Budapest in detail

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Art Nouveau Architecture

Art nouveau architecture (and its Viennese variant, Secessionism) is Budapest's signature style, and examples can be seen throughout the city. Its sinuous curves, flowing, asymmetrical forms, colourful tiles and other decorative elements stand out like beacons in a sea of refined and elegant baroque and mannered, geometric neoclassical buildings. It will have you gasping in delight.

The Beginning & the End

Art nouveau was an art form and architectural style that flourished in Europe and the USA from 1890 to around 1910. It began in Britain as the Arts and Crafts Movement founded by William Morris (1834–96), which stressed the importance of manual processes and attempted to create a new organic style in direct opposition to the imitative banalities spawned by the Industrial Revolution.

The style soon spread to Europe, where it took on distinctly local and/or national characteristics. In Vienna a group of artists called the Secessionists lent its name to the more geometric local style of art nouveau architecture: Sezessionstil (Hungarian: Szecesszió). In Budapest, the use of traditional facades with allegorical and historical figures and scenes, folk motifs and Zsolnay ceramics and other local materials led to an eclectic style. Though working within an art nouveau/Secessionist framework, this style emerged as something that was uniquely Hungarian.

But fashion and styles changed as whimsically and rapidly at the start of the 20th century as they do today, and by the end of the first decade art nouveau and its variants were considered limited, passé, even tacky. Fortunately for the good citizens of Budapest and us, the economic and political torpor of the interwar period and the 40-year ‘big sleep’ after WWII left many art nouveau/Secessionist buildings beaten but standing – a lot more, in fact, than remain in such important art nouveau centres as Paris, Brussels, Nancy and Vienna.

Budapest Makes Its Mark

The first Hungarian architect to look to art nouveau for inspiration was Frigyes Spiegel, who covered traditional facades with exotic and allegorical figures and scenes. At the northern end of VI Izabella utca at No 94 is the restored Lindenbaum apartment block, the first in the city to use art nouveau ornamentation, including suns, stars, peacocks, flowers, snakes, foxes and long-tressed nudes.

The master of the style, however, was Ödön Lechner: his most ambitious work in Budapest is the Museum of Applied Arts. Purpose built as a gallery and completed in time for the millenary exhibition in 1896, the museum was faced and roofed in a variety of colourful Zsolnay ceramic tiles, and its turrets, domes and ornamental figures lend it an Eastern or Mogul feel. His crowning glory (though not seen as such at the time), however, is the sumptuous Royal Postal Savings Bank, a Secessionist extravaganza of floral mosaics, folk motifs and ceramic figures just off Szabadság tér in Lipótváros and dating from 1901.

The Liszt Music Academy, completed in 1907, is interesting not so much for its exterior as for its interior decorative elements. There’s a dazzling art nouveau mosaic called Art Is the Source of Life by Aladár Kőrösfői Kriesch, a leader of the seminal Gödöllő Artist Colony, on the 1st-floor landing, and some fine stained glass by master craftsman Miksa Róth, whose home and workshop in central Pest is now a museum (Miksa Róth Memorial House). In the music academy take a look at the grid of laurel leaves below the ceiling of the main concert hall, which mimics the ironwork dome of the Secession Building (1897–1908) in Vienna, and the large reflecting sapphire-blue Zsolnay ball finials on the stair balusters.

The Danubius Hotel Gellért, designed by Ármin Hegedűs, Artúr Sebestyén and Izidor Sterk in 1909 but not completed until 1918, contains examples of late art nouveau, notably the thermal spa with its enormous arched glass entrance hall and Zsolnay ceramic fountains in the bathing pools. The architects were clearly influenced by Lechner but added other elements, including baroque ones.

Very noteworthy indeed is the arcade near V Ferenciek tere called Párisi Udvar, built in 1909 by Henrik Schmahl. The design contains myriad influences – from Moorish Islamic and Venetian Gothic architecture to elements of Lechner’s own eclectic style. At the time of research it was being turned into a luxury hotel.

