Hungary: Budapest & Heviz Trip Report

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Eating out in Budapest

Liszt Ferenc Tér is filled with bars, restaurants and cafes. It's a two minute walk from Oktagon and a very popular location for locals, students and tourists.

Statue of Anonymous

We eventually we settled for Cafe Vian, but still had to wait 20 minutes for an outdoor table - booking is recommended. The excellent Dreher lager was 620 HUF per 1/2 litre and mineral water an excessive 720 HUF for a small bottle. Cafe Vian has a gigantic menu, but judging by the two good dishes we had the kitchen is able to cope; though my farm full of chicken was smothered with mozzarella not stuffed, as the menu had hinted (2490 HUF). My partner's grilled salmon with vegetables (2950 HUF) was a welcome break from the meat laden menus of Budapest.

Muvész kávéház is two minutes away from Budapest's Opera House and is seen by many as an alternative to Cafe Gerbeaud. We treated it as a complement and enjoyed their pleasant cakes on a couple of occasions, including a rather good slice of chocolate orange flavoured gateau (650 HUF). A cup of tea was 590 HUF and 0.5l of Dreher 590 HUF. Muvész kávéház has outdoor seating, but we enjoyed sitting inside and admiring the superb architecture and using their free wi-fi.

Ristorante Krizia was the number 1 restaurant in Budapest on TripAdvisor when we visited. A TripAdvisor advisory price of £3-£6 was wholly unrealistic, with the cheapest mains around 3000 HUF. This basement restaurant is a 5 minute walk from the Opera House and offers a charming interior and service. My mushroom soup for starter (2000 HUF) was really very good, albeit over seasoned. For main I had farro pasta with avocado and four meagre shrimps (3000 HUF). Dessert was a well prepared tiramisu (990 HUF) with a huge collection of fruit protruding from it. Ristorante Krizia is a solid Italian, but it's certainly not a hidden gem nor is it the bargain TripAdvisor stated. My biggest disappointment with Ristorante Krizia was the food and value didn't justify spending an evening in a basement surrounded solely by foreign tourists - there are far more interesting places to eat in Budapest than Krizia.

Absinzt is another restaurant/cafe on the Parisian influenced Andrassy Ut. Absinzt was high up on the K+K Opera hotel's recommended list. This being a pre-Opera dinner, I decided against sampling the Absinthe on offer inside and stuck to a bottle of Dreher at 980 HUF. Home-made gnocchi with pesto and chicken (1980 HUF) was a good effort, but a little creamy. My lamb burger and chips (2490 HUF) was fine, although for once in Budapest the size of the meat was far from gigantic. Absinzt was a pleasant spot to enjoy a quick bite to eat and be entertained by drivers struggling to fit their cars into the tiny parking spaces.

Callas Etterem is an upmarket cafe/restaurant just across the road from The Opera House. I wasn't impressed with the snobbery of our waiter here, but the kir royal (1150 HUF) and 0.5L Soproni (700 HUF) did hit the spot. However the real star of the show was their fantastic raspberry macaroon (800 HUF). All of Callas Etterem's cakes looked lovely, but their macaroon backed the aesthetics up.

Cafe Kor is deservedly listed in many Budapest guide books. It's a very popular spot for lunch and dinner, with its location just 5 minutes away from St Stephen's Basilica. There are few outdoor seats, so it's likely you'll be indoors. That's no bad thing as you can study Cafe Kor's gigantic list of specials on the blackboard. I was struggling to move after eating an enormous serving of Hungarian stew with veal, accompanied by noodles and cucumber salad (2560 HUF). Everything coming out of Cafe Kor's kitchen looked delicious, including their salads. That was everything apart from the avocado and prawn salad (1810 HUF) we also ordered - a hollowed avocado filled with a creamy paste and tiny prawns. Not nice. I recommend Cafe Kor and their really friendly staff - just stay clear of their avocado creations!

