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A buzz with pavement cafés, street artists, vendors, boutiques and nightclubs, the dowtown (belváros in Hungarian) or Inner City is the hub of Pest.

A buzz with pavement cafés, street artists, vendors, boutiques and nightclubs, the dowtown (belváros in Hungarian) or Inner City is the hub of Pest and, for tourists at least, the epicentre of what’s happening. Commerce and pleasure have been its lifeblood as long as Pest has existed, first as a medieval market town and later as the kernel of a city whose belle époque rivalled Vienna’s.

Since their fates diverged, the Belváros has lagged far behind Vienna’s Centrum in prosperity, but the gap is fast being narrowed, at least superficially. It’s now increasingly like any Western city in its consumer culture, but you can still get a sense of the old atmosphere, especially in the quieter backstreets south of Kossuth Lajos utca.

Pest

Pest, on the left bank of the Danube, also has many historic districts, resorts and famous sights. There are nine bridges spanning the Danube, the oldest being the Széchenyi Chain Bridge built in 1849.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge
Széchenyi Chain Bridge

 

Downtown - Pest The Downtown Parish Church on Március 15. tér was the city’s first church. Examples of all architectural styles, ranging from Romanesque to Classicist, blend into the interior of the church.

At 2 Dohány utca Europe’s largest synagogue is found, serving also as a concert hall of excellent acoustics. The Jewish Museum in the courtyard of the synagogue is a centre for Jewish studies.



The Hungarian National Museum (14-16 Múzeum körút) is the finest example of Hungarian Classicist architecture. In existence since 1846, it is the most significant public collection in Hungary, tracing the history of the Hungarian people from prehistoric times to the present day.

Hungarian National Museum
Hungarian National Museum

 

The Vásárcsarnok (Grand Market Hall, 1-3 Fővám körút) is striking in its architectural inventiveness.

The finest examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Hungary include the Museum of Applied Arts (33-37 Üllői út) with its wide selection of permanent and temporary exhibitions, the houses on Szervita tér (Pest town centre) and the building of the former Postal Savings Bank (4 Hold utca).

The Parliament (Kossuth Lajos tér) is the largest and the most lavishly decorated building in the country. Built between 1885 and 1902 by Imre Steindl, this exquisite edifice is 96-m high and 118-m wide, and has 10 courtyards, 29 staircases and 27 gates. Europe’s first area heating system was put in service in this building. Seat of the Hungarian Parliament and government offices, it provides a place of safety for the Holy Crown and the royal insignia. It is accessible only by guided tours in groups.

The neo-Renaissance St. Stephen’s Basilica (Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út), elevated to the rank of basilica minor, is the largest church in Budapest, and the second largest in Hungary. The right hand of St. Stephen, Hungary’s first king (970-1038), preserved intact for over 1,000 years, is the relic of the Chapel of the Holy Right. The tower balcony of the basilica offers a splendid uninterrupted panorama of the whole of the city.



It is worth taking a walk along the straight Andrássy út, a boulevard that is now a World Heritage site. It is lined with 19th- and 20th-century Eclectic-style palaces.

The State Opera House (22 Andrássy út), with its frescoed interior, seating an audience of 1,200, is a splendid work of by Miklós Ybl, Hungary’s most famous architect, and has been the centre of musical life in Hungary since 1864. There are guided tours.

State Opera House
State Opera House

 

After a stroll along Váci utca from Vörösmarty tér and a look at the splendid view of Várhegy from the embankment, the best way to appreciate the dowtown is by simply wandering around. People-watching and window-shopping are the most enjoyable activities, and though prices are above average for Budapest, any visitor should be able to afford to sample the cafés. Shops are another matter – there are few bargains – and nightclubs are a trap for the unwary, but there’s nothing to stop you from enjoying the cultural life, from performances by jazz musicians and violinists to world-class conductors and soloists.

 

After a hard day of major sightseeing on Day 1, take the plunge and relax in one of Budapest’s world-renowned thermal baths, while still admiring its architectural beauty, then get out and about again to uncover some of the unique buildings that reflect the country’s varied and troubled past.

START: Take the M1 or "Millennium Underground" to Széchenyi Fürdő.

Széchenyi Baths (Fürdő)

The therapeutic waters of this neo-Baroque bathing bonanza will revitalize tired joints and set you up for a fulfilling day. That’s providing you don’t spend all your time being slow cooked in the hot pools, which will leave you seriously sleepy.

Alternate between hot and cold pools, saunas, and steam rooms and take some time out in the mediumtemperature pools or just chill out on a deckchair.

Széchenyi Thermals
Széchenyi Thermals

 

The most luxurious pool is the outdoor semi-circular one, from which steam dramatically rises in the cold of winter as locals play chess.

The whirlpool is great for kids.

