Walking Tour 1: The Millennium Tour
Start: Vörösmarty tér.
Finish: Mexikói út.
Time: 2 to 3 hours (at a slow pace excluding restaurant or museum stops).
Best Times: Any time, but preferably mid-afternoon.
Worst Times: Early morning.
When have you ever heard of a crowned monarch riding a subway? This tour will follow the historic metro line of the Millennium metro, where more than 110 years ago, the Austrian emperor and Hungarian king Ferenc Józef (Franz Josef) boarded the first subway in continental Europe. At the time, London was the only city in Europe to have a subway. It had just been completed ready for the 1896 millennium celebrations that would be held in Budapest. Galas and gatherings were planned all over the city, but the most important was held in Városliget. Andrássy út was the most direct link to the park; however, even then, it was a grand boulevard. Authorities had refused permission for a tram line that was either horse drawn or electrified, for fear of ruining the elegance of the street. It was not until 1893 that permission was given for the underground to be built to solve the logistics problem of moving huge gatherings of people from place to place. Bureaucracy being what it is they only had 20 months to complete the entire 3.7km (2.3 mile) long line. What helped their work was the fact that at the time, Andrássy was paved with wooden blocks making digging the tunnel that much easier. With a tight deadline, they built the metro to be ready in time. The white and burgundy tiles, the cast-iron pillars, and the wooden accessories create a distinctive atmosphere that is still maintained today. After Franz Josef completed the first ride, he agreed to allow it to be named after him. The following tour is above ground, stopping at each of the metro's stops, so if you are so inclined, you can hop on the metro to skip from one stop to another, but if you do, you will be missing much above ground.
Begin at Vörösmarty tér, where the Yellow metro 1 line begins.
1. Vörösmarty tér
In 1896, this square was named Gizella tér when it was not the hub of activity it is today. In the center is an enormous Carrara marble statue of the 19th-century poet, Mihály Vörösmarty. Vörösmarty wrote Szózat, the second-most important hymn in Hungarian history after the national anthem. This is the site of many holiday markets and celebrations.
The famous Gerbeaud coffeehouse is here as it was in 1858. The founder came from Switzerland with his pastry recipes to set up shop on this square. These recipes are still used today.
Today, this is where the Christmas Market is held and where the Spring Festival Parade starts from. In recent years, this square has had some major transformations with some old historic buildings being torn down to make way for the new and modern.
If you want to view a bit of art before we leave this square, the street to the left of Gerbeaud's has the Dorottya Gallery. The windows are so large there is no need to walk in to see everything they offer.
If you need a coffee and a pastry to fortify you, now is your chance to get them, though I consider them overpriced. From here, we go to Deák Ferenc tér past the statue and to the left.
2. Deák Ferenc tér
Politico Ferenc Deák was named the "sage of the nation" for having worked on the Compromise of 1867 between Austria and Hungary when Austria refused to recognize Hungary's independence.
On one corner of the square is the Lutheran Museum and Church at Deák Ferenc tér 4. To the side of the church is a gold memorial tablet that states "Sándor Petôfi, the romantic poet, was educated here." The church gains attention through its plain structure and its lack of a spire. The original church did have a spire, but when the roof had to be reconstructed, there was not enough money to stabilize it properly to hold the spire, so it was left off. The church is extremely simple inside even by Lutheran standards, according to my Lutheran friends. The church is only open for services or concerts; the concert schedule is posted outside.
The square has changed considerably since the first metro was built. This square is the only place where all three metros connect and in a few years four metros will connect here. In the station, if you descend the correct set of stairs among the number of ways to get down there, you will find the Underground Railway Museum. Outfitted like an old subway station, the museum features a beautifully preserved train from the European continent's first underground system, built in Budapest in 1896. Appropriately, the cost of admission is one transport ticket. If you wish to go in, the museum is small, so 1/2 hour is about all you need.
