Being a very budget-conscious traveler, one of my greatest delights is discovering places where you can eat and drink well without breaking the bank. Finding such places in big European cities usually requires some work and research, and depending on guidebooks for recommendations. Every savvy traveler, though, can tell you that the best way to find such places is by asking the locals. This can be daunting, however, when you find yourself in a place where you don’t speak enough of the language to get by, and the locals aren’t on best terms with the English language, or even any other language than their own. Asking your hotel/hostel staff may not always be the answer, either, as they are more likely to recommend something they assume you’d like to experience as a tourist, rather than pointing you somewhere they themselves might go. It’s worth trying, though, if you run out of other options.
Budapest was such a place for me on my first couple of visits. Seven years ago, even in the service sectors very few people spoke English, menus were printed in Hungarian only, and few Lonely Planet recommendations suited my budget. And my visits were so brief each time (3-4 days) that I didn’t have time to go looking for cheap but good food, and I didn’t know any locals.
This time around, however, last October, I had the time, the means and the local knowledge at my disposal, and boy, did I discover a food scene that will stay with me forever. For a whole month I ate out once a day virtually every day without breaking my budget, and more importantly, I never once ate something bad and overpriced (which constitutes a typical experience in Zagreb, for example). Hungarian cuisine is rich, filling and diversified enough so that each palate will find something to suit its taste. Budapest represents a rare example of a big city where eating and drinking out can be cheaper or the same as buying stuff at the supermarket and cooking it at home. And finally, they cottoned on to the fact that English is the language most tourists will resort to.
So I have compiled here a list of pubs, bars, restaurants and eateries I’ve personally tried out, most of which I’d also kept going back to religiously. They represent for the most part only budget-friendly options. I’ve left out a few places that didn’t impress me or were not good value for money, but those were very few and far between. They are organized by city area or district, and centered around those areas where I lived and worked (6th/7th district and Szell Kalman Ter, respectively), which means there are still dozens of places for me to explore when I go back some day. Included are also brief reviews of each place/area, instructions how to get there by public transport, and in some cases, photos.
Trombitás Gösser Ezö – low-key eatery serving traditional, hearty Hungarian fare. A Wienerschnitzel with fries and a half liter of beer will set you back appr. 5 euro. Right across from the tramlines 4/6 terminal on Széll Kálmán Square.
Gastland Bisztró – all-you-can-eat for circa 4 euro right across from the tramlines 4/6 terminal on Széll Kálmán Square. Clean, neat, always busy around lunchtime, great selection of traditional Hungarian cuisine. I ate lunch there almost every day of the week.
Marxim Pizzeria&Pub on Kis Rókus Street – some of the best and cheapest pizza I’ve had in my life. A quirky, spirited place decorated with Communist-time memorabilia, and a humorous menu. A mouth-watering pizza with a drink will set you back about 5-7 euro. Get off tram 4/6 on Mechwart liget and walk up the street, taking the second street on your right, and then walk down that street for another 5 minutes.
Bars on Lövöház Street – parts of the street are pedestrianized and the whole area is quite up-scale so you can’t go wrong with any of the bars here.
Angelika Kavéház – a coffee bar-cum-restaurant with lovely outdoor seating and views to the Parliament across the Danube, right next to Batthyány Square and across from the tramline 19 terminus. Good lunch options with set menus at about 5-8 euro.
Hadik Cafè – worth a short lunch break on a warm day in nice weather. Get off tram line 47/49 on leafy and small Gárdonyi Square, where you will see this wonderful little terrace. Great lemonades. The food is not exactly good value for money, with reduced-size portions and price tags climbing up to 8-10 euro, but it’s worth making an exception for the sheer beauty of the setting.
Ruin pubs of the 6th/7th district – Szimpla, Kuplung, Pótkulcs
The so-called ruin pubs (romkocsma) are a truly Budapestian experience, but one that has grown quite touristy in the last few years, which means you’ll have to duck into side alleys or walk 10-15 minutes to get away from the crowds and the tourists, if that’s your thing. They’re called ‘ruin’ pubs because they were for the most part set up in disused, dilapidated courtyards and buildings of the seventh district, and nothing was done to make them look more attractive or tidy. This gave them a certain bohemian, shabby-chic vibe which is now slowly disappearing as the it-crowd and tourists are rushing to enjoy the experience, but a few places remain intact.
