Hungary's capital is blessed with a bounty of art nouveau architecture, quirky ruin bars and gorgeous bathhouses replenished by mineral-rich hot springs.
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Castle Hill is a kilometre-long limestone plateau towering 170m above the Danube. It contains some of Budapest’s most important medieval monuments and museums and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Below it is a 28km-long network of caves formed by thermal springs. The walled area consists of two distinct parts: the Old Town to the north, where commoners once lived, and the Royal Palace to the south, the original site of the castle built by Béla IV in the 13th century and reserved for the nobility. There are many ways to reach Castle Hill from Pest. The easiest way is to take bus 16 from Deák Ferenc tér to Dísz tér, more or less the central point between the Old Town and the Royal Palace. Much more fun, though, is to stroll across Széchenyi Chain Bridge and board the Sikló, a funicular railway built in 1870 that ascends steeply from Clark Ádám tér to Szent György tér near the Royal Palace. Alternatively, you can walk up the Király lépcső (Royal Steps) leading northwest off Clark Ádám tér. Just south of Clark Ádám tér, a staircase and lift from Lánchíd utca lead to the Neo-Renaissance Garden of the Castle Garden Bazaar, and from there stairs, lifts and an escalator will take you up to Castle Hill. Another option is to take metro M2 to Széll Kálmán tér, go up the stairs or escalator in the southeastern part of the square and walk up Várfok utca to Vienna Gate. This medieval entrance to the Old Town was rebuilt in 1936 to mark the 250th anniversary of the castle being taken back from the Turks. Buses 16, 16A and 116 follows the same route from the start of Várfok utca. The new Castle Shuttle Budapest will whisk you from I Öntőház utca just south of Clark Ádám tér to Castle Hill in just minutes.
Budapest's stunning Great Synagogue is the world's largest Jewish house of worship outside New York City. Built in 1859, the synagogue has both Romantic and Moorish architectural elements. Inside, the Hungarian Jewish Museum & Archives contains objects relating to both religious and everyday life. On the synagogue’s north side, the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial presides over the mass graves of those murdered by the Nazis. Inside this Neolog (or Conservative) synagogue, built according to the design of Viennese architect Ludwig Förster, don't miss the central rose window and the sumptuous organ, dating back to 1902. The museum includes items such as a 3rd-century Jewish headstone from Roman Pannonia, ritualistic silver and a handwritten book of the local Burial Society from the late 18th century. The leaves of the Tree of Life Memorial, designed in 1991 by Imre Varga, are inscribed with the names of some of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Holocaust. Nearby in Goldmark Hall you'll find the Jewish Quarter Exhibition with interactive displays, video and artefacts, documenting what life was like in this area from the 18th century onward.
The headquarters of the dreaded ÁVH secret police houses the disturbing House of Terror, focusing on the crimes and atrocities of Hungary's fascist and Stalinist regimes in a permanent exhibition called Double Occupation. The years after WWII leading up to the 1956 Uprising get the lion's share of the exhibition space (almost three-dozen spaces on three levels). The reconstructed prison cells in the basement and the Perpetrators' Gallery on the staircase, featuring photographs of the turncoats, spies and torturers, are chilling. The (communist) star and the (fascist) pointed Greek cross at the entrance and the tank in the central courtyard make for jarring introductions and the wall outside displaying metallic plaques and photos of the many victims speaks volumes. The building has a ghastly history – it was here that activists of every political persuasion before and after WWII were taken for interrogation and torture. The walls were apparently of double thickness to muffle the screams.
The most complete Roman civilian town in Hungary was built around 100 AD and became the seat of the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior in AD 106. Visitors can explore its houses, baths, courtyards, fountains and sophisticated underfloor heating systems, as well as a recreation of a Roman painter's dwelling and Symphorus Mithraeum. The purpose-built Aquincum Museum, just inside the entrance, puts the ruins in perspective, with a vast collection of Roman daily life objects and wall paintings. At the museum, look out for the replica of a 3rd-century portable organ called a hydra and the mock-up of a Roman bath. Most of the big sculptures and stone sarcophagi are outside in the park. If you visit the site towards the end of May, dress in a toga for the Floralia Roman festival.
The Hungarian National Gallery is an overwhelming collection spread across four floors and four wings of the palace that traces Hungarian art from the 11th century to the present day. The largest collections include medieval and Renaissance stonework, Gothic wooden sculptures and panel paintings and late-Gothic winged altars. The museum also has an important collection of Hungarian paintings and sculpture from the 19th and 20th centuries. Temporary exhibitions are held here several times per year; entry costs extra. Be advised that the gallery is in a state of flux at present, with the late-Renaissance and baroque art collection moved to the Museum of Fine Arts in preparation for the gallery's future relocation to a new purpose-built museum building in City Park.
The Castle Museum, part of the multibranched Budapest History Museum, explores the city's 2000-year history over four floors. Restored palace rooms dating from the 15th century can be entered from the two-level basement, where there are three vaulted halls. One of the halls features a magnificent Renaissance door frame in red marble bearing the seals of Queen Beatrix and her husband, King Matthias Corvinus, leading to the Gothic and Renaissance Halls, King's Cellar (1480) and 14th-century Tower Chapel. On the ground floor exhibits showcase Budapest during the Middle Ages, with important Gothic statues of courtiers, squires and saints discovered during excavations in 1974. There are also artefacts recently recovered from a well dating from Turkish times, most notably a 14th-century tapestry of the Hungarian coat of arms with the fleur-de-lis of the House of Anjou. A wonderful exhibit on the 1st floor called 'Light & Shadow: 1000 Years of a Capital' traces the history of Budapest from the arrival of the Magyars and the Turkish occupation to modern times in 10 multimedia sections, taking an interesting and very intelligent look at housing, ethnic diversity, religion and other issues over the centuries. On the 2nd floor the exhibits reach way back – Budapest from prehistoric times to the end of the Avar period at the end of the 8th century. The excellent audio guide is 1200Ft
The former Royal Palace has been razed and rebuilt at least half a dozen times over the past seven centuries. Béla IV established a royal residence here in the mid-13th century, and subsequent kings added to the complex. The palace was levelled in the battle to drive out the Turks in 1686; the Habsburgs rebuilt it but spent very little time here. The Royal Palace now contains the Hungarian National Gallery, the Castle Museum, and the National Széchenyi Library. You can access the palace via the Habsburg Steps and through an ornamental gateway dating from 1903, through the Corvinus Gate, with its big black raven symbolising King Matthias Corvinus, or via the escalator or steps from the gardens of the Castle Garden Bazaar below the southern end of Castle Hill.
Installed in the imposing Zichy Mansion (Zichy kastély), built in 1757, this renovated and rehung gallery contains some 150 works of Victor Vasarely (or Vásárhelyi Győző, as he was known before he emigrated to Paris in 1930), the late ‘father of op art’. Op art is short for 'optical art', a style of abstract visual art that uses optical illusions. Watch his excellent works like Ibadan-Pos (1977) and Keek (1980) as they ‘swell’ and ‘move’ around the canvas.
Dedicated to the famous Hungarian-born magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, who was born Erik Weisz in Budapest's district VII in 1874, this small museum offers a cabinet of curiosities featuring original items from Houdini’s life, such as personal letters, handcuffs and documents, as well as props from the US 'Houdini' miniseries (2014). At the end of the guided tour, guests are treated to a live 15-minute magic performance. A gem of a small museum and loads of fun.
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