One of the most striking buildings in Budapest is the Great Market Hall (Nagy Vásárcsarnok), officially called the Central Market Hall (Központi Vásárcsarnok). It is only a few steps away from the Freedom Bridge and the University of Economics and is well connected to public transport. It has to be, because if you go in there to shop, you’re guaranteed to come out loaded with lots of treasures. With 10,000 square metres, it is one of the largest market halls in Europe and worth seeing not only because of its epicurean offerings.
The architecture is also impressive and a typical example of the time when Hungary and Austria had one and the same ruler. The exchange of architects between Vienna and Budapest during the time of Emperor Franz Joseph I, who was also crowned King of Hungary in 1867, can still be seen in both cityscapes today. When the Ringstrasse was built in Vienna, Budapest also experienced a boom in inner-city development. What few people know is that in 1897, on exactly the same day, not only the large market hall but also four others were opened in Budapest. This had nothing to do with a coincidence, but came about due to a directive from the Ministry of Health of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. It had banned the hitherto customary open sale of food directly from horse-drawn carts along Andrasy ut – today Budapest’s most splendid and expensive shopping street – and those along the Danube for reasons of hygiene. For this reason, five market halls were planned and built at the same time to maintain the city’s local supply, all of which still exist today after renovations in the 1980s.
The large market hall, like its smaller sisters and brothers, is based on a steel and glass construction that was highly modern for its time, albeit designed by different architects. The ground plan of the large market hall, planned by Samuel Petz, resembles that of a cathedral with a nave and two side aisles. Large towers were added at the corners. It was opened in the presence of Franz Josef I. A sign of how important this urban planning measure was considered to be.
Enough history. Anyone who goes to the market hall today will find a wide range of goods on offer. In the central, ground-level hall, which is not heated and keeps food wonderfully fresh in winter even without refrigeration, you will find everything your heart and stomach desire. The fact that Hungarians like to eat meat is immediately noticeable. There are countless stalls selling fresh meat. Mainly pork, but also lots of poultry. From chicken to duck and goose, everything is neatly piled up. And not just the gusto pieces.
All offal, but also pork or chicken legs, indispensable for soups and stocks, but also bacon in all variations, up to grammels, or as they say in Germany, greaves and not to forget goose fat, are sold. Those who like to eat foie gras will find several stalls here that offer this delicacy not only ready-made as pâtés in tins, but also fresh, usually vacuum-packed.
Hungary, along with France, is one of those countries where this foodstuff has a long culinary tradition, even more: a not inconsiderable share of Hungarian production is even exported to France. Beef is also to be found, albeit less frequently, but of very nice quality. Of course, the wide range of different dried sausages is striking. Salami in every variety, but also, although only at a few stalls, fresh roast sausages, liver sausages and blood sausages and a ready-seasoned sausage meat with which you can wonderfully stuff vegetables and potatoes. Whoever buys something like this must be allowed to use or own a kitchen in Budapest itself, because these fresh sausages are unfortunately unsuitable for long-distance transport. Stowed in a thermo bag and equipped with cooling packs, however, they can survive a trip all the way to Vienna, at least in the cold season.
Besides meat, there is a wonderful selection of fruit and vegetables. The many types of peppers, from fresh to dried, are literally eye-catching.
Whether hanging from the ceiling or the tables of the stalls, or set up in such a way that you bump into it directly with your nose – there’s no getting around red, Hungarian paprika. And you can take it home finely powdered in a wide variety of flavours in small bags or tins. An indispensable spice in Hungarian cuisine, it not only lends its incomparable flavour to goulash or pörkölt. It can also be found in Liptauer. If you want to buy it fresh, you can do so at one of the large stands near the main entrance.
Not only is there fresh Liptauer, packed in small plastic containers for the customers, but also crumbly curd – essential for one of the national dishes – curd halushka (túrós csusza). At the same stall there is a real speciality that you really shouldn’t miss if you like to cook. In plastic tubs, neatly lined up next to each other, are ready-made powidl, rosehip pulp, preserved cherries and a kind of apricot roaster.
Indispensable for pastries, but if you don’t want to do the baking work, you can create delicious desserts with yoghurt, cream or ice cream. There are no limits to the imagination.
While we’re on the subject of sweet treats: Of course, there are also lots of local treats such as poppy seed or nut buns, fresh yeast pastries, and during our visit in January, lots of biscuits, tarts and cakes.
Another little tip for the finicky: if you look closely, you will find Russian caviar at some of the stalls. Not only the usual varieties are to be found, but also the much milder, because less salted malossol finds its buyers – at prices that one can only dream of west of Hungary. This is probably a remnant of market history from the times when communism provided the better-off population from the Urals to the Danube with this luxury.
In the basement there has recently been an Aldi branch, a few stalls with another speciality: pickled vegetables, which artfully layered, smile at the customers from their jars.
You should visit the fish stalls in the morning, in the afternoon all but two are already closed. And if you feel like it, buy yourself a little souvenir for the kitchen. Small goulash kettles for serving on the table or wooden cooking spoons with smiley branding are reminders of a visit to the market hall even years later.
On the first floor, in a narrow corridor that runs around the market hall and offers a good view of the stalls below, beautiful embroidery and leather goods are offered alongside kitschy, touristy craft products. Seek and you shall find, is the motto here. We liked it
on beaded headbands and bracelets embroidered by one of the women on site. If you get hungry after all the delicacies on display, you can also buy hot meals at some of the stalls on the first floor. Haute cuisine is not on offer here, and anyone expecting that is in the wrong place. What is cooked here is well described as Hungarian home cooking. Pörkölt – goulash in German, gulyas – goulash soup in German, cabbage rolls in different variations and, above all, every conceivable kind of fried sausage with various side dishes, but also sweet-filled pancakes. It’s nice that doner kebab and pizza haven’t spread here yet. However, one should not expect leisure in consumption. The crowds are huge, the aisle with its narrow tables and high barstool-like chairs is itself narrow, but if you’re not claustrophobic, you can enjoy the dishes here amidst the hustle and bustle of the many tourists.
Those who visit the large market hall in Budapest more often will soon get to know the faces of the vendors. There is not really a high turnover here. After all, many stalls have been family-owned for decades. Even if some articles on the internet say that the offer of this market hall is overpriced and geared towards tourists: Our impression, from the point of view of culinary interested people and frequent cooks, is that of a large and qualitatively very good selection, at prices that are below the Austrian level. And last, but not least: Where else than at markets and in market halls can you still openly buy food in every conceivable unit of measurement and weight?
Conclusion: worth seeing, tasting and buying!
If you want to know more about the market halls of Budapest, you can find here a very informative article in English, which not only describes the history but also the current use of the five halls very well.
Here, also in English, are videos, dates and the offer of a 4-hour guided tour and tasting in the large market hall.
Here is an article about the coffee houses in Budapest: Coffee Houses in Budapest: A Winter’s Tale.