By now there are dozens of books about Budapest, scores of them even, piled up in their own section of the larger chain stores. So which one should you buy? Here we offer a selection from various genres, from witty sightseeing guides to party-focused ones, and from phrase books to architecture compendiums. Cookbooks abound, even by the chef of a former state president. Many intriguing works of contemporary Hungarian fiction are now available in decent translation – particularly true in the case of Magda Szabó’s The Door. All books suggested below can be easily found around town, with the exception of Jessica Keener’s Strangers in Budapest, published by Algonquin in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Grand Budapest, Benedek Darida
Judging by the cover… An image portrays the statuesque details of Chain Bridge, while the words Buda and Pest in the title are featured in two lines, all to suggest that Hungarian gastronomy writer Benedek Darida would give readers an insightful introduction to Hungary’s capital.
Between the sheets: Featuring ten chapters to showcase the city divided into larger parts like Downtown and the Castle Area, this thick guide presents Budapest in almost story-book format. Besides the key landmarks and cultural hotspots, the publication features current trends, such as the city’s continually developing arts scene, its ruin-bar culture, and the vast range of culinary alternatives on offer, highlighting trendsetters in gastronomy. The book also provides recipes of Magyar dishes, such as chicken paprikash and Somlói cream cup dessert. All this, combined with lots of practical information, the best ways of getting around town and the wonders of the Hungarian forint, will help make your Budapest stay hassle-free.
Why buy? This freshly published guide is laden with practical details and easy-to-absorb content, including featuring insider information from renowned locals living and working in Budapest.
Budapest Bites, Zsófia Mautner
Judging by the cover… Renowned Hungarian celebrity chef, hostess of a top-rated TV cooking show, author of several cookbooks, founder and writer of the popular Chili & Vanilia gastronomy blog, Zsófia Mautner knows what’s cooking in the Hungarian culinary scene and her name is guarantee for a top-notch cookbook.
Between the sheets: One of Hungary’s leading culinary stars walks foodies around the history of Hungarian gastronomy with many of its international influences. This handy cookbook illustrated by tasteful photography of local scenes presents dozens of recipes from Magyar staple food to modern-day Hungarian dishes made with a twist. Featuring everything from snacks to soups to paprika meals and desserts, recipes include classic goulash soup, ordinary lángos flatbread, kőrözött cottage-cheese spread mixed with beer, stuffed cabbage made with gooseberries and classic plum dumplings filled with poppy seeds.
Why buy? A gorgeously illustrated step-by-step guide to master Hungarian food, easy to use even for those who don’t want to go in for the next Bocuse d’Or championship.
The Door, Magda Szabó
Judging by the cover… Umm... it’s a door. Sturdy, imposing, formidable. On it runs a quote from Tibor Fischer of Under The Frog fame.
Between the sheets: This haunting story starts with ageing narrator Magda and her nightmare that she once killed her housekeeper, Emerence. The tale then takes us back to when these two women first became mysteriously entangled, one a young writer freed to publish by the then Communist authorities, the other, secretive housekeeper Emerence. Magda’s unnamed husband and a puppy befriended by Emerence have support roles. Listed as a Top Ten Book of 2015 by the New York Times, The Door was made into a film by István Szabó starring Helen Mirren in 2012. Masterly (and award-winning) translation by Len Rix makes the UK edition available here worth the price alone.
Why buy?The Door deserves reading, re-reading and re-reading again.
1956 Personally, Örs Csete
Judging by the cover… A triptych of lived-in faces greets browsers above the ominous date of 1956 in large type. This isn’t going to be an easy read but a fascinating and, as the title suggests, a personal one.
Between the sheets:Örs Csete, whose father took photos all around Budapest during the time of the Hungarian Uprising of October 1956, began to contact, meet, interview, record and photograph eyewitnesses to revolution from the early 1990s onwards. What emerges are portraits, 111 in total – or rather, 222, each of the 111 interviewees illustrated with a single thumbnail shot as a fresh-faced youth at the time, and as a full-page personality who survived the terrible events. The faces alone are moving enough but the tales told by these everyday folk – a nurse, a factory worker, a student – bring 1956 to life.
