Budapest’s Chinatown Offers More Than You’d Think

Discover Budapest's hidden Chinatown, including more than a dozen outstanding Chinese restaurants in it.

With more than 30,000 people, Budapest is home to the largest Chinese community in Central Europe. Most Chinese people came to Hungary between 1989 and 1992, at a time when there were no visa requirements to the country and economic opportunities were widespread following the fall of communism. These newcomers were unskilled, but hard-working people hailing from villages and small towns in Eastern China—mainly Zhejiang and Fujian provinces—looking for a better life in Europe.

Initially, Chinese people organized markets on the outskirts of Budapest, selling cheap, imported Chinese goods, mostly clothing. Over time, some of them have become spectacularly wealthy, but the majority are still toiling away from dawn to dusk. At its peak, in the 1990s, the Hungarian Chinese community amounted to almost 50,000 people, but many have since moved on to Western Europe, or returned to their hometown in China, which had been drastically transformed in the meantime.

A Chinese chef taking a cigarette break in Budapest's Chinatown.

Recently, a new wave of Chinese immigration took place in Budapest: between 2013 and 2017, thousands of Chinese citizens purchased Hungarian residency bonds through an immigration-by-investment program run by the Hungarian government. Unlike the first wave of Chinese immigrants, these people are well-off and cosmopolitan—the cost of a residency bond ranged between €250,000 and €300,000. Many of them have purchased homes in the Buda hills and other upscale pockets of the city, instead of settling in the working class neighborhoods in District 10 where most first-wave Chinese people still live. The recently opened Chinese restaurants in Budapest, particularly the pricier ones, cater to these well-heeled newcomers.

Monori Center, aka Chinatown Budapest

Budapest's Chinatown, also known as Monori Center, is situated in Kőbánya, a bit outside the city center. Hundreds of wholesalers spread across an area of 80,000 sqm here, exporting clothing to other Central European countries. But there are also stores that cater to the local Chinese community, including Chinese grocery stores, traditional Chinese medical centers, churches, massage and hair salons, pastry shops, and even two Chinese-language newspapers that feature both Chinese and local news stories. And there are plenty of restaurants.

In fact, Monori Center is where Budapest's best and most authentic Chinese restaurants congregate. Be it fancy Sichuan-food, a no-frills dumpling shop, seafood, a neighborhood restaurant, or a classic Chinese breakfast joint, you will find them all here. Given that the vast majority of customers are local Chinese people, the dishes are comparable to those found in China—there's even a local Chinese farmer outside Budapest who grows Chinese vegetables in a greenhouse.

Note, however, that this isn't your typical Chinatown. Instead of the typical markers of Western Chinatowns — pagoda-shaped buildings and a bustling market with lively street food vendors — Monori Center is a quiet commercial town; if it weren't for the Chinese signs above the storefronts, you could mistaken it for a sleepy outlet mall. But while it offers less of a spectacle, the area's diversity and depth of food options make it a worthwhile destination for Budapest visitors.

The summer street food market at Monori Center.

A popular summer event here is the outdoor street food market: from May to August, a dozen or so makeshift food stalls serve excellent Chinese foods ranging from dim sums to freshly grilled meats, seafood, and dumplings. For the best experience, try to go with a big group and share plates. The summer market is open from 5 p.m. until midnight every day of the week.

To get to Monori Center from downtown by public transport, you can either take a bus from Kálvin Square (#9 to Kőbánya alsó vasútállomás) or a tram from Blaha Lujza Square (#28 to Mázsa utca). Piercing through working class neighborhoods, the trip will offer a glimpse into the less glamorous side of Budapest, one that few tourists normally see. Alternatively, you can take a 15-minute taxi ride that will cost €10-12 or so.

There is another area near Monori Center where many Chinese businesses operate: Józsefvárosi Piac/Euro Square. Here, a seemingly endless row of decrepit, industrial buildings are now home to Chinese and Vietnamese vendors. This chaotic space feels more like a classic Asian market, with hole-in-the-wall eateries buried deep inside, including an excellent Chinese pancake shop (the sit-down restaurants are mainly in Monori Center). Few people speak English or Hungarian here, so follow your nose and good things will come your way. Józsefvárosi Piac/Euro Square is a bit closer to the city center and along the same tram (#28) and bus (#9) lines as Monori Center.

I highly recommend visiting Budapest’s Chinatowns. Apart from delicious Chinese food, they will make you appreciate Budapest’s cultural and ethnic diversity that even most locals are unaware of.

Where To Eat, What To Eat?

Budapest's downtown is swarming with low-priced Chinese takeouts that serve toned-down food adjusted to meet local preferences. For the best cluster of Chinese restaurants, however, head to Monori Center.

A bowl of Sichuan boiled beef (shuizhu niurou) at Hehe restaurant.

China has a refined, complex, and diverse cuisine, with major regional differences. The leading Chinese restaurants in Budapest don’t usually specialize in a particular region, instead serving pan-Chinese fare with a selection of signature dishes from the main provinces like lazi ji chicken (Sichuan), lamian noodle soup (Lanzhou), and steamed dumplings (northeast). Nonetheless, the international popularity of Sichuan food has rippled out to Budapest too, meaning that chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns feature prominently on most menus.

Although a landlocked country like Hungary isn’t exactly a seafood chef’s dream, Budapest currently has two standout Chinese restaurants specializing in steamed lobsters, crabs, and other treasures of the ocean: Milky Way and Yanjiang Nan Restaurant, both of them owned by families from Wenzhou, the coastal Chinese city in Zheijiang Province. The only downside is the steep price points, which put these native flavors out of reach for most people, both Chinese and Hungarian.

Hot potting is a huge trend in China and it’s becoming popular in Budapest, too. Like fondue, it’s a communal activity, where a group of people sit around an oversized table and cook together. Here, they dunk a variety of raw ingredients into the boiling broth, just to fish’em out a few minutes later cooked to perfection. Budapest boasts three hot pot joints already: a northern Chinese with milder flavors (Wang Fu), a spicy Chongqing-style (Daohuaxiang), and one in-between, using hot charcoal for cooking (San Guo Zhi).

A Chinese breakfast plate at Hong Kong Büfé.

If you're curious what Chinese breakfast is like, both Monori Center Hong Kong Büfé and HeHe serve classic Chinese morning foods, including different types of rice porridge (congee and xifan), pickled vegetables, deep-fried dough sticks (youtiao), steamed buns (baozi), scallion pancakes (cong you bing), and the popular sweetened soybean milk.

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