Museums in Budapest

Fishermen’s Bastian overlooking Pest that the architect Frigyes Schulek (1841-1919) built between 1895 and 1902 in the neo-Romanesque style.  The roofs evoke the tents that the Magyars had as they traveled from Asia to the Pannonian Plain.

There are a number of museums in Budapest worth considering.  Visitors with a limited amount of time will have to do some careful planning, a process that a combination of guide books and Internet sites can facilitate.  There is a Wikipedia site with a listing of museums in Budapest, although it is incomplete, and the site is only in Hungarian.  Some of the more important museums appear below.

Agricultural Museum -- see the Vajdahunyad Castle (Vajdahunyad vára) below.

Aquincum Museum (Aquincum Múzeum) --
The Romans not only were near the future city of Vienna but also in what later became Budapest.  The Aquincum Museum affords the visitor the opportunity of visiting the ruins of a Roman city as well as viewing exhibitions that contain Roman artifacts.  Scattered about Budapest are other small Roman ruins.

Dohány Street Synagogue (Dohány utcai zsinagóga) -–
Built between 1854 and 1859 in the Moorish Revival style, the Dohány Street Synagogue is one of the largest in the world.  The synagogue also hosts a Jewish Museum.

Ethnographic Museum (Néprajzi Múzeum) --
This museum is among Europe’s largest ethnographic museum.  While devoted largely to Hungarian ethnography, its collections also contain some items from other ethnic groups.

Hall of Art (Hungarian: Műcsarnok; German: Kunsthalle) --
Located at Hősök tere or Heroes’ Square opposite the Museum of Fine Arts, this is an exhibition hall for temporary exhibitions.

House of Terror (Terror Háza Múzeum) --
The horrors of the Nazi and Communist eras are the centerpieces of this museum.

Hungarian House of Photography in Mai Manó House (Magyar Fotográfusok Háza - Mai Manó Ház) --
Unlike most museums, the Hungarian House of Photography is open on Mondays.

Hungarian Museum of Science, Technology, and Transport (Magyar Mőszaki és Közlekedési Múzeum) --
This museum includes several exhibitions: transport, aviation, technical studies, foundries, electrical engineering, chemistry and the chemical industry, aluminum industry, and metallurgy.

Hungarian National Gallery (Magyar Nemzeti Galéria) --
Containing all types of Hungarian art, this marvelous museum is in the castle overlooking the city.  The collection includes works from one of the Romantic era’s most compelling Hungarian painters, Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900).  For European art outside of Hungary, see the Museum of Fine Art.

Hungarian National Museum (Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum) --
This museum focuses on Hungarian history from the time when the nomadic Magyars settled in the Pannonian Plain to the present.

Hungarian Natural History Museum (Magyar Természettudományi Múzeum) --
The main focus of this museum is the natural history of the Pannonian Plain, specifically Hungary.

Hungarian Parliament (Országház) --
For information on the crown jewels of Hungary on exhibition at the Hungarian Parliament, see

Ludwig Museum of Modern Art (Ludwig Múzeum) --
The Ludwig Museum specializes in national and international modern art.

Memento Park (Szoborpark Múzeum) --
Instead of destroying their communist-era statues, the Hungarians took their most famous ones and placed them in an outdoor museum on the edge of the city limits of Budapest.

Millennium Underground Museum or Undergraound Railroad Museum (Földalatti Vasúti Múzeum) --
Budapest boasts the first metro on the Continent, and this museum includes some of the original wooden trains that ran beneath Andrássy út before their replacement after the 1989 revolution with more modern trains.

Museum of Applied Arts (Iparművészeti Múzeum) --
Part of this museum, although in a different location, is the Ferenc Hopp Museum of East Asian Art (Hopp Ferenc Kelet-Ázsiai Múzeum) that contains items from India and the Orient.

Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum) --
Situated at Hősök tere or Heroes’ Square opposite the Hall of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts has an excellent collection of European art (for Hungarian art, see the Hungarian National Gallery).

