Looking to "tuk" into some chocolate, marzipan, and more? Here's where to go in Budapest (and how to get there.)
On our first full day in Budapest, Ryan and I were crossing the city's beautiful Elisabeth Bridge (while attracting our fair share of attention - but more on that later), when he remarked that some of his colleagues were recently in Budapest for a conference. I sighed in envy, unable to imagine a more wonderful work destination. But when I asked Ryan what his colleagues enjoyed most, he replied that they had been too busy to experience the city. Not experience Budapest?! I can't imagine a sadder travel tale.
Happily, we DID get to experience Budapest - or at least a taste of it. And what a taste it was! I fell head over heels in love with Budapest - not the least of which was because of the city's fantastic culinary scene. Here are our favourite sweet spots in Budapest (and most are accessible after hours just in case you're at a conference too)!
Sweet surprises at Szamos
In Hungary, the name Szamos is synonymous with chocolate, marzipan, and pastries. This Budapest institution, since 1935, is the perfect stop for traditional Hungarian cakes and sweets and is normally enjoyed in a classic cafe setting with table service. Szamos has several shops throughout the city and we were fortunate enough to enjoy their latest venture, Szamos Today, a more casual, self-serve coffeehouse across from the Hungarian Parliament.
While this more relaxed environment may be a departure from Szamos's usual style (which you can still enjoy on the second floor), I thought the youthful energy was extremely fitting for Budapest. I was in city for only a few hours before I was swearing to return (and no, it's not just because of all the cakes!). Budapest is such a vibrant, young, stylish, social city and the informal, easy going environment of Szamos Today perfectly reflects that vibe.
For those curious - we settled on two of Szamos's most popular cakes, esterhazy (with the white frosting), which contains walnuts, orange liquor, and fondant, and the second was a chocolate-hazelnut blend. Coffee lovers take note: They also make a mean flat white.
I mentioned that the cafe has as second floor, where you can enjoy their traditional service, but there's a third floor to discover and it contains a delicious surprise. This is the home of the Szabo Marcipan Museum, where you can learn the history of the company and see their confectionery prowess in person.
It's well worth a stop to learn more about the company's storied history and see the precision and hard work that goes into making their beautiful chocolate and marzipan creations. We shamelessly tried sample after sample and also took some time to admire a gorgeous reproduction of the adjacent Parliament - entirely crafted in marzipan. .
Daring dessert at Borkonyha
If you want to take your love of desserts to another level, a visit to Borkonyha is a culinary dream. One of Budapest's Michelin starred restaurants, the name translates as "Wine Kitchen" and, fittingly, over 200 different varieties of Hungarian wines are available. We enjoyed an incredible lunch there - with wonderful service and suggestions from the kitchen. We were so impressed with their scrumptious seasonal menu and their wonderful wine pairings that we turned dessert over to their hands and availed ourselves entirely to the recommendations of the servers.
Ryan enjoyed an amazing combination of dark chocolate, coffee flavored ice cream, and passion fruit. But my dessert was a little less traditional. Borkonyha is famous for its "vegetable dessert". Served with raspberry gazpacho, some of the clever ingredients include beetroot and minced bell pepper. With cream and vanilla and a sprinkling of green shoots, it was an unusual combination that I really enjoyed.
The beetroot (an ingredient that once colored red velvet cake many years ago) was a seamless fit with the raspberry. The tiny pieces of minced bell pepper were intriguing when presented away from their usual savory counterparts; and the rest of the dessert brought out their underlying sweetness. There were other hidden veggies that I can't remember but overall, eating "vegetable dessert" made me feel smug and superior, as if I had chosen salad over sweets (ha! not exactly), and thus I had no objections to eating more treats later throughout the day
Where dessert is never 'ruined' - Spiler Bistro Pub.
No visit to Budapest is complete without a visit to one of the city's famous "ruin pubs". Ruin pubs or bars are anything but ruins. Technically, they are bars and pubs and restaurants that have set up shop in old, unloved buildings and open, unused spaces. (And what no one wants to talk about - the reason many of these buildings and courtyards were abandoned or in disrepair is that their Jewish occupants were deported to concentration camps in World War II. I'm still not sure if I think the emergence of ruin pubs is wonderful way to revitalize the buildings with life and creativity or if there's something rather crass about serving up cheap beer and disco music on the spoils of war. What do you think?)
Ruin pubs are famous for eclectic art, mismatched furniture, and sunny summer gardens. I have to say, my first impression is that the decor is anything but ruinous - more like a modern take on shabby-chic. They're casual, relaxed, welcoming environments where you're just as likely to see a group of local students as you are a group of seniors from a bus tour. And while my ruin pub research is still a work in progress, my favourite so far is Spiler Original Bistro Pub.
