Walking Tour 2: The Castle District
Start: Roosevelt tér, Pest side of Chain Bridge or alternatively take bus no. 16 from in front of the Le Méridien Hotel.
Finish: Tóth Árpád sétány, Castle District.
Time: 3 to 4 hours (excluding museum visits).
Best Times: Tuesday through Sunday.
Worst Time: Monday, when museums are closed.
Castle Hill was not always the focal point of Hungarian rule and authority. The original capital was in Esztergom, where King Stephen was crowned and where the seat of the Hungarian Catholic Church is located. It was not until King Béla IV built a fortress on this hill that it become something more than a hill. During the reigns of Kings Charles Robert and Louis the Great (1342-82), a castle was built. Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg, who was also king of Hungary, built a large Gothic palace and strong fortifications against attack, making this the permanent seat of royal power. It was King Matthias who transformed the castle and decorated the hill with Italian Renaissance due to the influence of his Italian queen from Naples. This district has had its share of devastation, the last time being the 1945 Soviet bombing of Nazi forces. With each reconstruction, the prevailing style shifted from Gothic to baroque to Renaissance. Castle Hill, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, consists of two parts: the Royal Palace (no longer a castle), and the associated Castle District, which is now a mostly reconstructed city reflecting a former time in history. The Royal Palace is home to a number of museums, including the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest Museum. The National Archives, the equivalent to the Hungarian Library of Congress, is an attached building in the back. The rest of the Castle District is a small tapered neighborhood with cobblestone streets and twisting alleys; with the exception of buses, most traffic is prohibited, making the streets pedestrian-friendly enhancing the tranquility and the old-world feel. Prime examples of every type of Hungarian architecture, from early Gothic to neo-Romanesque, can be seen. A leisurely walk in the Castle District will be a historical and memorable experience. When you see SZ on a sign followed by Roman numerals, it is indicating the century of the building. HELYÉN gives the name of the building that was on this site prior to the current building.
Views of Castle Hill can be seen from all points on the riverbank, but we will start from Pest's Roosevelt tér just past the Gresham Four Seasons Hotel and walk on the:
1. Széchenyi Chain Bridge
Originally funded by Count Széchenyi after weather prevented his getting across the river to be with his dying father, the bridge was built in 1849. During World War II, the Nazis destroyed all of the bridges in the city to hold off the Allied forces. The bridge was rebuilt and in 1949 the opening ceremony was held 100 years to the day after its original inauguration.
Walk across the bridge. Arriving in Buda, you're now in:
2. Clark Ádám tér
Ádám Clark was a Scottish engineer commissioned to build the bridge. After doing so, he stayed here with the Hungarian wife he met and married. This square was named for him.
From Clark Ádám tér, take the:
3. Funicular (sikló)
The funicular, an almost-vertical elevator, will transport you up the 100m (328 ft) long track to the entryway of the Royal Palace. It was originally put into service in 1870 to provide cheap transport to workers in the district, and it was run by a steam engine. It was destroyed during World War II and not rebuilt until 1986. The new funicular was built to be powered by electricity. At the time, it went up and down much faster than it does now making the trip in 1 to 2 minutes, but the public petitioned for it to be slowed down, so the view could be enjoyed longer. If you are feeling energetic, you can also walk up the steep stairs to Castle Hill or take the winding trail.
Whichever method of ascent you choose, when you arrive at the top, turn and look left at the statue of the:
The oversized bird you see perched on the top of the wall looking out is often mistaken for an eagle, but it is in fact a turul. The turul is the Hungarian mythical bird that legends say appeared to Emese telling her she was pregnant with a great leader of the nation, Álmos, the future father of Árpád. It is supposed to be the largest bird statue in the world with a 15m (49 ft) wingspan. From here you enter:
The main courtyard of the palace. The entrance to the Hungarian National Gallery is located farther down the path, but first go down the nearby stairs to see the statue of the fisherboys and past them to the:
5. Equestrian Statue of Prince Jeno (Eugene) Savoyai
On September 11, 1697, Prince Eugene and his 50,000 men caught the Turks while they were crossing the river Tiza and annihilated the Ottoman army. You might want to visit the National Gallery now or return after the walking tour.
The first museum is the:
6. Hungarian National Gallery
This museum houses much of the greatest art ever produced by Hungarians. Be warned, it seems to go on forever and not much is in English, though it is worth a look. If you are an art lover, you will be in heaven. The most important era in Hungarian art was the 19th century and the artists of that period are Mihály Munkácsy, László Paál, Károly Ferenczy, Pál Szinyei Merse, Gyula Benczúr, and Károly Lotz. József Rippl-Rónai was a great Art Nouveau painter of the turn-of-the-20th-century period. You will also find pieces from medieval times, and the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries as well.
