The best travel experiences allow you to really sink your teeth into your destination.
That's why we love food tours, where you get to eat a little while also learning the finer details of a place.
We took the Budapest Bites and Sights tour with Urban Adventures on our recent trip to Hungary's capital, and it's a good thing we did as much walking as we did chewing.
Did I say eat a little? Yeah, we ate quite a lot when I think about it.
We met our guide, Gergo, outside the famed Central Market Hall in Budapest on a blazing hot summer day in August, and were treated to a delightful tour. Colleen and I were joined by eight other travelers who, like us, had a hunger to learn more about the food and history of Budapest and the nation of Hungary.
We always look for an Urban Adventures tour when we are traveling because the company offers intimate and immersive experiences. Group sizes are never more than about a dozen people, and you get to go into the heart of cool cities, away from where the masses tend to congregate.
We have also taken beer tours with the company in Philadelphia; San Jose, Costa Rica; and Prague, Czech Republic. These were all incredibly fun times among fellow adventurers who share similar interests.
This time, in Budapest, we ventured away from our typical beer-centric outing and focused more on an overall culinary exploration of Budapest. (Urban Adventures does have a beer tour in Budapest, of course. We'll try it next time.)
Gergo began by leading us into the vibrant and colorful Central Market Hall, which buzzes with locals doing their daily shopping and tourists hunting for an authentic meal or perfect taste of Hungary to take home as a souvenir. Many snag a variety of paprika to bring to their kitchens back home.
Our group also included a family of four from Kentucky and another family foursome from Australia. Here are the three ways the Urban Adventures Budapest Bites and Sights tour really hit the spot during our four-hour experience.
We start at a butcher's stall in the market, and Gergo shows us a colorful lineup of seven kinds of sausage. He tells us what they are and how they range in spiciness. One of the varieties is horse.
The use of this animal as food can be curious to non-Hungarians, he says, but it's a traditional food in his country.
Most of our group seem undeterred, and we dig into the smoky and spicy meats. They are also fatty.
We also sample cheeses and paprika spreads on breads. Plus, a Turo Rudi, a "healthy" snack of cottage cheese coated in a thin layer of chocolate that has been long favored by youngsters in Hungary.
Later, it's a stop at Levendula, a delightful ice cream shop that offers an amazing array of creative flavors. They have wheat beer ice cream, cinnamon apricot, chestnut with mascarpone, watermelon mojitos and so many more. Even gluten-free varieties. We delight in the refreshing sweetness, a perfect respite from the 94-degree heat of the city.
But it's soon time to move. We hit up a ruin bar (more on that later) for beers and spritzers, then a fish bistro to try fried carp and catfish.
We're starting to feel a little full, but a couple more stops to go as we eat our way through Budapest.
Most everything comes with paprika in the recipes or helping to flavor the accompanying breads. It's the national flavor of Hungary after all. We also get ample servings of sour cream with our foods. Gergo has told us that we shouldn't expect to find the healthiest food on his tour . . . just some of the tastiest.
He didn't lie.
We down bowls full of matzo ball soup and apricot and mint soup at a charming bistro in the Jewish Quarter. Then, finally, the big finish with Hungarian goulash and slices of trifle cake for dessert at the pub Ferenc Jozsef.
In between our bites, we see the sights, racking up miles passing through the city. The tour suitably starts at the historic Central Market Hall, which is the largest and oldest public market in Budapest.
Much of the tour passes through the historic Jewish Quarter, and we have our matzo ball soup at one of the top kosher restaurants in the city. Gergo also shows us the second-largest synagogue in the world, the Dohany Street Great Synagogue. (We view it from the outside; it's worth a second visit to tour inside.)
We tour quieter streets and hear about unique facets of architecture and how Pest had to be rebuilt after being inundated during the massive 1838 flood. The city still floods but defenses and construction measures since the Great Flood of Pest have helped avert more serious disasters.
Urban Adventures touts its tagline "Locals Know," and this rings true as their guides are experts in curating itineraries for visitors that show where the residents, live work, play and eat.
A highlight for me are stops at two "Ruin Bars" to learn about these hip hangouts that have sprung up from repurposed run-down post-communism historic buildings. These once-beautiful structures grew derelict during the lean decades and are no longer inhabitable as residences. However, they are perfect as pubs, with purposely mismatched decor creatively arranged in courtyards and inside gritty spaces.
The walls are filled with whatever was found, either in the abandoned space before it became the bar or gathered at flea markets or from attic spaces. There are creepy dolls nailed next to animal heads, murals, posters and other artwork, graffiti and drawings. Victorian furniture is intermingled with rustic benches. Anything goes, and the result is fantastically charming. These are hot spots for gossiping during lazy afternoons, and they come to life for music and dancing each night.
Colleen and I sip a Soprani IPA at Csendes, and our group also drinks down a few white wine spritzers. Gergo says they are the summer "sports drink" in Hungary.
We also briefly visit the city's first ruin bar, Szimpla Kert, which started the trend for these popular quirky venues when it opened in 2004 in the Jewish Quarter.
Although Budapest is bustling with tourists, Gergo brings us to serene streets to see how citizens live away from the crowds. We eat at local restaurants and get a real sense of what it feels like to be Hungarian -- if only for a few hours.
We love these kinds of days abroad. I think it gives a better feel for the true taste of a destination.
Do you have any fun memories of Budapest or any any food tours from around the world that you have experienced? Please share in the comments below.
Thanks for reading,