Feature: Ödön Lechner

Ödön Lechner (1845–1914) has been nicknamed ‘the Hungarian Gaudí’ because, like the Catalan master, he took an existing style and put his own spin on it, creating something new and unique for his time and place. Hungary has submitted five of his masterpieces, including the Museum of Applied Arts, the Royal Postal Savings Bank and the Institute of Geology, for inclusion in Unesco’s World Heritage list.

Lechner studied architecture at Budapest’s József Trade School, the precursor to the University of Technology and Economics (BME) in Buda, and later at the Schinkel Academy of Architecture in Berlin. At the start of his career, Lechner worked in the prevailing styles, and there were few indications that he would leave such an indelible mark on his city and his era. The firm he formed in 1869 received a steady flow of commissions in Pest during the boom years of the 1870s but, like everyone else, he worked in the popular and all-too-common historicist and neoclassical styles.

Lechner spent the years 1875 to 1878 in France working under the architect Clément Parent on the renovation and redesign of chateaux. At this time he was also influenced by the emerging style of art nouveau.

After his return to Budapest Lechner began to move away from historicism to more modern ideas and trends. A turning point in his career was his commission for Thonet House on Váci utca, his innovative steel structure that he covered with glazed ceramics from the Zsolnay factory in Pécs. More ambitious commissions followed, including the Museum of Applied Arts and the Institute of Geology. But not all was right in the world of Hungarian art nouveau. Lechner’s Royal Postal Savings Bank building, now often seen as the architect’s tour de force, was not well received when it was completed in 1901 and Lechner never really worked independently on a commission of that magnitude again.

Feature: In Pursuit of the Finest

One of the joys of exploring the so-called 'Queen of the Danube' is that you’ll find elements of art nouveau and Secessionism in the oddest places. A street with a unified image is a rarity in Budapest; keep your eyes open and you’ll spot bits and pieces everywhere and at all times. The following are our favourite 'hidden gems':

Bedő House Emil Vidor, 1903

Berzenczey utca Apartment Block Ödön Lechner, 1882

City Park Calvinist Church Aladár Arkay, 1913

Dob utca Primary School Ármin Hegedűs, 1906

Egger Villa Emil Vidor, 1902

Elephant House, Budapest Zoo Kornél Neuschloss-Knüsli, 1912

Institute of Geology Ödön Lechner, 1899

Léderer Mansion Zoltán Bálint & Lajos Jámbor, 1902

National Institute for the Blind Sándor Baumgarten, 1904

Philanthia Kálmán Albert Körössy, 1906

Sonnenberg Mansion Albert Körössy, 1904

Thonet House Ödön Lechner, 1890

Török Bank House Henrik Böhm & Ármin Hegedűs, 1906

Vidor Villa Emil Vidor, 1905

The Wines of Hungary

Wine has been made in Hungary since at least the time of the Romans. It is very much a part of Hungarian culture, but only in recent years has it moved on from the local tipple you drank at Sunday lunch or the overwrought and overpriced thimble of rarefied red sipped in a Budapest wine bar to the all-singin', all-dancin', all embracin' obsession that it is today.

Choosing Wine

Wine is sold by the glass or bottle everywhere – at food stalls, wine bars, restaurants, supermarkets and 24-hour grocery stores – and usually at reasonable prices. Old-fashioned wine bars ladle out plonk by the deci (decilitre, or 0.1L), but if you’re into more serious wine, you should visit one of Budapest’s excellent wine bars, such as DiVino Borbár, Doblo, Kadarka or Palack Borbár. Good wine restaurants include Klassz, Borkonyha and Fióka. Among speciality wine shops are those in the Bortársaság chain and the Malatinszky Wine Store.

When choosing a Hungarian wine, look for the words minőségi bor (quality wine) or különleges minőségi bor (premium quality wine), Hungary’s version of the French quality regulation appellation d'origine contrôlée. On a wine label the first word indicates the region, the second the grape variety (eg Villányi kékfrankos) or the type or brand of wine (eg Tokaji Aszú, Szekszárdi Bikavér). Other important words that you’ll see include édes (sweet), fehér (white), félédes (semisweet), félszáraz (semidry or medium), pezsgő (sparkling), száraz (dry) and vörös (red).

