It was King Béla IV who decided to build a fortress here in order to protect Buda from the Mongols, however the castle owes its opulence to the Habsburgs. Outside the palace note the huge turul; the equestrian statue of Eugene of Savoy; King Mathias's fountain; the Lions' Gate, leading to the beautiful interior courtyard; the "war hammer" tower; and the barbican.
The palace houses the Széchenyi national library, the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery.
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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.
Castle District (Várnegyed). This district is the city’s most beautiful and historic dating back to the 13th century, with some settlements here even earlier. This is district I, which is a small district that encompasses the plateau where the grand Royal Palace and grounds fill the southern end above the surrounding neighborhoods and the Danube below. The Castle District is defined by its medieval walls. The northern end is home to small winding streets, with old homes, St. Matthias Church, the Fishermans Bastion, and the Hilton Hotel.
Watertown (Víziváros). A long, narrow neighborhood wedged between the Castle District and the Danube, makes up district II. Víziváros is historically a quarter where fishermen and artisans reside. Built on the steep slope of Castle Hill, it has narrow alleys and stairs instead of roads in many places. Its main street, Fő utca, runs the north-south length of the Víziváros, parallel to and a block away from the river. It is a high-rent district for residents and tourists.
Rose Hill (Rózsadomb). This is the part of Buda Hills and still part of district II, closest to the city center and one of the city’s most fashionable and luxurious residential neighborhoods.
Buda Hills. The Buda Hills are numerous remote neighborhoods that feel as if they’re nowhere near, let alone within, a capital city. By and large, the hills are considered a classy place to live. Neighborhoods are generally known by the name of the hill on which they stand. Unless you like to walk neighborhoods, there is nothing more for the traveler in this part of the city.
Óbuda makes up district III and is mostly residential now, though its long Danube coastline was a favorite spot for workers’ resorts under the old regime. Most facilities have been privatized, so a large number of hotels are found here. Transportation for the traveler into Pest would be cumbersome, so we do not recommend staying out here. The extensive Roman ruins of Aquincum and the beautifully preserved old-town main square are Obuda’s chief claims to fame.
Inner City (Belváros). The historic center of Pest, the Belváros, literally meaning “city center” is the area inside the Inner Ring, bound by the Danube to the west. Making up part of district V, it has many of Pest’s historic buildings in this area. In addition, a number of the city’s showcase luxury hotels and most of its best-known shopping streets are here.
Leopold Town (Lipótváros). The continuation of district V is just north of the Belváros, making Lipótváros a part of central Pest. Development began here at the end of the 18 th century, and the neighborhood soon emerged as a center of Pest business and government. Parliament, plus a number of government ministries, courthouses, banks, and the former stock exchange, are all found here. Before the war, this was considered a neighborhood of the “high bourgeoisie.”
Theresa Town (Terézváros). The character of Terézváros, district VI, is defined by Andrássy út, the great boulevard running the length of the neighborhood from Heroes’ Square through Oktogon and down into the Inner City. This grand street has been regaining its reputation of elegance: Andrássy út is once again the “best address” in town, especially since the upper part is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Teréz körút section of the Outer Ring cuts through Terézváros; Oktogon is its major square. The area around Nagymező utca is the city’s small theater district.
Elizabeth Town (Erzsébetváros). This is district VII. Directly to the southeast of Terézváros, Erzsébetváros is the historic Jewish neighborhood of Pest. During the German occupation from 1944 to 1945, this district was where the ghettos were established for the Jewish people. This district is still the center of Budapest’s Jewish life. Although it had been exceedingly run-down due to the war, in the last couple of years, it has become gentrified and considered one of the up-and-coming districts to invest in.
Joseph Town (Józsefváros). One of the largest central Pest neighborhoods is district VIII. Józsefváros is to the southeast of Erzsébetváros. It has had a reputation of being a less-than-desirable district of Pest, but there are some places in this district worth your time and energy. It should not be dismissed across the board. It is working hard at gentrifying.
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.
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.
Pest is as flat as a palacsinta (pancake), spread over a number of districts, taking in two-thirds of the city. Pest is the heartbeat with the commercial and administrative center of the capital and of all of Hungary.
Central Pest, the term used in this guide, is that part of the city between the Danube and the semicircular Outer Ring Boulevard (Nagykörút), where stretches of it are named after former Austro-Hungarian monarchs: Ferenc körút, József körút, Erzsébet körút, Teréz körút, and Szent István körút, changing names as the district changes.
