Monuments and sights not to miss in Budapest can be found in the following quarters: the Castle District, Downtown Pest, Andrássy Avenue and Városliget (City Park). From a recreational aspect, the thermal baths, Margitsziget (Margaret island) and Normafa are the most prominent. It is worth starting your walk in the Castle District, which, while offering a magnificent view of the city, also condenses the history of Buda in one place and has a unique atmosphere. The banks of the Danube and the Castle District in Buda have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.
The Castle District
It is well worth spending a full day in the UNESCO-listed Castle District, a pedestrian zone which is divided between a section for royalty, and the area traditionally inhabited by the city’s civilians. These two parts are connected by the spacious Szt. György Square and Dísz Square, the main meeting point and place of arrival for public transport buses and tourist coaches. The architectural highlights of the civilian portion (the northern part of the district) are Matthias Church, with the adjoining Fishermen’s Bastion and narrow streets bordered by 17-18th century houses and ruins of medieval origin.
The Church of Our Lady, also known as Matthias Church is one of the principal sights of the Hungarian capital. It is the successor to a church built in the time of King Béla IV between 1255 and 1269, which was rebuilt on several occasions. Its side aisles were extended and given polygonal ends in the 14th century; the magnificent south doorway with its relief in the tympanum depicting the "Death of Mary" also dates from that period. On either side of the entrance are statues of King Stephen I (The Holy) and King Ladislaus I. In 1309, Charles Robert of Anjou was crowned King Charles I of Hungary in this church. Under King Matthias, after whom the church is named, side-chapels were added, together with an oratory for the royal family and a new south tower. In 1526, the building was destroyed by fire and fifteen years later converted into a mosque. When the Turks were driven out by the Austrians, the Jesuits took over responsibility for the Church of Our Lady and renovated it in the Baroque style. In 1867, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and his consort Elisabeth were crowned rulers of Hungary here; Franz Liszt composed his famous coronation mass for the occasion.
The church was rebuilt in its present form between 1874 and 1896 by Frigyes Schulek, who adopted a Neo-Gothic style. At the end of the Second World War it was severely damaged but has been faithfully restored after years of patient work. The west front, facing Szentháromság tér (Trinity Square), has an ornamented doorway and a fine rose-coloured window, and is largely the work of Schulek, who also added a further storey with patterned Zsolnay roof tiles and a spire to the 13th century Béla Tower. The interior of the Matthias Church is decorated with geometrical designs and plant ornamentation reminiscent of a mosque. The frescoes and stained glass date from the 1890s and were designed by B. Székely and K. Lotz, and the Neo-Gothic high altar by Schulek. The crypt and a remarkable treasury in the basement can also be visited.
On Castle Hill, at the spot where in the Middle Ages the fishermen had their defensive installations, Fishermen's Bastion (Halászbástya) was built behind the Matthias Church between 1895 and 1902. Its towers, colonnades and embrasures, which were designed in Neo-Romanesque style by Frigyes Schulek, were renovated a few years ago. The bastion itself never served defensive purposes; its seven towers represent the seven conquering tribal leaders of the Hungarian Conquest in the 9th century. From the bastion, there is a magnificent view over the city and the Danube.
The Bastion reflected in the glass façade of the Hotel Hilton offers an unusual photo opportunity for those with an artistic eye. Trinity Square in front of the church, is the central square in the castle district and has a large Baroque plague column in the middle designed by Barbier and Ungleich (1714). The side streets emanating from the square are dotted with Baroque-style buildings and mansions hiding medieval ruins. A number of particularly noteworthy buildings are grouped around the square. You may want to take a rest in one of the many restaurants or cafés, or treat yourself to an ice cream or pastry at the opulent Ruszwurm Café. Sit for a spell at Kapisztrán Square and listen to the bells of the Magdalena Tower, or climb aboard one of the cannons in front of the Museum of Military History. Those with a taste for an eerie underground experience can descend into the Labyrinth – a snaking system of caves and cellars stretching deep into the belly of the hill.
Strolling down Tárnok utca to the south, you will find the Arany Sas Patikamúzeum (Golden Eagle Pharmacy Museum), the building with the oldest pharmacy in the Castle District, built in 1745.
Dísz Square leads south to Színház utca (Theatre Street). On its east side an old Carmelite monastery was converted into a theatre and casino following its dissolution in the 18th century by order of Emperor Joseph II. The building was reconstructed according to designs by Farkas Kempelen, and at present houses the National Dance Theatre and the former Várszínház (Castle Theatre). The theatre was damaged in the Second World War, but was renovated and re-opened a few years ago in glittering new splendour.
