Few cities in the world have a location as dramatic as that of Budapest. The majestic Danube river divides the city into two distinct parts. On the western bank are the hills of Buda, surmounted by walls of the great royal palace. The flat eastern bank is home to the vibrant streets of Pest, filled with cafés, restaurants, shops and churches. Visitors are torn trying to decide which side to focus on, and the only solution is to make sure that you have enough time in Budapest to do justice to both parts of it!
Walking through Budapest allows you to understand the many layers of history it is built on, starting as a prehistoric Celtic settlement that grew into a Roman town. Magyar tribesmen from the east swept through Budapest in the ninth century and made it the capital of the kingdom of Hungary. Turkish armies occupied Hungary in the sixteenth century and it became an Ottoman province until the Austrians captured it in the eighteenth century and made it part of the Hapsburg ruled Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The mix of people that have contributed to creating this city have forged a unique Budapest culture. The Hungarian language, with its roots in the Ural mountains from where the Magyar tribes came, sounds like none other in Europe. The magnificent churches resemble those of Renaissance Rome, the gorgeous cafés are inspired by Vienna, and the visually stunning bath-houses are modeled after those in Istanbul.
Budapest was one of the great centres of Hapsburg art and even today it is a wonderful destination for music and opera lovers. You can hear the sounds of Haydn and Mozart in the theaters, churches and streets as you stroll along exploring the city. Many of these churches also host evening concerts and attending a performance under the dome of St. Peters Basilica is a magical, unforgettable experience.
Another memorable experience is taking a boat cruise on the Danube with live music on board. Watching this glittering jewel of a city glide by to the sound of lively music is something you won’t soon forget!
The Great Market Hall is an enormous covered food market a few minutes from the city centre. There you will rub elbows with serious food shoppers buying their groceries, office-workers looking for a quick lunch, and casual tourists looking for some local colour. This is a great place to stock up on the famous Hungarian paprika as well as cured sausages of every variety.
We were in Budapest around Easter and the historic Vörösmarty Square had been turned into a fabulous outdoor food and crafts market that was a delight to explore. This was our opportunity to sample this rich and varied cuisine, while watching traditional dance performances on the stage nearby.
The Ottomans introduced Budapest to the joys of coffee centuries ago, long before it was known to the rest of Europe. The glory days of its café culture were in the nineteenth century, when it competed with Vienna to build the most magnificent, gilded establishments that served cakes buried under mounds of whipped cream and chocolate, to the aristocracy of Europe. Today you can visit some of the most famous of these cafés that have been meticulously restored.
Gerbeaud Cafe, overlooking Vörösmarty square is one of the oldest cafes in Budapest, and still lovingly maintains its ageless elegance with grand chandeliers, old wood paneling and signature cakes that have to be tried at least once, if not many times!
One of Hungary’s most iconic and beloved dishes is Goulash. Made with beef, vegetables and plenty of paprika, simmered for hours until very tender, this delicious stew was something we savoured at least once every day and loved every bite!
Fisherman’s soup was another of our favourite dishes to eat in Budapest. With its richly flavoured broth and fiery red colour derived from lots of Hungarian paprika, this soup is traditionally prepared in a kettle set over an open fire, imbuing it with a characteristic smoky aroma.
Fisherman’s soup is generally made with river fish such as carp, catfish or perch, but if those are hard to find, you can use any white fleshed fish. My recipe, adapted for easy home cooking, employs a few short cuts but is packed with plenty of flavour! Serve with crusty bread or crackers to dip into the delicious broth.
Hungarian Style Fisherman’s Soup
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup each, finely chopped: onions, sweet red peppers, potatoes (peeled, cubed small)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp finest quality Hungarian paprika (sweet or hot, according to taste)
Salt to taste
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 cups (about 8) canned whole plum tomatoes with juices, pureed in food processor or chopped fine
900 ml fish or chicken broth
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 lb cod or other white fleshed fish, cut into 2 inch pieces
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley or dill
Warm oil in deep saucepan or soup pot set over medium heat.
Add onions, peppers, potatoes and garlic. Saute until lightly browned and slightly softened, about 5-7 min.
Add paprika, salt and pepper, stir for a few seconds to bring out the colour and flavours.
Add tomatoes, stirring for about 5 min, until slightly thickened and cooked.
Add broth and vinegar. Cover and bring the soup to a gentle boil. Reduce heat to low and cook for 10 min until vegetables are cooked through and soft.
Add fish pieces and stir gently. Cover again and cook on low heat for 5 min until fish is flaky and cooked through.
Gently mix in the fresh herbs and serve.