Things to Do in Budapest
Gellért Hill is one of Budapest's most romantic nights out. Just grab a bottle of the city's famous red wine, a couple of glasses, and your beloved. It might be a bit of a trek up there, but the view of twinkling lights will amply reward you.
The views you'll see over the Danube are best seen from the Citadel, built by the Austrians after their victory over the Hungarians in the 19th century. In fact, the monuments on Gellért Hill all have a somewhat painful history.
The girl posing with the palm of victory symbolizes the Russian liberation of the city after WWII, but as the liberation turned into an occupation, its presence has been disputed.
And Gellért himself? A martyred saint whose efforts at conversion ended with him being killed by angry pagans in a nail-filled barrel rolled down the hill (ouch!). He's commemorated by an immense statue.
This beautiful neo-classical cathedral is the biggest church in Budapest and sits on the imposing square of Szent István. Its serene façade is decorated with statues of the 12 Apostles and has twin clock towers, a vast cupola and an imposing colonnaded doorway leading on to a barn-like interior illuminated through jewel-like stained-glass windows.
Among the carved wooden pews, marble statuary, frescoed ceilings and gilded ornamentation, the opulent basilica’s most holy relic is found in the small dark chapel to the left of the elaborate main altar. The mummified and bejeweled hand of St Stephen, who was both first king and patron saint of Hungary back in the ninth century, lies preserved in a delicate glass cabinet. The basilica can accommodate 8,500 worshippers and was built during the late 19th century during the expansion of Budapest for the Millennium celebrations. Much of the later design work was by Miklós Ybl, designer of the Hungarian State Opera House.
At the entrance to Budapest's City Park, Heroes' Square (or Hősök tere) features an impressive semi-circular sweep of columns and statues and a cenotaph honoring the fallen of the 1956 uprising. On either side of the square are the Museum of Fine Art and the Exhibition Hall, which now shows contemporary art.
At the peak of the semi-circle is a statue of the Angel Gabriel bestowing the Hungarian Crown on St. Stephen. Lower down is a rugged band of chieftans on horses with antler bridles - this is Árpád and other leaders from an early Magyar civilization. Other statues represent various leaders and statesman as well as abstract values like war and peace.
Matthias Church, with the bright color of its tiled roof and its fantastic Neo-Gothic ornamentation, is one of the stand-out attractions of Castle Hill. Most of it dates from the late 19th century, but parts of the church are much older than that. It's named the Matthias Church because King Matthias I married Beatrice of Naples here in 1474.
It was here, in 1867, that Franz Liszt's Coronation Mass was first performed, and the church still has a strong musical tradition; try and catch a concert here if you can. On the exterior of the church, check out the unusual diamond-patterned tiles of the roof and the Matthias Tower, which bears the king's crest animal, a raven with a gold ring in its beak. Also look out for the medieval columns on the bottom of the Béla Tower, with their studious monks and devilish animals. Inside the church you'll find rich frescoes and a legendary Madonna statue - this Virgin is said to have saved the Castle from Turkish invasion when her face.
Sitting high on Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube River, Fisherman’s Bastion was built in 1905 as part of the ongoing celebrations of the thousand-years existence of the Hungarian state. It encompasses part of the original fortified castle walls and its terraces boast the best view points over the river and across to Pest. The bastion is a step away from several of Budapest’s big-hitting attractions, including the Royal Palace with its museums and library, Matthias Church and the Hungarian National Gallery.
Festooned with Neo-Romanesque lookout towers, equestrian statues, turrets and colonnades, the T-shaped bastion has two levels and wraps itself around Matthias Church. Architect Frigyes Schulek revamped the church and designed the bastion at the same time. The wide steps leading up to the bastion are scattered with neo-Gothic statuary and provide an impressive introduction to Castle Hill.
The Central Market Hall is the largest indoor market in Budapest, Hungary. The ornate building is more than 100 years old and has three stories filled with stalls. The roof is still original and is covered in colorful Zsolnay tiles. There are four other markets in Budapest that were built in the same style with similar roofs, and all five opened on February 15, 1897.
The market hall is frequently visited by tourists, though many locals shop here on a regular basis as well. There are stalls selling fruits and vegetables, Hungarian meats, fish, local cheeses, Hungarian herbs and spices, Hungarian wines and spirits, clothing, purses, accessories, and souvenirs. There are also a few restaurants where you can try local dishes such as lángos, which is yeast-based dough deep fried in oil and topped with different things like sour cream, cheese, and garlic. The Central Market Hall often holds special events featuring the cuisine of foreign countries.
