All over Pest, there are beautiful, open squares, usually with a monument to a local hero at their heart and always with a story of some great struggle, victory or opus.
Szabadsag Ter, in quiet, quaint Leopold Town, has a children’s park, bright beds of flowers and a star-crowned monument to the heroes of the 1956 uprising. It is overlooked by the majestic Hungarian Television building and the American Embassy, where the rebel Cardinal Mindszenty lived in exile between 1956 and 1971.
It’s a fair hike from Szarbadsag Ter up a busy boulevard, through the whirling traffic on Oktagon Ter to Heroes Square, but it’s worth it to see this huge, powerful, sculptural extravaganza.
Built in 1896 to commemorate the conquest of the Carpathian Basin by the Magyars, it depicts the Archangel Gabriel surrounded by the tribal chiefs, with Arpad in the centre. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies at their feet and behind it are the Kings, statesmen and heroes of Hungary. In front of the monument, a vast, white flagstoned square stretches away. The Museum of Fine Arts stands on the left of the square and on the right is the Mucsarnok which houses temporary modern exhibitions.
Budapest’s Great Synagogue, which stands on the corner of Museum Korut and Racoczi Ut, was built in the 1850s by the Viennese architect, Lugwig Forster. A huge, ornate turreted construction, it is a testament to the large, thriving community that existed in Budapest in the 19th century. A museum in front of the building shows Jewish life as it used to be before the Holocaust. Behind it is a memorial, a metal weeping willow, its leaves inscribed with the names of those who died.
St Stephen’s Basilica
Majestic St Stephens Basilica, is one of the masterpieces of the architect Moklos Ybl. It was begun in 1851 and finished between 1873 and 1905 by the architect Moklos Ybl. The mosaics in its giant 96 metre dome are by Karoly Lotz and the figure of St Stephen on the high altar is by Alojos Strobl. The church treasury is home to one of the most precious relics of the Catholic faith – one of Saint’s Stephen’s mummified hands.
Aptly named Museum Korut or Museum Street, which curves away from the Danube in Pest, is home to two of Hungary’s great Museums.
The Hungarian National Museum, founded by Ferenc Szechenyi in 1802, houses an exhibition illustrating the history of the Hungarian State from its foundations to the 20th century. It includes displays of jewels, craft work, furniture arms and armour, paintings, garments, posters, films and even a piece of the Berlin Wall. St Stephen’s crown, coronation mantle, royal scepter, orb and sword, which were smuggled to Germany at the end of the war and eventually returned to Hungary by the US in 1978, are on display. The neo-classical museum building is as impressive as its contents. Designed by the Viennese architect Mihaly Pollock it has a vast pillared hall hung with massive chandeliers and wide sweeping staircases.
The Museum of Applied and Decorative Arts, built at the turn of the 20th century by Odon Lecher is also an architectural marvel. Inside is an amazing display of Hungarian handicrafts from ceramics to leatherwork and marquetry.
Just beyond the Danube’s Liberty Bridge is the Market Hall, an old steel-framed brick building which dates back to the end of 19th century.
The ground floor stalls offer local produce of every kind; fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish; wine, cheeses, nuts, pulses, preserves and pickles and sweet and pungent smelling Hungarian delicacies.
Upstairs are exquisite local crafts, knitted goods, lace, embroidery and fabulous wooden toys – knights and soldiers, cars and trains and gorgeous dolls of all sizes, in national dress.
There are bands, buskers, constant movement, noise and fun. There are sensational little eateries selling traditional dishes. Everything is cheap.
A good place to begin a promenade around Pest is down by the Danube, with the totally unmissable star of this side of the city, the immense, neo-gothic Hungarian Parliament, on Lajos Kossuth Ter. Measuring 268 by 116 metres, it has some 20km of staircases winding through its interior, 233 statues adorning its exterior and a giant 96 metre dome. The building was designed by Imre Steindl. Construction began in 1884 and was completed in 1904. Its frescos are the work of some of Hungary’s most notable artists, among them Karoly Lotz and Mihaly Munkacsy. To the north and south of the Parliament are statues of the poet Jozsef Attila and Count Mihaly Karoly who headed Hungary’s first Republic in 1919. In front of the Parliament building, are the statues Lajos Kossuth, leader of the 1848-49 revolution and Ferenc Rakoczi II who led the failed War of Independence 1703-1711.
On the other side of Kossuth Ter is the beautiful neo-baroque Ethnographic Museum. Constructed in 1896 as the seat of the Royal Court, it later became the Palace of Justice. Inside is a massive hall with pillars stretching over several stories, stained glass windows and a superb Karoly Lotz ceiling fresco. The museum’s collections give a fascinating insight into life, especially village life, in Hungary through the ages.
Further down the river, on Roosevelt Ter, sits the magnificent neo-renaissance, Hungarian Science Academy. Built between 1862 and 1865 it was the brainchild of Istvan Szechenyi, whose name and mark are on many of Budapest’s great 19th century ventures.
