The world of fashion and commercialization has bombarded the capital with a silent invasion. Each week, COMING SOON signs appear on storefront windows promising yet more pieces of globalized fashion, but you can rest assured they're not for the average Hungarian. From designer labels like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, to brand-names like Nike, and stylish secondhand shops, Budapest offers an array of shopping experiences with each passing year trying to outguess the economy.
As is the global trend, megastores are forcing out the small business owner at a rapid rate. Still, buyer beware: quality and value do not always go hand in hand with a hefty or bargain price tag. A number of fashion-driven, retro-loving, or economically suppressed shoppers are still ferreting out the smaller shops where they can claim the prize of a bargain. To add to the mix, secondhand clothing stores have started to pop up like mushrooms after a good rain.
Shopping vocabulary to know:
Nyitva-tartas -- Opening hours.
Nyitva -- Open.
Zarva -- Closed.
Akció -- Sale going on.
% -- Without a number, means there's a sale with multiple discounts.
Vásárló utca is an underground 'street' of shops off Váci utca near Haris köz -- you'll recognize it by the escalator going down to it. I don't recommend you go down there, especially at night. It's easy to get trapped by unsavory types, particularly business ladies who may have brawny friends at the top of the escalator to convince you to use unwanted services.
Folklore -- Travelers seeking folklore objects do not have far to look. The first place to look is the second floor of the Nagyvasarcsarnok (great market) for a wide selection of popular items that include pillowcases, embroidered tablecloths, pottery, porcelain, intricately painted and carved eggs, dolls, dresses, skirts, and sheepskin vests. The vendors have become jaded with tourists, so don't bargain as much as they used to. Antiques shops, running along Falk Miksa utca in downtown Budapest, feature a broad selection of vintage furniture, ceramics, carpets, jewelry, and accessories, but over the years, it has become more expensive with less bargaining going on for tourists.
Transylvania, once part of Hungary before the Trianon Treaty after World War I, still comprises mostly ethnic Hungarians amongst the population. Women come to Budapest with bags full of handmade craftwork selling their goods to Hungarians and tourists alike. Their prices are generally quite reasonable, and bargaining is customary. Keep your eyes open for these vendors, who sell on the street or in the metro plazas -- they are unmistakable in their characteristic black boots and dark-red skirts, with red or white kerchiefs tied around their heads. If they spot the police, they may disappear fast, but often return when the coast is clear again.
Porcelain -- A popular Hungarian item is porcelain, particularly from the country's two best-known producers, Herend and Zsolnay. Although both brands are available in the West, you'll find a better selection, but not lower prices, in Hungary. Collectors have told me they now have to hunt with a keen eye for substantial bargains, more so than in the past. The Zsolnay factory has declared bankruptcy, so the government had to take receivership. Although they are trying to sell it, it is unclear how this will change demand or availability.
Hungarian Food -- Typical Hungarian foods make great gifts. Hungarian salami is world famous. Connoisseurs generally agree that Pick Salami, produced in the southeastern city of Szeged, is the best brand. Herz Salami, produced locally in Budapest, is also a very popular product (though not as popular as Pick). You should be aware that some people have reported difficulty in clearing U.S. Customs with salami; bring it home at your own risk. Another typical Hungarian food product is chestnut paste (gesztenye püré), available in a tin or block wrapped in foil; it's used primarily as a pastry filling but can also top desserts and ice cream. Paprika paste (pirosarany) is another product that's tough to find outside Hungary. It usually comes in a bright-red tube. Three types are available: hot (csípos), deli-style (csemege), and sweet (édes). Powdered paprika also comes in the same three varieties as the paste. All of these items can be purchased at grocery stores (élelmiszer), delicatessens (csemege), and usually any convenience store. In the great market, you will find the powdered version in little decorated cloth bags, making it ready for gift giving. If spice is your thing, saffron is very cheap. Stock up and thrill others with the yellow powder. Another product to look for is Szamos-brand marzipan. Szamos Confectioners, a recently reestablished family business that was originally founded in 1935, is also said to make the best ice cream in the country. They're based in Szentendre, with a shop in Budapest at V. Párisi u. 3 (tel. 1/317-3643).
Wines -- Illustrious local traditional wines and spirits have matured. The sweet white Tokaji Aszú, Tokaji Eszenzia, and Tokaji Szamorodni, and the mouth-tingling Egri Bikavér, Villányi Cuveé, Szekszárdi Bikavér, and Kékfrankos are the most representative. The infamous palinka is a strong fruit brandy that is a Hungarian treasure. Unless you indulge in an expensive brand, you may get a bottle that seems to have had the fruit waved over the top without ever really touching the drink. If someone offers you schnapps, you are getting palinka; chances are it is homemade and usually much better than the less-expensive commercial brands. Visit the House of Palinka to learn about the different types and qualities. Every European culture has its herbal digestive drink that they swear will cure what ails you. For the Germans it is Jagermeister; for Hungarians, it is the black spirit made of 40 different herbs -- Unicum -- the trademark product of Zwack. It is a bitter liqueur and an acquired taste. In the last couple of years, they tried their hand at a carbonated version called Unicum Next to lure the youth market; it has been successful.
Markets -- If you love markets, you're in for a treat. There are numerous markets here: flea markets (használtáru piac), filled not only with every conceivable kind of junk and the occasional relic of communism, but also with great quantities of mostly low-quality new items like clothing and shoes; and food markets (vásárcsarnok, csarnok, or piac), which sell row after row of succulent, but limited varieties of fruits and vegetables, much of it freshly picked and driven in from the surrounding countryside.
