A Wine Lover's Guide to Budapest

July 15, 2016

From tastings to bathing in the stuff, self-confessed wine lover Bridget Nurre Jennions lets us in on all of the wine-related things you can do in Hungary's capital, Budapest.

I knew I was in wine heaven when the owner of my AirBnB for the weekend opened his temperature-controlled wine refrigerator and offered me a free bottle. "I've just seen too many of my guests drinking bad Hungarian, or worse - Italian or French - wine while they've stayed here, and I couldn't take it," he explained.

Hungary, and specifically its capital of Budapest, is the nexus where Eastern Europe meets Western Europe: affordability meets luxury. The country has a rich food and wine culture on par with that of France or Italy without the price tag of its Western neighbors – making it the perfect weekend destination for any European or Euro-based expat gourmand on a budget.

I fit into the latter camp and was thrilled to seize the opportunity to check the city off my bucket list one recent April weekend. As a self-diagnosed oenophile, I often choose my destinations based on their proximity to good wine. With the Hungarian wine tradition dating back over 2000 years and receiving regular accolades on the international scene, I had a good feeling about Budapest.

My hunch was confirmed within an hour of my arrival, as I sat in a sleek, modern apartment in the city’s historic District V sipping a glass of Dúzsi Tamás rosé from Hungary’s crowned 'King of Rosé'. A delightful though atypical start to Hungarian wine-tasting, Dúzsi Tamás is located in Szekszárd, one of the lesser-known of Hungary’s 22 wine regions. Over the next few days of wine exploration and tasting, I would learn that Tokaj is the country’s most famous region producing buttery white wines primarily from native grapes Furmint and Hárslevelű.

In Hungary, as in most wine-producing countries, it is difficult to truly appreciate the wine without understanding its place in the rest of the culture. Luckily, with the two so closely tied in Budapest, it is possible to fit the city’s best sights in with the country’s best wine.

1. Where to Visit in Budapest

Szechenyi pool baths in Budapest

Budapest is an extremely walkable city, so it is easy to alternate sightseeing with wine stops. While it is illegal to carry an open container in the city, I regularly saw people drinking on the streets of the major bar districts, in city parks, and along the banks of the Danube. Not interested in getting arrested during your stay in Budapest? Not to worry, there are still plenty of non-BYOB sightseeing options.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Buda Castle is one of Budapest’s most scenic districts, with plenty to see, including the 13th century Royal Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion, and Matthias Church. It also happens to sit atop a 40 km labyrinth of wine cellars that date back the Middle Ages. While the labyrinth and its wine fountain have been restricted since 2011, you can still enjoy wine in the belly of the castle with a tasting at Faust Cellar.

Lit magnificently at night and a noted landmark that can be spotted from all over the city by day, St. Stephen’s Basilica is another must-visit sight in Budapest. The neo-classical church, which honors Hungary’s first king, Stephen I, hosts regular free concerts and towers over one of the city’s best wine bars, DiVino. After climbing 364 stairs for the view of the city from the church dome, why not treat yourself to a glass of the bar’s wide selection of wines, which can even be taken to enjoy on the church steps.

Many of the city’s best sights, including the powerful Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial to Jewish victims of World War II and the magnificent Hungarian Parliament Building, can be found along the banks of the Danube river that splits Buda from Pest. Many companies offer river tours, but with just a weekend to enjoy the wide variety of Hungarian wine, I would highly recommend the Danube Wine Cruise. Departing from the Danube Palace each evening at 19:00, the cruise offers the opportunity to enjoy a twilight tour of the river’s highlights along with a selection of seven wines.

Perhaps one of Budapest’s best-known attractions are the many thermal baths that draw from some of Hungary’s approximately 1000 spring water sources. The Romans made their regional capital in the area because of the healing waters and several of the original Turkish-era baths still welcome guests today. There are many ways to take in the thermal bath experience, but not to worry, two of the most popular baths - Szechenyi and Gellert - sell wine that you can you can sip by the water’s edge. At Gellert, you can even bathe in red wine.

