If you want to breathe in a good deal of Budapest as keepsake but have no time to see all of the city, take a stroll on Duna-korzó, a promenade by river Danube. Turn your head to both sides, Buda and Pest, and take your time to check out the sights by the second longest river in Europe while enjoying the fresh air.
Some of them even deserve a longer sip of said air to be had at: Downtown Parish Church (Belvárosi Plébániatemplom), Vigadó, a concert hall operating since the 19th century and the statue of the Little Princess (Kiskirálylány).
Tips: If you continue along the river bank beyond the promenade you can get to the Parliament. Take tram line 2 to travel along the Danube on Pest side for a beautiful view of the Danube, the Parliament, the Royal Castle and Palace and other great attractions.
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Széchenyi Bridge, or the Chain Bridge, is the oldest in the city. Built between 1839 and 1849 under the aegis of Count István Széchenyi, it is now considered the symbol of the city. Two British engineers, William Thierney Clark and Adam Clark, were entrusted with the project. The fine classical stone and iron structure has a 380m span, is 15.70m wide, and is magnificently lit at night. Two stone lions on pedestals keep proud watch over either end of the bridge.
Good to know about the Chain Bridge
Chain Bridge was the first permament bridge over the Danube connecting Buda and Pest and setting the unification of the two cities in motion
Count Istvan Szechenyi came up with the idea of a permanent bridge after being stranded in Pest for weeks because of the hard winter of 1820
Construction, financed by Szechenyi, begun in 1836 and finished during the Hungarian War of Indepencence against Austria in 1849. The first ones crossing the bridge were Hungarian soilders
Szechenyi collapsed mentally in 1848 and was unable to see his dream come true
The Germans blew up the bridge in the siege of Budapest (1945); it was rebuilt in its original form by 1949, 100 years after its first opening
The bridge takes its name after the huge chains that hold it up
Two lions guard the bridge on both bridgeheads. According to the legend the sculptor jumped in the river after a boy pointed out on the official opening ceremony that the lions had no tongues
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Here, we are taking you on an action-packed tour that will leave you in awe of Budapest’s architectural magnificence and magnitude. Particularly noteworthy is the architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Hungary had finally found peace and prosperity.
START: Take the M1 Millennium Underground to Hősök tere.
Heroes Square (Hősök tere)
There’s no better place to start getting your head around the turbulent history of Hungary than Heroes Square. The key protagonists are strikingly introduced as a series of imposing statues. The central column is guarded by the seven Magyar tribe leaders who, in 896AD, stormed into the Carpathian basin, comprising present day Hungary and beyond.
A statue of Árpád leads these seven heathen horsemen, and they appear to be kept in check by Archangel Gabriel, who presides over them from the top of the central column. The founding fathers are flanked by heroes including Szent (Saint) István, who converted Hungary to Christianity on Christmas Day in the year 1000AD, and all-conquering Kings Béla IV and Mátyás Corvinus, as well as perennial thorns in Habsburg Austria’s side like Rákóczi and Kossuth.
Built in 1896 to celebrate a millennium of Magyar presence, nowadays Heroes Square is a popular place with skateboarders and with rightwingers who use it as a backdrop for rallies.
Time: 30 minutes.
Location: Hősök tere at crossing of Andrássy út and Dózsa György út.
Metro: M1 to Hősök tere.
Take a ride on continental Europe’s oldest metro, which opened in 1896 to coincide with the 1,000th anniversary of Magyar presence in Hungary. Get on at the Hősök tere stop and be whisked, just under street level, directly down the elegant Andrássy út (boulevard) - which we recommend you walk down on Day 2.
Get off at Oktogon to see one of Budapest’s several centers where Andrássy út meets the Nagy körút (the Great Boulevard), or stay on one more stop to Opera.
After London’s underground system, this is the next oldest in the world and the stations in particular retain the fin-de-siecle feel.
Time: 15 minutes.
Location: Entrance at end of Andrássy út at crossing of Andrássy út and Dózsa György út; on righthand side of Andrássy út if looking from Heroes Square.
The Miklós Ybl-designed Opera House provides the sumptuous veneer to classy Andrássy út. If you can, we suggest you look now but come back and experience the Opera House in all its glory by catching a performance. Be warned that the supersteep cheap seats are not for sufferers of vertigo. The neo-Renaissance style of the exterior is all semi-circular arches and columns, and is symmetrically topped off by statues of idols of Hungarian opera, while statues of the two Hungarian musical greats, Liszt and Bartok, flank the main entrance. Step inside and the style changes dramatically to neo-classical with the walls and ceiling adorned by lavish works from leading Hungarian artists of the day, including Gyula Benczúr and Bertalan Székely.
Exclusive Hungarian participation was deemed crucial in establishing the home of Hungarian opera, although the scary but magnificent-looking goldplated, three-tonne chandelier was imported from Germany.
