As you enter the cavernous space, a checkerboard of light streams in through banks of high windows. The air within the steel-framed interior vibrates with the hurried hum of unfamiliar languages. Standing beneath soaring beams and archways, you almost believe that you’ve wandered onto a train platform. Then you smell the bread.
You’re not in a grand European train station, you’re in the Central Market Hall in Budapest, Hungary – and you’re lucky. The Central Market Hall offers all the best delights of Hungarian cuisine under one roof.
On the ground floor, stalls display fresh produce, cheese, sweets, spices and meats. In the early morning, local chefs and home cooks begin their daily marketing here.
The most popular stalls near the entrance can be crowded, but there’s still room for you. Keep walking, because the selection is just as good toward the back of the hall. Vendors are efficient but polite, and some will even offer you a sample. The many varieties of Hungarian traditional sausages are easy to taste. Try the spicy Grey Cattle sausage, the rich Mangalica “hairy pig” pork sausage, or the mellow and smoky Hungarian winter sausage made without paprika.
Take the escalator or stairs to the upper floor to visit the market’s many eateries. This is where the smell of bread is most irresistible. You will see long lines of locals ordering lángos, a deep-fried flatbread. This warm Hungarian specialty can be served plain or with either savory or sweet toppings, and it’s easy to eat with your hands.
You’ll need to score a seat at a table to enjoy most of the other dishes, though, so visit early or late because the lunch hour can be busy. The eateries offer a selection of traditional foods – thin and flavorful soups like goulash, hearty meat stews, savory crepes filled with veal, stuffed cabbages, chicken paprikas, noodles and dumplings.
Even if you don’t know the Hungarian name for the dish you want, it’s easy to order by pointing. Before you take a seat, don’t forget to spoon some of the fresh pepper relishes, mustards or other condiments on your plate. But beware, freshly grated horseradish looks very similar to parmesan cheese – so taste carefully before you take a big bite!
If you’d like to follow your meal with a digestif, walk to the corner bar on the upper floor and try Unicum, an herbal liqueur made in Hungary from a secret family formula.
Before you head back downstairs, browse through some of the souvenir stalls around the eateries for the best selection of pre-packaged paprika, both sweet and hot. You’ll want some for your own kitchen, and the brightly colored packages and decorative tins with wooden measuring scoops make great gifts.
Butchers and fishmongers occupy the lower level of the Central Market Hall, along with all the pickle vendors. The friendly pickle vendors sell fresh pickled vegetables by the scoop, and they also offer several sizes of clear jars filled with decorative pickled vegetables. You can buy jars of smiling pepper faces, peppers trimmed to look like witches, or even peppers that spell “I LOVE BUDAPEST.”
The Budapest Central Market Hall is located at the south end of the Váci utca pedestrian shopping street. You can reach it easily on the M4 (green line) Metro or on trams 2, 47 or 49, which all stop just across the street at Fővám tér. The market is open every day except Sunday.
A version of this post was previously published as “Beyond Paprika: Discover the Cuisine of Hungary in the Budapest Central Market Hall” in the March 2015 edition of Travel Post Monthly.