Budapest’s famed “ruin bars” are an attraction in and of themselves. Nestled inside weathered historic buildings of the city’s revitalized Jewish quarter, bars like Szimpla Kert, Mazel Tov, and Fogas Ház, serve some of the country’s best wines (often as a fröccs, or spritzer) in settings that nod to the quarter’s difficult past and celebrate its youthful, artistic resurgence.

2. Where to Taste Wine in Budapest

A sign for Devino wine bar in Budapest

Of course, at some stage over the course of the weekend, you may want wine to be the main attraction. First, a few tips to help you sound knowledgeable. Hungary has its own quality control system, akin to France’s appellation controlée, so be on the hunt for wines that say minőségi bor (quality wine) or különleges minőséű bor (premium quality wine). As you look down the tasting menu, note that Hungarian wines list the region first, followed by the grape.

The Tasting Table is the perfect place to get your feet wet when it comes to Hungarian wine. I found myself here after a marathon culinary tour offered by the shop’s parent organization Taste Hungary, which offers a variety of gastronomical experiences, including culinary tours, wine tasting, and even a pop-up restaurant in one of the guide’s homes. It was here that our guide and sommelier-in-training, Virág, explained how fungus-covered grapes are picked by hand to create one of Hungary’s most popular and unique wines, the sweet yet drinkable Tokaji Aszú. For a graduate-level tasting, head over to Cultivini Wine Gallery, where you can try over 60 of the country’s best wines, including some rare ones that the wineries themselves won’t even open for tasting.

There are also a variety of wine tours to choose from, including one that takes you around Buda’s old wine village and the labyrinth under Buda Castle. The tour departs every Friday at 13:00 from Deak Square or at anytime of your choosing with a group of eight or more. If you have a little more time in Budapest, Budapest by Locals and Taste Hungary offer guided day tours out to the Etyek-Buda wine region just west of the capital. Known for its sparkling wines, Etyak-Buda is one of the country’s newer wine production regions.

If you do decide to do some proper wine tasting during your time in Budapest, take this tip from a local expert: wait and buy your bottles to take home from Duty Free at the airport. Under new management, the airport now has a specialized wine shop where you can buy your favorite wines for less without having to cart them around the city.

3. Where to Eat in Budapest

Food and wine in Budapest

With all the walking and wine-tasting you will be doing, you are sure to work up an appetite. Great news! Budapest has a wide variety of options on the other side of the gastronomical coin that will delight your senses and complement the wine.

Budget

Budapest’s Central Market Hall: A must for any food and wine lover, this grand market is where local Hungarians have been buying their meat and produce (and meeting to share some pálinka or unicum) since it was built at the end of the 19th century. There is plenty to discover on each floor, but be sure to head up to the loft overlooking the main market floor, where food stalls offer some excellent Hungarian street food. Definitely try the lángos!

Mid-range

You don’t have to spend a fortune to eat well in Hungary. The city boasts hundreds of affordable eateries, but at Klássz Bisztró, ZONA, and Menza you can drink well too. Borbíróság offers over 100 Hungarian wines by the glass!

High-end 

For a special occasion, make a reservation well in advance for one of Budapest’s five current Michelin-starred restaurants: Costes, Onyx, Tanti, Costes Downtown, and Borkonyha (literally, “wine kitchen”). All offer exceptional Hungarian and international wine lists. Bock Bisztró and Rosenstein have escaped being anointed by the French king-maker, but many locals feel they are due any year now.

Cheers and happy travels, or as the Hungarians say, egészségére!

Bridget Nurre Jennions An Emmy-winning TV journalist and an international development specialist in Kosovo, Bridget is a born traveler (45 countries and counting). She has written for various publications – including Lonely Planet – and has a regular column about travel in the Balkans for Paste Magazine.