Time: 15 minutes, 45 minutes if you take the tour, but check ahead as tours may be cancelled due to rehearsals.
Location: Budapest, Andrássy út 22.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
Building this Budapest landmark proved a job too far for defining Hungarian architects József Hild and Miklós Ybl, who both died during the prolonged 54-year construction.
The Basilica project literally hit rock bottom when the dome collapsed in 1868, a year after Hild’s death. Architect József Kauser was called in and dragged Budapest’s biggest church over the finishing line in 1905. A massive restoration project was completed in 2003 and the gleaming marble is the result of the application of 200kg of beeswax.
Mathematically minded Hungarians love dealing in numbers and, like the Parliament’s dome, Szent István’s stands 96m/315ft high, as a tribute to the Magyar settlement of Hungary in 896. Had they arrived a few years earlier, perhaps the roof wouldn’t have fallen in! The almost 1,000-year-old withered hand of St. Stephen, Hungary’s first King, is displayed in the Szent Jobb Chapel.
Another great Hungarian hero Ferenc Puskás, the talisman of the Magical Magyars and Real Madrid goal machine, was laid to rest here in 2006.
An elevator is on hand to whisk you up to near the top for sweeping views of Buda and Pest.
Location: Budapest, Szent István tér 33. Metro: M1 to Bajcsy- Zsilinszky út. M3 to Arany János utca.
Architect Imre Steindl’s mostly neo-Gothic extravaganza dominates Pest’s waterfront and bucks the Gothic trend with the 96m/315ft-high dome at its center.
While it was once the biggest Parliament in the world when it opened for business in 1896, the building has lost none of its opulence. The exceedingly long corridors of power, the grandiose gold-plated interior and red-carpeted staircases do nothing to instill any form of collective unity between the polarized politicians.
While much like any Parliament, should you happen to enter the chamber after a debate, to which the opposition actually shows up, you can almost feel the steam rising as you enter.
Look out for the Hungarian crown, a gift from the Pope to King (now Saint) István (Stephen) in the year 1000 to thank him for signing up Hungary to Catholicism.
Watch out for protestors outside calling for the current Prime Minister’s head.
Time: 60 minutes for tour, 15 minutes viewing from outside. Enquire ahead via internet as Parliament is closed when in session & turn up 10 min before the tour begins. Buy tickets at gate X. English tours at 10am, 12am, and 2pm daily.
Location: Budapest, Kossuth tér 1–3. Metro: M2 to Kossuth Lajos tér.
This, the pick of Budapest’s varied bridges, isn’t just an architectural marvel but is the first permanent bridge that linked Buda with Pest, setting in motion their eventual unification.
It’s also still the best and most scenic way of traversing the Danube to get from Parliament and Pest’s old town to the Castle District. The brainchild of István Széchenyi, an anglophile Hungarian Count who sought to bring rural Hungary into the modern age, he employed two designers to build the ornate bridge, each with the name of Clark: William, an Englishman, and Adam, a Scot.
The Chain Bridgeopened in 1849, during Hungary’s War of Independence with Austria and fortunately survived an immediate botched attempt to blow it up, something that the more efficient Germans managed when retreating from occupying the city in 1945. It was soon rebuilt and reopened on its centenary in the original style.
Come back at night when it and the Royal Palace are both lit up dramatically.
Time: 20 minutes.
Location: Connects Széchenyi István tér with Clark Adám tér. Bus 16/105 or Tram 2.
The Castle District
Bombed, burnt, battered, and rebuilt many times throughout the centuries, the Royal Palace and St. Matthias Church dramatically portray Hungary’s trials and tribulations. We suggest you wander the district at your leisure to soak up the history of the place and return later for a more in-depth tour.
If you only have 1 day in Budapest, you’ll want to see a bit of both Buda and Pest, and this tour lets you do both. You’ll start off with a cultural and historic tour of Pest, then you’ll cross Chain Bridge (an attraction in itself) for a brief tour of the Castle District in Buda, where you can enjoy a meal and a stop in a pub.
Budapest is a city where wide boulevards intersect with some really narrow streets. It is a reminder that it was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Wide boulevards were especially well suited for accommodating the carriages of royals and others of wealth. This is definitely a city to be walked, so start in the center, wander the grand boulevards, and admire the architecture. Make sure you look up. So many interesting features on buildings are not at eye level.
Depending on your travel tastes, you may want to visit a few museums and highlights of the area. You may find the Greek-looking
Hungarian National Museum, the
Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center, or the
Inner City Parish Church
to your liking.
As you wander through the area, remind yourself of two facts: unlike Prague, much of Budapest was bombed during World War II; and the Communist regime only ended in 1989. In a relatively short time, the city has made tremendous strides, although it still has far to go. Many historic buildings have been torn down to be replaced with modern conveniences such as boutiques, apartment complexes, or restaurants. Others have been renovated to their former glory, but in my opinion, certainly not enough. History is being replaced by sterility of the new and modern.
