I went for a long weekend earlier this year and had a great time but didn’t do much wine related beyond try a fair few with some excellent meals. Wines of Hungary offer a few links via their website for winery stays but all look to be a bit out of the city.
What I post below may be of some use. It was created by Janet Wynne-Evans who many may remember from her excellent contributions to the Wine Society newsletter and is her personal guide to the city - it’s a good read if nothing else.
When I went, we also stayed at the Aria which was as good as she says. We ate at Costes as one of the few places open on a Sunday evening - good but a bit clinical and reverential for me. We had a very good meal at Rezkakas Bistro (don’t be put off by the promise/threat of live gypsy music - it was fun) and also Borbíróság which has a fairly comprehensive Hungarian wine list.
We also went on an Urban Adventures food tour which was a pleasant way to find out a bit more about the city but I didn’t particularly learn anything new about food or wine, despite tasting some pleasant dishes.
Janet’s information below - lengthy but worth a read
The first thing to say about Buda-Pest is how gorgeous it is, from either side of the Danube. Even in the rain. The second is that it’s ruddy expensive: don’t be thrown by the fact that there are thousands of forints to the £1. Thirdly, the standard of English spoken not only in hotels and restaurants but even when you ask directions from any ordinary János in the street is very impressive. A work trip to Japan BW (Before Wine) left me feeling wholly impotent in terms of communicating locally, but here I settled into the relaxed lazy-Brit position occupied by Andy whenever we are doing Yurrop.
Nevertheless, in marked contrast with France, an effort to deliver the rudiments of politesse elicits even huger smiles. The only word of Hungarian I knew before going, thanks to a boyfriend called Attila in my murky past, was ‘Nem’ ( = ‘No’ and I’ll leave the rest to your imagination). Hungarian is a fascinating language, doubly so for a linguist, but it’s right up there with its closest relative Finnish, Estonian and Basque for sheer impossibility. It’s equally hard to pronounce, and I found almost immediately that I’d been mangling some of our Hungarian wines with great authority for some time. The biggest challenge, by a country mile, in the alphabet is the letter s, alone and in partnership with other consonants like z. Best just accept that and practise the following (forgive me if you already know these from your local connections and please apologise to them if I’m not near enough!).
Jó reggelt (Yo RAY-gelt): good morning
Jó estét (Yo esh-TATE): good evening
köszönöm (CUSS-un-um): thanks
kérem (CARE-emm): please
Courtesies over, you may need a bed for the night and I’d never make assumptions about what other people are willing to spend on that but I really can’t not enthuse about the Aria Hotel (www.ariahotelbudapest.com). It was spotting this place, quite by chance on Secret Escapes, that inspired the whole trip and it overdelivered. This place is wholly devoted to music, even unto the harp-shaped lights in the foyer and its own Music Director, a real charmer called Kornel Magyar who will line you up with all the Liszt, Bartók or Kodály you want to experience, if they’re on. Sadly they weren’t when we visited but we lucked into a very atmospheric Verdi’s Requiem in the Basilica on our last night. It was Hungary’s National Day, so I was surprised they didn’t celebrate one of their own gleesome threesome, but a bit of Joe Green always hits the spot.
The hotel is on the buzzier Pest side, within a easy walk of many must-sees, and so close to said Basilica that the dome almost joins you for a drink in the wonderful rooftop bar. You really should drop in here if only for a glass of something very classy from the top-notch wine list and a selection of really delicious tapas. The hotel has no restaurant as such, but does wonderful breakfasts. The staff are uniformly lovely. Naturally it cost a packet, but Andy manfully suppressed his inner Yorkshireman. I’ll leave you to grapple privately with your DNA, noting that some of it will be in sympathy with the Best of Pest!
The grande dame of Buda hotels is, of course, the Géllert, with optional thermal baths. It stands over the river like some sinister party HQ, albeit with nice views, and felt quite stuffy to me, but I may be doing it an injustice, as we really didn’t see much of it. Another iconic dosseria, with great stone fish set in the walls, is the camp-as Pontin’s Boscolo, which houses the historic New York Cafe, a big, noisy bistro. The food is supposed to be good and it’s worth a look and a glass of fizz. But all in all, I think we could not have chosen better.
