rough around the edges, but they had a certain humility.”
Crossing over into District VIII, we head for Café Csiga, a low-key coffee shop adorned with paintings and potted plants. It was here—and places like it—where Goldson got his first break. “I showed my work to some friends, a couple of whom ran bars in town,” he recalls. “They put them on display and up for sale. People liked them and bought them.”
From here, we head over Grand Boulevard toward Lumen, a sunlit bar and live music venue that is popular with local cyclists. A keen rider himself, Goldson often explores the city’s outer districts in search of fresh subjects. He recently discovered Hangulat Borozó, a quirky little bar in Kőbánya, an old industrial zone in the heart of District X.
“I was really surprised with what I found,” he says of the area, which is in the midst of an extensive renewal. “People here usually think of Kőbánya in terms of abandoned breweries and ruined factories, but it’s not a bit like that. It has tree-lined avenues and dog walkers, like some leafy town in England.”
All of which means, by the way, that visitors to Budapest may soon encounter postcards depicting gentlemen in bowler hats, copies of the London Times tucked under their arms, strolling happily through a rain-soaked rendition of People’s Park.
Updating Tradition in District VII
Zita Majoros, 42
When Zita Majoros first set up shop in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter, District VII was a far cry from the bright and buzzy neighborhood it is today. “Friends couldn’t understand why I had chosen here,” she says of Printa, the gallery and design shop she founded a decade ago. “The area was empty.”
Today, as then, the central theme at Printa is Budapest (images of its bridges, buildings and manhole covers adorn everything from textiles to T-shirts to tote bags), but the surrounding neighborhood has been utterly transformed. It seems unlikely, for instance, that the Jewish Quarter of old could have sustained businesses like the recently opened Doboliva, a small-batch olive oil boutique.
Majoros has offered to show me some of the area’s more notable changes, starting with the Moorish Revival synagogue across from her shop, which is currently being converted into a performance and exhibition space. (The famous Great Synagogue at the end of the street, however, will stay as is.) Farther along, we find an array of huge murals portraying iconic national themes, including a dot-pixel Rubik’s Cube created by Neopaint Works.
“The Quarter used to be full of tradesmen, and families lived close together,” Majoros says as we cross narrow Dob Utca. “It doesn’t have that wide-open, grand feel of other districts in Pest. To me, it feels raw and exciting.”
We continue on to the nearby Klauzál Square Market Hall, a restored 19th-century building with a modish, cavernous interior. “This is one of my favorite places,” Majoros says as we stroll among vendors selling everything from folk dolls to cold cuts. “It’s always busy, always interesting.”
Outside, we pass the frowning chess players in leafy Klauzál Square, heading toward a venue that, more than any other, sparked the District VII revival: Szimpla Kert, the granddaddy of Budapest’s ruin bars. “When Printa first opened, Szimpla was the main place to go,” Majoros says. “In fact, it was the only place to go.”
Occupying an abandoned residential building, Szimpla took the shabby-chic concept to its extreme, making spectacular visual displays out of junkyard scraps—bits of broken furniture, mangled tailor’s dummies, abandoned vehicles—creating a level of cool that has not only inspired scores of similar establishments across Budapest, but also become one of the city’s defining features.
Today, Szimpla has less of a ruined feel to it—there’s a breakfast café, a craft-beer bar and a Sunday farmers market in the courtyard—but it remains a cherished institution among locals. “Back then, Szimpla was part of a subculture, but now it is part of the fabric,” Majoros says. “In a way, we have grown up together.”
A guided stroll around the Castle District
Budapest sightseeing tours often start aboard a 19th- century funicular, which trundles up Castle Hill to the Castle District. Crowned by the baroque Buda Castle, the hill lends itself to a panoramic stroll through the city’s past, one guided today by Melinda Kiss of Tours by Locals.
Fought over by Mongolians, Magyars, Ottomans and Hapsburgs, the area was most recently flattened in 1945. “Only one building was left undamaged,” says Kiss, pointing to the bullet holes still pocking the National Archives. “So much is resigned to the history books.”
World War II bombing raids, though, unearthed a few treasures, including the medieval buildings the Austrians covered up in their haste to create a baroque city in the 1700s. Along picturesque Úri Street, houses reveal layers of history—and bear plaques indicating notable former residents.
None was more famous than King Matthias, the 15th- century monarch whose name lives on in the glorious Gothic Matthias Church, whose tumultuous history dates back to the 11th century.
Finally, we stop to admire the bristling turrets and spires of Fisherman’s Bastion, a historical drop-off point for the fishermen who serviced the castle's noble residents.
“Buda is like a journey back in time,” says Kiss. “It’s easy to get lost in its romance.”
Where To Stay
Four Seasons Hotel,Gresham Palace
Built in 1906 at the foot of Chain Bridge, Gresham Palace offers wonderful views of the Castle District, and is full of architectural touches such as grand arches and a dramatic atrium over the lobby.
Kempinski Corvinus Hotel
A few blocks from the Danube, the refurbished Kempinski houses multiple eateries, including Japanese-South American fusion at Nobu, modern Hungarian-Viennese dishes at És Bisztró and café culture at Kaffeehaus.
Párisi Udvar Hotel
Newly renovated, the 110-room Párisi Udvar, built in 1913, offers ornate Moorish-Byzantine design with intricate tile work, gargoyles and a beautiful glass-ceilinged arcade.
More Local Takes
Author, Budapest, A Critical Guide
In the 30 years since I published my first guide, Budapest has changed fundamentally.
But still it holds wonderful secrets. One of these is Miniversum on Andrássy Avenue. Essentially, it’s both a model railway and a series of model towns, with all the sights of Budapest on it. When it’s illuminated, it’s really quite magical.
Olympic kayak champion, CEO of Hungaroring race track
I love kayaking on the Danube in the mornings, taking the scenic route from the Roman Beach (where you can rent kayaks) to Margaret Island. You get remarkable views of the Buda Castle and parliament. It’s amazing how peaceful the water can be just steps from the city’s bustle. For something with a little more speed, check out the Hungarian Grand Prix, August 4th at the Hungaroring race track.
I deliberately put my store on Andrássy Avenue—it was vital for us, as a showcase for Hungarian fashion, to be on this grand boulevard. Across the street, my father used to be the doctor at the Opera House. They let me behind the scenes to meet the stars. I still go to as many shows as I can.
Executive chef, Costes
For a cocktail with friends, I go to the High Note SkyBar. It’s at the Aria Hotel, near the Basilica. Just walking through the lobby feels special—the floor is laid out like the keys of a piano. When you reach the roof, the view is amazing, especially when the sun’s going down. The drinks are great, too—Catch a Sunset in Budapest is a favorite.
I love zipping up to the Normafa woods in Buda with my intrepid children, 4 and 6-years-old. There’s sledding in winter, bivouac building in summer. You also get a fantastic view of the city from the Elizabeth Lookout Tower. We sometimes head back by chairlift or reward our walk with a traditional cherry strudel.
Head of Wine School, Bortársaság wine merchant
You don’t normally associate the party zone of Gozsdu Udvar with wine bars, but DiVino is worth a visit for the selection and the atmosphere. Dobló, in the Jewish Quarter, has a first-class selection of Hungarian wines, and live music most nights. For great wine and great views, try St. Andrea Wine & Skybar, a rooftop bar just off Budapest’s main square.