Váci utca is the perennially favorite shopping and walking street of Budapest. Developed after the regime changes in 1989, it has blossomed with many international stores and some Hungarian ones as well. For examples of Hungarian crafts, visit the Vali Folklór folk craft shop, the VAM Design Gallery, at Váci utca 64, and various clothing stores (avoid the touristy cafes here).
Walk from Váci utca to the Danube Promenade and stroll along the river. Following the No. 2 tram line, you will be making your way to Kossuth tér for:
Budapest’s exquisite Parliament building is the second largest in Europe after England’s Westminster. The main facade faces the Danube. Designed by Imre Steindl and completed in 1902, the building mixes neo-Gothic style with a neo-Renaissance dome reaching 96m (315 ft), significant as the country’s millennium was 1896 and the conquest of the kingdom of Hungary was 896. St. Stephens is also 96m (315 ft) high for the same reasons. It is by far one of our favorite buildings in Budapest. At the top of a grandly ornamented staircase, there is a hexadecagonal (16-sided) central hall that leads to an impressive chamber. The fabled Hungarian crown jewels of St. Stephen are on display.
Unfortunately, you can enter only on guided tours (the 45 minutes tour is worth the chance to go inside).
Szabadság tér (Freedom Square)
This beautifully maintained park is the home of a large obelisk statue that commemorates when the Soviet Union liberated Hungary at the end of World War II. It is the last remaining memorial to the Soviet Union in the city.
Walk back to Parliament and then south about 0,25 km (0,15 mile) toward the historic Chain Bridge, which you will see in the distance:
Known as the Széchenyi Bridge or the Chain Bridge, this bridge holds the distinction of being the first permanent crossing to link Buda and Pest. The idea for the bridge was instigated and funded by 19th-century Hungarian reformer, Count István Széchenyi. Legend has it that due to storms, he was not able to cross the river to be with his dying father. While Széchenyi waited 8 days for the storms to subside so he could cross the river, his father died and he missed the funeral. Designed by William Tierney Clark, an Englishman, the bridge was also one of the largest suspension bridges of its time when it opened in 1849. According to legend, the omission of sculpted tongues on the lions, which guard the bridge at either end, caused the sculptor to drown himself in the river out of shame; however, the lions do have tongues, just not visible from the ground.
Walk across the Chain Bridge, and take the funicular up to the:
Castle Hill, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, consists of two parts: the Royal Palace itself and the so-called Castle District. Most of this area is a reconstructed medieval city, but the original castle was destroyed in World War II and replaced with the current Royal Palace. For a detailed 3-hour itinerary of this area, see post “Walking Tour 2: The Castle District,” and “Strolling Around Budapest.”
This is an interesting area for walking and wandering. There are many cobblestone streets, so choose your shoes carefully. You might also wish to stop and visit the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum.
Budapest, being the capital, is the largest city in Hungary with 1.7 million people within the city proper. However, if the greater Budapest metropolitan area is included, this figure climbs to 3.27 million inhabitants. The metropolis is separated into 23 districts, 6 in Buda, 16 in Pest, and one consisting of Csepel Island making it seem like an immense city at first glance, but the majority of districts are residential and not of interest to most travelers.
Budapest officially became one city with the unification of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda on November 17, 1873. One contributing factor was the building of the Széchenyi lánchíd, commonly known as the Chain Bridge. This was the first connecting bridge over the Danube in Budapest. It was named for Count Széchenyi who was a major financial supporter of the project. The story goes that Széchenyi was on the Pest side of the river when he received word that his father was on his deathbed. Due to a major storm, Széchenyi was unable to get a boat to traverse the river for a week, thus missing seeing his father one last time before he died. He vowed this would never occur again. Not only did the bridge have practical implications, but it also aided the cultural and economic advancements of the people.
Interestingly, William Tierney Clark, the engineer who designed the Marlow Bridge across the river Thames in Marlow, England designed this bridge as well. Both bridges are similar in design. Construction of the bridge was supervised by a Scottish engineer, Adam Clark, though they were not related. On the Buda side of the bridge is a turnabout named Clark Adam tér. The bridge officially opened in 1849. Its center span of 202m (660 ft) was the largest in the world at that time.
On the ends of the bridge are sculptures of lions, added in 1852, producing a humorous folk legend. When a group of schoolchildren were brought to view the lions and the bridge, the sculptor who was in attendance bragged about the lifelike details of his lions. One child pointed out that the lions did not have tongues. The sculptor was upset over this missing detail; he jumped to his death into the Danube. Of course, this is only a legend as the sculptor lived well into old age.
Budapest is also home to the oldest metro (underground) line in continental Europe, the second oldest in the world after London.
It has the largest Parliament building in Europe, again being beaten only by Westminster in London.
The Dohány Synagogue is the second-largest working synagogue in the world after Temple Emanu-El in New York City.
Budapest has the worlds largest cave system of thermal water with 80 geothermal springs running below it.