Why buy? Serious, painstaking research went into this emotive work, which is both a personal history and a photographic study. Well worth the money.
Available at the Libri bookstores and from the Libri webshop.
Strangers in Budapest, Jessica Keener
Judging by the cover… Presenting Budapest’s beautiful cityscape in sepia on the cover, this fascinating fiction story by American author Jessica Keener – a former Budapest expat – will take readers down history lane.
Between the sheets: The author’s latest novel transports readers to an intriguing city in transition, Budapest after the fall of Communism. The story is about Boston couple Annie and Will, who move with their infant son to a city just recovering from repression by occupying Soviet forces. The pair are trying to integrate themselves into a new country that is about to gain back its momentum. Their life in Budapest suddenly takes a new turn when Annie gets involved in helping Edward Weiss, a Jewish-American veteran of World War II, who recklessly seeks retaliation against his former son-in-law for allegedly murdering his daughter.
Why buy? An engrossingly dark tale set in Budapest of the 1990s – and the 1940s.
Only in Budapest, Duncan J.D. Smith
Judging by the cover… Zoomed-in details of a colorful stained glass window suggests that this is not your usual guide. Author Duncan J. D. Smith uncovers unique locations and hidden corners across Budapest.
Between the sheets: Travel writer, historian, photographer and author Duncan J.D. Smith has been prowling the planet to explore urban destinations and point globetrotters to sites often found off the beaten track. In these “Only In” guides, Smith uncovers hidden urban sights across Europe from London to Paris and Berlin. For the Budapest feature, the Englishman visited the city’s often-forgotten landmarks in all its 23 districts, including the huge metal statue of the Turul Bird besides Royal Palace, Buda’s Bauhaus buildings, the subterranean Szemlő-hegyi cave system and Pest’s secret courtyards. The book also introduces Hungarian cuisine and classic hangouts to try it.
Why buy? With extensive historical explanations and clearly marked maps, the book is a good pick for people with a keen desire to learn about Budapest beyond its obvious attractions.
Just Enough Hungarian
Judging by the cover… As if wrapped in patriotic red-white-and-green ribbon, this pocket volume contains 500 Hungarian words and phrases for daily use.
Between the sheets: Created by D. L. Ellis and A. Cheyne, Just Enough… is just that. Divided into sections such as ‘Meet People’, ‘Get Around’ and ‘Order a Meal’, this is a hands-on tool for practical use, rather than a language learner. You may not learn the past tense of menni but you won’t push the shop door open when you should be pulling it. Posting a letter, speaking to a doctor, reading street signs, most eventualities are covered. Where this book will be most used, of course, is during those comic, cross-cultural situations of budding romance between ardent foreigner and bewildered Magyar.
Why buy? It’s small enough and cheap enough to fit in a Christmas stocking by any poor Hungarian girl incapable of persuading her sap of a foreign boyfriend to learn her language, a kind of hint-cum-present. At worst, she can thwack him over the head with it when he complains about the fish soup being too bony.
Budapest Art Deco, Zoltán Bolla
Judging by the cover… You are looking at a bilingual book with a photo displaying one of Budapest’s major Art Deco attractions, the city’s New Theater.
Between the sheets: The author of this stimulating paperback, graphic designer and arts aficionado Zoltán Bolla, points architecture buffs to the city’s Art Deco treasures. Included so as to combine into self-guided walking tours that last two or three hours within specific zones, these Art Deco treasures are all easily accessible by public transport. From apartment blocks to key cultural establishments to industrial plants, the publication maps 200 urban sites and provides brief descriptions about each destination. Many of the featured landmarks are illustrated with colorful images. In addition, a handy district map directs you to the highlighted sights.
