Alia Akkam's job inspires envy. She's a writer who scours the globe for the most intriguing stories on food, travel, design and culture. Oh, and she traded NYC's cramped subways for Budapest's baroque buildings. We caught up with her to find out about daily life in Hungary's capital, and the best things to do if you don't want to wind up in a tourist-y ruin bar.
What Makes Budapest Different From The Top Tourist Destinations In Europe
Europe compelled me as a child from the pages of atlases, long before I even left the States for the first time. I always yearned to be an expat but the stars were never aligned until a few years ago when I decided to take the plunge. There were so many cities I was enamored with that I could have chosen—from Rome to Paris to Lisbon to Vienna.
Yet I was always drawn to Budapest, a place that I had tried to travel to several times but eluded me. I am fascinated by the re-birth of post-Communist cities and when I finally took myself there for my 36th birthday I just felt that it was the right place for me to be. It was at once beautiful and gritty. There was soul, there was sadness, there was promise. Four months after that inaugural visit I settled there without knowing the language, without knowing folks who lived there. More than two years later, I haven't looked back.
What The Locals Are Like—On Hungarian People And Culture
Hungarians are fiercely proud of their country and heritage. They also possess a healthy sense of skepticism, something I relate and am attracted to. So much of my social life in New York revolved around false friendships, parties and drink dates with acquaintances that were booked out weeks in advance. It's one of the reasons I left.
Hungarians are not interested in such superficial dalliances because they value and make time for real, nurtured relationships. Hungary's history is turbulent and with intimate knowledge of hardship Hungarians don't take the little things for granted. Living here has given me a fresh perspective on what really matters and my priorities have shifted for the better.
The Best Places In Budapest For Traditional Hungarian Food
It's filling and and I can never eat an entire one, but lángos is the perfect, hit-the-spot street food sold out of tiny storefronts. It's a disc of warm fried dough that can be topped with numerous ingredients, but I prefer it at its most simple, with sour cream and garlic. My two favorite stops for this are called Retro Lángos and Tomi.
Late-night crowds especially love the latter. For a traditional Hungarian meal, I find myself ordering stuffed cabbage over and over again, particularly at the old-school neighborhood joint Pozsonyi Kisvendéglő, or the bistro Hungarikum, near Parliament. It's flooded with tourists given its choice location but the food is homey and delicious and the service is some of the city's most hospitable.
When visitors ask me what else they shouldn't miss I lead them to MÁK Bistro. The young chef is a devotee of local ingredients, but the atmosphere and refined menu are more reminiscent of Scandinavia. The underrated Café Zsivágó is low-key spot for a nightcap of Hungary's famous fruit brandy, pálinka.
The Best Non-Hungarian Restaurants In Budapest
I eat a ton of Italian. For, say, a casual Tuesday-night penne arrabbiata I like ordering in from A Presto, and when something more upscale is in order, I make a reservation at the subterranean Krizia. On-the-go, real Neapolitan-style pizza at tiny Igen is also part of my regular repertoire.
Vegetables do not make frequent appearances on the menus of Hungarian restaurants, so for my fix I head to the airy Dobrumba for Middle Eastern-inspired cooking (the shakshuka is delightful) and Taj Mahal for Indian feasts that include samosa chaat and broccoli masala.
There is always something interesting going on at Beszálló, where the chef melds Hungarian and Asian flavors, and the Cantonese sausage-strewn fried rice at Khanis another favorite. I only dream of the day when a place opens where I can devour proper enchiladas verdes.
Understanding Budapest's Ruin Pub Culture (And How To Avoid Tourist Parties)
I feel like I arrived too late to truly savor the ruin pub heyday in Budapest. Szimpla Kert, the original, is still an eye-popping place to visit and I always try to bring visitors here. I especially love it on Sunday mornings, hours before the drunken masses make their way in, when they have the small farmers' market where I often pick up delicious locally made salsa and peanut butter—and some sort of pastry that gets demolished before I get home. But it's too loud and crowded for my taste in the evenings. It's the same story over at the mammoth ruin pub hybrid Instant and Fogas ház. I think I've gotten too old for a true party atmosphere.
My favorite ruin pub is the more low-key Anker't, which feels like you're drinking in a Roman amphitheater. The ruin pub craze in general, I think, has given way to tamer kerts (gardens) and much to my delight, cocktail bars. I am so grateful that Good Spirit, a shrine to whiskey, opened.
The Best Things To Do In Budapest That Your Guidebook Overlooks
Pest gets the lion's share of love in Budapest and I understand the appeal. There are tons of restaurants and bars—which in the summer have terraces that locals flock to— it's home to many of the city's landmarks, and there is an overall vibe of energy and excitement that reels you in.
However, Buda, on the other side of the Danube, is beautiful and shouldn't be overlooked for more than a wander through the Castle District simply because it's residential and significantly quiet by contrast. There are treasures here if you know where to look.
In the winter I love settling into the cozy Déryné bistro for schnitzel or wine at Café Ponyvaregény; come summer, the gelato at Artigiana is one of the city's best. Palack is a fabulous wine bar for trying impressive Hungarian specialties.
The panoramic Budapest view from Fisherman's Bastion at Buda Castle feels like you've been inserted into a fairy tale and it never is less than dazzling. From the Pest side, though, I love the rooftop of the Aria Hotel, where it seems like you can reach out and touch the basilica.
The Essential Spots For Breakfast & Coffee In Budapest
I can be found most mornings at Espresso Embassy with a mug of their batch-brew coffee and a Swedish-style cardamom bun. It's located right by Central European University and St. Stephen's Basilica, though, so that means it is always crowded with laptops and tourists.
If I crave a quieter atmosphere to work, then I type away at the old-fashioned Jedermann Cafe in the company of a chocolate-filled croissant. When I wake up starved and know only a hearty breakfast will do, I spring for a spinach-goat cheese omelet at Két Szerecsen. It's accompanied by a basket of fresh baguette and I eat every slice.
What I Miss Most About NYC Living As An Expat In Budapest
When I yearn for New York, sometimes it's for Broadway shows in beautiful, old theatres. But mostly it's for Queens. I was born in the city's largest borough and spent many years living there as an adult. I watched so much of NYC rapidly lose its quirks and charms to the likes of Duane Reades and look-a-like restaurants, yet Queens held on–and still does–despite inevitable development to a certain pride and authenticity, which is largely propelled by the numerous nationalities represented by its residents. I miss eating there terribly, whether it be a simple brunch of scrambled eggs at The Sparrow Tavern in Astoria, drunken noodles at Ayada in Woodside, or sitting at the counter of Dani's House of Pizza in Kew Gardens for a slice after seeing an indie film across the street. Hanging out in Queens is pure comfort, like somehow you've magically turned back the clock to a more soulful era.