Goulash. That’s usually the only thing people can think of when it comes to Hungarian cuisine. Then they visit Budapest and a whole new world opens up for them! Let’s see why every foodie should visit Hungary and go through some of the best Budapest food items to try.
Hungary is a small country with less than 10 million inhabitants in the middle of Europe, and being positioned in the center it had a very turbulent history. Occupied by the Ottomans, Austrians, Germans, Russians, giving a home to many different nationalities and religions throughout the centuries, and even today surrounded by seven countries – all this left its mark on the Hungarian kitchen.
This is simply why the food here has the greatest variety in Central Europe, bursting with flavor! You’ll soon see why one of the top activities in Budapest involves a fork and knife!
Culinary History in Budapest & Hungary
The staple spice of traditional Hungarian food is paprika, a type of red pepper that originally came from the American continent through Turkish traders. Why is Paprika so popular in Budapest? The climate, the soil, and the special local variants result in the richest aroma.
Paprika used to be the spice of the poor because it grew so easily, while the rich people of the past enjoyed the exotic – and ridiculously expensive – black pepper. Now everybody loves it, it’s part of Hungary’s national identity, although some prefer the sweet version, and others the hot type.
Other must ingredients in Hungarian food? They might be less famous, but almost every traditional Hungarian dish has onion, garlic, and sour cream in it. Many sweet and savory dishes use a crumbly fresh cheese called túró – it is similar to cottage cheese, and makes the lightest cheesecake ever. In sweets, the most common ingredients are walnut, poppyseed, jams, and seasonal fruits.
Hungary is perfect for growing all kinds of fruits and veggies, but we can’t forget that most Hungarians love their everyday meat – even if it is easier and easier to eat vegan in Budapest. The most common meat you’ll find on your plate is chicken and pork, not that much beef.
On special occasions, Hungarians also love duck and goose, but being a landlocked country they definitely, don’t eat a lot of fish and seafood. Trout and pike-perch are good choices if you’d like to try fish though. And let’s not forget about game: hunting has a lot of tradition, so especially around the fall months you can find venison, boar, rabbit, and pheasant in the restaurants.
Looking at the menus in Budapest restaurants you might encounter something interesting: Hungary has several local breeds that give excellent quality meat. The Grey Cattle are magnificent cows that spend their whole lives outside, grazing, which makes them really happy and healthy. The Mangalitza pigs live a similar lifestyle, have curly hair and look like a sheep, and most importantly have the yummiest marbled meat, excellent for aged hams, similar to a Spanish Iberico.
Top 10 dishes to Try on your first trip to Budapest
You really shouldn’t leave Hungary without trying most of these tasty foods on this list. In order of culinary importance to Budapest along with restaurant recommendations from a Budapest local food tour guide. Let’s dig in!
1. Hungarian Goulash
Let’s talk about Goulash (or “Gulyás”, as Hungarians spell it). Gulyás means “cowboy” in Hungarian, and the authentic version is, in fact, a rich soup with lots of paprika, pieces of long-cooked beef, and some root vegetables.
Fun fact: those cowboys were actually so poor back then, they could never afford eating beef, that’s why the Gulyás soup used to be a dish only for the wealthy. It has such a rustic look, it’s really hard to believe, right?
Best Goulash in Budapest: Cupákos
- Address: Budapest, Dob u. 31, 1074 Hungary
- Hours: Friday & Saturday 11:30 am – 1 am | Sunday – Wednesday 11:30 am – 11 pm | Thursday 11:30 am – 12 am
2. Sausages in Budapest
Even if the most famous dish is made of beef, Hungarians eat much more pork and chicken on a daily basis. Legend has it that they started to love pork because that was the only thing that the Ottoman invaders – being Muslim – didn’t touch. We have three main types of cooked sausages: kolbász flavored with paprika, and hurka made with rice and liver or blood.
Best Sausages in Budapest:
Belvárosi Disznótoros (Károlyi Mihány u. 17. and Király u. 1/d.)
