An early form of the „Museum Mile" concept, popular in some U.S. cities, had been brought to life in Budapest when a massive, simultaneous construction boom has allowed architects and decision makers to concert their efforts between 1860 and 1910. In Budapest, the acronym is „Cultural Avenue" rather than Museum Mile, because the cultural attractions that belong to it aren't all located within the same street or quarter, but are along a vertical axis, comprising the Buda Castle District, Andrássy Avenue and the City Park.
1, The Buda Castle District and surroundings
The Castle District is where we begin our cultural tour. This hill on the Danube is Budapest's richest part in historical and cultural attractions.
In the north-western part of the Castle District is the Museum of Hungarian Military History, whoöse collection numbers over 28,000 items from the 1490's to the present time. From here, it's a short walk to Táncsics utca, where the Museum of Music History has a permanent Béla Bartók Memorial Exhibition on display in a Neo-Baroque house.
After this, let's go underground! Turning onto the medieval Úri utca, a brown flag marks the entrance to the Castle Labyrinth, which is a vast system of natural caves formed by geothermic activity, enhanced by man. Some of its wells produce red wine, so be careful when climbing steps afterwards. After returning to the surface in Úri utca, it's worth seeing the Museum of Telephony, which displays the history of Hungarian telecommunications from the beginning (1881).
At the end of the parallel Tárnok utca stands Trinity Square (Szentháromság tér), with many historical buildings and monuments. Here stand the Old Town Hall of Buda, which lost its original function when Buda, Pest and Óbuda were united in 1873. In its cellar the Hungarian House of Wines awaits its guests with a full representation of Hungarian winemakers, and offers a pallette of services for visitors, such as wine tasting - both for groups and independent travellers. The Baroque-style Trinity statue, in the middle of the square, commemorates the victims of the 1691 plague epidemic.
The right side of the square is dominated by the Mathias Church, surrounded by the turrets and walkways of the Fishermen's Bastion. The church is officially called The Church of Our Lady, and served as a coronation church from the 16th century on. Its vast ecclesiastical collection and treasury is open for visitors. During the centuries, the church underwent several major transformations, the first of which was the addendum of the Mary-gate (Mária-kapu), and in 1470, the 60-metre south side tower, with the King's raven ensign, was erected. During the Turkish occupation, the church was turned into a mosque and its walls were whitewashed; in the 17th century, it was again rebuilt in Baroque style.
Today's Mathias Church is the result of a major renovation between 1895 and 1903, by star architect of the age Frigyes Schulek. The frescoes are the works of famous Hungarian artists such as Károly Lotz, Bertalan Székely and Mihály Zichy.
The Fishermen's Bastion was built simultaneously with the last major renovation of the Matthias Church, in an an unique architectural unison. The Bastion has seven turrets, each symbolizing a Hungarian tribal leader. Its foundation is a part of the former medieval fortified defensive wall. The structure has never served defence purposes, only that of decoration. Its approximate location gave home to a huge fish and grocery market in the Middle Ages, and in the Water Town directly below the walls, most of the population made a living from fishing - hence the name, paying tribute to the fishermen. The structure has two long, ornate staircases leading up to it: the central staircase is called the Schulek Staircase, and the hidden tunnel-like one connects a Water Town street with the southernmost turret is called the Jesuit Staircase (Jezsuita-lépcső).
As we walk to the south from Szentháromság tér on Tárnok utca, the Arany Sas Pharmacy Museum, built in 1745 in Classicist style with Baroque elements, comes to view. Pre-arranged visits only.
The House of Hungarian Tradition operates in the Budai Vigadó building on Corvin tér. This is where the Hungarian National Folk ensemble holds regular performances - their collection of international and Hungarian awards and prizes are numerous. Their latest grab was the Prima Primissima Prize in the year 2007.
The Korona Pódium (Stage of the Crown) has many attributes, popular descriptions include „Literature Café", „Café Theatre", „Mini Theatre" and „Monodrama Podium", but it's really just a bustling cultural centre. Its building on Dísz tér is the only 18th century Budapest theatre building that still gives home to its original function. Before the 18th century it was a Carmelite cloister, rebuilt to be a theatre.