Dessert at Spiler was a great combination of comfort food and traditional Hungarian flavors. Ryan had one of the best selling desserts, the Spiler sponge, which had fluffy cake, chocolate, whipped cream, and nuts. I had the pie of the day (which was a peach-apricot blend) with a side of vanilla ice cream. It tasted like a combination of pie and a turnover pastry and the flavor combinations were wonderful.
Since this post is all about sweet things (and because we've already talked about a "vegetable dessert"!), I have to give a special mention to the Spiler crispy chicken wings (okay, technically Ryan ordered the wings and I was stealing them, but still.) They were some of the best wings I have ever had - maybe even THE best.
They were so good that I couldn't stop talking about them and I kept saying that they were exactly what I wanted wings to be every single time I ordered them. They were crispy and meaty, not at all greasy, and covered with the most delicious sweet chili glaze. (See, I worked 'sweet' in there!) Honestly, they were just so amazing!
(PS: For wing lovers out there, the other best wings I've found on my travels were in Philadelphia at Cheu's Noodle Bar. Seriously awesome - read about them here.)
Dessert on the Danube: Spoon Cafe
It would be such a shame to visit Budapest and not spend time on the Danube River and we had the chance to do exactly that at Spoon Cafe and Lounge. This floating restaurant is the perfect spot to enjoy a sunset dinner and watch the many river cruisers sail by. With the bridges silhouetted against the night sky and the buildings beautifully lit up, Budapest felt like a fairy tale city.
Spoon was the first location where Ryan and I ordered the same dessert - a blood orange sorbet with mascarpone cream and fresh and dried berries in a berry sauce. It was absolutely delicious and it was the perfect ending to a full three course meal. It was refreshing, not too sweet, and light enough to enjoy on our full stomachs. Dessert win!
Though I enjoyed the dessert options at Borkonyha the most, and my favourite location was Spiler, I think Spoon would top my list for anyone who had restricted time in Budapest. Its location is unparalleled and the views are spectacular.
The best transportation for dessert hopping? Budapest Tuk Tuk Tours!
If you want to cause a bit of a sensation in Budapest or simply go dessert hopping in stye, take a tour by tuk tuk. This is how we got around town and we couldn't have had a better time doing so.
A tuk tuk, or auto rickshaw, is a motorized three wheeled vehicle which serves as a taxi. They're ubiquitous in Asia and notorious in Bangkok where 'tuk tuk' is often synonymous with 'tourist scam' (or a fun and cheap method of transportation, depending on who you talk to.)
But while tuk tuks are a common sight in Bangkok and many other cities, they're still a unique sight in Budapest. This is why we were attracting so much attention, as I mentioned earlier. People were literally sticking their heads out of their cars and staring at us. We got plenty of waves and smiles and "hellos". Budapest Tuk Tuk describes themselves as a "new horizon in sightseeing" and, as they've only been in operation for a short time, they're still causing a sensation in the city.
Aside from the obvious fun of causing a bit of a commotion on Budapest's streets, we had a great time seeing the city by tuk tuk. It allowed us to cover so much more ground than we'd ever be able to do on foot and we saw so much more than if we were to simply hop the subway from spot to spot.
We had a fantastic time as we zipped along, our driver explaining the sights to us and turning down side streets so we could catch a different glimpse of the city. (And for those wondering about myanti-adventurist tendencies- I felt perfectly safe! A tuk tuk is much more stable than a motorcycle and we even had seat belts.)
The company offers everything from extremely economical one hour tours covering many of the city's highlights (about 19 Euros) to more extensive custom itineraries. If you're short on time, or want to squeeze in some sightseeing in the early morning or late night (I'm looking at you, conference folks!), or simply want to be chauffeured in style between restaurants (no judgement), this is the way to go. There's simply no comparing the fun and value you get on a tuk tuk tour with a more commercial enterprise like a bus tour.
On the list for next time...
There was one sweet treat we didn't have the chance to try in Budapest, but we spied it during our tuk tuk ride. Levendula Kezmuves Fagylaltozo is a shop that's passionate about lavender and homemade gourmet ice cream (including lavender flavored, caramelized fig, cinnamon-plum and so many more). Just look at the beautiful purple bike outside their shop! I wish we had the opportunity to stop in but we'll just have to put it on the list for next time. (And if any of you get the chance to visit, please let me know how it went!).
I know we'll be back to visit Budapest again - and not just to eat. It's at the top of my list for places I need to return to soon. It's a city that has so much to offer and so much to experience - and even if you have a limited time or a challenging schedule, you can still pack in many sweet experiences.
If you enjoyed this article, you'll also like:
The Lute, The Lovers, and The Lasagna: Visiting Rome For The First Time.
The Recipe For A Great Time In Prague? Cooking Classes.
Local Eats From Berlin's Foodie Streets.
Our time in Budapest was facilitated by the local tourist board and we thank them for their support. All research, writing, and opinions are our own.