Spa Lake Heviz panorama at Heviz, Hungary

Could any trip to Budapest be complete without a trip to Cafe Gerbeaud? Yes the prices are steep; yes there is a mandatory 15% service charge; yes there will be lots of tourists and tour groups passing through, but Cafe Gerbeaud is still great. The interior of Gerbeaud is delightful and their cakes stand is the stuff dreams are made of. On both our visits we opted to sit inside and soak up this wonderful and historic cafe. Gerbeaud's home-made beer - also available in their pub next door - is very good, but hardly a snip at 950 HUF for 0.3L. Soft drinks, such as coca-cola or mineral water are 680 HUF.

We also ate lunch at Gerbeaud and their humongous club sandwich was terrific (3050 HUF) - lovely pieces of chicken and bacon with a mound of ready salted crisps on the side. Smoked salmon on a toasted baguette, with sour cream dill cucumbers (2150 HUF) was equally as good. My order for a caramel cup ice-cream sundae (1600 HUF) joined the endless production line in Gerbeaud's kitchen - very good it was too, although I prefferred the ice-cream cones from Gerbeaud's stall in Vörösmarty Square. On another visit to Gerbeaud we tried a couple of their famous cakes. My sacher torte (770 HUF) was excellent, as was Gerbeaud's strawberry tart (750 HUF). Evidence of the expensive nature of Gerbeaud was provided by some Italian tourists outside, who were having to empty their pockets to try and pay the bill!

Budapest certainly can't be faulted for the varierty of restaurants on offer, as Cafe Iguana for Mexican demonstrated. This restaurant has been around a long time and offers a large menu of traditional Mexican fayre, along with super friendly service and great atmosphere. Excellent nachos with loasds of toppings (1390 HUF) were swiftly followed by a super chicken combo and very good traditional chicken fajitas. The accompaniments to the fajitas included cheese, guacomole, sour cream, salsa, rice, refried beans and salad - take note British restaurants! Reservations are highly recommended - Iguana was nearly full when we visited on a Sunday night. Beware the smokey interior (we reserved a table outside).

The square infront of St Stephen's Basilica and the adjoining streets have all had the "cafe cool" treatement. After deciding without much deliberation that 7000 HUF was too much for breakfast at our Sofitel hotel, we headed to Cafe Negro for breakfast. From a food perspective this was a great choice. Four huge slices of perfect French toast and side salad (900 HUF) was bettered only be the Cafe Negro breakfast (1900 HUF). This special breakfast included a perfect mushroom omelette, grilled paprika, lovely sausage and side salad. Delicious. We would have visited Cafe Negro twice, but the waitress completely ignored our presence on the second visit and did not react positively to our prompting. So we left.

Our most expensive and best quality meal in Budapest meal was at Rivalda, a restaurant in Buda's castle district. The outside courtyard setting, with trees, lights and well spaced tables really was beautiful. The menu was excellent and the food was very good indeed. My goose leg was cooked to perfection and the red cabbage, plus sausage pancakes (4200 HUF) it was served with were fantastic. A great main course. A lovely piece of Salmon, served with asparagus ragu and home-made gnocchi (3900 HUF) was our other main. Chocolate ganache (1200 HUF) for dessert was not as runny inside as I'd have liked, but it was still very well done. At Rivalda, like other restaurants, the price of the excellent Hungarian Tokaji dessert wine was seemingly on the high side - around 1900 HUF for a 0.1dl glass was no bargain. For a special meal though Rivalda comes highly recommended.

Bars: Budapest

Budapest is packed full of bars and cafe bars - I recommend picking up a copy of Where, or one of the other excellent free publications, when you touch down in Budapest to identify where to start, but I recommend finding undocumented destinations of your own.

Back on Liszt Ferenc Tér Cafe Incognito were offering Soproni at 500 HUF for 0.5l. A bellini was 950 HUF, although the advertised champagne proved to be a low quality sparkling wine. Incognito, like many of the bars on Liszt Ferenc Tér, provide heaters and blankets for their outdoor seating in addition to their sleek and modern interiors. Lots of the bars also have television, which attracts the civilised football supporters.