Very roughly, anything costing more than 2000Ft in the shops is a serious bottle of Hungarian wine. Pay more than 3000Ft and you’ll be getting something very fine indeed.

Wine Regions

Hungary is divided into seven major wine-growing regions. In the west are Észak Dunántúl (Northern Transdanubia), Balaton, Sopron and Dél-Pannonia (Southern Transdanubia). In the east are Felső-Magyarország, Tokaj and Duna ('Danube'), encompassing parts of the Great Plain. Subdivisions range in size from tiny Somló in Transdanubia in the west, to the vast vineyards of the Kunság on the southern Great Plain, with its sandy soil nurturing more than a third of the vines grown in the country.

It's all a matter of taste but the most distinctive and exciting Hungarian red wines come from Eger in the Northern Uplands; the cooler climate and limestone bedrock make elegant, complex reds more akin to Burgundy than Bordeaux. In Southern Transdanubia the reds from Villány are more rustic, not unlike some Italian reds, while those from Szekszárd, are softer and subtler. The best dry whites are produced around Lake Balaton's northern shore and in Somló, though the latest craze is for bone-dry, slightly tart furmint from Tokaj, which also produces the world-renowned sweet wine. If you're looking for sparkling wine (pezsgő) go for Hungaria Extra Dry. Other excellent sparkling wines are Kreinbacher from Somló and Szent Tamás Furmint Pezsgő from Tokaj.

Tokaj

The volcanic soil, sunny climate and protective mountain barrier of the Tokaj-Hegyalja (Tokaj Uplands) region in northern Hungary make it ideal for growing grapes and making wine. Tokaj wines were exported to Poland and Russia in the Middle Ages and reached the peak of their popularity in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Tokaj dessert wines are rated per the number – now from four to six – of puttony (butts, or baskets for picking) of sweet Aszú grapes added to the base wines. These are grapes infected with 'noble rot', the Botrytis cinera mould that almost turns them into raisins on the vine.

For Tokaji Aszú, one name to look out for is István Szepsy; he concentrates on both the upscale six-puttony type and the Esszencia – so sweet and low in alcohol it's hardly even wine. His Szepsy Cuvée, aged in stainless-steel barrels for a year or two (against the usual five for Tokaji Aszú), is a complex, elegant blend comparable to Sauternes. That said, Zoltán Demeter's version is almost pushing Szepsy aside in terms of quality. Other names to watch out for are Hétszőlő, Gróf Degenfeld, Erzsébet Pince, Disznókő and Pendits.

Tokaj also produces less-sweet wines, including dry Szamorodni (an excellent aperitif) and sweet Szamorodni, which is not unlike an Italian vin santo; for the latter try Disznókő’s version). Of the five grape varieties grown here, furmint and hárslevelű (Linden Leaf) are the driest. Some Hungarian wine experts believe Tokaj’s future is in dry white wine, with sweet wines just the icing on the cake. They say that dry furmint, with a flavour recalling apples, has the potential to become the best white wine in the country. Try it from any of the following vineyards: Oremus, Tinon, Szent Tamás and Béres.

Vintage has always played a more important role in Tokaj than elsewhere in Hungary. Though it is said that there is only one truly excellent year each decade, the wines produced in 1972, 1988, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2013 were all superb.

Eger

Flanked by two of the Northern Uplands’ most beautiful ranges of hills and on the same latitude as Burgundy in France, Eger is the home of the celebrated Egri Bikavér (Eger Bull’s Blood). By law, Hungarian vintners must spell out the blend of wine on their label; the sole exception is Bikavér, though it is usually a blend of kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch) mixed with other reds, sometimes kadarka. Bikavér producers to watch out for are Tibor Gál, Nimród Kovács and István Toth; the last's Bikavér easily compares with any of the 'big' reds from Villány and is said to have set the standard for Bull’s Blood in Hungary. Look out for kékfrankos and merlot from János Bolyki.

