When I first visited Budapest, back in 1995, a communist vibe still seemed to infiltrate the city, from the random hammer and sickle here and there to the very watchful and withering stares of the security staff in the casino. One of the city’s most visible attractions that most definitely was not communist was its architecture — the best of which predates that regime’s insult to the entire field and which still holds special appeal. These are my favorites.
#1 House of Parliament
Like the British Parliament building after which it was modeled, Hungary’s Parliament building is an iconic structure. And, like its counterpart in London, it occupies a commanding location alongside its city’s major river. Straddling the Danube on the Pest side, Parliament houses the offices of the prime minister, workplaces for Parliament members and their staffs, and the Hungarian Holy Crown. Erected over the course of 17 years and completed in 1902, this symbol of both Budapest and Hungary proved to be an impressive sight, no matter what my vantage point — from across the Danube atop a hill in Buda, aboard a pleasure craft in the river, or up close as I walked around its massive size. Constructed by domestic craftsmen and manufacturers and employing Hungarian materials, including 40 million bricks, 10,000 tons of stone, and 88 pounds of 22-karat gold, the four-story building maxes out at a length of nearly 900 feet and a width just over 400 feet. It’s topped with a mansard roof, turrets, more than a dozen spires, and a central red dome that reaches just shy of 315 feet in the air and that represents the unity of the representative lower house and the historical upper house that extend from the dome into their own wings. A blend of the Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles characterizes the exterior, punctuated with gargoyles, pinnacles, and statues representing key figures from Hungarian history. Access inside is gained through one of 27 points of entry. Once you’ve entered, you’ll be joyfully overwhelmed by the countless archways, gold-plated stairway, tracery, ornate lampposts, airy Dome Hall, and the red carpet that runs for two miles throughout the building.
#2 St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István-bazilika)
From the grounds of Buda Palace, I looked down at Pest, my eye following the straight line from Chain Bridge to the dome and the twin towers of St. Stephen’s Basilica, just over a mile away. This gorgeous Roman Catholic basilica, freshly scrubbed after decades of harmful air pollution had blackened its façade, anchors a spacious square and still stands as the city’s largest, and the country’s third-largest, church. Named in honor of the first king of Hungary, the church holds Stephen’s mummified right hand, adorned with golden leaves and ruby and pearl bracelets, in the reliquary. Designed by a Pest architect and completed in 1905 after 54 years of construction, the basilica presents a handsome façade, with its identical domed bell towers (containing Hungary’s largest bell, at more than nine tons), sculptural groupings in the pediment, and central dome that rises to the exact same height as the dome in the Parliament building, symbolizing the balance between church and state. I climbed the front stairs, under the arch and the Latin inscription for “I am the way, the truth and the life,” and entered the sumptuous interior, aglow with gold, polished marble, smaller stained-glass windows, and a mosaic depicting the allegories of the Holy Mass. This neoclassical basilica is more than only an architectural highlight or a religious destination; music lovers will appreciate the organ, choral music, and classical music concerts it has been offering for more than a century, and the cupola offers a 360-degree outdoor viewing platform to check out Budapest from above.
#3 Buda Castle (Budavári Palota)
I found another terrific vantage point for Parliament aboard the Budapest Castle Hill Funicular that opened in 1870 as Europe’s second funicular. The funicular not only provides sweeping views of the city on its way up from the western end of Chain Bridge to Castle Hall, but also a convenient way to approach the wonderful Buda Castle. In addition to the attractions it houses, including the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum, and countless statues and sculptures that provide an artistic history lesson all around the lovely grounds, the building itself is a site to behold. This sprawling neo-Baroque complex was completed in 1769, severely damaged during World War II, and rebuilt by 1966, including its signature dome, completed five years before. Cream-colored bricks and stonework lend warmth to the castle’s terraces, staircases, balustrades, pediments, and columns. A two-story arch leads to a fairly bare inner courtyard, which should prepare you if you’re expecting to enter the buildings and find the rich interiors associated with sumptuous royal palaces: Most of the luxurious trappings were despoiled first by the Nazis, then looted by the rapacious Russians during the war, leaving very little of its past glories behind. Nevertheless, this is still one of the most attractive buildings in the city, and if you’re here for one of the beer, chocolate, crafts, or wine festivals regularly held within its courtyards, you can appreciate its style in a festive atmosphere.
#4 Vajdahunyad Castle (Vajdahunyad Kastely)
Sitting on an artificial lake in City Park, Vajdahunyad Castle is perhaps the most unusual castle I’ve ever come across. Never having served as a defensive fortress or royal residence, it was originally constructed with wood and cardboard as part of the Millennial Exhibition to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 895. The enormous popularity of the castle prompted its rebuilding in stone and brick, and in 1908 it opened in its present form — a discrete amalgamation of up to 21 landmark buildings from different parts of the Kingdom of Hungary that spans Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architectural styles and includes a replica of Corvin Castle that now lies within the borders of Romania. Throughout the buildings, you’ll find beautiful plasterwork, marble staircases, sgraffito, stained-glass windows, and painted vaulted ceilings. You may want to pass through the gorgeous carved portal of Jak Chapel and attend a service here (but not in winter — no heating postpones services until spring every year), and farming enthusiasts may want to visit the largest agricultural museum in Europe, but everyone should at least keep an eye out for the statue of Béla Lugosi, the Hungarian-American actor best known for his portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 film.
#5 Vigadó Concert Hall (Pesti Vigadó)
Just a block from the Danube River, Budapest’s second-largest concert hall has had a bumpy ride over the course of its history. Opened in 1864 as a replacement for the concert hall on the same site that was destroyed by fire in 1848, Vigadó Concert Hall soon became a social hotspot, hosting fancy balls and banquets as well as a program of prestigious concerts by the likes of Franz Liszt, Johann Strauss Jr., Arthur Rubinstein, and Béla Bartók. Badly damaged during World War II, reconstruction took a painful 36 years to complete following its declaration as a national monument in 1954 and despite opponents preferring that the money would be better spent on constructing schools. Reopened in 1980, the concert hall began attracting contemporary artists, featuring the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra, and hosting the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. Audiences flagged, however, and the hall closed again in 2004, only to reopen in 2014. As of February 9, 2018, Vigadó closed yet again, rendering its wonderfully restored Ceremonial Hall, Southern Hall, murals, and columns off limits. Nevertheless, I was still able to admire the striking exterior, which benefited from a thorough cleaning and restoration in 2006. The façade is marked by a central bank of five two-story arched windows. The Hungarian coat of arms and statues of both high-profile figures in Hungarian history and allegorical representations of the musical arts (some holding instruments) can be found around the outside. The best spot to take it all in is in the little park fronting the concert hall, beside the fountain with the verdigris-green playing boys.
- Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya) (1902)
- Hungarian State Opera House (Magyar Állami Operaház) (1884)
- Drechsler Palace (Drechsler Kastely) (1896)
- Matthias Church (Mátyás-templom) (15th century)
- Inner City Parish Church (Belvárosi Plébániatemplom) (14th century)