When we first arrived in Budapest, we took to Twitter to get some local tips. One person really gave us the goods, as you can see below.
And the helpful ‘tweets’ kept coming from @mhovorka on Twitter in response to my call for Budapest tips from locals. Several emails quickly followed from Molly Hovorka about wine tasting dinners and, as we hadn’t yet bought a local SIM and our apartment didn’t have a phone, even a kind offer to call a restaurant and reserve a table for us that night.
During the course of our two-week stay in Budapest there’d be many more tweets and emails from Molly, bursting with brilliant tips as to things we should do and introductions to fascinating and helpful locals such as Dora Henger of Our Style (interview with Dora coming soon!).
There would even be an invitation to dinner. We met American expat Molly — a marketing and user experience consultant, and food and wine blogger at Baking in Stilettos — and her Budapest-born husband Zoli for dinner at the charming M Restaurant. And they even dragged along a friend, Gabor of Taste Hungary (the husband of food writer Carolyn, with whom we would do the Markets Walk).
It was a fun night of finding out that we had a lot of things in common and shared passions for food, wine and travel. The evening ended with a chilly walk home along Andrassy Avenue and offers from Molly and Zoli to show us the Napa if we were ever in California, their second home, at the same time.
For our Local Knowledge series, where we interview locals who have helped us get beneath the skin of a destination, we usually profile someone born in the place, yet in Budapest the most obvious person to interview was Molly. She was so terrific, we knew we couldn’t keep her all to ourselves.
A Local Guide to Budapest — an interview with Molly Hovorka
Q. So, what do you most love about your work?
A. I’m part of a high tech start-up, so I have the same intense, energetic, and fun vibe that I’m used to from working in Silicon Valley, which is something I didn’t expect to find in Hungary. Working with a Hungarian team gives me the chance to learn part of the culture that I wouldn’t necessarily get to know otherwise, and vice versa: I have the chance to change assumptions others have about my culture and share a different way of thinking. Also, even though the business language of the office is English, I can practice a little Hungarian and the guys teach me new words all the time.
Q. Why should people come to Budapest?
A. Budapest’s contrasts have always fascinated me. The city has a very rich, old culture and an incredibly sad past so it offers a lot of value to lovers of the arts, music, and history. You can see both its glory and its hard times on virtually every street. However, the city is not at all frozen in time; it’s also very dynamic and has a contemporary, edgy side too, along with fantastic nightlife. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood in line for gyros at 6/7am after a night of dancing, without even realizing how late it had gotten! I’ve been visiting the city for almost 11 years and have been living here for three, and I’m still discovering new layers.
Q. 3 ways to describe Budapest?
A. Evocative. Storied. Culturally rich.
Q. 3 ways to describe the people?
A. Laidback — people love to take their time over a cigarette, a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, a slice of cake. There’s seldom a sense of urgency about things.
Fun-loving — people here also love to party and dance till dawn. I’ve been to weddings where even the grandmothers are still dancing when the sun comes up.
Egyik szemem sír a masik nevet — this is a Hungarian phrase that means laughing with one eye and crying with the other. I think it sums up Hungarians perfectly. The people can be very melancholy, but they also have a great sense of humour.
Q. Your top recommendations for visitors?
A. Most visitors want to try at least one of the baths, but going to a Cinetrip bath party is something else altogether. Cinetrip brings together film, DJs, spectacle, and a party atmosphere.
Try to time your visit with one of the wine festivals, especially the Budapest International Wine Festival, which takes place early September in the castle. You can meet winemakers and taste wines from all over the country, try Hungarian food, listen to good music, and enjoy stellar views of the city.
Do a pub crawl of Budapest’s ‘ruin bars’, which are bars that have sprung up in abandoned apartment buildings and courtyards. They are all very funky, decorated with random recycled furniture and art, and each has its own distinct character.
Q. Best souvenir from Budapest?
A. If you are here on a Sunday, pick up something from either the WAMP or the Gouba design markets. The artists and designers sell jewellery, magnets, toys, crafts, clothes, and bags. Otherwise, a bottle of Unicum (a Hungarian herbal liqueur), a bottle of Tokaji wine, a bottle of palinka (schnapps), or a jar of eros pista, which is a fiery paprika paste that is delicious stirred into clear soups.
Q. Must-do eating experiences?
A. One of my favourite things to do with visitors is to take them on two back-to-back theme nights.
The first night is all about glamour, so we’ll start with a glass of Champagne at the Four Seasons, one of the most beautifully renovated buildings in the city. From there we’ll move on to one of the city’s top restaurants, perhaps Fausto’s, Nobu or Costes, and then finish the evening with another glass of bubbles at the Drop Shop or an artisanal cocktail at Boutiq bar, which makes the most fabulous drinks in the city by far.
On the second night I like to show off Budapest’s edgier side, so the night will start with a glass of palinka at the bar Csendes, which looks like it was decorated by your highly eccentric and somewhat crazy grandmother. Dinner will be at M Restaurant, notable for its décor – the walls are lined with butcher paper and all the features of the room are drawn on with black magic marker – and for its reliable Hungarian comfort food. Finally we’ll wind up at one of the ruin bars for a beer, another palinka, or a forralt bor (mulled wine) if the weather is cold. It’s a great way to see two distinct sides of the city.
Q. An essential thing to know before coming to Budapest?
A. Always have a valid ticket when using public transport to avoid being fined. The Kontroll (ticket checkers) are quite aggressive about inspecting tickets, and scam artists posting as the Kontroll are not unheard of. Buying individual tickets can be confusing; for example, one kind is only good for three stops, and you will need a different ticket if you switch from the subway to a bus, etc. If you are in town for a few days it’s easiest to just get a three-day or weeklong ticket. Public transportation is safe, reliable and excellent, though the buses have undeniably seen better days.
Q. Most important word to learn?
A. If you are a foodie, ‘finom‘, meaning delicious. Whether you’re eating in someone’s home or at a restaurant, this is the magic word for getting more information about a dish. People generally love sharing information about food at length.
Q. Any other advice?
A. Take the time to find out what’s going on in town. Caboodle.hu, and funzine.hu all have current listings in English. Compared to other cities, entertainment in Budapest is very affordable, especially the performing arts.