The energy, the vibe, the wine, the food, and its lovable people.

In Budapest, they know how to enjoy life. They still remember fighting and dying to do just that, be who they are. Personal expression is everywhere. Hungarians are a fiercely independent people. As a nation they’ve struggled to keep their independence for centuries.

Hungary isn’t east, west, north or south, it just is. It’s a scrappy country with something to prove. It’s a cross-cultural, modern-day Mecca that beckons with the call of a good time. It’s a myriad of cultures—German, Slavic, Italian, Turkish, Italian, Armenian, Serbian, Polish and Jewish. Its food, music, art and national soul reflect this happy confusion.

Szimpla Termelői Piac

Szimpla Termelői Piac (Szimpla Farmers Market)

Csaba Csongrádi, the owner and manager of Fricska GastroPub

Csaba Csongrádi, the owner and manager of Fricska GastroPub.

Budapest reminded me of the way Manhattan used to be: gritty, but with a sensitive, eclectic underbelly. Manhattan the way I remember it 40 years ago … before hipsterfication, gentrification or corporatization, and before it’s neighboring borough, Brooklyn, became a hallowed nation-state.

No matter where I went, I knew I could get into some serious trouble—the good kind, that is. The key to this city is pacing, something I don’t personally excel at.

I ate, drank, listened to jazz, and basically partied all night at Kadarka, then went for a good schvitz in one of the city’s best thermal spring baths at Széchenyi gyógyfürdő.

Budapest reminds me of the way Manhattan used to be 40 years ago; gritty, but with a sensitive, eclectic underbelly.

Budapest isn’t exactly an insider’s city. It takes research and finesse, but eventually I found what I wanted. No pretentious bullshit that I’ve come to expect from most European capitals.

On both sides of the Danube, I found Mom and Pop operations and independent operators as far as I could see. No chain restaurants or culinary celebrity chef pantheons and, thankfully, no tiramisu. A couple standouts were Bock Bistro, Alabárdos Restaurant and Onyx.

There are numerous brewpubs, craft beer and wine bars, and great coffee houses. Crazy fun open-air eclectic urban “ruin” bars dot the city. They’re a bizarre marriage of a Star Wars and Michael Jackson music video set. Everything is mismatched, including the patrons.

I found the culinary standards of goulash, chicken paprika and stuffed cabbage but also
discovered a “new” generation of Hungarian fare, which like their wines, is a bold, fresh, satisfying and wonderfully cerebral cross-cultural twist. No Berliner dainty plates here, no eatable architecture or vegetable origami. Absent are the highbrow wine lists, chock full of expensive cult wines. The local juice is plenty good and it’s a bargain. Hungarian wines are extremely food friendly and delicious. No one cared that I couldn’t pronounce the names — I either asked for help or simply pointed. I always got what I wanted.

Sumptious cheeses at Szimpla Farmers Market.

Sumptious cheeses at Szimpla Farmers Market.