We don’t slavishly follow le bon Michelin around the world, preferring a bit of authenticity in the main, but as my birthday this year was on a Sunday, and not knowing the lie of the land, we had to plan ahead. There are currently two one-stars in Buda-Pest: Borkonyha Wine Kitchen, (www.borkonyha.hu) a really cool and informal place that came highly recommended and Costes (www.costes.hu), pron. Kos-tess, which has a gifted female chef, a fine line in creatively presented Hungarian ingredients like grilled pike and smoked sturgeon as well as the ubiquitous duck-liver, and is open for dinner on Sundays. We were advised to book several weeks ahead (July!) and I’d heartily recommend doing so.
Both have fabulous wine lists, predominantly Hungarian and frankly you’d be mad to go for anything imported, because there’s no need. A good tip is to make it known to the young and enthusiastic sommeliers in such places that you’re a wine pro. We were given what must have been several thousand forints’ worth of free ‘tasters’ to showcase a dynamic domestic product they are clearly proud of here. Costes has a more informal bistro option, Costes Downtown which we hadn’t time to try, but certainly would have, on the evidence of the mother ship’s kitchen.
Our authentic fix came in the shape of the memorably-named Fakanál in the Great Central Market, a must-see attraction in itself, for your proper paprika and stall upon stall of nose-to-tail duck and geese products including beaks, and probably a sideline in duvets as well. There are two Fakanáls on the first floor, a stand-up comptoir that serves unfeasibly huge lamb shanks and goose legs, and a slightly comfier bistro, complete with Hungarian fiddler and hearty and delicious gulyas and ‘home-made’ sausage. The latter briefly became chief suspect for a small indisposition that confined both of us to our luxury bathroom for half a day. In retrosopect, we think it was a bug we caught on the plane, or what Toby euphemistically calls ‘getting your gut used to the local bacteria’. Suffice it to say that “Fakanál!” was uttered more than once, followed by “how much longer are you going to be in there?”.
SP will see you right on wine reccies, though we couldn’t find his No.1 choice – Kolonic Juhfark (!) anywhere – possibly, as he later told me, because he’s cleaned them out of it. The whites are significantly better than the reds at this point IMO and though there are lots of work-in-progress cab francs and pinots, I found a good Bull’s Blood more convincing. My go-to names, some of them even approved by Le Payne Quotidien are István Szepsy for glorious dry furmint, San Andreas for Egri Bikaver and ethereal Tokaji from Zoltán Demeter. For edgier adventures, there is any number of interesting harșlevelus and intriguing blends of furmint with chardonnay. One is spoiled for choice. Pilsner beer is first-class, as you’d expect. Hungarian cheese is generally woeful.
In terms of attractions, apart from the rooftop bar at the Aria, a good way to formulate a short-list is the hop-on hop-off city bus tour. There are three rival operators, Big Bus (a bit erratic but friendly), Giraffe (even more erratic) and City Sightseeing (frequent but pushy). Ticket kiosks for all three abound and the fare includes earphones and the English commentaries tend to be in horrible drawly American accents but they’re informative. My highlights, a bit guide-book clichéd, but genuinely and hugely enjoyable, were: the walk across the Danube from Pest to Buda via the wondrous Szécheyni (Chain) Bridge and the antique funicular to the Buda Castle District atop the hill, where you’ll find the Hungarian National Gallery and Matthias Church inter alia; a prebooked tour of the superbly blingy Parliament Building (look out for the solid gold cigar holders for those long debates when it doubtless helped to go out for a fag); Heroes’ Square and the Fine Arts Museum (though this was closed on our visit); definitely one of the many thermal baths, notably Szécheyni which is set in a lovely park. You have to ‘participate’ or at least pay admission, to see the baths properly, though the Géllert has a nice pool you can look at from the foyer. People take therapeutic bathing very seriously, scurrying about in bathrobes and taking ‘cures’ for for arthritis and, funnily enough digestive malfunctions, but in the aftermath of one, it’s the last thing we fancied.
Most guides would cite the aforementioned St Stephen’ (István) Basilica as worthy of a gawp, but being a Welsh baptist, and accustomed to stripped pine and Thou Shalt Not, rather than El Greco, on the wall, I dislike ostentatious popery and it’s even blingier than Parliament. Listening to sacred music sort of justified it and the Pope’s existence; the Opera House and the Liszt Museum I’m saving for the next time. Had we not lost half a day, there would be doubtless more to report. We’d almost certainly have done a Danube boat trip had the weather been better when time permitted and seen those gorgeous vistas from the river.
But I imagine that’s quite enough. Great food, excellent wine, culture aplenty and lots to see and do, and only a small hint of the stag/hen market phenomenon on Saturday, and only in the main drags.