Proceed through the courtyard to the:
7. Matthias's Well or Fountain
This is one of my favorite fountains in the city. Legend has it that King Matthias was on a hunting expedition when a fair maiden came across him by chance. She, Ilona, not knowing he was the king, fell in love instantly and him with her. He has the deer he has just killed, his hunting dogs, and his servants with him. This is probably the most photographed statue in the city.
If you continue around the fountain and into the large courtyard, directly in front of you is the:
8. Budapest History Museum
Boasting four floors, the museum offers exhibits containing pre-historic, ancient, Roman, pre-Hungarian and modern-day pieces. The highlights here are the Gothic rooms and statues that were uncovered by surprise when reconstruction and rebuilding of the Royal Palace was taking place. The rooms and all their contents, dating back as far as the 14th century, were buried for hundreds of years. From the downstairs, you can venture out on the grounds and you should do so to see some of the ancient architecture that has been preserved.
Next as we turn to leave the courtyard again, on our left we have the:
9. Széchenyi National Library
The library was started through the initiative of Ferenc Széchenyi, the father of István, who had the Chain Bridge named for him. It was founded in 1802. It now houses the world's greatest collection of "Hungarica," with some four million holdings. Any print matter that receives an ISBN number in Hungary has to have four copies sent here. It is the Hungarian Library of Congress.
Now proceed up the path, where you'll find the:
10. Csikós (Cowboy) Statue
The horse wrangler is taming a wild horse. This statue originally stood in front of the Riding School in the former Újvilág terrace. It was moved here after being repaired in 1983.
As you continue walking past the funicular, you will find the:
11. National Dance Theater
First built as a cloister and church by an order of Carmelites in 1736, this building was turned into a theater when the order disbanded in 1787. It was turned into a theater and today continues as the National Dance Theater.
Right next to the theater you will see:
12. Office of the President of the Republic of Hungary
The classicist palace next to the theater was ordered by Count Vincent Móric engaging the services of architects János Ámon and Mihály Pollack. It was the head office of the prime minister from 1887 to 1945. Now it is the Office of the President of the Republic of Hungary. Across from this in the grassy field, you can see the remains of a medieval church.
Before you leave here, a tour guide shared with me that behind the president's house is the most spectacular view from the entire hill. Let me know what you think. Continue walking away from the palace area, you will pass an open-air tourist area behind the wall, with crafts and folk goods for sale, but I don't recommend that you buy here. Instead:
Take a Break -- The Rétesvar at Balta köz 4 has the best strudels I have eaten in Budapest. You can have a coffee or tea with a sumptuous pastry. They also have savory snacks. Sit on the bench in the köz and enjoy the rest. Difficult to find, look for the woman fountain statue and the köz is right behind her back.
Now that you are rested, we come to the:
13. Golden Eagle Pharmacy Museum (Arany Sas Patikamúzeum)
I love this museum. The Renaissance and baroque pharmacy relics displayed are really interesting, but what I like most is the display in the back room that shows how medications and remedies were created before the onslaught of modern-day medicines and drugs took over.
Just ahead on Tárnok utca is:
14. Holy Trinity Square (Szentháromság tér)
This central square of the Castle District is the highest point on the hill and where you'll find the Holy Trinity Column, or Plague Column. At 14m (46 ft) high, it was under construction from 1710 to 1713. It was hoped that it would fend off another plague.
Sitting near it is the:
15 Matthias Church (Mátyás templom)
Officially called the Church of Our Lady, this symbol of the Castle District is universally known as Matthias Church because the Renaissance monarch, Matthias Corvinus, one of Hungary's most revered kings, was the major donor of the church and was married twice inside it. There's an ecclesiastical art collection on the second floor. Most people never notice the stairs and miss out. King Béla and his queen are buried here and you can see their tombs through the wrought-iron gates on the left side of the church. The church has frequent concerts. At different times, large parts of it are under scaffolding ruining the beauty of it. This is predicted to continue until 2012, but do go inside. It is worth it.
As we leave the church, to our left is the:
16. Fisherman's Bastion
This terraced area built in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque styles was built between 1895 and 1902. It has now been dominated by a restaurant where, during warm months, they force tourists to pay for the pleasant view by ordering a drink or food. However, if you go to the extreme left, you can go out on a parapet without having to make a purchase. The upper level costs 450 Ft for a higher view, but if you are around after 9pm, you can get up for free when the turnstile is turned down.
Walk around the church once again to come to the:
17. Hilton Hotel
The Castle District's only major name hotel, the Hilton, through the work of architect Béla Pintér, incorporated one wall of the old Jesuit cloister, built in late rococo and decorated in plaits along with the Gothic remains of a Dominican church dating back to the 13th century, into the modern hotel. The baroque facade of the 17th-century Jesuit college makes up the hotel's main entrance. The hotel has frequent art gallery shows in areas that demonstrate the melding of the old and the new. Admission is free. Summer concerts are held in the Dominican Courtyard.