Time: 2 hours. Go early to avoid the crowds, especially in summer. For more information please reed our post Best Baths in Budapest.

Location: Budapest, Állatkerti körút 11.

Vajdahunyad Castle

Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe that this fairly authentic-looking folly was once made out of cardboard and dates back barely a century. Vajdahunyad Castle went up as a temporary structure as part of the Magyar millennium celebrations in 1896, depicting the various Hungarian architectural styles over the centuries.

Vajdahunyad Castle
Vajdahunyad Castle

 

By 1908, Vajdahunyad had been transformed into a collection of stone replicas representing treasured creations from right across the Magyar realm. Particularly prominent are the ramparts facing the lake from Vajdahunyad Castle and Sighişoara’s clocktower, both in present-day Romania.

Time: 30 minutes.

Location: Metro: M1 to Hősök tere / Széchenyi Fürdő.

Fine Arts Museum (Szépművészeti Múzeum)

The Fine Arts Museum is closed for reconstruction for about 3 years since march 2015.

The mighty Habsburgs who once ruled as far as Spain and the Netherlands acquired an astonishing collection of impressive art works, many of which found their way here. A tour de force in European art from the 13th to the late 18th centuries, lovers of Madrid’s Prado gallery will see similarities with this collection, which is also particularly strong in Spanish masters, with El Greco, Velázquez, Murillo, Ribera, Cano, Zurbarán and Goya all represented. El Greco’s Annunciation, painted in the late 16th century, is set to heavenly clouds and bright lights, while Velázquez’s early work Peasants Around a Table, dated around 1619, magically preserves the timehonored tradition of getting stuck into conversation over a few drinks.

Fine Arts Museum
Fine Arts Museum

 

Time: 1,5–2 hr. Go early when major temporary exhibitions are running.

Location: Budapest, Dózsa György út 41. Opening hours: Tuesday–Sunday 10am–5:30pm. Metro: M1 Hősök tere.

Walk up Andrássy út

You are more than likely to have explored portions of this, the grandest of Budapest’s boulevards on Day 1 when checking out the Opera House, but further examination is rewarding. Walking from Heroes Square the first stretch is lined with luxurious villas, including Kogart, an arts center and restaurant.

Andrássy út
Andrássy út

 

Further up, Andrássy út is traversed by Kodály körönd, a striking square of faded but ornately painted town houses.

Time: 30 minutes.

Terror House

It’s funny how both the Fascists and the Communists both favored this location on classy Andrássy út to do their worst. An address that seems to be cursed, this visually impressive museum caused controversy with its highly politicized opening in 2002. Seen by many as an affront to the re-spun Hungarian Socialist Party, which once ruled Hungary with an iron fist but has changed beyond recognition, on behalf of their archrivals Fidesz, it was even sponsored by the then Fidesz Prime Minister Victor Orbán. More about the: Terros House

House of terror
House of terror

 

Cynics’ claims are backed up by the fleeting coverage of Fascist Hungary and the much denser coverage of the red terror. However, the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross Party ran the country for only a year, coming into power in 1944, but what a gruesome year that was, with the previously protected Jewish population being shipped off in droves to concentration camps.

Politics aside, from the Russian tank that greets you; to the pictures of victims and their jailors; the industrial and dark classical soundtrack; film footage and interviews; genuine exhibits including Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross uniforms; and the trip to the cells and gallows.

Time: 60 minutes. Opening hours: Tues–Fri 10am– 6pm, Sat–Sun 10am–7pm.

Location: Budapest, Andrássy út 60. Metro: M1 to Vörösmarty utca.

Great Synagogue

With its onion domes, Moorish and Byzantine influences, Budapest’s great synagogue not only pioneered a new style of Jewish architecture, it also spawned the father of modern Zionism who was born here, Tivadar Herzl.

Zsinagóga
Zsinagóga

 

Time: 15 minutes.

Location: Budapest, Dohány utca 2. Metro: M2 to Astoria.

Applied Arts Museum

You might have encountered this remarkable-looking Art Nouveau masterpiece by Ödön Lechner, Budapest’s answer to Gaudí, if you took the road in from the airport. Lechner, who also worked on the building’s plans with secessionist sidekick Gyula Pártos, created a Hungarian take on the Art Nouveau movement, adding Hungarian folk touches and emphasizing certain eastern influences on Hungary.

Accordingly, traces of architectural styles from as far afield as India can be detected, and the bright green and gold Zsolnay tiles that adorn the roof and dome are more Oriental than European. You may find more info about this Museum here.

Time: 1,5-2 hours. Opening hours: Tues–Sun 10am– 6pm.

Location: Budapest, Üllői út 33–37. Metro: M3 to Ferenc körút.

Budapest's Bests in Three Days

 

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.

Heroes' Square
Heroes' Square

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.

Millennium Underground

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.