When you ascend again, you cannot help but notice the Anker Palace across the street from the Le Méridien Hotel. This impressive building was built at the turn of the 19th century. The towers and bastion-looking architecture represent the romantic style. The antique marble columns on the second level and the triangle at the top give the building the name "palace." This square is the most frequented tourist destination.
On the other corner, is Erzsébet tér. This was where the National Theater was originally going to be constructed. However, with a political election and a change in power, the location was changed. The argument was that the final construction would block fresh air coming from the river to the inner city, so the idea was abandoned, but only after the underground parking had been built. Now you can find a serene fountain pond, attractive flower beds, and benches to relax on along the way.
Using the underground, you will cross under the street until you are in front of the Anker Palace and walk toward the basilica. You will see its steeple ahead of you.
3. Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út
This is the start of Andrássy út. If you see a red mailbox, that is the Postal Museum, sitting at Andrássy út 3 on the first floor. The building was built for Andreas Saxlehner; you can still see his initials in the ironwork. It is worth visiting the museum for the interior stained glass and frescoes created by Károly Lotz. The museum was originally the private home of Saxlehner, consisting of seven rooms. As you walk through the flat, you may notice his initials all over the flat as well as the building.
When you reach Andrássy út 9, you are in front of the former Dutch Insurance Company headquarters. What is not visible from the street level is the huge "drop" left on top after a 1990s' reconstruction for the board of directors. However, the view from the street is impressive. As you walk to the next stop, notice the architecture of the buildings and please be sure to look up. Most people miss some striking pieces by never looking above eye level. This will also distract you from looking at the designer shops along the way. Think of the money you are saving by looking up.
Continue on Andrássy to our next stop:
When the metro was built, each station had an ornate entrance building covering it. They have long since been torn down, but this station still has the marble balustrade. The station does not take away from the glorious neo-Renaissance styled Opera House. Built by Miklós Ybl, it was completed in 1884. Stop back for a tour or to buy tickets for a performance.
Across from the Opera House is a large building built by Ödön Lechner and Gyula Pártos in 1882. It was named the Drechsler House, because it once housed a large cafe by the same name on the street level and apartments occupied the upper floors. The building has a tainted history as six consecutive owners went bankrupt or committed suicide. The National Ballet Institute occupied the building for decades, but they abandoned it also.
For the movie Munich, the Paris scenes were filmed using the Opera house and the old Drechsler House, which was transformed by movie magic into a lamp store with a cafe on the left side of it.
On the opposite side of the street from the Opera House is the Mûvész Confectionery at Andrássy út 29. Although it has become touristy, it still has the old-fashioned feeling of the coffeehouse culture that is ingrained in Budapest. Try the chocolate orange cake; it is scrumptious.
Right before our next stop, you will cross the theater district of the city on Nagymezo utca. It is here that you'll find the Thalia Theater, the New Theater, and the Moulin Rouge. Closely located to the Opera House, this is the most concentrated area of cultural events in the city.
If you have a snack attack and did not stop for a pastry, you are in luck. On the left is Bombay Express, a fast-food Indian restaurant with low prices and excellent quality food. If you walk a little farther, you will find Liszt Ferenc tér on one side of the street with the famous music academy of the same name at the very end of the tér. There is also a Tourinform office here in addition to a choice of more than 14 restaurants. The center park has been refurbished as a winding and undulating garden area with benches; it is quite charming with the humongous and commanding statue of Liszt in the center.
Opposite Liszt Ferenc tér is Jókai tér. In the back of the square is one of the two puppet theaters in the city. Walking down Jókai, you will see a number of teahouses of various styles.
Walk down Andrássy to our next stop:
When you come to the intersection of Andrássy út and the Nagykörút (large ring road), the buildings form an octagonal square providing its name. For 40-some years, this intersection was known as November 7 Square. It is one of the busiest intersections in the city. Sadly, over the years, it has become more commercialized now being home to what is supposed to be the world's largest Burger King on one corner and a T.G.I. Friday's on the opposite corner. The huge billboards and electric signs atop of the buildings for various companies have depleted the charm. After crossing through Oktogon, Andrássy starts to widen. It is this section of Andrássy, past Oktogon, that is a World Heritage site.
