The Central Market Hall is one of the most important and most characteristic buildings of Budapest. Located next to the Danube bank, in one of the most important squares of the city, the Market Hall has not only an interesting present, but an exciting past as well. It is worth diving into the history of the building and its surroundings to grasp the real magnificence of this famous place worth experiencing for every tourist arriving to the capital city.
History of the place and its surroundings
The history of the Market’s surroundings is almost as interesting as that of the building itself. Originally, the square where the Market stands today was no square at all, in fact it was the place where the old walls of Pest town met the river. After the walls were demolished or built into the new houses as the city expanded, the square became an important place for all. First of all, it gave place to many warehouses, mostly containing salt and tobacco. This was also the place where the shipping of salt have arrived to be inspected, and thus many buildings around were occupied by customs officers.
One of the buildings on the square deserves to be mentioned here: the ex-building of the Main Customs Office, which was planned by Miklós Ybl in Neo-Renaissance style. They chose this place for its proximity to the river and for the abundance of warehouses nearby. The so-called “Customs House” or “Chief Customs Palace” had a railroad connection and was connected to the Danube through 4 tunnels to make the transporting of goods ashore easier, some of which still can be found there to this day. Today, the building houses the Corvinus University of Budapest.
Construction and opening
Already in the 1860s it has been pointed out that there was a need to improve the food supply to the capital by constructing market halls. As food supply conditions kept deteriorating, regulations were much needed, and authorities decided that only food that has been inspected beforehand should be sold. At the end of the 1870s, a Food Committee was established, and plans were laid out to establish market halls. However, things were going very slowly, while conditions were deteriorating rapidly, mostly due to the fast increase in population, and the disorganised state of food supply.
At the time, Budapest had 44 markets, where around 4000-8000 people were selling their goods. Most of these markets had no water, livestock was sold right next to fresh food, and the hygienic conditions were terrible. There was a big risk of infection, the markets were dirty, old-fashioned and chaotic, not up to the standards of a rapidly developing metropolis. By 1896, it was absolutely urgent to swing into action.
Authorities drew out a plan to establish market halls all along the city to cover the needs of the whole population. It became forbidden to sell food on the streets, and soon the first market halls started to pop up everywhere in the city. The open, unchecked and hygienically uncontrolled markets were finally replaced by vast, covered, highly controlled market halls.
They also decided that apart from the district market halls, there is a need for the establishment of a bigger, central market hall. They considered the most favourable position for the Central Market Hall to be Fovam Square, on the site of the Salt depot. The building itself was designed and built by architect Samu Pecz. Its construction coincided with the period of the Hungarian Millennium, the huge-scale celebration of the thousand year anniversary of the Hungarian tribes arriving into the Carpathian basin. Vast constructions and developments were undergoing in the city, this was also the time when the bridge just in front of the Central Market Hall was built, offering direct connection to the Buda side across the Danube.
The Market Hall was also intended to be opened as part of this year of celebration, in June 1896. However, for causes still unclear up to this day, just 10 days before the opening, the roof of the market hall burned down in a fire and needed to be completely rebuilt. Thus the opening ceremony was postponed to 15 February, 1897. Thousands of people came to the opening ceremony, to see this magnificent building, unparalleled of its time. The market was inaugurated by the prime minister, while a military band was playing in the background. In May of the same year, even Franz Joseph I, Austro-Hungarian emperor visited the market hall and signed his name in its ledger.
Since then, the building and its surroundings have been striving. Even the horse rail in front of the building was soon replaced by tram lines. During the bombings of the second world war, the market hall has been severely damaged, and though reopened, it was highly neglected in the consecutive years. In March 1990, it had to be closed for years as it was in such a bad state that it was in danger of collapsing. A 4 year long complete renovation followed, and it was finally reopened in 1994.
Since then, the Central Market Hall has to be regularly renovated every 20-30 years to keep it in its original glory.
The building itself
Though Neo-Gothic in style, the Market Hall has a touch of the typical style of the Eiffel group with its big iron and glass structures and huge spaces.
At the time of the opening, the contemporary media has called it “The Church of Food”. And indeed, the structure resembles a huge church: it seems to consist of a central nave and two nave-aisles on the two sides. The whole area is 10,000 square metres in size and is effectively all contained in one huge space, though on three separate floors. A distinctive architectural feature of the building is the roof which is all covered by colourful Zsolnay tiling from the town of Pécs. The hall is covered by a huge steel structure and also includes vast glass surfaces, offering a very unique mix of styles.
