Things to Do in Budapest
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Several bridges cross the Danube River connecting Buda and Pest, the two sides of Budapest, Hungary. The Elisabeth Bridge was named after the Hapsburg Queen Elisabeth, who was the wife of Francis Joseph I. An international competition was held in 1894 for the design of the bridge, and construction began in 1897. The bridge was inaugurated on Oct. 10, 1903, and until 1926, it was the largest chain-type bridge in the world. Unfortunately Elisabeth Bridge was bombed by German troops towards the end of World War II, and it was the only bridge in Budapest so badly damaged that it had to be completely replaced. From 1960 to 1964, nearly two decades after the original bridge was destroyed, the new bridge was built in the same place to reconnect Gellért Hill on the Buda side to Ferenciek Ter on the Pest side of the city.
More Things to Do in Budapest
Located on the Buda side of the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, Clark Adam Square was named after the Scottish engineer responsible for both the bridge and the tunnel beneath Castle Hill.
A 10-foot (three-meter) sculpture sits near the bushes in the southern part of the square; shaped like an oblong concrete doughnut, this Zero Kilometre Stone is the point from which all distances from Budapest to various Hungarian destinations are measured. Miklos Borsos designed the monument in 1975 to replace a previous one that had been destroyed during World War II.
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.
Castle Hill is Budapest's most spectacular - and most visited - district. In one small area you have most of the city's big-hitter attractions, including the Royal Palace with its museums and library, the Matthias Church, the Fisherman's Bastion and several spectacular statues. The views over the Danube to Pest are incomparable and worth the trip alone.
Castle Hill has been settled since the 13th century, and you can still feel the scale of the medieval in its steep twisting streets and little square. It's watched over by a magnificent golden turul - the mythical eagle that is featured in Hungarian mythology. As you come up by funicular, the turul is practically the first thing you see.
The Royal Palace also has its fair share of fantastical statues, including a fountain featuring the young King Matthias posing as a hunter. The palace contains the Budapest History Museum and the National Art Gallery as well as the National Library.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Városliget is the largest of Budapest’s public parks, a vast expanse of 302 acres (1.2 km²) of public space with its main entrance at the monumental UNESCO-listed Heroes’ Square (Hosok Tér). It was originally an area of rural swamp but was mentioned as the royal hunting grounds as far back as the 13th century.
By 1751 the swamp had been drained and more trees planted in an English-style landscaping that became Hungary’s first public park. One hundred years later, the park became the focus of the Millennium celebrations, with museums, lakes, zoos and follies being built for 1896. Around the same time elegant Andrássy Avenue was constructed, which leads from the city center Erzsébet Square to Heroes’ Square.
Today the park is an idyllic spot for a summer picnic under the shade of gigantic sycamore trees or around the lake. Városliget is a one-stop destination for kids: Budapest Zoo, a permanent circus, the transport museum and Budapest Amusement Park.
Located up at Buda Castle, the Hungarian National Gallery is the country’s premier fine-art gallery, housed in the vast, colonnaded former Royal Palace, a restored Renaissance building of massive proportions.
The gallery is chronologically laid out over four levels and follows the development of Hungarian art from medieval times to present day. With around 25,000 artifacts in the collections, the gallery divides between nine permanent exhibitions.
To many western eyes, much of the work will be by unknown artists but the dynamism and skill of the work will more than compensate as the development of Hungarian art unfolds through the gallery. The 19th-century portraits are fascinating as they provide a glimpse into the rarified world of pre-World War I Hungarian aristocracy, but the show is totally stolen by the gleaming, gilded medieval wooden altarpieces depicting the Madonna and various ecclesiastic scenes.
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.
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.
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