Also on Roosevelt Ter is the art nouveau Gresham Palace, now a Four Seasons Hotel but built originally in 1903 by Szigmund Quittner for the Gresham Life Insurance Company.
Further down again is Petoffi Ter, which was named in memory of the poet who inspired the 1848 revolution against the Austrians and which has been the scene of many memorable demonstrations and protests ever since.
All along the promenade chic restaurants and bars (some on jetties and moored boats) provide stunning views, especially at night, across the Danube to Buda Castle and the Statue of Liberty on Gellert Hill.
Pest, which lies on the east bank of the Danube, is flatter, bigger, busier and younger than Buda and Obuda. However, it is by no means less well endowed with majestic buildings, grand monuments, fascinating history and iconic characters than its west bank sisters.
Following the final defeat of the Magyars in 955, Istvan I set up Hungary’s Royal Court in Pest. His Arpad Dynasty flourished here until 1242, when, after the Mongol attacks, Bela IV moved it to his hilltop castle in Buda. Life continued peacefully for Pest until it was razed by the Turks in the 14th century. The town was rebuilt from the ashes after Hungary was finally freed from the Turks by the Hapsburg commander Eugene of Savoy in 1686. So, even though Pest’s history as a Hungarian town is older than Buda’s or Obuda’s, its bricks and mortar are younger. Its oldest building is the former Péterffy Palace, now Százévres Restaurant, which was built in1708.
With the formation of Budapest in 1873, came a frenzied building boom as the Dual Monarchy sought to create a city to rival Vienna, Paris and the other great cities of Europe. Pest, as the centre of government, administration and commerce for the new capital, benefited royally from the boom and its beautiful, coherent cityscape was born of this time.
Flat, compact, logically laid out and liberally dotted with landmarks, as well as picturesque spots to pause and drink them all in, Pest is a wonderful place for walkers.
A stroll around the boulevards uncovers one brilliant building after another. Each little side street opens onto a stunning square. Every square has at least one great monument with its own fascinating story.
Just along the Danube from Buda, lies Obuda. The oldest and most culturally diverse of Budapest’s three townships, its history dates back to the Stone Age and its settlers range from Romans to Germans.
The first settlement here, the town of Ak-Ink, meaning ample water, was apparently Celtic. By 89 AD it had become a military base for 6000 Roman soldiers. In 107AD the Roman Emperor Trajan established the civilian town of Acquincum, meaning abundant in water, as the capital of Pannonia. While Ak-Ink appears to have vanished with out trace, there is a great deal left of Acquincum. The ruins of a large public bath, the Thermae Maiores still lie under the flyover to the Arpad Bridge. Nearby is the huge 131 by 107 metre military amphitheatre which rivaled Rome’s Colisseum. Excavations during the 1950s and 60s uncovered the 2 room Roman Hercules Villa with mosaics depicting the Hercules myth and the Dionysus saga. The Acquincum Museum houses courtyards, baths, a marketplace, sarcophagi, sculptures, tools, jewels, glassware and wall-paintings.
During the Middle Ages, after Bela IV had moved his court to the west bank of the Danube in the wake of the Mongol invasions, Obuda became the site of the Palace of the Hungarian Queens and a thriving community grew up around it. Little remains of the mediaeval town except for the old Convent on Kiskorona Utca. Most of it was swept away in the 15th century Turkish invasion or fell into decay during the occupation.
The Turks, however, left not only their trademark Turkish Baths, but a legacy of Hunagrian rose gardens. The Kirraly Baths, at FoUtca, overlooking the Danube, were built in 1556. It is crowned by four green domes with the tallest topped by a golden crescent. Inside, four flights of steps lead up to an octagonal pool. Near the Buda bridgehead, the Dervish, known as the “Father of Roses”, who introduced the flowers to Hungary, lies in his tomb, surrounded by a bed of roses.
During the 17th century, after the Hapsburg conquest, an influx of German settlers restored life to Obuda and by the 18th century, it had become a thriving centre again. The buildings in picturesque Fo Ter date back to this time, like the Town Hall and baroque Zichy Castle, commissioned in the mid 18th century by Count Nicholas Zichy. Grand bourgeois mansions point to an affluent citizens and a luxurious lifestyle. Jewish settlers, banished from the royal lands of Buda and Pest moved into Obuda. They had been invited by Count Zichy to service the commercial interests of the community as moneylenders, merchants and traders. The splendid classical Jewish Synagogue was built at this time to serve their prosperous community.
Although its history is long and rooted in ancient times, twenty first century Obuda is symbolized by the starkly beautiful, modern Imre Vargos sculpture, The Women with Umbrella, which stands in Szentlelek Square. Obuda still centres on quaint, pretty, old world Fo Ter. The Town Hall still functions but the Zichy Castle is home to a museum. The Synagogue is now a TV studio, its congregation decimated by the Holocaust. The Roman ruins and the Turkish Kirraly Baths attract hosts of visitors. Locals frequent Uj Sipos Fish Restaurant, famed throughout Budapest for its Hungarian fisherman’s soup. Every summer young people pour in for the Sziget Festival on Hajogyan Isalnd just offshore. The outer circle of the little town is dominated by plain-faced Russian high rise housing and Hungary’s largest ever housing estate is a work in progress
At the southern end of Buda is Gellért Hill, with the opulent art nouveau Gellért Hotel in its lee. Built during the creative boom of the Dual Monarchy, the hotel and its luxurious Romanesque spa have always attracted the world’s richest and most famous, counting international royalty, movie stars and moguls among its guests.