Millennium Underground
Millennium Underground

First metro 4:36am, last 11:20pm. Read this post about public transportation in Budapest.

Opera House

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.

Opera
Opera

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.

St. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica

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.

Time: 60 minutes. Opening hours: Mon–Fri 9am–5pm, Sat–Sun 10am–4pm.

Location: Budapest, Szent István tér 33. Metro: M1 to Bajcsy- Zsilinszky út. M3 to Arany János utca.

Parliament

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.

Parliament
Parliament

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.

Chain Bridge

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.

Chain Bridge
Chain Bridge

The Chain Bridge opened 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.

The Castle District
The Castle District

Time: 2 hours.

Location: Castle District, take the Bus No. 16 to Dísz tér.

Budapest's Bests in Two Days

 

Once you have discovered the charms of Inner Pest and the Castle District on Day 1, it is time to broaden the scope with a walk around the Outer Ring Boulevard (körút). Note that as you walk the körút, the name changes from district to district.

Start: New York Palace Hotel.

 

New York Palace Hotel

The New York Life Insurance Company originally commissioned the building, which opened on October 23, 1894. During the 1900s, its cafe was a center of intellectual life in the city, with writers and journalists as frequent patrons. After many years of remodeling and revitalizing the original eclectic style with a strong Italian renaissance influence, the Boscolo hotel chain reopened the hotel and its legendary cafe in 2006. The detailed reconstruction is worth admiring and returning to see in the evening when lit up.

New York Palace
New York Palace

 

Walk toward Oktogon, noting the grand turn-of-the-20th-century architecture of Pest. At Oktogon turn right and walk up to Andrássy u. 60.

Terror Háza (House of Terror)

First the headquarters of the secret police of the Nazi Arrow Cross regime, when the Soviets liberated Hungary, it immediately turned into the headquarters for the Communist secret police. This building is the setting of some of the most horrific days of 20th-century Hungary, which lasted for more than 50 years. Hundreds were tortured and murdered in the basement by both regimes. The Nazis’ primary victims were Jews, but the Communists targeted anyone who spoke out against the government.

House of terror
House of terror

 

The building is a museum functioning as a memorial to the victims of both Fascism and Communism and is an everlasting reminder of the effect of oppressive regimes in Hungary. However, it has caused continual controversy since it opened in 2002, especially because the building’s overhang has the word “TERROR” stenciled on it, which is quite striking when the sun shines through it.

Andrássy Boulevard

Strolling up the majestic Andrássy Boulevard toward Heroes’ Square and City Park, you are taking the UNESCO World Heritage Site tour. The boulevard is lined with trees and a wealth of beautiful apartment buildings, many of which are now used as embassies. In addition, there are restaurants and museums scattered along the way leading to Heroes’ Square. This is Pest’s greatest boulevard.

Andrássy Boulevard
Andrássy Boulevard

 

Once you reach the end of Andrássy Boulevard, adjacent to the Museum of Fine Arts, the Műcsarnok, and City Park, you'll find:

Heroes' Square

Heroes’ Square was created for the millennium in 1896 (remember the reoccurring 96), which celebrates the arrival of the Magyar tribes in the Carpathian Basin in 896. The statues represent the chronology of some 1,000 years of Hungarian history. The seven statues on the left side are all Hungarian kings. On the right side, they are all famous Hungarians, but only one was a king. In 1896 during the famous world exhibition, this space was the apex of some 200 pavilions that made up the festivities. Many festivals are still held here.

Heroes' Square
Heroes' Square

 

To your left you will find the Museum of Fine Arts. The museum is the main repository of foreign art in Hungary. It has one of central Europe’s major collections and it is considered one of the most important art collections in Europe. Free 1-hour tours are offered by highly trained docents Tuesday through Friday at 11am and 2pm and Saturday at 11am.

Walk through the park and you will arrive at:

The Széchenyi Baths

After a long day, you deserve to rest and relax. Nothing could be better after a day of touring than a soak in a thermal. This is one of the largest spa complexes in Europe and the first thermal bath on the Pest side. Chances are if you have seen photos of men playing chess on floating chessboards, the men were in this thermal. It is mixed men and women and bathing suits are mandatory.

Széchenyi Baths
Széchenyi Baths

 

See post “Thermal Baths”.

After your afternoon of thermal bathing, you may want to head back to your hotel to rest, but if you have done so at the thermals, then head out for dinner. You can take the Yellow metro from Széchenyi and go one stop to Mexikói or choose a dining spot from post "Where to Dine in Budapest," but either way make a reservation.

Some Nighttime Culture

Spend an evening attending an opera at the Opera House. It is a premier venue. The Opera House is magnificently beautiful inside. The fine arts are alive and well in Budapest, and a nighttime cultural event is the way to round out your short stint in the city. Note that performances usually start at 7pm not the customary 8pm.

Opera House
Opera House