Szimpla Kert is Budapest's most famous "ruin bar" - huge warehouse like spaces which have been turned into bars. It's spectacularly inventive and is a tourist attraction in its own right. There are two floors, with a massive open air courtyard, complete with old cars to sit in, at the rear. The rooms are all themed, with the standout being a ground floor atmospherically lit with computer monitors dotted along the walls. Draught Dreher was 550 HUF per 0.5L. Szimpla Kert is a must visit and the street it's on (Kazinczy u.) is home to a few other lively bars.

Instant was a fine imitator of Szimpla. Located in a more central location it's a similar set-up and layout to Szimpla, although on a smaller scale. We enjoyed a few games on the pinball machine and a nosey around the random room upstairs. Recommended.

Raday u. is yet another street packed full of bars. Our choice Caramia was a disappointment. I had goulash soup (990 HUF) here, which was ok - although watch out for the extreme fat on the meat! The Dreher was good, but the staff were ignorant. There was an English pub further down this road alongside many others - definitely another good street to bar hop.

I had hoped to visit some of Budapest's beer halls, but was disappointed to find them more like restauarants. This was true of both Fortuna Matyas in the Buda castle district and Kaltenberg Royal Bavarian Brasserie on Kinizsi Utca. The former has seemingly changed its name and was closed during the day. The latter was definitely a restaurant and not the Bavarian beer hall I'd expected. Also we wasted time travelling to the rooftop Corvinteto on a Monday night, only to find the doors closed. Check the opening times if you plan to visit.

Budapest: Tourist Attractions

Butterfly at Budapest Zoo, Hungary

Budapest Zoo is a few minutes walk from Heroes Square (entry 1850 HUF per person). Opened in 1866 it's one of Europe's oldest zoos and has some terrific art nouveau buildings, including a superbly detailed elephant house (unfortunately closed for renovations when we visited). Feeding the giraffes, climbing the man-made mountain to spy on the polar bears and waiting for the lions to roar are all par for the course. Budapest Zoo provided a pleasant wander in the sunshine - give yourselves a minimum four hours for your visit.

Roof of House of Terror, Budapest

The House of Terror Museum is a lesson on how history should be told. The imaginative design of the buildings exterior continues inside where a flowing collection of rooms narrate Hungary's story through the war and resulting Soviet occupation. The effective use of props, video and music in each of the rooms is often sheer brilliance; made all the more chilling knowing this building was where the terror reign in Budapest was directed from. Each room contains printed English notes, so while audio guides are available I recommend soaking up the intended atmosphere without distraction. Unmissable. Admission 1800 HUF.

The Opera House Tour runs every afternoon at 3pm and 4pm in a variety of languages (2800 HUF per person). No doubt the overcrowded English tour group, empty Hungarian tour group and a sparecely populated Italian and German tours will be typical of most days. To take photos or video you're supposed to buy an inexpensive wristband, although most people didn't bother and took their footage anyway. The tour visits the main public areas of the Opera House, so those looking for behind the scene exploration will be disappointed. However the tour guides narrative was very interesting, including how the Austrian Opera House designer left the first performance here early. He never returned after realising Hungary's national opera house was more beautiful than his Austrian version! Budapest's Opera House is stunningly opulent, which through attending a performance or taking the tour you must experience.

Paprika at food market in Budapest, Hungary

Bridge repairs meant there was no car access to Margaret Island when we visited. The island itself is a charming escape from the packed tourist areas and busy roads of Budapest, with locals finding solstice to sunbathe at the water's edge. A little train can, for a fee, give you a quick tour around Margeret Island but we occupied a couple of hours with our own walking tour. Watch out for the dancing fountains in time to the music and some lovely flower gardens.

The Great Market Hall is a must visit - upstairs is all the usual tourist goods, where I managed to purchase the traditional painted egg and model of Fisherman's Bastion. Downstairs is where locals do their food shopping. There's paprika hung everywhere and lots of raw meat, including a pile of testicles to take home and cook. The excellent strudel stand was more in line with our tastes. Overall the Great Market Hall is a great place to get a feel for Budapest.

