shopping in Budapest

 
 
 

Budapest is a city of markethalls, shops, and markets.


Part of this is the idiosyncratic history of Hungary’s post-1956 accommodation of small capitalist enterprises, which permitted small shops to exist outside the regulated economy.  Part of it is Hungary’s post-1990 economy, in which commercial real estate has been inexpensive, while inventory has often been prohibitively costly.


The result is a myriad of small shops, more or less scattered willy-nilly around the city center, with limited and eclectic collections of things to sell.  Lots of floor and shelf space, items spread out luxuriously, or sometimes pathetically, along the shelves.  Odd juxtapositions: a shop that sells new books and used linens, a shop that sells embroidery and liquor, a combination espresso bar and convenience store, dresses and yard goods for curtains, thrift shops and pawn brokers, shoe repair and locks.


And then there are the market halls, a network of massive food and produce (and other goods) centers with individual vendors at numerous stalls all vying for your attention.


Surely the most compelling game in town for meats, fruit, vegetables, and poultry (as well as tourist geegaws, fish, game, and pickles) is the Central Market Hall, at the end of Vaci utca and 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.  Most of the trinkets sold on Váci utca are available on the Central Market mezzanine for less, 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 Asian grocery shop down there and a variety of pot and pan vendors. 


The main floor 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 buying table wine in supermarkets and fine wine at Bortarsasag, described below, and avoiding the vendors in the Central Market. 


At the far end of the Central Market Hall there is a separate section where the small farmers bring their current produce, as well as a number of tables devoted to wild mushrooms (the inspection station that certifies mushrooms as safe to eat is in this building; each vendor displays the tag verifying the non-toxic nature of their wares adjacent to each heap of mushrooms).  Bargain aggressively over the mushroom prices; avoid the local truffles, which are tasteless, but the honeys are great and the flowers a bargain.  The widest selection is generally summers, Fridays-Sundays.


There are other, less touristy-y market halls scattered throughout the city.  Lehel ter, Rakoczi ter, and one near Arany Janos utca, behind the American Embassy...






 

Shopping in Budapest is quirky.  It defies expectation.  Things tend to be dispersed, so similar shops most often don't cluster in a single neighborhood.  Even stores often stock random associations of goods...down comforters and used books.  Other places stock very narrow arrays.  You frequently can't tell exactly what a store is selling by looking in its windows.  And entire genres of shop can slide past you unnoticed ... it took me years to discover that there are stationers shops everywhere.