Between the Castle Palace and the former Upper Town lies St George's Square (Szent György tér), where jousting tournaments and other equestrian games were held in the Middle Ages. On the south side of the square, near the castle, stands a beautiful ornamental fountain (1904) designed by Alajos Stróbl: it shows King Matthias Corvinus hunting. On the northeast side of the square stands Sándor Palace (Sándor palota), built in 1806 in the Neo-Classical style and now houses the residence and office of the President of the Republic. It is worth waiting for the changing of the guards, which takes place daily at noon.
From here, you will arrive at the entrance to the former Royal Palace complex. This is also the upper station of the century-old Buda Castle Funicular Railway, which operates between here and the Chain Bridge.
- The Buda Castle Palace (Budavári Palota)
The first castle was built here in the 13th century on the south spur of Castle Hill. Its purpose was to provide protection from attacks by the Mongols. Unfortunately, nothing remains of this original building. Under King Charles Robert, a smaller palace was erected as the king chose Visegrád as his residence. It was not until King Sigismund, who made Buda his residence, that a grandiose Gothic castle was built, and considerably extended in Renaissance style under King Matthias Corvinus.
Although the Castle Palace (Budavári palota) survived during the time of Turkish occupation (1541-1699), it was almost completely ruined during the Siege of 1686. As a result, a new castle was built in the 18th century, which during the time of the Empress Maria Theresa had more than 200 rooms. The Castle Palace, from that time on the residence of the Palatine (the representative of the Habsburg overlords), was rebuilt by the architects Alajos Hauszmann and Miklós Ybl in Neo-Baroque style. A symmetrical layout was created, focused on the central dome (62m high) facing the Danube.
The extensive buildings were badly damaged in the Second World War and the interiors never regained their original form. The palace was reconstructed and partly transformed to house museums, and after decades of restoration work on the surrounding sites, it was possible to preserve a few Gothic and Renaissance structures, sections of which are gradually opened up to the public. At the southern end of the complex, parts of the medieval castle have been reconstructed. The Buzogány Tower near the Ferdinand Gate is impressive. Outside the walls of the castle, a number of Turkish tombstones can still be seen.
The complex now houses two rich museums: the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum, as well as the nation’s largest library. In the National Gallery, a wide cross-section of Hungarian painting and sculpture is on display, ranging from the time of the Magyar invasion through the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods, to the richly productive 19th and 20th centuries. The Budapest History Museum is one of the most significant collections in the capital, featuring artefacts and masterpieces of fine arts from the history of the city. The collection contains highly interesting documents, ceramics, wrought-iron work, textiles, household utensils and other objects, which provide a comprehensive picture of life in the independent towns of Óbuda, Buda and Pest from the Middle Ages up to 1872. The courtyards of the palace are strewn with statues and fountains, and from the eastern terrace (in front of a realistic equestrian statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy, conqueror of the Turks) we can steal another magnificent view over the entire city.
The area around the Buda Castle Palace is a popular site for festivals: the annual Feast of Crafts and Wine Festival both take place here.
It is worth taking the funicular railway to descend to the city, as you will arrive right to Széchenyi Chain Bridge (Széchenyi Lánchíd). The bridge, designed by English architect William Tierney Clark and built in 1849, was the first permanent bridge to connect Buda and Pest, and as such, played a key role in the unification of Pest, Buda and Óbuda in 1873.
Gellért hill (Gellért-hegy)
Probably the most striking feature of the landscape of Budapest is the panoramic Gellért Hill (235m (771ft): a block of dolomite, the east flank of which drops steeply down to the Danube, while the west side consists of terraces. Along its geological fault several medicinal springs emerge, which supply the Gellért Baths, Rudas Baths and Rác Baths.
The hill is named after St Gellért (St Gerard of Csanád), a Benedictine monk who did good works during the time of King Stephen I. He was made the first Magyar bishop, but died a martyr's death in 1046. On the northeast slope of Gellért Hill, above a man-made waterfall, stands a statue of St Gellért.
The Citadel, built by the Austrians on top of Gellért Hill after 1851, still looms over the city and is a popular tourist attraction. Parts of the fortifications are open to the public. Visitors head for the terrace with its amazing view to admire the mesmerizing sight lying below. Try to arrange a nocturnal visit for a glimpse of the city’s night-time illuminations.
Margaret Island – lying in the middle of the Danube and forming one of the city’s most beautiful parks and recreational areas – is visible from here. You can reach it via Margaret Bridge, designed by the Frenchman Ernest Gouin.