The Outer Ring begins at the Pest side of the Petőfi Bridge in the south and wraps itself around the center, ending at the Margit Bridge in the north. Several of Pests busiest squares are found along the Outer Ring, and Pest’s major east-west avenues bisect the ring at these squares.
Central Pest is further defined by the Inner Ring (Kiskörút), which lies within the Outer Ring. It starts at Szabadság hid (Freedom Bridge) in the south and is alternately named Vámház körút, Múzeum körút, Károly körút, Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út, and József Attila utca, depending on the district, before ending at the Chain Bridge. Inside this ring is the Belváros, the actual city center and the historic Inner City of Pest. For the traveler, the Pest side is our recommended side for accommodations since this is where the lion’s share of the action is and it is easy to walk to where you want to go.
Váci utca (distinct from Váci út) is a popular pedestrian-only, touristy, shopping street between the Inner Ring and the Danube. It spills into Vörösmarty tér, one of the area’s best-known squares.
The Dunakorzó (Danube Promenade), a popular evening strolling spot, runs along the river in Pest between the Chain Bridge and the Erzsébet Bridge. The historic Jewish district of Pest is in the Erzsébetváros (Elizabeth Town), between the two ring boulevards.
Margaret Island (Margit-sziget) is in the middle of the Danube. Accessible via the Margaret Bridge or the Árpád Bridge, its an enormously popular recreation park with restricted vehicular traffic. It is extremely popular in the summer for sunbathing, sports, jogging, and bike riding. It has a small petting zoo for children and the remnants of an old monastery.
Buda & Óbuda
On the left bank of the Danube is Buda; to its north, beyond the city center, lies Óbuda. Buda is as hilly as Pest is flat and is a good place for hiking. The two most advantageous vista points in the city are in central Buda on Castle Hill and the even higher Gellért Hill. Streets in Buda, particularly in the hills, are not as logically arranged as those in Pest.
Castle Hill is one of the most beautiful parts of Budapest with its magnificent view of Pest. Castle Hill is accessed by steep steps, walking paths, and small roads that are not open to general traffic. There are three less aerobic ways to access Castle Hill for those who want to conserve their energy for other adventures. From Clark Ádám tér (at the head of the Chain Bridge) you can take the funicular; from Várfok utca (near Széll Kálmán tér) you can take the No. 10 bus; or from Deák, take the No. 16 bus, all of which will take you to the top.
Castle Hill consists of the royal palace itself, home to several museums. The previous castle was destroyed in World War II, but was rebuilt afterward and named the Royal Palace specifically to house museums. The Castle District has a long history going to pre-Celtic times, but what remains today are the medieval neighborhoods of small, winding streets, circling around Holy Trinity Square (Szentháromság tér), site of the Gothic Church of Our Lady or commonly referred to as St. Matthias Church. There’s little traffic on Castle Hill, and the only industry is tourism. Souvenirs, food, and drink tend to be more expensive here than in Pest.
Gellért Hill, to the south of Castle Hill, is named after the martyred Italian bishop who aided King István I (Stephen I) in his conversion of the Hungarian nation to Christianity in the 10th and 11th centuries. A giant statue of Gellért sits on the side of the hill, where legend has it that he was martyred by angry pagans for his efforts. On top of the hill is the Citadella, marked by a 14m (45ft) Liberation Statue of a woman holding a palm leaf to represent victory. It was erected in 1947 and visible from most points along the Danube on the Pest side.
Below Castle Hill, along the Danube, is a long, narrow neighborhood and district known as Watertown (Víziváros). The main street of Watertown is Fő utca (Main St.). One of the original market places is off of Batthyány tér in this district. The famous Király thermal bath from Turkish times is right down the street.
Central Buda, the term used in this guide, is a collection of mostly low-lying neighborhoods below Castle Hill. The main square of Central Buda is Széll Kálmán tér, just north of Castle Hill, a hub for trams, buses, and the Red line metro, this area is in serious need of revitalizing. Beyond Central Buda, mainly to the east, are the Buda Hills.
Óbuda is on the left bank of the Danube, north of Buda. Although the greater part of Óbuda is lacking any architectural significance, reminding one of the Communist times, the area boasts both a beautiful old city center and the impressive Roman ruins of Aquincum. Unfortunately, the road coming off the Árpád Bridge slices the old city center in half, destroying its integrity. The historic center of the old city is Fő tér (Main Sq.) » a charming square dotted with small, yet impressive museums. Óbuda Island (Óbudaisziget) is home to an enormous park that swells in size every August when it hosts Hungary’s own annual Woodstock music festival, called the Sziget (Island) Festival. This festival has developed an international following.