Special Events in Budapest

We were fortunate to visit Budapest during their annual International Wine Festival. Around two hundred food and wine stalls, spectacular views of the Danube at night and live music complete with crazy European dancing were the highlights. The food on offer was not a highlight - deep fried potato rostis and shards of meat which were at least a third pure fat. No wonder there was a huge queue at the strudel van, where we successfully dodged the cabbage filling. Wine is served in 0.5dl or 1dl measures, with some stalls more generous with their pouring than others. The wine is purchased via 100 HUF a piece tokens, with small measures of wine costing anything from 2 tokens to 20 or more. I didn't find the wine festival particularly good value, considering the entrance fee of 2300 HUF only included a free glass and no drink. The Portugieser red wine was the cheapest on offer - if you drink enough you'll forget the taste! Budapest's International Wine Festival was still a great evening out.


While the tour was good, nothing can beat seeing a performance at the Budapest Opera House, where we enjoyed The Marriage of Figaro. Our seats were just three rows back from the stage and to hear the strength of the performer's voices was quite something. The subtitles above the stage were, as expected, in Hungarian so we were reliant on a simple plot and programme notes to know what was happening! I'd read some very silly threads on the TripAdvisor forums regarding suitable attire for visiting the opera, which suggested that unless you wore a full dinner suit your attendance might not be welcome. I disagree with this and I was very comfortable wearing my dark denims, black shoes and white shirt. Although an American tourist wearing three quarter length beach trousers, white trainers and carrying a backpack did look entirely out of place!

St Stephen's Basilica was hosting a series of short organ concerts. I can imagine experiencing this in such a wonderful setting would have been a great experience, but when the person at the door revealed the prices we nearly fell down the Basilica's steps. It's a shame this experience was so over priced, especially considering the affordability of the Opera.

Organised tours in Budapest

After seeing the River Ride bus swimming along the Danube we had to give it a try. Instead of the traditional separate on land bus tour and on water boat tour, River Ride combines them both with the first (as is mentioned quite a few times on the tour) amphibious bright yellow bus in Europe. Though innovation doesn't come cheap at 7500 HUF a ticket. River Ride departs from outside the spectacular Four Seasons Hotel in Budapest. River Ride had not been running long and this showed with the number of people on board - less than 10. Whereas traditional tour companies in Budapest have pride of place near Oktagon and an army of staff across the city to recruit you, River Ride didn't. It will be interesting to see how popular River Ride becomes, but the novelty value is undoubtable - even police offices aboard a boat on the Danube were taking pictures with their cameraphones!

River Ride have obviously had some teething problems, probably to do with the strength of the buses water engine and the strength of the Danube's current. Instead of turning at the Elizabeth bridge (as advertised) it turned around at the Chain bridge. Other issues like entry and exit point on the Danube being the same, so it has to double and back and no on road tour Buda (castle, citadella, etc.) are easily forgotten knowing that your holiday tales will include how you were propelled along the Danube in a bright yellow bus!

Travelling to and from Heviz

After reading conflicting reports on the Internet about how best to travel to Heviz, we opted for the train from Budapest's Keleti station. This was to prove a mistake. The train was delayed for 30 minutes and the carriage we took a seat stank of body odour. Things got even worse when the train pulled out of the station, as the putrid smell of human waste from the toilet filled the carriages. Perhaps paying for first-class would have been better, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Church in Heviz, Hungary

The train didn't catch up any time, it lost even more. We suspected the train might split into two at a station, but when this happened even the locals didn't seem to understand who would be left behind and who wouldn't. With more luck than judgement we arrived at Kezthely. After a smooth 10 minute bus ride from the train station we arrived in Heviz.

On the way back to Budapest we took the bus from Heviz, which left at 0925 prompt from outside the main entrance to Hevuz spa. This was pure luxury in comparison to the train and a civilised exeperienced, which included a halfway stop at a service station. The bus was quicker than the train and happily dropped us off at Budapest's bus station.