Now we head a few feet away for a:
Lunch Break -- If you would like some down-home Hungarian cooking, stop at the Fortuna passage, just across the street from the Hilton and a few doors down. Look for the A-frame sign that has ÖNKISZOLGÁLÓ VENDÉGLO. There is also a sign for garden shops. Turn into the passage, but pass the first door on the left, which goes to a more expensive restaurant, looking for the next door with a wooden sign that says ÖNKISZOLGÁLÓ VENDÉGLO. Open the door and go upstairs. You are in the main dining area, so walk to the back to get your cafeteria-style meal. It is only open weekdays from 11:30am to 2:30pm. The food is satisfying and inexpensive.
Because the entire length of each of the Castle District's north-south streets is worth seeing, the tour will now take you back and forth between the immediate area of Szentháromság tér and the northern end of the district. First, head down Táncsics Mihály utca, to Táncsics Mihály u. 7, to the:
18. Institute of Musicology
Built by Count György Erdody in 1730, the building has the count's coat of arms over the ornamented door and the balcony. The building is now used by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Department of Musicology; the museum portion was closed indefinitely as of 2007. If the museum is still closed when you visit, you can at least see the outside and the inner court. If it happens to have reopened, then you are in luck. The musical archives of the famous Hungarian composer Béla Bartók are on display. This courtyard has a plaque stating that Táncsics Mihály u. 9, was once used as a prison. Two of the famous prisoners were Mihály Táncsics, the 19th-century champion of free press after whom the street is named, and Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the 1848-9 anti-Habsburg revolution. Buda's medieval Jewish community was centered on Táncsics utca. During excavation and reconstruction work in the 1960s, the remains of several synagogues were uncovered.
Continue walking down the street to Táncsics Mihály u. 26, where you'll find the:
19. Medieval Jewish Prayer House
This building dates from the 14th century. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Jews of Buda thrived under Turkish rule. This building belonged to the Jewish Prefect. The synagogue was built in his home in the 16th century. The 1686 Christian reconquest of Buda was soon followed by a massacre of Jews. Many survivors fled Buda; this tiny Sephardic synagogue was turned into an apartment.
After exiting the synagogue, retrace your steps about 9m (30 ft) back on Táncsics Mihály utca, turn left onto Babits Mihály köz, and then turn left onto Babits Mihály sétány. This path will take you onto the top of the:
20. Bécsi kapu (Vienna Gate)
This is one of the main entrances to the Castle District. If you have come from or are going to Moszkva tér by bus, you will use this gateway. The enormous neo-Romanesque building towering above Bécsi kapu tér houses the National Archives. Bécsi kapu tér is also home to an attractive row of houses (nos. 5-8).
From here, it is a 1-minute walk to:
21. Kapisztrán Square
Named for a companion of the Turkish conqueror János Hunyadi, Kapisztrán Square is where you will see the ruins of a Gothic church, which was erected in 1276 honoring Magdalen. During the Turkish invasion it was alternately used by Catholics and Protestants, only to become a Turkish djami. The church was destroyed during World War II, leaving only the base walls, the tower, and one window of the sanctuary left to memorialize it.
You don't have to venture far. On the northwest corner of the square is the:
22. Museum of Military History
On the northwest side of the square, you can't miss noticing the Museum of Military History (Hadtörténeti múzeum). Besides a large collection of flags, military uniforms, and other military memorabilia, it has a collection of items from Hungary's involvement in various wars. Admission is free.
Now take Úri utca back in the direction of the Royal Palace. In a corner of the courtyard of Úri u. 49, a vast former cloister, stands the small:
23. Telephone Museum
Sometimes the entrance to the courtyard changes from one side to the other, meaning it will be on the street parallel to Úri u. Press the bell for the attendant to open the door. The museum's prime attractions are the collection of old phones, the actual telephone exchange (7A1-type rotary system) that was in use in the city from 1928 to 1985, and the phone line cable system. I find it fascinating. Did you know a Hungarian invented the phone exchange system?
Walk back down Úri utca toward the tower and make the first left turn to bring you to the:
24. Tóth Arpád sétany
This promenade runs the length of the western rampart of the Castle District. This is a shady road with numerous benches. If you walk to the right, you will run into the Museum of Military History again, but it is worth the view over the wall to see the panorama of Buda's Rózsadomb (Rose Hill) district, Géllert Hill, and the small neighborhood of Krisztinaváros (Christine Town) situated just west of Castle Hill. Krisztinaváros is named after Princess Christine, the daughter of Maria Theresa, who interceded for buildings to be erected in this area. Walking away from the museum along the wall, you'll find your way to Korona Cukrászda, a pastry shop.
The walking tour ends here, where you can take the no. 16 bus down to Deák tér or if you go around the corner, the no. 16A bus will take you down to Moszkva tér.