There is something wonderful about the way in which Budapest shuts down on Sundays.  But it is a drag for tourists. 

After all, as in every other city in the world, most consumers work during the week and spend their weekends pursuing objects they don’t need.  And Budapest is filling with malls that cater to that consumptive market. But there's the rub: in order for me to sell something to you on a weekend, I have to give up my own weekend, and in Budapest surprisingly few people are willing to do so simply to make a buck.  Or 170 Forints.  So the shops shutter and the streets empty.

Most things simply shut down around 2:00pm on Saturday and reopen on Monday.  Several times a year there are extended 3- and 4-day weekends that make American 3-day holidays seem like a poor relation.  As though the entire city celebrated Thanksgiving half a dozen times a year and NO ONE, not a single person, works on the Friday.  They pull this off by working the full Saturday the week before (or sharing in the delusion that they're working those extra hours), rather than quitting at 2:00, and then they take the whole Saturday off the next week.  But where did they get the Friday?

Then, in the summer, shops will just shut.  Sometimes for weeks or even months at a time.  Some will post a sign alluding to freedom (szabad) and summertime and being closed; a rare few will mention when they plan to return (and a rarer fewer actually will return on the appointed day); others will open late or close early without really posting any notice, or take days off here and there when the weather seems particularly nice or particularly nasty.

I am envious.  I listen to people grousing about how little money they are paid, and I know how little they are paid, and I feel grateful to live in a country where I can earn enough to afford small pleasures, and then they’ll take off for a month in the summer in a way I haven’t been able to do since high school.  How does this work?!  Ultimately, it’s about priorities, and Hungarians value their own lives, and the centrality of the quality of those lives, very, very highly.

When they have a festival or close a bridge and have a street fair (as they do with the Chain Bridge every Sunday, all summer long) or have a parade or send off fireworks, they’re not doing that for the tourists.  Only in the last couple of years has there been any summer season at all for the Opera or the several symphony orchestras that sell out all year long, offering seats that are affordable by foreign standards but costly by Hungarian wages.  Culture is for the locals, celebration is for the locals, respite is for the locals. 

So, be prepared.  Very few supermarkets are open Sundays.  Many restaurants (but far from all) close (the Cafe Central, the Gerloczy, and Segal are all terrific places open on Sundays (listed in increasing order of cost and formality)).  Many museums and tourist attractions are closed on Sundays.  It is a time to take it easy. 

Fortunately, as the Hungarians set about creating enjoyable activities for themselves, you are invited to come along.  Not exhorted, but welcome and welcomed (if you can figure out what time the event starts and where it is).

Oh, and did I mention the lavish Sunday brunch in several of the major hotels?  Designed primarily for tourists, each has its own personality and is a wonderfully indulgent way to spend a leisurely Sunday afternoon.  The Gellert, like everything at the Gellert, hasn't quite overcome its pre-1990 feeling of enforced hospitality, but the view across the river is beautiful, sitting outside on a beautiful day can't be beat, and the Hungarian dishes are prepared with a solid authenticity that the other restaurants lack as they strive for wannabe French (the Meridien), or fusion (the Corinthia Grand).  But the Meridien has by far the best pastry chef, and the Corinthia has a better than exclusively schmaltzy Gypsy band and probably the best food across the board.

If you want to eat on a Sunday afternoon surrounded by actual Hungarians out for a good time at the trough, go to Trofea, at Visegrádi utca 50.  An all-you-can-eat  (and drink) buffet with an incredible array of Hungarian dishes, well prepared and always packed (usually with no other tourists in the room; on any given Sunday afternoon the action will be stopped several times to celebrate a birthday of one of the guests, and one evening there was a wedding reception in 1/3 of the restaurant...

And if eating isn't your idea of a pleasant Sunday on vacation, the flea market at Ecséri is open, though not as busy as on Saturday (and it closes by mid-afternoon); while you're there you might break down and have a Langos.


Almost everything closes on Sundays in Budapest.  Until you realize that this is an expression of commitment to leisure and pace, and that you, too, can afford to slow down one day each week (even while frenziedly trying to tag every sight), that can be pretty frustrating.  And then, somehow, it clicks into place: there is almost as much pleasure to be taken wandering the closed city as there is exploring it in the mid-week bustle...the city is its rhythm.