Sandra Sandor’s insider’s guide to Budapest

The Nanushka fashion designer’s guide to the Hungarian capital. By Jessica Beresford

Sandra Sandor and her dog out in the city
Sandra Sandor and her dog out in the city | Image: Peter Puklus

“I was born in Budapest in 1982, seven years before the fall of the Iron Curtain. As a city it’s had its share of hardship, through political turmoil and war, but it’s always come out stronger. I don’t have any negative memories about the cold war era – I think my childhood was probably the same as any other, and I get quite nostalgic about it. From an aesthetic point of view, the influence this era has had on Budapest is one of the most interesting things about the city.

Szechenyi Baths
Szechenyi Baths | Image: Ben Pipe/4Corners Images

I love the Hungarian retro aesthetic – it influences my own work – and it’s still so obvious throughout the Districts. There are socialist-vibe buildings, similar in a way to Bauhaus and the midcentury modern of western Europe, but much simpler. A kind of laidback, standardised design.

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Of course, there are also strong classical influences, which is what the city is renowned for. I grew up in the Castle District, which is a really beautiful, historic part of Budapest, full of gothic and baroque buildings and museums. Even though some areas can be touristy, there are plenty of quiet parts that I still marvel at regularly. One of my favourite places to walk is around the edge of the castle – it’s about a half-hour stroll with an amazing panoramic view of both the Buda side, which is the green, more residential part, and the Pest side, where the main city centre is. When you’re in the Castle District, it doesn’t feel like you are in an urban environment – it’s like a small village. 

Classic Hungarian fried chicken and mashed potatoes at Biarritz in District V
Classic Hungarian fried chicken and mashed potatoes at Biarritz in District V

These days I live downtown in the old industrial neighbourhood, in a loft apartment. The building was a hospital in the war and then a gas factory. I’d say the area is the equivalent of Brooklyn in New York. It’s quite near the Danube, and there are lots of good breakfast and lunch places. One of my favourite breakfast spots is Double Shot, a speciality coffee shop that serves food. I usually get the “eco avo toast”, which is actually a green-pea mash served with sourdough and salad – it makes a change from our traditional cuisine, which is quite heavy and meat-focused.

The tiled roof of Matthias Church in the Castle District
The tiled roof of Matthias Church in the Castle District | Image: Axiom Photographic

When I do eat Hungarian food, my favourite place to go is Biarritz, in District V, right next to the parliament building. There’s a terrace on the street outside, where it’s lovely to eat when the weather is warmer. It’s an old restaurant that closed in 1948, but then reopened in 1995 – my parents also used to eat there when they were younger. I usually get the fried chicken, which is cooked and served in the traditional Hungarian way with a pickled cucumber salad and mashed potatoes. They also do an excellent lecsó, which is like a Hungarian version of ratatouille, into which we dip fresh white bread.

Dobrumba serves Middle Eastern food in District VII
Dobrumba serves Middle Eastern food in District VII

One of my all-time favourite Hungarian dishes, which we used to eat as children, is called túrogómbóc: dumplings made from cottage cheese and sprinkled with sugar. It’s a sweet dish – we would have it for dessert – but it’s also eaten as a main course. The best place they make it now is this bistro-style restaurant called Déryné, which is in a historic building – on the Buda side – with classic French-Hungarian design.

Sandor in the Four Seasons Gresham Palace
Sandor in the Four Seasons Gresham Palace | Image: Peter Puklus

Budapest has a big Italian community, which means there are also a lot of good, authentic trattorias in Little Italy in District VI. I always go back to Pomo d’Oro, a cosy family-owned restaurant where the walls are lined with plates and bottles of wine, and order the classic penne all’arrabbiata, except I ask for it with spaghetti. Sometimes I go for strozzapreti, which translates as “priest choker” – a special type of hand-rolled pasta that comes in a tomato ragù, but the whole thing is stirred in Parmesan before it’s served.

The Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art in District IX, whose collection spans from the 1960s to the present day
The Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art in District IX, whose collection spans from the 1960s to the present day

If I were going to recommend a place to stay in Budapest, the Four Seasons Gresham Palace, in District V, is just incredible. It’s a huge art nouveau building that was built in 1906, and the interior is really opulent. Book a room that looks out over the Danube and the city’s famous Chain Bridge. But if someone’s looking for a more boutique hotel, there’s one in the Castle District called Baltazár, which is a family-owned place with lots of exposed brick and a more modern interior. 

The swimming pool at Gellért Spa
The swimming pool at Gellért Spa

Some of the best and most underrated parts of Budapest are the outdoor spaces. The Buda Hills that surround the city are only about a 40-minute drive from the centre and they’re a mixture of quite dense woods and meadows – an incredible place to clear the head. I go there a lot when I’m not working. Closer to the centre is Gellért Hill, which is near the Danube so has a beautiful view from the top across the river towards the Pest side.

Nanushka, Sandor’s first store, in District V
Nanushka, Sandor’s first store, in District V

Budapest is famous for its baths, of course, thanks to the thermal springs underneath the city. It’s a little clichéd, but going for a swim is genuinely what I do if I want to rest and unwind. My favourite is Gellért Spa, which is in an art nouveau-style building that was finished in 1918. The interior has intricate tiling, decorative columns and a glass ceiling – it’s a beautiful setting to be in.

Traditional Jewish food at Rosenstein in District VII
Traditional Jewish food at Rosenstein in District VII | Image: Balkanyi Laszlo

People in Budapest aren’t very daring in how they dress. I think it’s related to the communist era – when people weren’t able to experiment with their style. But it’s changing. District V, where we opened the first Nanushka store, is the central shopping area, which seems to be growing steadily. Because I work in the fashion industry and travel quite often to New York or London, I don’t go shopping very much in Budapest – except for vintage. One of the best places for this is Falk Miksa utca, a street just north of the main shopping strip, which is full of stores selling antiques and other second-hand items, as well as galleries. The shops themselves are as interesting as what’s for sale; they’re in grand old buildings with beautiful staircases inside.

The Buda Castle funicular, overlooking Szechenyi Chain Bridge
The Buda Castle funicular, overlooking Szechenyi Chain Bridge | Image: Getty Images

District VII, known as the Jewish Quarter, is a hip area with lots of “ruin” bars – named because many were originally started in run-down or derelict buildings. My favourite is Black Swan, which is like a speakeasy with the best cocktails in town. It’s got a relaxed atmosphere and the staff are all experts in spirits; they’ll make anything from a truffle Negroni to ones that taste like crème brûlée. Of course, the district has a lot of traditional Jewish establishments – including the Great Synagogue of Budapest, which is the largest in Europe. It’s a beautiful orange-and-yellow Moorish building with an incredible pink-toned ceiling inside. On the other side of the quarter is an amazing restaurant called Rosenstein, which is the best place to have traditional Jewish food in Budapest. The solét, a bean stew, is absolute comfort food. Dobrumba, also in District VII, serves Middle Eastern food in a very cool, more modern setting. 

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Film is another industry that’s booming here; lots of people have relocated to Budapest because more projects are being produced here. There are also plenty of great cinemas – I often go to Urania National Film Theatre, where they host film festivals and other events. It’s another art nouveau-style building with an incredible, decorative gold ceiling.

Budapest has gone through a lot of change over the past couple of years. After Hungary joined the EU in 2004 all the young, talented people left to work in bigger cities. But now they’re coming back and there’s a good energy: they’re creating companies, restaurants and galleries. That’s one of the things I like best about living here – it feels good to be part of the change.

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