- Address: Budapest, Király u. 1d, 1075 Hungary
- Hours: Friday & Saturday 10 am – 12 am | Sunday 10 am – 8 pm | Monday – Thursday 10 am – 10 pm
- Address: Budapest, Károlyi utca 17, 1053 Hungary
- Hours: Monday – Friday 9 am – 7 pm | Saturday 11 am – 7pm | Closed Sunday
Related Article: Things To Know Before Visiting The Budapest Jewish Quarter
Usually described as the Hungarian pizza, lángos (pronounced as ‘lung-osh’) is a round fried flatbread. You can get a lángos at every market in Budapest, at some metro stations, and it’s the perfect hangover cure as well. It’s also a must have at the beaches of Lake Balaton – when every sane nation lines up for ice cream, Hungarians stand in line for some garlicky fried dough in their bikinis.
The most traditional way to eat it is plain with some garlic on top, or with the luscious sour cream and cheese topping. Any other version is probably just for tourists!
Best Lángos in Budapest: Rákóczi Square Market
- Address: Budapest, Rákóczi tér, 1084 Hungary
- Hours: Monday 6 am – 4pm | Tuesday – Friday 6 am – 6 pm | Saturday 6 am – 2 pm
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4. Foie Gras
Yes, foie gras is a controversial topic because of the force-feeding of the ducks and geese. But we have to admit that it is a very traditional dish in Hungary that is crazy delicious, so unless you are a vegetarian you should give it a go.
Whether it’s a cold terrine or a freshly sautéed piece of liver it will melt in your mouth, and it will be probably served with something sweet like fruits. The famous Tokaji dessert wine is the absolute best pairing with it!
Best Foie Gras in Budapest: Tigris Restaurant (Mérleg u. 10.)
- Address: Budapest, Mérleg u. 10, 1051 Hungary
- Hours: Monday – Saturday 12 pm – 12 am | Closed Sunday
5. Layered Potatoes
There are many comfort food type of dishes in Hungary that we could list here, but one that is easier to find outside of private kitchens as well is Layered Potatoes, or “Rakott Krumpli”. The perfect combination of potatoes, eggs, paprika flavored smoked sausage and sour cream in a casserole.
Layered potatoes used to be hard to find at restaurants, but now are chefs are rediscovering it, the Bocuse d’Or winning Széll Tamás brought it to perfection. Try it at Stand 25 at the Hold street market hall (Hold u. 13.)
Best Layered Potatoes in Budapest: Standard25 Biztro
- Address: Budapest, Hold u. 13, 1054 Hungary
- Hours: Monday 8 am – 5 pm | Tuesday – Thursday 8 am – 6 pm | Friday & Saturday 8 am – 10 pm | Closed Sunday
6. Chicken Paprikash
Chicken Paprikash probably is the second most famous traditional Hungarian dish: chicken in a delicious, thick sauce made with paprika and sour cream. It’s usually served with a homemade spaetzle-like pasta called ‘galuska’ or ‘nokedli’. It’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t like it.
Best Chicken Paprikash in Budapest: Gettó Gulyás
- Address: Budapest, Wesselényi u. 18, 1077 Hungary
- Hours: Sunday – Thursday 12 pm – 11 pm | Friday & Saturday 12 pm – 12 am
The most famous Wiener Schnitzel comes from Austria, a breaded and fried slice of veal. Hungarians usually make it out of pork – they generally use much more pork than beef -, and sometimes they feel like having a healthy day and fry chicken. Either way, it’s a classic Sunday lunch, right after the chicken soup with homemade pasta.
Best Schnitzel in Budapest: Buja Disznók at the Hold street market hall (Hold u. 13.)
- Address: Budapest, galéria 6-os üzlet, Hold u. 13, 1054 Hungary
- Hours: Monday 11:30-3:30pm | Tuesday-Friday 11:30-5:30pm | Saturday 11:30-3:30pm | Closed Sunday
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8. Fisherman’s Soup
Hungarians eat very little fish, even for a landlocked country. But one of the most liked fish dishes is the Fisherman’s Soup, a thick and rich red colored soup made with freshwater fish, often carp, and of course lots of paprika. It’s best prepared in a cauldron over an open fire by a river!
Also a staple dish for Christmas, that’s why 40% of the fish consumption of Hungarians happens in the holiday season.
Best Fisherman’s Soup in Budapest: Pest-Buda Bistro
- Address: Budapest, Fortuna u. 3, 1014 Hungary
Often translated as strudel, the Hungarian rétes is made with a very thin filo pastry, stuffed with just about anything, most commonly with fruits like apples, sour cherry or plum. The cottage cheese (‘túrós’) version is also very popular in Budapest, and let’s not forget about the decadent poppyseed flavor! Have a chewing gum ready.