Now cross over the körut as we continue up Andrássy.
6. Vörösmarty utca
Don't confuse this with Vörösmarty tér, the pedestrian street. Notice how much wider the boulevard is from here on up to Heroes' Square. The street is lined with chestnut trees (chestnuts are often used in Hungarian pastries) giving a fresh feeling of leaving the city behind.
At this stop, you will find Franz Liszt's last home at Andrássy út 67 where he lived on and off in a first floor apartment for the last 5 years of his life. Today it is a museum displaying his pianos and other memorabilia dedicated to his life and work. During some months, there are free concerts on Saturday mornings, a tradition started when Liszt was alive. This building was where the Academy of Music originated with Liszt being a founding member.
Across the street almost in a different dimension is the House of Terror Museum at Andrássy út 60, the place where both the Nazis and Communists headquartered and tortured people.
The University of Fine Arts is located at Andrássy út 69-71. The central building was built in 1876 and refurbished in 1978. The exterior has sgrafitto (decoration created by cutting away parts of a surface layer to expose a different-colored background) portraits of Bramante, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. Students study here for 5 years in a selection of media to earn a master's of fine arts degree upon successful completion.
In the same building as the University of Fine Arts, you will also find the second puppet theater of Budapest at Andrássy út 69. Over 57 years old, this theater has presented puppet shows of high standards for adults and children alike, but only in Hungarian.
Continuing onward, we reach:
7. Kodály körönd
A körönd is a circle; here being a broad traffic circle where turns are not permitted, so the circle is cut into four pie slices to make turns. On each corner of the "pie" you will find a statue of someone famous. You will see Szondy György: he was the commander who with his troops stood firm against Ali Pasha and his Turkish troops when they invaded in 1552. Bálint Balassi was a poet who is considered the first to have brought poetry in the Hungarian language to world-class standards. He was a creator of new poetic forms. Combining love lyrics into the experiences of the fight against the Turkish conquerors, he has a close association with Szondy György. Next is Zrinyi Miklós, another defender of the nation from the Ottoman rule, but he did much of it from his castle in what is now part of Croatia. Well educated in languages and warfare, he was a strong commander who lost the backing of the Habsburgs and returned home in disgust. Vak Bottyán or "Blind Bottyán," the popular nickname of Bottyán János, fought for Buda against the Ottomans, but later for liberation from the Habsburgs.
The circle is named after Zoltan Kodály, who was one of the first persons to give special attention to folk music. He was one of the most significant contributors to early ethnomusicology, later becoming the mentor to Béla Bartók, another famous Hungarian musician. Although the Kodaly Method of teaching music is associated with him, he influenced it with his work, but did not actually create it. His former apartment at Andrássy út 89 houses the museum dedicated to Kodály and his work. The building it is in has been undergoing renovations for more than a year, so if you see scaffolding, it still is not open yet.
Lofty mansions are situated on this ring; they were originally built for the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy. Peeking past the lavishly created wrought-iron gates, attached to stone pillars, you will notice that these frescoed beauties need a well-deserved makeover. Historical values not being the same to all, some of these lovelies nearby are being torn now to create new and modern apartment buildings in their place.
Continue straight onward to:
8. Bajza utca
As you have walked to this stop, you may have noticed that the boulevard has widened even more and that the houses are changing in style. These personal palaces have a sense of serenity to them with personal parks spread between the entrance gates and the front doors of the houses. In this area, different countries have taken over the former private homes to create their embassies.
There is an interesting museum and also a private gallery/restaurant at this stop. On one side of the street is the Kogart Gallery and Restaurant at Andrássy út 112. The gallery has rotating exhibitions of Hungarian art upstairs and a fine restaurant downstairs.
