Crowning the hilly west bank of the Buda side of Budapest is Castle Hill, a district packed with historic sights and famous for its splendid vistas.
Our first day in Budapest was spent exploring the Castle District. We had such a good time wandering the crooked streets, admiring the fabulous architecture, indulging in sweet treats, and revelling in the breathtaking panorama of Pest, that we didn’t make it off the hill until sundown.
As if a full day wasn’t enough, we returned again one evening just because we enjoyed the atmosphere so much, especially at night. Cleared of tour groups, Buda Castle felt like our own special place, in a big, bustling city. Romantically lit architecture provided the perfect backdrop for the lone violinist, who on the steps of Fisherman’s Bastion, serenaded couples as they gazed across the river, wrapped up in each other’s arms.
Castle Hill made such an impression, that it made me forget about my long list of things to see and during our three days in Budapest. Instead, I started formulating a long list of things to see and do just in Budapest’s Castle District!
Here’s a look at what we felt were the best places on Castle Hill, and one that unfortunately, really missed the mark.
The Royal Palace (Buda Castle)
As the name suggests, the Royal Palace was once the residence of Hungarian Kings. Rebuilt many times because of war destruction, and endlessly remodeled, today’s palace is a mix of architectural styles.
No longer a royal residence, the palace is now home to the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery. The gallery hosts a large collection of Hungarian paintings, drawings and sculptures.
Eugene of Savoy Monument
In front of the palace’s main entrance is a statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy, hero of the Turkish wars. The statue was actually commissioned by the town of Zenta, but when the town could not afford to pay for it, it was bought and erected here instead.
In the western courtyard of Buda Palace is Matthias Fountain. The fountain tells the story of Ilonka (heroine of a famous 19th century ballad by Mihály Vörösmarty) and how she fell in love with King Matthias when he was out hunting incognito.
Standing on the highest rock, a dead stag at his feet, is King Matthias. On the rocks below him a henchman blows his horn while another hunter rests. Three hounds complete the central part of the fountain.
Framing the basin on each side are two bronze statues. On the right is Ilonka and on the left, Italian chronicler Galeotto Marzio, who lived in King Matthias’ court.
Statue of the Horseherd
Also in the western courtyard of the palace, is a statue of a wild horse being tamed. It used to stand in front of the Riding School before it was restored and re-erected across from Matthias Fountain.
Sandor Palace was the official residence of the Prime Minister until 1944 and now is home to the president of the Republic. This neoclassical building is nicknamed the White House.
We were lucky enough to catch the Changing of the Guards, the most elaborate changeover I’ve ever seen. It looked like they were performing a choreographed dance- I swear I saw them do one of my old ballroom dance steps!
Across from the palace is an area of medieval excavations and next door is the Varszinhaz, a dance theatre that once was a monastery.
Trinity square is essentially the main part of the Old Town. In the centre of the square is the Trinity Column, commemorating the end of the plague epidemic. The column is decorated with statues of little angels and larger statues of saints, topped off by a sculpture representing the Holy Trinity.
The square is surrounded by the Central Archive, Matthias Church and the Old Town Hall.
Former Town Hall of Buda (Regi Budai Varoshaza)
On the west side of Trinity Square is the early 18th century town hall. Looking out onto the square is a cute bay window, underneath which stands a statue of Athena, protectress of Buda.
The Church of Our Lady is more commonly known as Matthias Church. It is named after popular King Matthias Corvinus, who was married here (twice actually!) and commissioned a considerable expansion, including the addition of the oratory.
Matthias Church has hosted many coronations since it was built in the 13th century, making it one of Hungary’s most important churches. Franz Joseph and Elizabeth were crowned here, as were the last Habsburgs, Karl IV and Zita.
Fisherman’s Bastion is one of the most unique viewing terraces I have I ever visited! Its neo-Romanesque architecture features conical turrets, seven of which are said to represent the original seven Magyar tribes.
The bastion is believed to be named after the guild of fishermen who supposedly defended the area from invaders during the Middle Ages.
Exploring Beyond Trinity Square
From what we saw, not a lot of people explore beyond Trinity Square, leaving the northwest side of the Castle District relatively free of crowds. This area feels less like a castle and more like a small town.
The Vienna Gate is the only existing old-town gate and all four roads on the hill converge here, the northern entrance of the district. Take the stairs to the top of the gate to see a great view of the Buda Hills.
To the left of Vienna Gate is the National Archives building and opposite that is a small Lutheran church.
The Church of St. Mary Magdalene managed to survive significant wartime bombardment. All that has been reconstructed is the tower and one Gothic window. At the end of the courtyard in front of the church, is a tall structure that looks like a church window. Below that is a bronze recreation of the Hungarian coronation robe.
Buda Castle Labyrinth
The complex cave system under Castle Hill was created almost half a million years ago by hot-water springs. The caves were inhabited by early man and more recently, used as a secret military base during the Cold War, and as a hospital during World War II.
The labyrinth was the one place we didn’t enjoy on Castle Hill. To just say we didn’t enjoy it, is probably an understatement. This was the most bizarre place we visited during our five weeks in Europe, and that’s taking into account a Bone Church. I’ve heard Budapest has a lot of great caves to explore, but this is not the one to visit.
Nothing about this place felt authentic. It was a “show cave”, and a cheesy one at that. Unfortunately, the highly acclaimed exhibitions and programs that made this place world famous from 1984–2011, are no longer available. The labyrinth was inexplicably raided by police in 2011 and forced to shut down. It has since re-opened, but with a new company running the show.
Upon entrance, we were greeted by loud opera music bellowing down the tunnels. Soon we came across terrible wax figures, set up to illustrate different scenes from an opera, I’m assuming the one that was playing over the speakers. I’m not sure what opera has to do with an ancient cave system, but this definitely was an odd addition.
Continuing to walk through the dimly lit cave, we came across displays of seemingly random things, like fragments from buildings, and the so called tomb of Dracula. Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler or Count Dracula, was imprisoned here in the labyrinth by King Matthias.
This place was just not my thing. For one, I always worry about caves collapsing. Secondly, I was honestly sensing some creepy vibes. And lastly, I don’t like feeling lost- mazes make me panic!
If the labyrinth focused more on the history of the caves and did away with the opera mannequins, it would have been more enjoyable. I’m wishing we would would have saved our money and instead visited a different cave.
Tips for Visiting Budapest’s Castle Hill
- The easiest way to get to Castle Hill is to take the funicular from Clark Ádám tér, at the Buda end of the Chain Bridge. We decided to walk up the path leading from Clark Adam Square. It was an easy, scenic walk.
- Entrance to the permanent exhibitions at the National Gallery cost 1400 HUF. The gallery is open from Tuesday-Sunday: 10:00 a.m.- 6:00 p.m. (Ticket office closes at 5:00 p.m.).
- There is an entrance fee for Matthias church and for the upper-level lookout terrace at Fisherman’s Bastion.
- You’ll find plenty of restaurants and cafes on Castle Hill.
All prices and hours were correct at the time of publishing but can change without notice. Please confirm costs and times directly with service providers.
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