Walking further to the South, next to the still ruinous former Ministry of Defence, the Residence of the President appears on the left, with disapproving-looking Republican Guards standing to order in ornate uniforms. Next to it is the upper station of the Funicular Railway, a peculiarity in Budapest's public transport system. Passengers can enjoy a beautiful view of Budapest. Built between 1868 and 1870, it was the second such means of public transport in Europe; it was steam-operated, and a pair of cabins balance out each other, similarly to an elevator (while one cabin gets pulled up, the other one travels downwards). One of the cars and the upper station were destroyed by a WWII bomb; today's version of the Funicular was restored only in 1986, and today of course is operated by electrical motors rather than steam. It is part of the World Heritage, along with the Danube embankments and the view of the Danube.
The Hungarian National Gallery is under the dome of the Buda Castle, and in 3 more wings of the building. This is the largest collection displaying Hungarian arts, with over 100,000 items on display, right from the foundation of the Hungarian state in the year 1,000 AD to present. An independent museum since 1957, it occupies the Castle Building since 1975. Its permanent exhibitions are: „ Medieval and Renaissance Stone Vault", „Gothic wooden carvings", Late Gothic Winged Altars, Renaissance and Baroque Art, Habsburg Crypt, 19th century paintings, sculptures, 20th century paintings and sculptures.
The Budapest History Museum is the collection of Budapest's archaeological finds. It shows the development of the town from Roman times all the way up to the 13th century. There is a maquette of the medieval castle of Buda, original artefacts, seals, arms and tombstones, the world-famous Buda Gothic finds and some parts of the restored Buda palace. The exhibition showing modern Budapest has scenes from landmarks of Hungarian recent history.
The Semmelweis Museum of Medical Sciences allows a glimpse into the development of the worls-famous Hungarian medical achievements and the people behind it.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge is the first permanent bridge over the Danube between Buda and Pest. Built in 1849, it played a major role in the unification of Pest, Buda and Óbuda later in 1873. Its length is just 202 metres (short in comparison to the 1,500-metre span pf the Árpád bridge in northern Budapest) and there is a pedestrian part, running parallel to the motorway. The designer was Englishman William Tierney Clark, whose Marlow Bridge spans accross the Thames in Marlow, England. The four stone lions were created in 1852. The bridge was destroyed in 1945, to be rebuilt in 1949.
2, The Pest side - Andrássy út and environs
Walking across the Chain Bridge, the Four Seasons Gresham Palace comes into view, giving home to a luxury hotel, bur it was built as the regional headquarters of the London-based Gresham Insurance Company. Completed in 1906, it is a wonderful example of Hungarian Art Nouveau architecture, built in perfect symmetry with the Chain Bridge.
Let's walk along the Budapest Danube Corso (Dunakorzó), from where there is a beautiful view of the Castle Hill, and turn to the left at the impressive building of the Vigadó. At the end of Vigadó utca opens the vast Vörösmarty tér, the terminal of the Millennium Underground, bordered from the north by the huge and beautiful Gerbeaud-House, on the ground-floor of which we find the Café Gerbeaud, opened in 1858. With 350 seats and the best of Hungarian home-made pastry such as the Dobos-cake, Somló sponge cake and plum pie, it is likely to be your best bet.
The newly renovated - and rebranded „Fashion Street" - Deák Ferenc utca links the most important traffic hub of Budapest, Deák tér, with the glamorous Vörösmarty tér. One of the numerous levels of this vast Metro hub hides the Millennium Underground Museum, opened in 1975; the site itself used to be a stop itself in the old Metro system. The entry fee is, stylishly, is always the price of a Metro single trip ticket.
Between Deák tér and the beginning of Andrássy út is Erzsébet tér, which was designated to be the site of a new National Theatre of Hungary in the 90-s. The construction works have duly started, and the foundations of the building were laid down, but as a result of some nasty political battles and a change of government, the National Theatre ended up having been built elsewhere - in a somewhat remote part of the city, but next to the Danube in the south. There used to be a huge, ugly construction site in the ground where the quaint, modern park and cultural centre are today for years - locals simply called it The Hole, and there is a club called Gödör there today, the Hungarian translation of the word.