Eger’s signature grape is pinot noir; try the versions from Tibor Gál and Vilmos Thummerer, whose vintages have been on par with the premiers crus from Burgundy. The latter's Vili Papa Cuvée, a blend of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, is a monumental wine aged in new wood, with fleshy fruit flavours.

You’ll also find several decent whites in Eger, including leányka (Little Girl), olaszrizling (Italian riesling) and hárslevelű from Debrő. Recently vintners have introduced a white blend called Egri Csillag (Star of Eger) to develop a brand along the same lines as red Egri Bikavér. It's light- to medium-bodied, fresh and easy drinking but complex. Try it from Thummerer, Böjt or Szent Andrea.

Villány

Villány, in Hungary’s warm south and on the same latitude as Bordeaux in France, is especially noted for red wines: Blauer Portugieser (once known as Kékoportó here), cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. The region has also been experimenting in pinot noir in recent years. Red wines here are almost always big-bodied, Bordeaux-style and high in tannins.

Among the best vintners in Villány is József Bock, whose Royal Cuvée is a special blend of cabernet franc, pinot noir and merlot. Other ones to watch out for are Heumann (Evelyne and Erhard), Bence Bodor, Márton Mayer and Alajos Wunderlich. Wines to try from this region include Attila Gere’s elegant and complex cabernet sauvignon or his Solus merlot as well as Ede and Zsolt Tiffán’s elegant and complex Blauer Portugieser and cabernet franc.

Szekszárd

Mild winters and warm, dry summers combined with favourable loess soil help Szekszárd in Southern Transdanubia to produce some of the best affordable red wines in Hungary, and they are becoming increasingly popular throughout the land. They are not like the big-bodied reds of Villány, but softer and less complex, with a distinct spiciness, and easy to drink. In general, they are much better value too.

The premier grape here is kadarka, a late-ripening variety produced in limited quantities. The best kadarka is made by Ferenc Takler and Pál Mészáros. Kadarka originated in the Balkans – the Bulgarian gamza grape is a variety of it – and is a traditional ingredient here in making Bikavér, a wine usually associated with Eger. In fact, many wine aficionados in Hungary prefer the Szekszárd's 'Bull’s Blood'; try Zoltán Heimann's version.

Ferenc Vesztergombi produces some excellent Szekszárd merlot and kékfrankos; try La Vida merlot as well. Syrah from Takler is making quite a splash in Szekszárd. Tamás Dúzsi is one of the finest producers of rosé; sample his kékfrankos rosé.

Badacsony

Badacsony is named after the 400m-high basalt massif that rises like a bread loaf from the Tapolca Basin along the northwestern shore of Lake Balaton. Wine has been produced here for centuries and the region’s signature olaszrizling, especially produced by Huba Szeremley and Ambrus Bakó, is among the best dry white wine for everyday drinking available in Hungary. It’s a straw-blond welschriesling high in acid that is related to the famous Rhine vintages in name only. Drink it young – in fact, the younger, the better. The most reliable chardonnay is from Ottó Légli on Balaton's southern shore.

The area’s volcanic soil gives the unique, once-threatened kéknyelű (Blue Stalk) wine its distinctive mineral taste; it is a complex tipple of very low yield that ages well; Szeremley’s version and one produced by Endre Szászi are reliable. Jásdi is another big-name producer of quality Badacsony white wines (such as Nagykúti chardonnay and Csopaki rizling).

Somló

Somló is a single volcanic dome and the soil (basalt talus and volcanic tuff) helps to produce wine that is mineral-tasting, almost flinty. The region boasts two indigenous grape varieties: hárslevelű and juhfark (Sheep’s Tail). Firm acids give 'spine' to this wine, and it reaches its peak in five years. Excellent producers of Somlói juhfark are Kreinbacher and Károly Kolonics. Imre Györgykovács’ olaszrizling is a big wine with a taste vaguely reminiscent of burnt almonds. His hárslevelű is a golden wine, with a tart, mineral finish.

