A Short guide to the central market

 

The Central Market is generally viewed as a must-see tourist stop in everyone’s itinerary and on the pages of every guidebook.  Herewith, a way to engage with it as a local, rather than as a gawking rube.

The Central Market is the most visually compelling game in town for meats, fruit, vegetables, and poultry (as well as tourist geegaws, fish, game, and pickles) and is well worth a trip, not only as a shopping venue (in addition to the innumerable and largely indistinguishable food stalls there is a very large general purpose Match supermarket in its basement), but for the historical building itself, for the fruit/vegetable/meat market stalls on the ground floor, and the tourist kiosks on the mezzanine.  [It's worth noting, though, that market halls generally are a vital aspect of Budapest life, and that among them only the Central Market functions predominantly as a tourist magnet.  If your primary goal is buying fruits, vegetables, meats or other everyday goods, you may well be best served by one of the other, smaller but sometimes more functional markets around the city, including a modern one at Lehel ter (center below, the best source of meats, and the one with the largest farmers' market section), at Rakoczi ter (left), and at #13 Hold utca (right).]


  
  




Most of the trinkets sold on Váci utca are available on the Central Market mezzanine for less (often a lot less; little room to bargain, but you can try), and there are several steam table cafeterias on the mezzanine with quite good food.  In the basement there are stalls specializing in wild meats, fish, and game, as well as pickles.  And there is an extensive Asian grocery shop down there of impressive range and proportions, and a variety of pot and pan vendors. 




The main floor (above) has fruit, vegetables, bread, dairy, and too many butchers to count, including limitless amounts of raw goose and duck foie gras (fresh and tinned; the tinned is a catastrophe, no matter what the label; avoid it at all costs; avoid buying fine wine here or in a supermarket unless you know what you are doing and know the label you are buying).  Many stalls sell wine, as do many shops on Váci utca; I’d suggest, strongly, buying table wine wherever is most convenient and fine wine at Bortarsasag, a couple of blocks away from the Central Market on Raday utca, and avoiding the wine and alcohol vendors in the Central Market entirely.  Bortarsasag has a website, click here.  For that matter, if you are into wine there’s an excellent wine-oriented restaurant just behind the Central Market, Borbirosag (Wine Court); very wide selection of wines by the glass, quite good food.  Just go out the rear door of the Market and look to your left (see map below)...


Herewith a way to engage with the Market as a local rather than as a gawking rube:


There are many entrances circling the Central Market, but the front doors are the easiest to orient from initially; afterwards you can avoid them since all the traffic runs through them.  But for now, the Market fronts onto Vamhaz körut, right where Vaci utca starts or ends.  Go through the central doors of that main entrance.  There is an escalator to the lower level here and you can go down and walk the length of the building all the way to the back, checking out the part of the market most people never get to.  The pickle shops are particularly compelling, so is that Asian grocery store.  And if you need to do regular supermarket shopping the Match is as well-provisioned as Budapest markets come.


 
 


Go up the stairs in the back.  There are currency exchange booths in the front and the back near the escalators on the main floor.  Their rates are often quite good; check them out if you need to exchange funds.  When you are on the main floor, look around.  There’s a guy selling fresh squeezed orange and lemon juice from a table at the back wall.  A good thing.


There is a public restroom back here as well, costs less than 100 HUF.  Clean and probably the only thing close by, consider a pit stop.


Now you are at a fork in the road: you can continue going back around the hallway and into a smaller room that most tourists ignore.  This is the actual farmers’ market section of the Market Hall, where vendors rent tables, mostly on Friday-Sunday and bring stuff in from their farms.  There’s a big, excellent poultry stall back there, a guy who sells artisanal salamis and wursts (very smoky, seriously home made, great variety), two ladies selling milk (one from a big milk can, not as good, and one from a display case with lots of other dairy products, very good indeed), a couple of ladies selling very good honeys, and several very assertive ladies who speak no English selling mushrooms.


The office that certifies wild mushrooms as edible is right there, and they cluster near his door and display their slips with their heaps of mushrooms.  If you know mushrooms these can be great.  If you know how to haggle you can usually get them to knock 100 HUF off per kilo, sometimes 2000.  Do not buy saffron or truffles they are local, and largely tasteless.  In the summer, the flowers are a steal.  The vegetables can be great.  Apricots in particular can be wonderful, also tomatoes. 


Ok, head back out along the main selling floor.  As you face the front there is a central aisle, and two side aisles.  For no particular reason I favor the side aisle on the left, or the center.  The side aisle has more fruit/vegetable stands, the center more meat/poultry ones, but they're all jumbled in everywhere to some extent.  In a grass-is-greener mode, I believe that probably the best stuff is in the other aisle, on the right.


The stalls near the rear doors tend to have the best bargains, mostly because they have the least fresh produce...move closer to the front if you want the freshest stuff.  The paprika and tourist gifts is basically all the same everywhere, so if you’re buying that you can get it anywhere in the market.  Edes is sweet, erdos is hot, Szeged is where most paprika comes from Kalocsa is where the most delicate is said to come from and is a bit more expensive.  There are classes and grades (Sweet, Noble, Rose, and combinations) but I can’t give any advice. I buy the sweetest Kalocsai I can find, and the sharpest Kalocsai hot I can find.  Basically, this all seems to be exclusively for tourists; Hungarians buy paprika paste in tubes or emulsions in jars; I still use the powder.