The Dohány utca Grand Synagogue is about half a kilometre away from Erzsébet tér, in the direction of Astoria. It is Europe's largest Synagogue and museum, with a cemetery and a memorial within its vast complex. It was originally built in 1853, in Neo-Moorish style, and has a tall double set if onion domes right above the main entrance. Seating nearly 3,000 worshippers, it features separate floors for men and women. A part of the local guided tour is the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park, erected above a mass grave from the 1940-s; its main theme is a willow tree, made of aluminium, with Holocaust victims' names engraved on the letters.
200 meters from Erzsébet tér to the north is St. Stephen's Basilica. The construction works have started as early as 1851, but due to a series of unlucky events (the death of the original architect and the multiple collapsing of the dome) it was oly finished in 1905. Having suffered grievous damage in WWII, and due to lack of renovation, its restoration began in 1983 and was not finished until as late as the year 2003 - but then, the square in front of it underwent major renovation too, and the area is back in its old glamour. The church commemorates the first Christian king of Hungary, St. Stephen, whose right hand is on permanent display in the church. The circular balcony of the church provides a wonderful view of the city.
In the same square (Szent István tér) is the Museum of Hungarian Catering and Commerce, which recently moved here from the Castle District.
At the beginning of majestic Andrássy Avenue, under number 3, is the Postal Museum. The collection, founded between 1885 and 1890, moved to its first permanent place of exhibition in 1955. It is on display under Andrássy út 3 since 1972. Since 1990, it works under the auspices of the Postal and Telecommunications Foundation. It exhibits postal, telecommunications and broadcasting relics.
From here, let's take a walk on the downtown part of Andrássy út towards the Opera House. The street is lined with luxury shops and showrooms of the most prestigious international brands. Close to the Opera, in Révay utca, is the Vidám Színpad (Comedy Theatre), showing cabarets and other shows. The Új Színház (New Theatre) behind the former Institute of Ballet is a contemporary cultural centre as well as a theatre with its own cast, crew and established repertoire.
We arrive to the Neo-Renaissance building of the State Opera House, designed by Miklós Ybl, built between 1875 and 1884. The first performances ever held here were the Lohengrin and Bánk Bán. The electric lights system in the building has been in place since 1895. There are four separate sections in the Opera House: the reception area, the auditorium, the stage and the technical area. The entrance of the building is guarded by the statues of Ferenc Liszt and Ferenc Erkel, both the works of Alajos Stróbl. The ceiling of the auditorium is decorated by frescoes by Károly Lotz, and the reception area has Árpád Feszty's pictures. The Opera can be visited on a guided tour as well.
Diagonally across from the Opera House stands a Neo-Renaissance building, originally called the Szenes Palace. This is where the Művész (Artist) Café was built (originally called Kis-Gerbeaud).
Walking towards Oktogon, we arrive to Nagymező utca, which is perpendicular to Andrássy út. A popular name of the street is The Broadway of Pest, because no other street in Budapest has as many theatres as this one. A favourite of many is the Mikroszkóp Színpad, the headquarters of modern cabaret in Budapest. This is where Géza Hofi, the most famous and popular Hungarian comedian, became known as the best of the best.
The Thália Színház, located at Nagymező utca 22-24, opened in 1913 under the name Jardin D'Hiver (the name refers to the winter garden on the first floor). The theatre underwent at least 10 name changes in the past 95 years. Since 1996, it operates as a so called "host theatre", meaning that they do not have their own full-time cast and crew - they invite shows to play there, and arrange special shows.
In the next building, under Nagymező utca 20 is the Mai Manó Ház (House of Hungarian Photographers). Built in 1894, used to give home to Budapest's most famous music club called Arizona, which opened in 1931. The owners were deported by the Hungarian Nazis in 1944. Later the building served as a school, then a showroom, to be used by the Hungarian Motorists' Club for thirty years. The Mai Manó Gallery is on the first floor, and the House of Hungarian Photographers is on the 2nd and 3rd floors.