Downtown Pest (Belváros)
When crossing Lánchíd (Chain Bridge) from Buda to Pest, visitors bump into Gresham Palace, a pearl of Hungarian Art Nouveau built in perfect symmetry with the bridge, and today housing a Four Seasons Hotel. Széchenyi Square, where it is located, is further decorated by the compelling Neo-Renaissance building of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
The Parliament is just a few blocks away from here and is a must-see. The 19th century building is situated on the Pest riverbank. After the Austro-Hungarian Compromise in 1867, in which a dual monarchy was created, Hungary received more independence and the country wrote its own constitution. It also initiated the development of a parliament building, which later became the symbol of this independence. Designed by Imre Steindl, the eclectic style building with a strong Neo-Gothic influence was inspired by the Houses of Parliament in London and was built between 1885 and 1902. At the time, it was the largest parliamentary building in the world. The building is 268 metres long and 118 metres wide. The Parliament has more than 29 staircases and 691 rooms. The elegant dome at the centre is 69 metres high. The two houses of the former parliament (the Upper and Lower Chamber) are on either side of the dome. The Holy Crown and royal insignia are on display in the Parliament building, which can be visited from Gate X on the Kossuth Square side.
Returning back to Széchenyi Square and walking down the Dunakorzó (Danube Promenade), you will find a magnificent view of Buda Castle and Gellért Hill. You can walk past Vigadó Square, have a look at the 19th century Vigadó Concert Hall, stroll along Vörösmarty tér and Váci utca, the well-known shopping street, perhaps taste one of the delicious pastries of the famous Gerbeaud Patisserie, and finally arrive at Elisabeth Bridge. The Downtown Parish Church here, on Március 15. Square, was the city's first church. Examples of all architectural styles, ranging from Romanesque to Classicist, blend into the interior of the church.
Not far from here, on Dohány utca, lies Europe's largest synagogue, serving also as a concert hall with excellent acoustics. The Neo-Moorish style building was constructed in 1853. The Jewish Museum next door, in the courtyard of the synagogue, is a centre for Jewish studies and the museum's garden houses the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park.
The Hungarian National Museum further on Múzeum körút (Museum Boulevard) is the finest example of Hungarian Classicist architecture. In existence since 1846, it contains the most significant public collection in Hungary, tracing the history of the Hungarian people from prehistoric times to the present.
At the end of the Kiskörút (the inner Small Boulevard), right at the abutment of the Szabadság-híd (Liberty Bridge), the Vásárcsarnok (Great Market Hall) is striking in its architectural inventiveness. The Market Hall houses a market on the ground floor and souvenir stands upstairs, small shops and a supermarket in the basement; it's a popular place for daily shopping.
Back at the heart of the city near Deák tér, the Neo-Renaissance St. Stephen's Basilica, elevated to the rank of basilica minor, is the largest church in Budapest, and the second largest in Hungary. Construction on the basilica began in 1851. The first architect to work on the design was Jozsef Hild, whose ideas for the structure reflected the Classical style. When Hild passed away during the construction, architect Miklos Ybl took over, adding his own touch to the basilica, which leaned more towards Neo-Renaissance. The layout of the interior of the basilica and the completion of the building in 1905 was ultimately overseen by a third architect, József Krausz. Krausz called upon many of Hungary’s most well-known sculptors and painters to contribute to the decoration of the interior of St Stephen’s. The incredibly ornate interior features around 50 different types of marble, elaborately decorated chapels, and many sculptures, including a bust of the basilica’s patron saint, Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary. You’ll also find St Stephen's preserved right hand in the Chapel of the Holy Right. Besides enjoying the many works of art inside the church, visitors can travel by elevator to the left tower, where they can enjoy a panoramic view of Budapest. In the right tower, you’ll find the largest church bell in the country, weighing about 9 tons.
It's worth taking a walk along the broad 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, seats an audience of 1,200. It is a splendid work of art by Miklós Ybl, Hungary's famous architect, and has been the centre of musical life in Hungary since 1864.
The creation of the unified city of Budapest in 1872 led to extensive development, which happened to coincide with the celebrations surrounding the thousand-year anniversary of the Conquest of Hungary. Andrássy Avenue was conceived at that time as an architecturally-unifying boulevard. The section which radiates from today's city centre is bordered by three and four-storey, Neo-Renaissance and eclectic buildings. The middle section is wider and divided into three lanes, between which run pedestrian pavements bordered by double rows of trees. The two narrower, outer lanes were originally paved with wooden blocks, where the gentry could ride their horses. On the third section are apartment buildings with front gardens or larger villas in their own parks. Outstanding among the buildings on Andrássy Avenue are the Opera House, the Dreschler Palace, the old Music Academy and the corner houses on Kodály Körönd.