Want foie gras?  see the page of this website about foie gras.  My approach is to walk around looking for the ones that seem largest and the best deal for the size and unblemished-ness of the liver lobes and then  go buy from them.  There is a good poultry stand about midway down the left aisle on the right side, the one closer to the front of the Market, but for things other than foie gras I shop in the stand in the farmers’ market.  By the way, chicken liver is very cheap and very good, though you have to clean it well to eliminate any that might have a speck of bile.


As you walk to the front of the Market, about 2/3 of the way to the front from the back, a side path from the center to the left aisle has a very good bread stand with somewhat more unusual breads than the stand in the front of the market.  Pretty much dead center of the center aisle there’s a series of fruit/vegetable stands and these tend to be reliable.  Facing the front of the market, on the left side of the center aisle, about 2/3 of the way to the front,. there’s a stand that seels sausages and salamis and cold cuts and they have an assortment of kolbasz versions (kielbasa is Polish for kolbasz).  As for mangalica (boar) kolbasz or pulyka (my favorite, turkey).  Debrecen sausages are especially good as well...kind of like paprika-laden hefty frankfurters.


So now you’re back at the front.  Ignore the pastry, it’s a catastrophe all around.  But if you stand facing the rear of the market, the bread stand on the left is ok.  And on the right there’s a discount cheese stand.  The Maasdam ementhal is a very good swiss-style cheese.  Their cheese in general is quite good.  Butter is basically pretty blah in Hungary, but the chunk butter from the dairy stall at the start of the center aisle on the left is ok, and the fancy dairy place in the farmers’ market is ok, and the lady with the milk can sells chunk butter as well, which is my preference.  Vaj = butter (the j is soft and a little like the y in ‘you’.


From the front you have to decide whether you want to go up to the mezzanine.  That’s more or less tourist toy hell, but there are some interesting food places including a restaurant just by the stairs at the front of the building (a cafeteria style place with quite good food), and a series of steam tables with a range of wursts and langos and fried stuff and salads.  There’s one really large steam table with good stews, a small booth with good fried foods, and a number of others.  Look for stuff that looks like it hasn’t been sitting around.  The big steam table is pretty good.




Other than food, there are a range of people selling essentially the same items, and one or two unusual things.  There’s an outlet for an artisanal knife shop from Szentendre that’s high quality, and there’s a guy selling shearling vests and coats that can be quite good and quite cheap if you know what you’re doing in terms of sheepskin.  Lots of tablecloths and embroidery.  The slightly yellower cloth is often more mass produced than the white, but again here it helps tyo know embroidery if you are going to get something that isn’t just cranked out as piecework.


Back downstairs, out the back, lunch or dinner at Borbirosag (green circle, below), and then a couple of blocks away from the river to Raday utca for a drink or a stroll or a visit to the wine shop Bortarsasag or the galleries. If you like rummaging in thrift shops, just next to Borbirosag there is a store that seels used stuff, mostly junk, but sometimes interesting things crop up.  And around the corner on Erkel, there is the shop of a woman who designs dresses (Farkas Klára,Erkel utca #4) and she has an interesting eye (and many pret-a-porter items for sale).  There is also a small outlet for a vineyard on Erkel.  If you walk up Erkel one block to Lonyay utca, there are a number of antique shops including a large Pawnshop that sells stuff that has not been redeemed, as well as a place that sells reproduction silver and pewter items and other tschotschkes (Aita Gallery).




If you walk out the front of the Market Hall onto Vamhaz körút, and take a right, there's an antique and estate jewelry shop called Klapka that often has terrific bargains (and often not).  just about next to it there's a military memorabilia shop with antique uniforms and the like.  And across the street is the shop of one of Budapest's best custom shoe and bootmakers, Toth Istvan.


Speaking of wine, if you are a wine buff, in addition to Bortarsasg and the shop on Erkel there is a small but rather comprehensive shop specializing in French wines on a small side street not far from the front of the Market (Francia Borok Haza) at Szarka utca 4 (Szarka utca is so small and short that it is not on most maps, just off Vaci utca, just before the Central Market; it is the next left after Szerb utca, off Vaci, as one walks towards the Central Market, or the next right after So utca as one walks away from the Market on Vaci).  There is also an outlet for all of the labels associated with Zwack (the maker of the distinctive Hungarian bitter aperitif Unicum), at Soroksári út 26 (I am personally partial to the 1993 5 Putanyos Diznoko Tokaji, available there when last I visited). To my tastes the best wine shop in Budapest is the small chain owned by the Budapest Wine Society – Bortarsasag.  The closest one is a small but comprehensive shop on Raday utca (#7), near Kalvin ter.  http://bortarsasag.hu/en/bortarsasag/wine_shops/budapesten