The colossal Vajdahunyad Castle sits next to the boating lake amid the greenery of City Park (Városliget) and displays a joyous clash of Hungarian architectural styles. It was designed by Ignác Alpár to be a gigantic folly for the Hungarian millennium celebrations in 1896, but it was such a hit with the citizens of Budapest that it was granted a reprieve and its makeshift construction was rebuilt in stone.
Running the gamut of Romanesque to Renaissance architecture, the palace is gaily encrusted with towers, turrets, Gothic flying buttresses, portcullises, bridges and courtyards, happily borrowing features from other castles around Hungary and there are scores of neo-classical statues scattered in the grounds. Today Budapest’s Agricultural Museum is housed among the marble stairs, ornate décor, stained glass and vast chandeliers of the palace interior.
More Things to Do in Budapest
Founded in 1802, the Hungarian National Museum is the oldest public museum in Hungary and is home to the most important collection of historical artifacts in the country. It is also became an important symbol of Hungary’s national identity when the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 was launched after a reading on the museum’s front steps. For a time, the upper house of the Hungarian Parliament also met in the building.
The neo-Classical building housing the museum was built between 1837 and 1847 and today features seven permanent displays. Two sections provide an overview of Hungary’s history, while another focuses on modern history beginning with the Rakocizi War of Independence in the early 1700s. Yet another chronicles the rise and fall of Communism in Hungary. On the ground floor of the museum, you can find a collection of medieval and early modern stone carvings, while in the basement, ancient Roman stone inscriptions and carvings are on display.
Allow at least four hours to explore Budapest Zoo, opened in 1866 as the first in Hungary. It’s found in Budapest’s City Park (Városliget) and was almost destroyed during WWII. Since then its quirky Art Nouveau Bird House, Palm House and Elephant House have been restored and the zoo expanded. Conservation programs saw the births of rare Persian leopard cubs, Asiatic lion cubs and an Indian elephant in 2013.
There are more than 950 species of mammal, birds, reptiles, fish and insects in 14 different themed zones at the zoo. There’s a lot to pack in, so get a map at the ticket office so you don’t the miss reptile house full of snakes and lizards, giraffes and gazelles in the Savannah Zone, the lemurs in Madagascar House, the lions, rare birds flying free in the aviaries and the petting farm for toddlers.
Margit-sziget (Margaret Island) is a magical little piece of heaven poised between Buda and Pest. Being there always gives you the sense of taking some time off from the real world. It's small - only 2.5 km (1.4 mi) long - but you'd be surprised how much the island manages to pack in and still feel like an oasis.
Margaret Island was once three islands; they were put together to stem the flow of the Danube in the 19th century. In the middle ages, Margaret Island was called the Island of Rabbits. It was named Margaret after a saint who lived in one of the many nunneries. The Ottoman rulers kicked out the monks and nuns and took over the island for their harems. There's still plenty of lolling about and pleasure seeking to be done on the island today. It has a pool and lido, a thermal spa, concerts and a Japanese garden to help you relax.
Budapest’s Chain Bridge was the city’s first – and is still its most famous – crossing of the Danube, connecting Baroque Buda on the western river bank with the wide boulevards of Pest on the east. Opened in 1849, the bridge is 375 meters long and 16 meters wide; it is made of made of stone slabs and suspended in place by two massive linked iron chains. Originally a toll bridge, it was designed by English engineer Alan Clark, who also had a hand in Hammersmith Bridge across the River Thames in London. The stone lions guarding both ends of the Chain Bridge were carved by János Marschalkó and added in 1852.
From the Buda side of the Chain Bridge a road tunnel leads northwards underneath Castle Hill; as the bridge united the east and west sides of the city it was indirectly responsible for Budapest’s rapid flowering as a major metropolis in the late 19th century.
Rising 140 m (460 ft) over the western flank of the River Danube, Gellért Hill is riddled with underground cave complexes and around 130 hot springs, which feed Budapest’s famous spa baths. Formed in karstic limestone, the springs have therapeutic properties and provide 70 million liters (18.5 million gallons) of hot, calcium-rich water – temperature ranges between 70°F (21°C) and 168°F (76°C) – daily to power the seven major spa complexes in the city.
Of these, the elegant, Art Nouveau-cum-Secessionist-style Gellért Thermal Bath and Spa opened in 1918; behind its undulating exterior is a confection of magical, turquoise-and-gold, mosaic-ed saunas, steam rooms and colonnaded indoor and outdoor pools. As well as a series of plunge pools and mineral baths of differing temperatures, there’s a wave pool on the roof and a panoramic terrace for sunbathing and al fresco lunching in summer.