The Shopping Scene
Main Shopping Streets -- The hub of the tourist-packed capital is the first pedestrian shopping street in Budapest, Váci utca. It runs from the stately Vörösmarty tér in the center of Pest, across Kossuth Lajos utca, all the way to Vámház körút. This area is for both Hungarian elite and travelers alike to stroll. Váci utca as well as the bisecting pedestrian streets and courtyards are filled with boutiques and shops packed with mostly upscale items waiting to be given a new home. Váci utca was formerly known throughout the country as the street for good bookshops. Sadly, only one remains, but don't fret. We have other bookstore recommendations to follow that will satisfy your needs. The street is now largely occupied by Euro-fashion chain stores that flood every major city with their European-style prices. There are an overwhelming number of folklore/souvenir shops, which might be good for window-shopping, but unless we have recommended them below, you may be paying more than you should for that souvenir. This area is home to many cafes and bars, but it, like Castle Hill, is notorious for tourist traps.
Another popular shopping area for travelers is the Castle District in Buda, with its abundance of overpriced folk-art boutiques and art galleries. This is where tour buses drop off travelers with minimal time to shop, thus forcing them into impulsive buying.
Most Hungarians like to browse or people-watch in these two neighborhoods, but tend to do their serious shopping elsewhere. One of the favorite shopping streets is Pest's Outer Ring (Nagykörút), which extends into West End Center, a shopping mall located just behind the Nyugati Railway Station. Another bustling shopping street is Pest's Kossuth Lajos utca, off the Erzsébet Bridge, and its continuation, Rákóczi út, which extends all the way out to Keleti Railway Station. Király utca has gentrified and is becoming known for its intimate home decor boutiques. Andrássy út, from Deák tér to Oktogon, is an example of contradiction. There are now over a dozen empty storefronts at any given time, yet the elite designer shops still want to make their mark here. No bargains to be found, but you can drool over the gurus of fashion like Emporio Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, and Fidji Couture, which features Dior, Versace, and Lanvin. For youthful fashion, the likes of Nike and Adidas are represented here also. Andrássy út is also where evenings come alive, with numerous cafes and restaurants. If you shop until you drop, Liszt Ferenc tér and Nagymezo utca, both run off Andrássy út and are intermingled with a plethora of cafes and restaurants. For more purchase power, check out the revitalized Ráday utca with its offering of a few tiny shops with unique ceramic, glass, and other bric-a-brac, which may be exactly what you are missing for your souvenir list. You can often pay by credit card in the most popular shopping areas.
Hours -- This is the general rule: Stores are open Monday through Friday from 10am to 6pm and Saturday from 10am to 2pm. Otherwise, when a store waivers from the rule, I have their hours in the listing. The high-end designer stores are open Saturdays until 6pm. Most independent shops are closed on Sunday, except for those on Váci utca. Shopping malls are open on weekends, sometimes as late as 9pm, but this is always subject to economic changes.
Taxes & Refunds -- If you reside outside of the European Union, refunds on the 25% value-added tax (VAT), which is built into all prices, are available for most consumer goods purchases of more than 45,000 Ft purchased in one store, in one day (look for stores with the "Tax-Free" logo in the window.) The refund process, however, is elaborate and confusing. In most shops, the salesperson has to provide you with the necessary documents: the store receipt, a separate receipt indicating the VAT amount on your purchase, the VAT reclaims form, and the mailing envelope. The salesperson should also be able to help you fill out the paperwork. Use a separate claim form for each applicable purchase. If you are departing Hungary by plane, you can collect your refund at Magyar Pénzváltó in Ferihegy Airport 1 or OTP Bank at Ferihegy Airport 2. You have to do this right after checking in but before you pass security control. Otherwise, hold on to the full packet until you leave Hungary and get your forms certified by Customs when you land. Then, mail in your envelope and wait forever for your refund. Two wrinkles: you must get your forms certified by Customs within 90 days of the purchase showing that it is leaving the country; and you must mail in your forms within 183 days of the date of export certification on the refund claim form. I have never found this to offer any significant savings after they deduct the service charge for the transaction. Unless you are making grandiose purchases, you may want to save your time and energy for other things. For further information, contact Global Refund (Innova-Invest Pénzügyi Rt.) at IV. Ferenciek tere 10, 1053 Budapest (tel. 1/411-0157; fax 1/411-0159; www.globalrefund.com).
Shipping & Customs -- You can ship a box to yourself from any post office, but the rules on packing boxes are as strict as they are arcane. The Hungarian postal authorities prefer that you use one of their official shipping boxes, for sale at all post offices. They're quite flimsy, however, and have been known to break open in transit, probably before leaving the city. The Hungarian post does not have a five-star rating for service, but they do rank four stars for misappropriating packages coming and going from the country.
Very few shops will organize shipping for you. Exceptions to this rule include most Herend and Zsolnay porcelain shops, Ajka crystal shops, and certain art galleries, which employ the services of a packing-and-shipping company, Touristpost. Touristpost offers three kinds of delivery: express, air mail, and surface. The service is not available directly to the public, but functions only through participating contracted shops. You need to consider whether the cost of shipping will still save you money by purchasing your fine porcelain and crystal in Hungary than at home.
Hungarian customs regulations do not limit the export of noncommercial quantities of most goods, except collectibles. However, the export of some perishable food is regulated, but allowed if acceptable to the receiving country. The limit on wine and spirits is not limited at export if shipped, but may be limited by Customs at your destination. Shipping wine can be prohibitively expensive.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.