Feature: What's New

Hungary has for some time now been moving away from technology-driven wine production to terroir-based cultivation and vineyard-specific bottling. Let's face it – anyone with the money and know-how can produce a decent cabernet or chardonnay. What people are looking for now is wine that speaks of the region and the soil – the terroir. There's even talk of introducing village denomination. Until recently these phenomena occurred only in Tokaj and Villány; they're now becoming the norm in places like Badacsony on the northern shore of Lake Balaton. Most vintners now produce their own premium cuvée (blend) – often named after themselves, such as Gere's eponymous Attila. And some winemakers have adopted biodynamic cultivation methods, such as Pendits in Tokaj.

Feature: Taking Vintage Advantage

The évjárat (vintage) of Hungarian wines has only become important in the past decade or so.

  • 2000 A very hot summer raised alcohol levels in whites, impairing acids and lowering quality; excellent for reds in Eger, Szekszárd and Villány.
  • 2001 Decent year for whites in general; very good for some top-end reds (eg from Eger and Villány).
  • 2002 No great whites, but the reds were firm and have cellared well, depending on the grower.
  • 2003 A very hot year, with a long, very even ripening season. Whites suffered from burned acids and preponderant alcohol; reds were full-bodied and big, with almost a Californian flair.
  • 2004 An inferior year throughout, with aggressive whites and thin reds.
  • 2005 The very wet summer was catastrophic for whites, but the quality of reds beat the previous year.
  • 2006 A bad start with a cool summer but the long, very hot autumn proved excellent for whites and certain reds; good late-harvest sweet whites.
  • 2007 A much hotter summer created more rounded acidity in whites, especially in Tokaj.
  • 2008 A nice quantity of 'noble rot' produced some decent but not outstanding sweet wines.
  • 2009 Favourable weather conditions brought excellent reds and good Tokaj.
  • 2010 An inferior year with incessant rain produced thin and diluted red and white wines. Avoid.
  • 2011 Balanced weather, with a hot summer and sufficient precipitation produced wine drinkable after just one year.
  • 2012 The most arid summer in memory produced tiny quantities of grapes in most regions; excellent full-bodied reds from top growers.
  • 2013 All in all grape quality was high, but the quantity was medium; perfect vintage in Balaton and Tokaj.
  • 2014 A cool, rainy summer with a delayed harvest; low sugar levels meant crisp whites and rosés and mediocre reds.
  • 2015 A solid but not great vintage; rainy October meant late-harvest grape losses.
  • 2016 Too early to call but a cool August and a warm, sunny September means good vintages in Villány and Tokaj, with good amounts of 'noble rot'.

Feature: A Match Made in Heaven

The pairing of food with wine is as great an obsession in Hungary as it is in France. Everyone agrees that sweets like strudel go very well indeed with a glass of Tokaji Aszú, but what is less appreciated is the wonderful synergy that this wine enjoys with savoury foods like foie gras and such cheeses such Roquefort, Stilton and gorgonzola. A bone-dry olaszrizling from Badacsony is a superb accompaniment to any fish dish, but especially the fogas (pike-perch) indigenous to Lake Balaton, while dry Tokaj furmint goes well with river fish like harcsa (catfish). Villány sauvignon blanc is excellent with creamy and salty goat’s cheese.

It would be a shame to 'waste' a big wine like a Vili Papa Cuvée from Eger on Hungarian staple dishes like pörkölt; instead try a kékfrankos or Szekszárd kadarka. Cream-based dishes stand up well to late-harvest furmint and pork dishes are nice with new furmint or any type of red, especially kékfrankos. Try hárslevelű with poultry.

Budapest's Coffee Houses

Cafe life has a long and colourful history in Budapest. The Turks introduced what the Magyars nicknamed fekete leves (black soup) to Hungary in the early 16th century, and the coffee house was an essential part of the social scene here long before it had even made an appearance in, say, Vienna or Paris. In the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Budapest counted 600 cafes.