The Danube Palace is a frothy Neo-Baroque concert hall completed in 1885 as part of Budapest’s massive expansion for the millennium celebrations. Hungary was a thousand years old in 1896 and the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I was determined to create a prestigious city that reflected its ancient standing.
The ornate auditorium is decorated with a liberal sprinkling of cherubim and frescoes of pastoral scenes. Following the Communist takeover of Hungary after WWII much of the original décor was destroyed but this has since been reinstated; the only remaining sign of Soviet occupation is a stained-glass window near the restaurant that depicts happy peasants frolicking with the flags of Hungary and the Soviet Union.
Rising 140 meters on the west side of the Danube, Gellért Hill is crowned with the fortified hulk of Citadella, which provides one of the best viewpoints in Budapest. From the ramparts there are far-reaching panoramas north to Buda Castle, and down the river to Széchenyi Chain Bridge, St Stephen’s Basilica and the Parliament House. Constructed by occupying Austrian forces in the 1840s, the citadel was loathed by the Hungarians, who tore down its fortified gates when the Austrians eventually left the city in 1897. Its 60 canon placements still remain, as do the six-meter ‘U’-shaped walls of the fort.
During World War II an air raid shelter was built in the Citadella, and this now houses a small museum about the war. In 1956, Soviet troops suppressed the Hungarian rebellion against Communism by firing heavy artillery from the fortress and Russian artillery is still scattered around the complex.
The elegant boulevard of Andrássy Avenue was completed in 1885 as part of the expansion of Budapest under Emperor Franz Joseph I to celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of the state of Hungary. It connects the Pest-side city center at Erzsébet Square to the City Park (Városliget) and as a masterpiece of urban planning was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002, along with Heroes’ Square.
Elegant townhouses lined the avenue and it became the preserve of wealthy bankers and the aristocracy. In order to conserve Andrássy’s architectural harmony, the city fathers decided to build a train line underneath the avenue. And so the Millennium Underground Railway opened, the first in continental Europe; it was first used to transport people from the city center to Városliget, which was the focus of the millennium celebrations in 1896.
Budapest’s main opera house is a lavish neo-Renaissance confection with an interior so ornate that it could only have been built at the height of the wealthy Austro-Hungarian Empire. The opera house was designed by the Hungarian architect Mikós Ybl, while the Baroque ornamentation, sweeping marble staircases, the frescoed ceilings, vast chandeliers, rich velvets and gilded tiers of seats in the auditorium were mainly contributed by Károly Lotz and Bertalan Székely. It opened with great fanfare on September 27, 1884, in the presence of the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I and in time for the Millennium celebrations of 1896.
Gustave Mahler was director at the opera house between 1887-1891 and its reputation as one the world’s leading cultural houses was cemented. After decades of riding high on the international stage, the proud opera house fell into disrepair under the Communist regime in the 1970s.
Szabadsag Ter, or Liberty Square in English, is a public square in the Lipótváros neighborhood of the business district on the Pest side of Budapest, Hungary. The buildings on the square are a mix of business and residential. Some of the buildings found here include the United States Embassy, the headquarters of the Hungarian National Bank, and the Hungarian State Television building. The square is picturesque and peaceful, but Hungary's turbulent history has left its mark here over the past century, from the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to communism to the start of a new regime in 1989.
In the square there is a monument commemorating the Soviet liberation of Hungary in World War II from Nazi German occupation, which is the last statue from the communist era that is still in its original place. The Soviets ordered the monument to be built, though they made Hungary pay for it.
Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest functioning synagogue in Europe, and one of the largest in the world, so it deserves its other title, the Grand Synagogue. Why else is it grand? The scale is matched by its decoration - the synagogue has a Byzantine feel, with gleaming onion domes and eight-pointed stars chased into the exterior walls.
The rose windows and the organ may put you in mind of a Christian church (the organ and the acoustics of the grand space make the synagogue a popular spot for concerts). But the towers that top the building - and that are meant to echo the pillars of Solomon's palace - remind you where you are. The synagogue was built on the boundaries of the Jewish Ghetto, where the Jews of the city retreated when they were banished from the city walls in the 18th century. The synagogue also played a part in the dreadful happenings of WWII, when it served as a shelter for the city's Jews, many of whom died here in the winter of 1944 - 45.
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