Budapest's beautiful State Opera House was commissioned for the commemoration of the Hungarian millennium in 1896 and designed by Miklos Ybl, Hungary's celebrated architect of the time. The grand building took nearly a decade to complete, with construction beginning in 1875 and finishing in 1884. Neo-Renaissance in style, the Opera House also boasts a number of Baroque elements. On the exterior, visitors will find sixteen statues of the world's greatest composers, including Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, Bizet, Tchaikovsky, and Monteverdi. The inside of the Opera House is stunning as well. Frescoes and sculptures by some of Hungary’s foremost artists, including Karoly Lotz, Bertalan Székely, and Mór Than grace the interior.
The statues on the semicircular colonnade (the Millenium Monument) on Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere), where Andrássy Avenue terminates, immortalize the most noteworthy leaders and rulers of Hungarian history. Facing each other on opposite sides of the square are the Fine Arts Museum and the Contemporary Arts Hall. The continent's first underground railway runs beneath Andrássy Avenue.
Andrássy Avenue and the surrounding historical area – the Millennial Underground Railway included – have been part of UNESCO's World Heritage since 2002.
Városliget (City Park)
Close to the city centre, Városliget offers visitors a lot of things to see and do. Completed in 1896, in time for celebrations marking 1,000 years of Hungarian history, this 1.2-km2 (302 acre) park has everything you need for an enjoyable day, from a pretty pond to a number of interesting historic sites. The park's main entrance is through Heroes’ Square. A centrepiece of Városliget is Vajdahunyad Castle, a block of buildings originally constructed of cardboard and wood in honour of the millennium celebrations. The structure was built in a variety of architectural styles, ranging from Romanesque to Gothic, with each part intended to represent a century since the arrival of the Magyars. It was so popular that it was rebuilt in brick.
The City Park Pond is a great place to rent a rowboat, but if you’re in Budapest in the winter, you can ice skate there instead. When it freezes over, it becomes the largest outdoor skating rink in Central Europe. Kids will love visiting Budapest’s small but historic amusement park, the Vidám Park. The park is home to a handful of very historic rides, including the merry-go-round from 1906, the cave railway (1912), and the park’s most popular ride, the roller coaster. Built in 1922, it is one of only a few side-friction roller coasters remaining in the world. Visitors can also head to the Budapest Grand Circus, home to a variety of traveling circus shows; the Municipal Zoo and the beautiful Botanical Garden; Széchenyi Medicinal Baths and Swimming Pool, one of Europe's greatest spa complexes. Here guests can relax and enjoy the curative powers of the water. If you have a sweet tooth, head to the famous Gundel Restaurant, where you can try their signature dessert, the Gundel palacsinta, a pancake boasting a nice filling made from rum, raisin, walnuts, served with a chocolate sauce.
Other places of interest
The oldest bridges in Budapest are in themselves worth visiting: Lánchíd (Chain Bridge) and its guardian lions, Margit-híd (Margaret Bridge) which leads to Margaret Island and offers a splendid view over the city, Szabadság-híd (Liberty Bridge) with its eagles on top and the Gellért baths in the background, and the relatively young Erzsébet-híd (Elisabeth Bridge), with its white elegance, have all become symbols of the city.
The finest examples of Art Nouveau architecture include the Museum of Applied Arts, with its wide selection of permanent and temporary exhibitions, the houses on Szervita tér (central Pest), the buildings of the Budapest Zoological and Botanical Garden, and the building of the former Postal Savings Bank in Hold utca.
The most-favoured recreational areas beyond Margaret Island and City Park are Óbudai-sziget (Óbuda Island) and Normafa (see excursions in and around Budapest).
Budapest is a spa city, and its thermal baths are well-known worldwide. Thermal water springs found in the city are exploited by numerous baths and swimming pools, several of which are protected monuments and tourist attractions at the same time.
The most important shopping streets which are also pedestrian zones are Váci utca, ending in Vörösmarty tér on the one side and the Vásárcsarnok (Great Market Hall) on the other, and Fashion Street (Deák Ferenc utca) downtown. The Small and the Grand Boulevard (Kiskörút and Nagykörút) remain popular despite heavy traffic and smaller but varied shops. Andrássy Avenue is gradually becoming a highly elegant shopping area, grouping together some of the world's biggest brands.
The best places to have a coffee or refreshing drinks while sightseeing can be found in one of the following streets or quarters: Váci utca, Ráday utca (a favourite of), Liszt Ferenc tér, the narrow streets of Erzsébetváros and the surrounding areas of Szt. István tér and Deák tér. These streets and squares are animated and packed with people until late in the evening. More elegant cafés and restaurants are along Andrássy Avenue and the Danube Promenade.