There are a million different reasons to travel to Budapest. Its stunning nineteenth century architecture, the fascinating and complex history that unravels in a lazy walk across its pockmarked core, and the picturesque beauty of a capital spanning the Danube all recommend Budapest as a worthwhile destination. However, for me, the bakeries (or cukrászdak) should definitely be included at the top of any list of reasons to visit this magnificent city.
Hungarian pastries are at least as rich and decadent as Vienna’s famous baked goods, but enjoy much less renown. Perhaps this is a result of Hungary’s time behind the Iron Curtain. Austria definitely had a head start on exposure, its confections being exponentially more accessible to the average traveler. Any serious pastry-phile knows of Austria’s Sacher Torte, but Hungary’s Dobos Torta still lies under most people’s radar. Luckily, a trip to Budapest, with the help of this quick reference guide, should remedy any shortage of Hungarian pastry knowledge and provide the basis for an excellent visit to one of Central Europe’s most beautiful capitals.
There are about three different locations of this high-end pastry shop throughout the city. Perhaps the most accessible, though, is on Kossuth Lajos Street, between Ferenciek Square and Astoria. Here you’ll find one of my all-time favorites: túro torta. Túro is a type of farmer’s cheese that is often likened to ricotta. Hungarians can’t get enough of this stuff, and with good reason. It’s used in both sweet and savory dishes and is widely available in market halls and grocery stores in several different forms. Back to the point, though: Auguszt’s túro torta is a must-try. It’s lighter and fluffier than traditional American-style cheesecake, and comes topped with a delicate layer of fruit (kiwis, strawberries, blueberries, oranges) that perfectly compliment the base. Auguszt also serves all kinds of fancy coffees and hot chocolates to accompany their incredible cake selection.
Unfortunately, this shop north of Buda’s castle hill on Szépvölgyi Street is known to contribute a portion of its revenue to the far right nationalist Jobbik party, but I felt that I could not compile a list of Budapest’s finest pastry shops without including this one. Daubner is known for its wide selection of decadent and affordable cakes, sold by the slice (approximately $2.00 each). These cakes are packed with cream, mousse, chocolate, hazelnuts, marzipan and every other indulgent ingredient imaginable. Fortunately, Daubner is located a bit outside the city center, so you can spend the rest of your day walking off the cake on your way back toward downtown.
The rococo interior of this opulent café is reason enough to stop by for a visit. Anchoring the northern side of Vörösmarty Square, this café, restaurant, and pastry shop is always packed with locals and tourists alike. Unlike the more traditional bakeries previously listed, Gerbaud tries to branch out with more modern and unusual pastries. (On one visit they were serving a lemon basil torte.) But if you’re looking for more traditional items, they have them, too. All the cakes are presented beautifully in a glass case, so you can see which looks most appetizing. The wait staff generally speaks English, too, so you can quiz them on their different offerings.
This gem of a bakery, located at Ferenciek Square, is an obvious relic of Communist times. There are no tables or chairs to be found here, just a long counter along the window where you can squeeze in between other patrons who are enjoying a quick dessert while staring back through the window at all the people on the sidewalk who are ogling their desserts. This is a good place to try krémes, a pastry consisting almost entirely of lightly whipped custard held together by a thin layer of pastry above and below. Hungarians have an apparent love of all things rich, and the krémes embodies just that.
This is an adorable old shop just north of the Parliament building on Balassi Bálint Street. It has been around for decades, and it becomes obvious why when you taste what they have to offer. Almost anything in the glass display cases is a sure bet. Personally, I was blown away by the Lúdláb torta, which is basically a chocolate cake with chocolate mousse, a thin layer of cherry jam and finally topped with a thin layer of solid chocolate. But if chocolate isn’t really your thing, then I’d recommend the rétes. This is a traditional Hungarian dessert, something that all grandmothers have baking in the oven when their grandchildren come for a visit. It is very close to the Austrian strudel, but it’s more focused on the filling rather than the pastry surrounding it. Traditional flavors include cherry (meggyes), poppy (mákos) and apple (almas).
Finally, I have to mention a non-pastry baked good that is extremely specific to Hungary, and which should not be missed on a trip to Budapest: pogacsa. These little savory nuggets are made with an unfathomable amount of butter. The butter is folded into the dough over and over again, much like when making croissants. Other ingredients are often added to the dough, such as cheese, pepper, or bacon. When they come fresh out of the oven, the dough flakes apart in your mouth and then proceeds to melt on your tongue, releasing its salty, buttery essence. This is definitely one of the things I miss most about living in Hungary. Fortunately, they are ubiquitous in Budapest. One of the best places to try is at one of the infinite Princess bakeries that are located at almost every subway station (except on the yellow line). And because of the high traffic surrounding most locations, you have a good chance of getting some fresh ones. (Stale ones can be quite dry and bland, and do not hint at the amazing potential of pogasca!)
In short, go to Budapest, wander the streets, try some cakes and pogacsa, and you’ll have an unforgettable time.