Why buy? While some of the intricate building designs are usually head-turning landmarks, Art Deco edifices often feature subdued designs and remain unnoticed. This pocket-sized book will prompt passersby to keep their eyes peeled for these semi-hidden gems around Budapest.
András Török’s Budapest
Judging by the cover… The Chain Bridge is backdropped by Pest cityscape, the East beckoning beyond the horizon. Underscoring this iconic panorama is the timely announcement of a ‘brand new chapter on Ruin Pubs’.
Between the sheets:A Critical Guide has withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous capitalism, the first edition published in the momentous year of 1989, the most recent in 2016. The one described, dating back to 2014, is most easily found in major bookstores here. Created and developed by former deputy minister of culture and undisputed Budapest authority András Török, A Critical Guide is centerpieced by a series of five walks through main areas of the city, illustrated with radio-era photos and illuminated with quite wonderful, customized street maps. Warm, informative and the right shade of irreverent, Török’s Budapest has long been a revered and respected brand, as synonymous with each other as Hogarth and London.
Why buy? It’s Török. Why the question mark?
Hungarian Dessert Book, Tamás Bereznay
Judging by the cover… Former chef of Hungary’s earlier state president Tamás Bereznay treated high-ranking people to epicurean meals. In this new book, featuring the heritage Hungarian Kalocsai flower pattern on the cover, the author provides sweet-toothed readers with a whole spectrum of traditional Magyar sweet recipes.
Between the sheets: A 2017 winner of the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for its mouthwatering content and visual appearance, this sweet cookbook presents 75 delightfully illustrated Magyar dessert recipes on 176 pages. Descriptions of local favorites reveal what the secret is behind the classic Dobos Cake, how to bake the famous Hungarian chimney cake at home and what goes into those savory crackling scones. The closing pages provide plenty of space for taking notes or complete the featured line of desserts with your own favorite treats.
Why buy? Detailed descriptions about the preparation methods are presented alongside artful food photos. Ideal for those who want to evoke sweet memories of Budapest.
Budapest Katalógus, Mátyás Szöllősi
Judging by the cover… Looking at the front or the back of the book with no English text featured whatsoever suggests that it’s suitable only for Hungarians. Not a bit of it. English-translation content runs throughout within.
Between the sheets: Meet the faces of Budapest and see the Hungarian capital from a truly local perspective. Inspired by the Humans of New York blog, Budapest Katalógus (“Budapest Catalogue”) features interviews with people from all walks of life living in the Magyar metropolis. They tell you how they see and what they like about the city, where they live and what they do. Explained by a mix of Budapest residents, including young urban types and elderly citizens, a diverse picture of life in Hungary’s capital emerges through these stimulating and occasionally shocking stories.
Why buy? If you want to see Budapest through the eyes of the residents that make our city so special, this book will do that without candy-coating the facts.
Budapest Day & Night Guide, various authors
Judging by the cover… An outline of Hungarian capital has been superimposed onto a montage of bar scenes in opaque greenish hues, as if looking at Budapest through a bottle. Which is, in fact, the case.
Between the sheets: Tempering the drinking element, ‘ruin pubs’, with ‘gastro’ and ‘lifestyle’, the savvy team behind this guide puts the District VII bar scene to the fore without overlooking any Michelin-starred restaurant or child-friendly spot in leafy Buda. As the blurb says, ‘over 150 establishments now do business in the historic ghetto’, and so the BDNG gang gives us the gen on pretty much every venue in the Jewish Quarter. A critical guide this is not – although ‘trendsetting critics’ have written it. You’re led to the door of each and every ruin bar, perhaps by way of the ‘hipster’s route’ or ‘partiers route’, and then left to get on with it. Maps are clear and attractive.
Why buy? It’s more a case of why go on a messy bar crawl with a reasonably heavy book that doesn’t quite fit in any pocket. Other than that, this is an informative and alluring guide, perhaps trying too hard to be hip but welcome nonetheless.