Budapest cafes of the 19th century were a lot more than just places to drink coffee. They embodied the progressive ideal that people of all classes could mingle under one roof, and acted as an incubator for Magyar culture and politics. Combining the neighbourliness of a local pub, the bonhomie of a gentlemen’s club and the intellectual activity of an open university, coffee houses were places in which to relax, gamble, work, network, do business and debate. As the writer Dezső Kosztolányi put it in his essay Budapest, City of Cafés: ‘Az én kávéházam, az énváram’ (My cafe is my castle).

Different cafes catered to different groups. Actors preferred the Pannónia, artists the Café Japán and businessmen the Orczy, while cartoonists frequented the Lánchíd and stockbrokers the Lloyd. But the two most important cafes in terms of the city’s cultural life were the still extant New York and the Centrál.

The literary New York Café (1891) hosted virtually every Hungarian writer of note at one time or another. Indeed, the playwright Ferenc Molnár famously threw the key into the Danube the night the cafe opened so that it would never close. And it remained open round the clock 365 days a year for decades. The Centrál Kávéház attracted the same literary crowd, and two influential literary journals – Nyugat (West) and A Hét (The Week) – were edited here.

But the depression of the 1930s, the disruption of WWII and the dreary days of communism conspired against grand old cafes in favour of the cheap (and seldom cheerful) eszpresszó (coffee shop). By 1989 and the return of the Republic of Hungary only about a dozen traditional cafes remained. Nowadays, though, you’re more likely to find young Budapesters drinking a beer or a glass of wine at one of the new modern cafes serving smoothies and flat whites. The cafe is, in fact, very much alive in Budapest. It’s just reinvented itself.

What to Order Where

Hungarians drink a huge amount of coffee (kávé) generally as a single black (fekete), a double (dupla) or with milk (tejes kávé). Most cafes now serve some variation of cappuccino and latte. Decaffeinated coffee is koffeinmentes kávé.

Pastries such as Dobos torta (a layered chocolate and cream cake with a caramelised-brown-sugar top) and the wonderful rétes (strudel), filled with poppy seeds, cherry preserves or túró (curd or cottage cheese), are usually eaten not as desserts but mid-afternoon in one of Budapest’s ubiquitous kávézók (cafes) or cukrászdák (cake shops), including our favourites: Ruszwurm Cukrászda and Auguszt Cukrászda in Buda and Művész Kávéház in Pest.

Budapest's Markets

From grand 19th-century food halls bursting with a rainbow of fruit and veg, rows of dangling cured meats and fresh-from-the-farm jams and honey, to communist-era flea markets and cutting-edge design markets, Budapest’s markets provide the perfect opportunity to see a slice of local life and bag some great souvenirs into the bargain.

Food Markets

The best place to soak up the sights, smells and sounds of a Budapest produce market is at the grandaddy of them all, Nagycsarnok. This is the place to pick up some potted foie gras or paprika, or head upstairs for a whole world of Hungarian souvenirs. For something more low-key, try Rákóczi tér or the Szimpla Farmers’ Market, held in a ruin pub every Sunday. The newly renovated Belvárosi Piac near Parliament is a delight.

Flea Markets

Jostling with locals shopping for bargains at Ecseri Piac, one of Central Europe’s largest flea markets, is a fabulous way to spend a Saturday morning. Lose yourself amid a cornucopia of gramophones, rocking horses, uniforms, violins and even suits of armour. If you can’t make it here, the smaller PECSA Bolhapiac offers a less impressive jumble of vintage knick-knacks.

Design Markets

A regular fair that takes place roughly once a month, WAMP, held in various locations throughout the city, showcases the latest of Hungary’s hippest designers. Clothes, bags and jewellery are hung alongside artworks, prints and photos, and coffee and cakes sweeten the shopping. It’s a great place to buy one-of-a-kind souvenirs you may not find in stores. More frequent Gouba offers a smaller selection of local arts and crafts.