Szimpla Kert, right smack in the middle of the Jewish District on Kazinczy Street, is sadly not one of them anymore. Hailed as the original romkocsma, the place where it all started, it’s now a very hip place, especially among the tourists. If you ask the staff at your hostel to recommend a ruin pub, they will direct you here. The place is huge, a series of interconnected courtyards and vaulted galleries, and heaving with people. Sure, it’s cool to see it once, but that was my limit.
Kuplung, on Kiraly Street, made for a convenient pit stop for me as it was right around the corner from my apartment, but being located on the it-street of the seventh district translates into getting quite a bit of traffic. It’s quirky, it has a sense of humor and still doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The real insider’s tip on ruin pubs, however, is Pótkulcs, a small, unassuming pub tucked away in the sixth district, at the end of Csengery Street near Nyugati train station. This is where the clientele looks and feels truly bohemian and laid-back. Jazz is the preferred music genre played on the small stage inside the bar. But the real draw of the place for me was the enclosed garden with a huge chestnut tree spreading its branches over it. Very relaxing and quiet, although I understand it can get quite crowded at times. To get to it, the closest metro/tram stop is Nyugati Pályaudvar.
Restaurants and eateries
Két Szerecsen – by far my favorite restaurant in all of Budapest. I don’t know if it was its quaint decor and warm, homey atmosphere, the kind waiters, the affordable price range (5-8 euro on average), the exquisite food with a Moroccan slant, or the closeness to my apartment that won me over so completely, or maybe all of the above. The place is fully booked by 6 p.m. every single day of the week, which testifies to its popularity. Located just off Andrassy Avenue on Nagymezö Street, in between the Opera and Oktogon metro stops.
Trattoria Mamma – recommended to me as the best Italian restaurant in town by my host, it didn’t disappoint. Mid-range rather than budget, but the food is excellent and the portions huge. Located very near St. Istvan’s Basilica, on Hercegprimas Street. Get off at Bajcsy-Zsilinszky metro stop.
Trofea Grill Étterem – another all-you-can-eat restaurant, this being the newest of three branches, located on Kiraly Street, again very near my apartment, very convenient and very affordable in a pinch. Wide selection of food, decent pizza. They do takeout and home deliveries, as well.
The Gozsdu Udvar complex, running between Kiraly and Dob Streets, is the perfect, shining example of gentrification going on in the seventh district: a series of interconnected courtyards that have been salvaged from ruin and turned into a trendy nightlife area, sporting dozens of bars, gastropubs and eateries at affordable prices. Called “the Portobello of Budapest,” the area seems to be quickly taking over the torch from nearby Liszt Ferenc Square, which used to be THE place to eat and be seen in this district, but is now an overpriced tourist trap (much to my dismay). Some of the places I tried here and left satisfied: Bistro Cochon (Wienerschnitzel with fries at 5 euro), Cafe Vian, Spiler Gastropub (burgers), Thyme Kitchen & Delicatesse (Spanish tapas).
Múvesz Káveház – a Viennese-style, turn-of-the-century cafè on Andrassy Avenue, across from the Opera. Decent cakes, hot chocolate and coffee, outdoor seating.
Spinoza Káveház – interesting coffee shop-cum-restaurant located in the building where the famous Jewish/Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (a personal favorite) lived for a while, on Dob Street right as you exit the Gozsdu Udvar complex. It holds a pretty high rating both on Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor, but I found the food prices slightly above average and not completely justified, as my meal (traditional beef goulash with homemade spaetzli) was decent but nothing to write home about. The decor is laid-back and unassuming, though, the food options many and varied, and the service very polite.
Kiosk Bar & Restaurant – I didn’t try the food here but only sat down for a drink (very nice cocktails!) and the view of Erzsebet Bridge and the Buda Hills from Marcius 15 Square (5th district) as night fell. The outdoor patio is a delight in nice weather, but the interior looked very interesting as well, industrial-style but somehow cavernous.
And this concludes my gastronomical, if limited, tour of Budapest. Two quintessential Budapestian experiences (at least in my book) remain missing from my “portfolio:” visiting their famous baths, and the Great Market Hall (Nagycsarnok) with a view to eat langos. Which gives me all the more reason to return.
The photos in this post, unless otherwise stated, are mine. If you’d like to use them, please refer back to this site.