At Andrássy út 103, you will find the Hopp Ferenc Museum of Eastern Asiatic Arts. Hopp was a business owner and a world traveler, which stimulated his collecting as well as being a patron of art. He bequeathed his entire collection of 4,000 pieces to the government to create a museum. If you need a rest, you can enter the Zen garden for free to relax. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Along this section of Andrássy, the house styles include Art Deco, baroque, and Communist-boring. However, this is the most desirable stretch of real estate in Budapest.
Continue down to:
9. Hosök tere
Usually when people emerge from the metro station at this stop, they are in awe at the beauty of Heroes' Square with its arcade of statues. It is even more stunning in the evening. Since you have been walking up to it, you have had the opportunity to see its glory get larger as you get closer.
On this square to the left is the Museum of Fine Arts. If you are in this area at 11am or 2pm Tuesday to Friday or 11am on Saturday, I strongly encourage you to use this opportunity to take the free tour of one gallery by highly trained docents.
On the right of the square is the M?csarnok (art hall) or just the Exhibition Hall. Prompted by the Hungarian National Fine Arts Association, it was founded in 1877. Originally, it was located at 69-71 Andrássy út where the University of Fine Arts is now located. As many other buildings were built specifically for the millennium celebrations so was the exhibition hall. Albert Schikedanz was the designer and the outside design is magnificent. Today the hall operates on the pattern of the German Kunsthalle: it is an institution run by artists, but does not maintain its own collection. Light enters through the roof by a three-bayed, semicircular apse. After a full renovation in 1995 the M?csarnok opened to the public, displaying the work of leading Hungarian and international contemporary artists. It is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm and admission varies depending on the exhibit.
If you walk over the bridge behind the colonnade, on the right is a small pond area, usually empty until wintertime when it is filled with water to freeze for ice skating. You can rent skates here and partake in the action or you can just admire the view from the bridge. Once over the bridge, to the right, you will already have noticed the castle known as Vajdahunyad Castle. It was originally built from cardboard for the millennium celebrations, but was so popular, it was rebuilt with more durable materials. Some call it a mishmash of styles, but it is intended to be this way, showing all of the different architectural styles of Hungary.
If you have time to visit the castle area, you will see small boats floating around the lake in the summer time. It is a popular place for celebrations and weddings.
Cross the street from the path that would lead to the castle and walk across the park to the:
10. Széchenyi fürdo
When you see pictures of men playing chess while floating in water, they are enjoying the thermal waters of the Széchenyi Baths. A bath existed here as early as 1881, but being a temporary one, it started to lose favor. Gyozo Czigler came up with the plans to create a more permanent structure in 1913 and it was expanded in 1927 with public bathing for men and women. By the middle of the 1960s, it was time to bring further improvements to the facility by adding a group thermal section and an outpatient clinic. All of the thermals treat muscular, bone, and some respiratory ailments. A fancy bath was installed, which is a whirling pool that twirls you around like an amusement ride. Effervescent devices, neck showers, and water-beam back massages were added in the sitting bank areas. This is one of the largest spa complexes in Europe.
At one time, this was the last stop on the Millennium metro, but in 1973 that changed and one more stop was added.
From here, I suggest you hop on the metro for a ride to the end of the line, which is the next and last stop on this tour. If you want to see more of the park first, you could venture to the far end to visit the Transport Museum at Vajdahunyadvár with permanent exhibits that include History of the Railway, History of Urban Transport, and the History of Shipping and Road Traffic in Hungary in addition to others.
11. Mexikói út
Although there is nothing of note at this stop of a historic nature, it is the stop where one of my five most favorite restaurants in the city is located. If you ambled along on this tour, then I presume you will have built up an appetite and will appreciate this last stop. When you reach the top of the stairs of the metro station, turn right. You will see tram tracks and turn left after crossing them. At the end of the block is the Trófea Grill Étterem at XIV. Erzsébet Királyné útja 5. This is the best all-you-can-eat restaurant in the city. There are others with the same name, but this is the only location I recommend. Enjoy!
Now that you are full and too tired to walk back, hop on the Millennium metro and enjoy the old-fashioned stations you will pass by on your way back.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.