The Ernst Museum is in Nagymező utca 8. It has no permanent collection; its main profile is to introduce 20th century Hungarian art and architecture through a series of temporary exhibition, especially those neglected by mainstream exhibitors. The same building holds the Budapest Chamber Theatre, which is the successor of the Déryné Theatre since 1991. They are Budapest's most popular theatre society, and all their shows are fully booked.
The Operetta Theatre building (Nagymező u. 17) used to give home to an Orpheum; the Budapest Operetta had moved here in the year 1923. Their primary goal has always been the preservation of traditions and finding new artistic solutions. The building was fully reconstructed between 1999 and 2001; today it gives home to the Moulin Rouge, a luxury night club.
The Radnóti Theatre's performances focus on universal drama literature. There are maximum 4 first performances per year, with all the seats full. The theatre underwent major renovations recently.
From Nagymező utca, let's continue our walk to Jókai tér, where the Kolibri Theatre (Jókai tér 10) awaits children aged 5-12 with theatre and puppet performances. Their art is characterised by a range of genres such as interactive poetry plays, adventure tales, and musicals and so on. The Kolibri Cellar and the Kolibri Nest (Andrássy út 74 and 77, respectively) are also part of the institution.
Jókai tér and Liszt Ferenc tér are divided by Andrássy út, directly before Oktogon. While Jókai tér has not much to be proud of in terms of architecture, Liszt Ferenc tér is one of Budapest's most exciting cosmopolitan-style squares. Its north-eastern part is dominated by the Academy of Music. Built in 1875, the Academy gives home to the highest-prestige classical music performances in Budapest, as well as top-level musical education. The largest auditorium of the Neo-Renaissance building has 1,200 seats, and has superb acoustic properties. The founder of the Academy is Liszt Ferenc, whose name it bears since 1925.
The rest of the square is occupied by quiet esplanades, Classicist-style apartment blocks and statues (Liszt Ferenc statue). Most of the storefronts are occupied by quality cafés and restaurants, which all open busy terraces from the springtime until autumn, giving the square a Mediterranean feel.
Let's walk back to Andrássy út, and turn to the right to Oktogon, a perfectly eight-sided square, which is a major traffic hub and meeting point for the youth. The square lies at the intersection of Andrássy út and the Grand Boulevard. The western side of the square is blighted by the largest Burger King ever built in the world, which replaced the historical Abbházia Café in the 1990's.
After crossing Oktogon, on the left side of Andrássy út we find the Museum of Terror, which gave home to the secret police of the Nazi regime in the 40's, to be followed by the State Protection Authority of the Communist dictatorship. The museum, opened in 2002, commemorates the victims of both terrible regimes. Next to the House of Terror, in Vörösmarty utca is the Liszt Ferenc Memorial Museum, which is in the former apartment of Liszt Ferenc. The collection includes his original musical instruments, furniture, scorebooks and personal effects. The museum is also the centre for research of Liszt's works.
Between Oktogon and Kodály Körönd lies the Café Lukács, opened in 1912. A major Italian bank conglomerate has bought the building and raised the rental fee, therefore the café was forced to close down.
The Budapest Puppet Theatre is in a 100-year old historical building (Andrássy út 69). Showing independent puppet variations of classic dramas, the main auditorium can accommodate 400 viewers, and the small auditorium on the 4th floor has a capacity of 100. The puppet adaptations of famous works - such as Mozart's Magic Flute - have amazed the audience on all continents of the world. The travelling Budapest Puppet Theatre has represented Hungarian culture on most major cultural shows in the world.
Number 103 of the avenue has the Hopp Ferenc Museum. The founder, Hopp Ferenc, was a wealthy optician, world traveller and philanthropist. The museum was founded by his last will, the core of which is his vast Asian art collection. At the time of the foundation the collection numbered 4,000 items (Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Tibetan, Mongol etc. statues, paintings, ceramics, sculptures), today it's 20,000. The medieval Japanese art collection and the Chinese bronze and porcelain items are the most fascinating parts of the exhibition. There are also temporary exhibitions held here from time to time, displaying artefacts from the Far East.