The love of filo pastry is probably a heritage of the Ottoman occupation, just think of baklava or burek.
Best Rétes in Budapest: Strudel Hugó (Kertész u. 22.)
- Address: Budapest, Kertész u. 22, 1073 Hungary
- Hours: Mon 8am-7pm | Sat 9am-5pm | Sun Closed
The proof that the Hungarian language is among the craziest ones in the world. In English, we just call it chimney cake, because it’s a hollow cylindrical shaped sweet pastry, and when it’s fresh the steam makes it look like a smoking chimney.
The dough is cut in long stripes, applied on a wooden mold like a spiral, rolled in sugar, then baked. The sugar caramelizes, the dough is wonderfully soft, and while it’s still warm it’s rolled in cinnamon or walnut. It’s heavenly! Make sure to avoid the modern version stuffed with ice cream or Nutella.
Best Kürtőskalács in Budapest: Molnár Kürtőskalács (Váci u. 31.)
- Address: Budapest, Váci u. 31, 1052 Hungary
- Hours: Monday-Sunday 9am-10pm
What’s Hot in the Budapest Food Scene?
The culinary traditions of a country are always influenced by its history. Most of the 20th century was about wars and “Communism” in Hungary, both terrible for the food culture as you can imagine. When the political system changed in 1989 and finally our borders were open for traveling and commerce, a new era has begun.
It took a few years to train a new generation of chefs and gain a new perspective on cooking, but in 2019 there are six Michelin stars restaurants in Budapest, and that is a big deal in Central Europe. (Yes, it’s a thing. We are always in the search for our identity here between the East and the West.)
So which Michelin star restaurant do we like the most? My personal favorite is Babel, with set tasting menus, and always a strong surprising element. The executive chef István Veres is from Transylvania, and he brings a lot of inspiration into his plates from his childhood. The wine list is also fantastic, the sommelier is in love with local white grapes just as much as we are.
If you’re on a budget you can still enjoy the wonders of new wave kitchen. We strongly recommend Töltő if made from scratch sausages sound good to you. Even the buns and all the toppings are made at this tiny eatery, and the presentation is exactly like on their very sexy photographs.
Artisan bakeries and specialty coffee shops are also popping up everywhere, and grabbing a pastry and a cappuccino (with the most Instragrammable latte art) at one of them is yet another way of affordable luxury. Some of our favorites include Freyja with their unbelievable sourdough croissants (try the pistachio!), The Hatchery with the yummiest cocoa roll, or Artizán with some beautiful cardamom buns.
Vegan Food in Budapest
Vegan and healthy eating has reached Budapest as well and you can choose from an endless – and an ever-growing selection of places. If you’d like to try more traditional dishes we recommend Napfényes restaurant for a proper sit-down meal experience.
A quick and cheap self-service place on weekdays is Vega City. A trendy café with an international food selection and daily specials is Flow on the famous Andrássy Avenue. Craving the street food experience? An all plant-based street food court is on Dob street called Vegan Garden. And now there are Budapest vegan bars as well: Szabad (meaning “free”) is more hidden at the end of Király street, and Belvárosi Legenda is in the hearth of the party district.
What Budapest Food to Avoid?
A rule of thumb: avoid any restaurants advertising a tourist menu. Especially if it consists of a Goulash soup and a main also made with paprika like a chicken paprikash or a beef stew. These dishes are way too similar and locals would never order them for the same meal. After a heavy soup, we would go for a light or even sweet pasta dish, or straight to dessert.
Many traditional snacks like the lángos and the chimney cake are now served with crazy amounts of toppings and fillings. We love new and innovative things, but some dishes are best in the original way. When they try to offer you ten different toppings for your lángos keep in mind that you will be charged for each and every item, thus the final price of a one-dollar lángos can be what you would pay for a three-course meal elsewhere.
And needless to say: avoid international fast food chains! You travel to get to know new cultures and flavors, not to eat the same burger you could have in your hometown. Same goes to you know which coffee shop!
Budapest is full of amazing little businesses that you should discover and support. Get out of your comfort zone and try something new. It doesn’t have to be rooster testicle stew right away – but I must say it is delicious!
Have you traveled to Budapest and had a favorite Hungarian food we missed? Leave a comment below and we’ll make sure to add it.This post may contain affiliate links, see our disclosure