Attractions in Heviz

Heviz is an absolutely lovely town. It's main tourism is from the German and Austrian markets, so don't expect English to be well spoken. Of course the major attraction of Heviz is Europe's largest outdoor thermal spa. The spa is fantastic and hugely popular. There are two entrances, where you receive a wristband and a time you need to exit bt. We had tickets included with our hotel package, but for anyone else entry to the spa costs 2100 HUF for a 3 hour ticket and 3700 HUF for a daily ticket. Inside lockers, towels and rubber rings are all available at additional cost (I think the rubber ring was 400 HUF to hire, with a 600 HUF refundable deposit). If you're in Heviz for a few days there are lots of shops which sell inflatables at very cheap prices, so that's maybe a better option than hiring.

Spa Lake Heviz panorama at Heviz, Hungary

Inside Spa Heviz there are lots of loungers and chairs, but on most days you'll struggle to stake a claim on these unless you arrive early morning. The spa felt a safe place, so we were comfortable leaving our dressing gowns, shoes and towels by the side of the lake. The lake itself is great, although be warned its very deep and wading through the water really drains your energy. Most folk swim out to the railings and hold on there, or float around with the help of an inflatable. The inside part of Hotel Spa Heviz is where the hottest pools are and for the non-swimmers one of the "mini-pools" has a metal grid in it which is only 1.6m deep. The thermal water of Spa Heviz is great and the place is rather surreal - a must visit.

Accomodation in Heviz

Our original plan had been to stay at the Rogner Hotel & Spa Lotus Therme Heviz. However they never responded to an e-mail inquiry, which for a supposed 5 star hotel is not acceptable. So we booked into the supposed 4 star Hotel Spa Heviz. We booked a 'special' deal on their website which included 3 nights accomodation, 5 treatments and a daily ticket to Spa Heviz for 64,000 HUF a night. I'll sum up the two positives before I launch into why Hotel Spa Heviz is perhaps the worst hotel I have ever stayed in: its location is fantastic (just opposite the entrance to Spa Heviz) and because it's part of the spa they include .

Hotel Spa Heviz is pitched somewhere between a hotel and hospital, but if they advertise as a hotel and have the cheek to charge more than we paid for the 5 star Sofitel in Budapest I will review Hotel Spa Heviz as the hotel its name would suggest:

  • Internet searching had incorrectly suggested Heviz didn't have many eating out options, so we chose half board at the Hotel Spa Heviz. The breakfast was passable, but the evening buffet was a disgrace. The assortment was, I suspect, worse than many prisons would serve. The soup for starter was frothy and hideous, the mains were poor quality meat in a fat based sauce, the pasta was overcooked and the sponge cake for dessert was stale. It was embarassing to see guests being given such awful food, with many choosing to eat only a plate of plain pasta with sauce dribbled over it. Thankfully the receptionist allowed us to cancel the half board option after the first night and refunded some of our money.

  • The first day of treatments were very good - a great deep back massage and an underwater jet massage. A doctor sees you first and takes your blood pressure, while recommending some appropiate treatments. The second day of treatments was an absolute joke. It started off ok with mud packing - although bear in mind the treatments at the Hotel Spa Heviz aren't for the modest person. It soon became apparent there was only one member of staff in the whole treatment centre on the second day, so the excellent massage of the first day was replaced by a 10 minute fumble around my back, which I think did more harm than good. Then the underwater massage, which lasted 20 minutes the previous day was over in 6 minutes - I was informed by the guy pulling the plug out and making a dash for the exit.

  • The whole interior is dated and glum. This led to a few problems such as our shower not draining properly and the whistling of water through the pipes waking you up. Also the in room safe had no instructions and the double room we had booked was actually two single beds, which were likely to collapse if moved.

  • Despite the Hotel Spa Heviz having verbose "house rules" in each room, one of which was be quiet and respect other guests relaxing, the cleaners made so much noise early morning it inevitably woke you up. Unfortunately, as we found out when our room hadn't been cleaned or had the towels replaced, it's not the noise of work being done - it's loud gossip and laughter with colleagues. The receptionist was nonchalant when we complained about not having the room made-up - we had to explain in detail what the problem was just so she gave us some clean towels.