3, The Pest side - City Park and environs
szobor a hosok terenAt the end of Andrássy út stands Budapest's biggest open square, Hősök tere (Heroes' Square), dominated by the Millennium Memorial. The column in the middle has a statue of Archangel Gabriel, underneath on the pedestal stand the seven Hungarian tribe leaders, who led the Hungarian nomads to today's Hungary in the year 896 AD. Behind it, in a semicircle stand 14 statues of Hungarian kings and other significant leaders of the nation. In front of the memorial is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where every visiting foreign dignitary places a wreath in an official ceremony.
The left side of the square is bordered by the Museum of Fine Arts (built in 1906), housing one of Europe's top collections. The gorgeous Neo-Classicist museum holds the largest foreign art collection of the country. The core of the collection is the Eszterházy family's art collection, bought by the state in the 1870-s. While there are a number of artefacts from Egypt, Rome, Italy and Greece, the Spanish art collection of the museum is the most significant - in fact, it's the second largest collection of Spanish art outside of Spain. The Italian exhibition offers a comprehensive exhibition of all the painting schools between the 12th and the 18th centuries. Famous works by Raffaello, El Greco, Velázquez, Goya, Dürer, Leonardo and Manet are on permanent display.
Across from the Museum of Fine Arts is the Art Hall, the biggest exhibition space in Hungary. The Classicist building has no permanent exhibitions on display; it regular temporary exhibitions feature mainly contemporary artists and artist groups.
Behind Heroes' Square lies the ice-skating rink which is a lake in the summer with boats for rent, opened at the end of the 19th century, to the great delight of Budapest's inhabitants. Since 1996, the ice-skating rink gives home to speed-skating championships.
Along Állatkerti körút (Zoo Boulevard), to the left from Heroes' Square, the first building is the Gundel Restaurant, built in 1894 (until 1910, it was called Wampetics Restaurant). Gundel Károly has taken over in 1910, and turned it into the best place for fine dining in Budapest. The restaurant was the official caterer to the Hungarian Pavilion of the New York World Expo in 1937, helping spread the word about the wonderful Hungarian cuisine. In 1949 it was nationalised and therefore its quality has deteriorated. In 1991, George Lang and Ronald S. Lauder have bought the restaurant, and reopened it following a complete renovation in 1992. It greeted its one-millionth guest in the year 2000. Today, it is Budapest's best restaurant without question. Its "little sister", the Bagolyvár Restaurant is adjacent to the Gundel building, and is the only restaurant where only ladies work - it's a matter of tradition.
Next to the Gundel is the ornate Art Nouveau entrance to the Budapest Zoo, which opened in 1866. The most beautiful building inside the Zoo complex is the Elephant House.
Walking past the Zoo walls, the domes and towers of the Széchenyi Thermal Bath come into view; the bathhouse is one of the largest bath complexes in Europe. The thermal spring underneath it was discovered in 1879; this is the hottest thermal spring of the city. Some of the water is used to heat the Zoo before it is let into the thermal pools - it needs cooling. The Neo-Baroque bathhouse was built in 1913, and the open-air part was constructed in 1927. There are 3 exterior pools (thermal, swimming, and children's pool) and about 20 interior pools, with temperatures and mineral content varying. There are 3 types of saunas inside, complete with a Chinese ice bath for the brave.
Across from the bath is the Municipal Circus, where the first performance was held in 1891 - since then, 125 shows were held, with 15500 performances and over 25 million viewers.
Next to the Circus is the Amusement Park, which in today's form has been operational since the 1950's, but its history dates back to the beginning of the 1800's, when first the Vurstli, then the English Park provided amusement for the little ones and their families. The merger of these two has brought the Amusement Park to life. Some of its units date back to the beginning of the 1900's, such as the Merry-Go-Around (1906) and the wooden Roller Coaster (1922). For children under 10, the Children's Park is the best place to visit with parents.
The Vajdahunyad Castle, originally built of cardboard and wood for the 1896 World Expo, was rebuilt from stone at the end of the expo. It is a copy of three other buildings from the Hungarian countryside, showing Hungary's predominant architectural styles. The statue of Alpár Ignác, the architect, stands directly before the main gate. The lion's share of the building gives home to the Hungarian Agricultural Museum.