Copious Dishes and ‘Brutal’ Prices at Budapest’s Christmas Fairs

In Budapest

The Vörösmarty Classic Xmas official host, actress Anita Ábel, in the market.

Budapest is a spectacular city with centuries-old squares and buildings. During winter, some of these spaces become even more stunning when the Christmas fairs open for visitors. This year they are even more welcome than usual, following two years of pandemic restrictions. Prices, however, are likely to be prohibitive for many locals.

Many of the 23 districts of the Hungarian capital hold Christmas markets, but two attract the most significant number of visitors, both located in District V: at Vörösmarty tér and in front of the St. Stephen Basilica. The first accommodates 80 exhibitors, the latter around 120.

This year, the same company is behind both events, with the organizers of the Advent Basilica fair (twice voted the best in Europe) also entrusted with the Vörösmarty market. The latter, home to a Christmas fair for more than 20 years, opened to the public on November 18, rebranded as the Vörösmarty Classic Xmas, and even has a dedicated host, actress Anita Ábel. She shared the most relevant details with the Budapest Business Journal.

The fair on Vörösmarty tér will be open until December 31, and the main goal, the organizers say, was to bring back the feeling of traditional fairs. The layout has been carefully structured thematically, so visitors can more easily find what they want. The food booths have been separated from the manufactured products, so the flow of visitors is smoother. This gives the whole square a more organized and spacious feeling.

“Maybe it would seem that there are fewer exhibitors this year, but the number is the same, only the setup of the fair changed, which gives a more spacious feeling. Manufactured Christmas presents will be available until December 28, and food until the 31st,” Ábel says.

A new element is a mini-train near the lion fountain, which is free and much appreciated by younger children. Also, they can create their own Christmas presents in a heated shack. For pet lovers, the Vigyél Haza (Take Me Home) Foundation will offer onsite information and the opportunity to support puppies.

Poetry Corner

Another change is the covering over the central statue of poet Mihály Vörösmarty, for whom the square is named.

“In previous years, it has been wrapped in a simple plastic cover to protect it from low temperatures. This year, the statue is surrounded by quotes from Vörösmarty’s poems in Hungarian, but also in German and English for foreign visitors,” Ábel explains.

Food prices on Vörösmarty tér are fixed: visitors can enjoy a copious Hungarian dish for HUF 1,500 (EUR 3.5), which is extremely tasty and is available at all food booths. Also, the mulled wine, the spiced smell of which fills the air, now has a uniformly standard price of HUF 1,200 (EUR 2.8), Ábel says.

However, prices seem less budget-friendly in 2022, even more so when compared to last year. In 2021, that same mulled wine cost HUF 900. For the kids, hot chocolate prices have risen from HUF 1,000 to 1,500. High inflation, at more than 21% in October, has obviously increased the costs, to the extent that the Hungarian media have variously described them as a “horror” and “brutal” or “mad.”

These are not extraordinary prices when compared to Christmas fairs in other Western European cities (for example, EUR 9.4 for a cup of mulled wine at the Christkindlmarkt in Vienna), but that does not mean they are easily affordable to a median-income Hungarian family.

Selling for Your Supper

Based on the prices, one might expect exhibitors to make a fortune during the two weeks of the fair, but costs are equally high, not least from the HR perspective. Food sellers are in high demand and paid an average daily fee of HUF 30,000/EUR 71.5. For that, they are expected to work 14-15 hours a day.

Specific qualifications are not required, but candidates are expected to be reliable and to speak English at least to a conversational level. English or German language knowledge, preferably both, is essential, as most tourists arriving at the two leading Budapest Christmas fairs come from abroad: estimates put the share of foreign visitors at about 60%.

One of the sponsors of the fairs at Vörösmarty and the Basilica is the Hungarian Tourism Agency (MTÜ). The BBJ did ask the agency for detailed estimates about the number and expected spending of foreign guests at the fairs, but it did not respond to our inquiries.

The rental fees for exhibitors are not made public either, but the Hungarian edition of Free Europe revealed that the cost for a small, four square meter booth in either square is about HUF 1 million, plus electricity consumption of approximately HUF 200,000. Exhibitors told Free Europe that these fees are not excessively high, considering the central location and that visitors tend to spend more during the winter holidays, especially foreign tourists.

Speaking of which, Budapest is not always a winner in international price comparisons. Business portal hvg.hu compared product prices at the Christmas fairs in Budapest, Vienna, Brussels and Paris. According to this, mulled wine prices are the same in Brussels and Budapest but significantly higher in Vienna and Paris (double in the French capital, in fact).

Food price comparisons are more complicated, as the specifics differ, but if you look at the most expensive dish as the matrix for measuring, Vienna ranked lowest (ironically with Hungarian goulash or Altungarisches Kesselgulasch) at HUF 5,267. In Budapest, lamb trotters cost HUF 8,500, and in Paris, barbecue ribs with French fries and sauce are HUF 9,000, hvg.hu says.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of December 2, 2022.

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