An interesting detail is that since the nearby streets had a downward inclination, the main architect designed the floor of the hall to go down, 1.5 meters altogether along the length of the building. At the same time, the gallery and the basement stayed horizontal, but the building perfectly fits the bordering streets. Because of this inside difference in heights, there are no two columns in the building that would have the same height, or two flights of stairs with the same length.
Originally, the layout of the shops were very different than how it is nowadays: the space was divided in two, one part for retailers, the other for wholesalers. The meats were being sold next to the walls that were covered with tiles, which was much easier to clean. In the front, people were selling vegetables and fruits, while the first floor – where it was forbidden to sell food - was reserved for selling baskets, gifts, and plants. There was even a podium in the middle of the building, used for auctions. At the back of the building, live animals were sold, sometimes even horses and cattle – of course today this is not possible, it was forbidden after the second world war.
The Market was operated very strictly to make sure that everyone was living up to the expected standards. Sellers could only use the equipment of the market hall, they couldn’t bring their own booths for example. As a hygienic regulation, it was compulsory to wrap all goods sold inside, and only goods that have been pre-checked could be brought inside. They also restricted the behaviour of the sellers: for example, it was forbidden to shout, sing, whistle or swear. Inspections were frequent, and everyone tried to make sure that sellers and buyers equally complied with the rules.
The Central Market Hall nowadays
The Central Market Hall went through a lot, but nowadays, it is one of the most imposing and most visited buildings of Budapest. Its specialty and uniqueness have been recognised by many, multiple times. Already in 1977 it was declared a protected monument and twenty years later, in 1999, it was awarded the FIABCI Prix d’Excellence prize, the “Oscars of architecture”. In 2013, CNN Travel selected it as the most beautiful market of Europe, and in 2014 Guardian listed it in the top 10 most famous markets of the continent.
For any tourists arriving to Budapest, the Central Market Hall is a must-see attraction. As one of the most visited places in the capital, the Market Hall welcomes around 45-50,000 visitors a day. Tourists can find anything they might need in just one single space. Nowadays the ground floor is occupied by sellers of produce, meats, pastries, candies, spices, and spirits. Tourists can also find the most typical Hungarian goods and delicacies here, such as paprika spices, Tokaji Aszú wine, the famous Túró rudi chocolate, Hungarian sausage or salami. The second mezzanine floor has eateries and tourist souvenirs. The basement contains fish mongers, picked vegetable stalls and a few specialized butcher shops.
A unique part of the market hall is the so-called Hungarikum street, located on the underground level of the building. This 140-meter-long underground corridor aims to show and promote the best quality Hungarian produces, goods and foods. Here tourists can find and discover authentic Hungarian products, such us paprika from Kalocsa and Szeged, kolbász from Gyula and Békéscsaba, Pick and Herz salamis, acacia honey, lavender products from Tihany, wine from the Tokay region, goose liver, onion from Makó, pálinka and Unicum, Rubik cube, Zsolnay porcelain or Béres drops. All these products are showcased in glass cabinets along the corridor, where visitors can learn more about their qualities, past, traditions and cultural-historical significance.
There are also small exhibitions here about the 22 Hungarian wine regions and the Hungarian grape varieties, or about the Gömböc, a Hungarian invention of a convex three-dimensional homogeneous body with just one stable and one unstable point of equilibrium.
The Market Hall also houses many restaurants and is a perfect finding place of souvenirs and specialties to take home. They frequently host diverse ‘nationality days’ when they showcase and sell products and food from a specific nation. There is also a possibility to organise tasting tours, walking from booth to booth, always trying something different, but authentically Hungarian. As it lays nearby the beautiful Liberty Bridge and the famous pedestrian shopping street, Váci utca, one can fill a whole day by visiting the area, and one of the most beautiful market halls of the world.
Have a look inside:
Closed on Sundays and public holidays.
How to get there
You can take metro line M4 to "Fővám tér" metro stop, or hope on trams 2, 47 or 49.
If you are arriving by metro line M3, get off at "Kálvin tér" stop and you can reach the market with a short 5-minute walk.
**Source of info and pictures: Hall and Market Management of the Municipality of Budapest
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