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As you read this you need to keep in mind that we lived in Budapest pretty much like Hungarians do. We bought our own food and cooked it rather than eat out, and we cooked a lot of Hungarian dishes. We were much more likely to shop for household goods than souvenirs. And by and large we have not made any study of shopping -- we just found what we needed and that sufficed.
The Most Important Thing to remember about shopping is that inventory control is in its infancy in Hungary. This means that just because a shop has something today doesn't mean that you will ever see it there again. This rule applies not only to pricey things like fancy clothing, but even to something as humble as a jar of peanut butter or a candle shaped like a bust of Lenin.** If you see it and you want it, you better buy it.
Most Stores Close on Saturday afternoon sometime between 1:00 and 3:00 and do not reopen until Monday. This is changing in shopping centers and major chain stores, but it is still surprizing how many stores follow this pattern -- don't get surprized. Hungarian Law requires most stores to close on holidays.
Bring a Bag: Although this is changing, most stores expect you to have your own bags. We have canvas ice bags in a variety of sizes and I always keep a plastic bag with handles in my brief case in case I want to stop at the market on the way home. Supermarkets will sell you sturdy medium sized plastic bags for about 25 cents. Ask for a "tashka " at the check-out.
If you are looking for tourist gee-gaws like T-shirts, leather goods, and other stuff head for Vorosmarty Ter (the west end of the orange #1 Metro). There are open air booths on the streets leading towards the river and if you head generally South West you will find a bunch of tourist oriented stores.
One of the most compact places to shop for all manner of souvenirs, from refrigerator magnets to table cloths, is the Vamhaz Piac located just one block from the river on the Pest side of the Szaszbadsag Bridge. Take the number 2 trolley south from riverfront hotels in Pest, or take the blue #3 metro to Kalvin Ter and walk west toward the river. It is on the south side of the street and has a colorful roof. The first floor has stalls selling fruit, vegatables, and meat (the further from front and center the more likely it is to be a place that locals patronize) while the second floor is souvenirs. To my mind, the best bargains are women's sweater sets -- look for stands in the south west corner of the second floor. While you are up on the second floor you can have an authentic Hungarian snack -- langos (pronounced lawn-gosh with a long "o") which is fried bread dough. The stand that sells it is on the west side about six stalls from the north end. A piece 10 inches around will set you back about seventy cents.
By the way, there is a Chinese grocery store in the basement near the south end. They also sell what I would call "British comfort foods" things fondly remembered but hard to find here. Prices are high -- two to four times what you would pay for the same stuff in the U.S.
There is a more modestly priced Chinese grocery on Rakoczi ter (which borders on Jozsef krt.) Take the 4-6 trolley to the Rakoczi ter stop -- the grocery is at the far end of the green square and to your left.
My favorite place for T-shirts is now out of business (although in Febuary 2006 there were still shop-worn shirts in the street-side display window.) I have kept this entry because the Parisi Udvar, an arcade off of Petofi Sandor u (District V) is still worth visiting. Get off the Blue (#3) metro at the Ferenciek tere stop. On the north side of the street walk west to the first north-south street (at this point the street is below grade level so the sidewalks have railings on the street side.) Walk north on the west sidewalk until you see the display window (about 4 doors north.) Also in the Parisi Udvar is a book store (logo below) which features English language travel books and Hungarian works in English translation (the staff has some English.) A few doors down is a shop that sells holograms. You can't walk by with kids without stopping to look. A very small jewelry store next to the stairs sells interesting costume jewelry at reasonable prices. The arcade is quite beautiful in itself -- stop in and look.
The best place to get authentic Hungarian craftsmanship is not in Budapest but about 15 miles north along the Duna in St Endre (Szentendrei) which is a sort of artists' colony. The easiest way to get there is the HEV (the green line that runs along the west bank of the Duna.) This is strictly a daytime town and by 5 or 6 p.m. all of the shops will be closed.
Some Food Notes coffee, peanut butter, candy, donuts, water, paprika.
Hungary is a cash society. Checks are unknown and you cannot count on credit cards being accepted outside of tourist areas, although the big multinational chains take them too. By the way, just because the stickers on the door or register don't mention the American Express card doesn't mean that it is not accepted. Absolutely the best way to get cash is to use your ATM card at one of the many bank machines (Bankomat.) Machines are easy to find and you get by far the best exchange rates. IMPORTANT: European bank machines do not have letters on their keypads -- only numbers. If you use letters to remember your PIN be sure to learn the numbers before you travel.
If you must change money, we have found better rates at travel agencies such as Ibusz rather than the Change shops which seem to occupy every fourth shop in some areas. Note that the posted rates at many of these shops are for very large transactions (thousands of dollars.) It seems like a scam to me since I suspect that most of them don't even have that much currency on hand. The American Express office (near Deak Ter) is notorious for poor exchange rates, but you can pay your American Express credit card bill there with an American check.
By the way, Hungarian shops tend not to have much change on hand. For the most part it is considerate to try to use small bills and coins in the smaller stores.
Kehli Vendeglo (our favorite)
Gundel (very elegant but pricey)
Articsoka (we went here repeatedly)
As of March, 2006, this place appears to be closed.I suggest that you check the resturant listings at
for the latest information.
McDonalds and Ugly Americanism
Toiletries and Drugs --
Budapest has a wide variety of goods available, but sometimes you have to figure out where to look.
**I got an email asking about the bust of Lenin so I'll tell you where I saw it (but read the message about inventory control at the top.) It was in a stall on the second floor of the Vamhaz Piac (see above.) On the second floor the shops are arranged on a balcony that goes around all four sides of the building. There are two cross walk balconies over the center. The booth where I saw the candle was on the northern most of these cross walks (north is towards the main entrance) near the west end (west is the river side.) Good luck.
June 2005: nameunknown, wrote to tell me that you can also get the Lenin candle at the Terror Haza (the Terror House museum -- recalling the bad old days under communism. It is located at 60 Andrássy ut) They have an online store at their website but I don't know if they ship internationally. Go to http://www.terrorhaza.hu/index3.html (their English site) Click Online Shop (at the top) Then click Gifts (on the left.)
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This page is at: http://drott.cis.drexel.edu/hungary/