Further round the hill, to the north is the Rudas Turkish bath house which dates back to the 15th century occupation The beautiful blue cupola which covers the steam room and hot pool is a landmark on the Gellert Hill embankment. In the Rudas’ shadow, where the hill begins to rise, sits the Rudas plain little sister the Rac Turkish bath.
While its lower reaches are given over to the flesh, Gellért Hill itself is mostly dedicated to the spirit. The Cliff Chapel sits in its foothills. On the summit is the Citadella or Citadel, built by the Habsburghs to mark the suppression of the 1848-19 revolution. In front of it stands the Liberation Monument, built by the Communist government to commemorate the liberation of Hungary from the Germans. Gaps in its decorations and statuary mark the places where communist symbols and effigies were torn away when the Iron Curtain fell.
The Liberation Monument’s crowning glory, the massive Statue of Liberty with its uplifted palm frond, is visible from almost anywhere in the city and has become a symbol of Budapest. Further down the hillside another monument marks the spot where, in 1046, Bishop Gellért, who gave his name to the hill, was trussed in a barrel driven through with spikes and thrown into the Danube by his Pagan enemies. Paths and stairways wind and zigzag up to the monuments and along Gellért Hill, providing breathtaking views up and down the Danube, over Buda and across to Pest, for those energetic enough to meet the challenges of the climb. For the rest, there are taxis and buses.
While the southern and middle peaks of Castle Hill hold the most popular tourist attractions, the northern end is not without its share of interesting landmarks and monuments.
At the edge of the hill the Vienna Gate looks across a square to the massive Hungarian State Archives. Nearby is the gothic Magdalene Tower, the only part of the Church of Mary Magdalene left standing after the ravages of World War II. There are three great Museums. The Museum of Military History is crammed with relics from Hungary’s many invasions and occupations. The Music History Museum displays beautiful old instruments and houses the Bela Bartok exhibition. Although the Hungarian Museum of Commerce and Catering sounds like boring old cake tins and cash registers, it is actually a fascinating insight into Budapest in its heyday under the Dual Monarchy. The commerce section has replicas of early Budapest shop fronts and displays as well as contemporary advertising. The catering section features memorabilia from the chic coffee shops, elegant hotels and glamourous restaurants of 19th century Budapest. There is a fascinating exhibition on the life and work of Hungary’s leading culinary light, confectioner Emil Gerbaud.
In and around all the great historical monuments and throngs of tourists, ordinary Buda life goes on. Gypsy violins from the buskers in St Matyas Square drift down through quiet, narrow back streets with old-world bakeries. Vertiginous stairs and paths lead between lovely old baroque, art nouveau and art deco houses with windows dressed in lace and Italianate shrines sculpted into their facades. There are tiny courtyards and playgrounds carved into the hillsides. School bells ring behind high brick walls. The vista up through the trees to the battlements of the Buda Castle and the spires of St Matyas Church is as old as Corvinus, Matyas the King.
At the foot of the hill, the streets spill into a busy square with solid stone 20th century office buildings and shops. Beyond it the traffic roars towards south to Obuda or over the Margaret Bridge across the Danube and into Pest.
Outside Buda Castle’s back gate, on a narrow saddle with sensational views over the valleys to the west of Buda, artisans sell traditional costumes, hand-made wooden goods in bright primary colours and table-linen with exquisite embroidery and lace.
In the distance are the distinctive towers of St Matyas Church which stands in a sunny square next to a statue of Istvan, the first King of Hungary. Built between 1255 and 1269 and dedicated as the church of Our Lady, it has come to be known by the name of the great ruler, Matyas. The king celebrated his two marriages in this church. He also extended and redecorated it, adding his symbolic crow to the spire. St Matyas was renovated again at the time of the Dual Monarchy by the architect Frigyes Shulek. Today its long journey across the centuries and the many hands that have shaped it are reflected in its rich mix of architectural styles. Pieces of the lives of the monarchs who worshipped there are displayed inside the church. There is a robe embroidered by the wife of the Emperor Franz Joseph on the death of their son and a fragment of her platinum embroidered wedding veil. On the rear wall is a fresco depicting a scene from the battle where Matyas’ Father, Janos Hunyadi defeated the Turks in 1456.
On the other side of St Matyas is another Frigyes Shulek architectural wonder, Fisherman’s Bastion, which was built in 1905 to remember the fishermen who defended Buda against the 15th century Turkish invasions. Its pink-tinged stone minarets stand against the Buda skyline and its arched windows look east across the Danube to Pest.