  • On our second day our treatments were early in the morning. However, unlike many other spa resorts the waiters at Hotel Spa Heviz were not prepared to allow us to eat the basic breakfast in our dressing gowns. The incosistencies at Hotel Spa Heviz were borderline absurd.

I could continue to list Hotel Spa Heviz's inadequacies. My advice would be definitely visit Heviz but don't consider this hotel. Most of the hotels in Heviz are fairly dated, communist era buildings and I'm unsure what an improvement they could be, but I'm confident they could not be worse than Hotel Spa Heviz. The self-catering apartments in Heviz looked lovely, although many would be a 20-30 minute walk to the spa.

Eating out in Heviz

Heviz has a richness of restaurants and cafes, most of which close between 9pm and 10pm. There's an excellent ice cream parlour on the main street and a late night shop near the stunningly beautiful church. I recommend checking out the Heviz 3D site to get a feel for what Heviz looks like. On our first night we visited the excellent Liget Etterem Pizzeria for a hawaii pizza (1190 HUF) and mushroom pizza (890 HUF). The prices were a welcome drop from Budapest and the pizzas were very good indeed, backed by good service and a lovely outdoor seating area where you could hear a violinist playing on Heviz's main street. Draft Holsten was 550 HUF per half litre.

We ate lunch at Papa's and Mama's. There's a cafe at the front with a superbly presented array of cakes. We later tried the tiramisu (360 HUF) and chocolate torte (280 HUF), both of which looked better than they tasted. We sat in the restaurant out the back, which was a pleasant spot. Here I ate "Grandma's small roasted slices" (1890 HUF). It was served on a flight tray and constituted small cuts of pork and ham mixed with beans, onions and mushrooms: total meat overload. The accompanying roast potatoes and cucumber salad were the highlights. Our other choice of mushroom soup (590 HUF) was not what we were expecting - the soup was like a ghoulash, with an unappetising covering of fat.

The Egregy vineyards are a 25 minute walk from the centre of Heviz, or you can travel via a mini-train. I was amazed by the number of eating establishments here, many offering live music in the evening. I can't remember the restaurant's name we settled on, but we sat outside overlooking the vineyards. The starter of garlic bread, was smothered in garlic (500 HUF). I had mixed grill for main, served with cooked apples (1890 HUF). Like most dishes we ate in Hungary it had far too much salt, but apart from that it was a hearty and enjoyable feast. I also tried Unicum the Hungarian herbal apertif. To call it an acquired taste, would in no way prepare you for Unicum - an essential test for amny tourist. Even the enjoyable Borsodi beer (590 HUF for 0.5L) couldn't rid me of the Unicum taste! Egregy's vineyards are wondeful and no trip to Heviz would be complete without the short journey here.

The fact Heviz caters heavily for the German and Austrian markets is reflected not just by second languages, but in the establishments throughout Heviz. A welcome product of this is the Hofbräuhaus bar, which serves Bavarian sausages from a hot plate alongside 1 litre steins of the excellent HB beer (990 HUF).

Kocsi Csárda is a restaurant two minutes walk away from the Hofbräuhaus bar. When we visited a wedding was occupying the outdoor tables and the main restaurant, but there was still space along the side, from where we could hear the music and loud celebrations of the wedding. The service went from struggling to acknowledge our presence to warm, friendly and jokey - our waiter spoke perfect English. My ribs were humongous and served with two mounds of rice and corn on the cob. It was good, although a little plain. Our other main of salmon was very good, although the rostis it was served with were more like potato croquettes. The atmosphere and good menu selection made Kocsi Csárda an inspired choice. Dreher was 590 HUF per 0.5L.

Our reluctance to head back to Hotel Spa Heviz and our intrigue at a a disco ball in the window meant we headed upstairs to a nightclub opposite the entrance to Heviz Spa. Here a man was on a keyboard singing cheesy europop 'til midnight. The crowds of folk, complete with ample cigarettes, were in their element.