For those looking for a European summer travel experience slightly off the beaten track, and away from the selfie-stick crowd, I found a beautiful and eclectically romantic city in Budapest, with the slightly gritty twist you might not get in more polished, tourist-heavy European cities. I’ve written before about my dislike for organised travel tours, and also about how food tours are a completely different ball game because it is much less restrictive. If you’re a stranger to a new city struggling to read signs (hint: Hungarian is not pronounced the way it looks!), a food tour is a great way to meet locals who will be happy to help you with any questions and recommendations. Oh, and feed you locals-approved food to boot.
The Coffee Houses Walking Tour is ideal for those with a sweet tooth. It essentially comprises a thoughtful 2 hour tour of Budapest’s coffee house culture, which boomed in the 1910s and 1930s as a place for intellectuals to discuss ideas, as it did in Vienna and Paris. Our tour guide was its founder, Nora, who is a Budapest local and has a knack for making everyone in our 8-person group feel very relaxed with her calm professionalism. An added bonus for joining food tours is the opportunity to meet other international travellers, which is great if you’re travelling alone or simply want to meet new people. In addition to information about Budapest I got from Nora, I received a comprehensive list of places to visit in Prague from one of the fellow food tour attendees from San Diego.
Established in 1887, Central Café is one of five 19th Century historical coffee houses still standing in Budapest today. High-ceilinged and expansively decorated in rich reds, dark woods and gold, you can look up at the balcony on the second floor and see exactly where famous Hungarian writers once sat to work (which apparently resulted in a significant boost in visitors). This was our first stop for a drink and a cheese platter tasting – guests have a selection of wines, cold and hot drinks.
The Classic Lemonade offered at Central Café is surprising because though it uses lemonade as a base, it incorporates orange and grenadine so that it is a shockingly tangy burst of citrus flavour, which really shocks your system awake and whets your appetite for the food ahead.
The main highlight of our Central Cafe experience was the cheese platter. Some unique offerings on the cheese platter includes the Kőrözött, a Hungarian cottage cheese mixed with paprika and cumin, which is a light, delicate balance of sweet and savoury flavours, characteristic of Hungarian cuisine. The platter we had also featured a fresh assortment of Gorgonzola, Tihany Brie, Pannónia and goat cheese.
You can definitely see the modern, minimalist design trend to café culture at Fekete, meaning ‘black’ in Hungarian. This café, hidden in a courtyard off a main road, is particularly famous for its hot chocolate, which utilises fine cacao powder by Szántó Tibor. Most hot chocolates I encountered in Europe used extremely dense melted chocolate as a syrup-like base, diluted with half a glass of whipped cream. Fekete’s lavender hot chocolate was much thinner in texture with no cream, but vivid with chocolate flavour which made it much lighter and easier to drink. The concept of lavender in hot chocolate was a little unnerving, but it added a touch of subtle fragrance that gave more dimension to the chocolate.
You wouldn’t think you’d be full from a few drinks and cheese, but it’s truly a good thing that the Coffee Houses Tour incorporates some of walking. Not only is it an ideal way to actually learn about different areas of the Pest side of the city (while ogling at the architecture), it ensures you have time to digest all the food. The amount of walking amounts to about 2km in total, which isn’t too tough even on a 32C day, but it is important to wear comfortable shoes.
Our third and final stop was Szamos Patisserie, another culinary landmark that’s laden with history and famous for its marzipan. Dining in the gilt flourishes and opulent marble of such a patisserie is definitely one of those experiences you need to try at least once in Europe.
The Dobos cake was a striking and indulgent cake made of layers of incredibly smooth chocolate cream and solid cake layers that have the texture of dense, biscuit-like sponge. The Eszterházy cake looks like an inverted version of the Dobos cake with a sweet glaze instead of chocolate. I prefer this one because the intervening cake layers were more nutty and crumbly.
The final biscuit with caramel glaze is meant to be an addendum to the dessert experience but I really liked the combination of the slightly burnt, smoky flavour to the crystalline caramel, mixed with the slightly puffed bread-like texture of the ‘biscuit’.
The Coffee Houses Tour is something of a ‘gateway drug’ to food tours, being a focused, abridged version of Nora’s more popular Culinary Walking Tour. If this tour is any indication, you’ll definitely have a great time on the other tours as well. Though it’s primarily a dessert and coffee tour, I still found myself full enough to skip dinner so it’s good if you want to kill two birds with one stone and have more time to explore. The walking tour will take you around the bustling Inner City of Budapest, finishing up near the Mihály Vörösmarty Statue in Vorosmarty Square, which is a beautiful square to explore in the evening and close to the Danube River.
For more information on the Coffee Houses Walking Tour, go to Food Tour Budapest
I Ate My Way Through dined as guests of Food Tour Budapest