Vajdahunyad Castle (Vajdahunyad vára) --
This castle, which originally was an exhibition for the Hungarian Millennium of 1896, was reconstructed between 1904 and 1908 as a permanent structure.  It includes various architectural styles (from oldest to youngest: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque) using elements from castles throughout Hungary at the time, particularly the Hunyad Castle in Transylvania, which now is part of Romania.  The Vajdahunyad Castle contains Hungary’s agricultural museum, supposedly the largest in Europe.

Zelnik István Southeast Asian Gold Museum (Zelnik István Délkelet-Ázsiai Arany Múzeum) --
This museum is based on the collection of Zelnik István, a Hungarian businessman and former diplomat.  Its 50,000 artifacts represent cultures throughout Southeast Asia from prehistory to the present.

Tracing Hungarian Nationalism

In countries all over the world, particular places and structures help recall dramatic political, social, and cultural events of the past.  The Berlin Wall, the Brandenberg Gate, and the Reichstag bring to mind the Second World War and the cold war in Germany.  The Frauenkirche in Dresden symbolizes the 1945 firebombing of the city.  The park behind the Orloj where the Old Town Hall once stood in Prague reminds Czechs of the abuses of the Nazi regime, while the National Museum and the statue of St. Václav that stands before it evoke for Czechs memories of the Prague Spring.  To complicate matters, some spaces may have different meanings for different groups.  Monuments are supposed to conjure nationalistic emotions, but the Viennese read the Soviet War Memorial in their city differently than do the Russians.

The Hungarians, like other ethnic groups, have spaces they associate with the achievements and disasters of their nation.  They engender the same intensity of national feelings as similar places do for other ethnic groups, but visitors to the country seldom realize the significance that certain sites have for Hungarians and how much of a sense of history is behind an architecturally aesthetic structure or a statue.  A few examples can illustrate the ties spaces have with history and nationalism.
Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere) at the entrance to Millennium Park in Budapest.  The statue of Árpád, who ruled Hungary in the latter part of the ninth century, is in front of the column that supports the Angel Gabriel, who is holding the Hungarian crown.  The Memorial to the Unknown Soldier in the foreground.

The Magyars settled on the Pannonian Plain in 896, and in 1896, they commemorated their millennium as a state in Europe.  That celebration was the origin of the Millennial Park, with its Vajdahunyad Castle (see Museums in Budapest).  At the entrance to the park is Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere), the construction of which began in 896 and ended four years later.  A statue of Árpád (c. 850-after 890), who founded Hungary’s first native dynasty, is in the center of the square in front of the column on which stands the Angel Gabriel who holds the Crown of St. Stephen.  Surrounding the column are the chieftains who led the Magyars to the Pannonian Plain.  Behind Árpád is a pantheon of Hungarian greats from the middle ages to modern times.  On the left is Stephen I (967, 969, or 975-1038), who reigned from 997 until his death, accepted a royal crown from the pope in 1000, and strengthened Catholicism in the area under his control.  His right hand, with which he held aloft the crown of Hungary on his deathbed as he dedicated it to the Blessed Virgin Mary, is on display in the Basilica of St. Stephen in Budapest (see below).  On the far right stands Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894), who inspired Hungarians during the Revolution of 1848 against the Habsburgs and was a strong Magyar nationalist.  When the Communists came to power for several months in 1919 under Béla Kun (1886-1938), the party had the colonnade of Hősök tere draped in red.  In front of Árpád is the memorial of the unknown Hungarian soldier (actually, no soldier is buried under the memorial).  Under Heroes’ Square, there is more Hungarian pride.  The Millennium Line of the Hungarian metro system, said to be the first metro on the European Continent and the fourth oldest in the world, after London, Athens (is not Athens on the Continent?), and New York (the original line in New York was above ground, and the first underground line opened in 1904).  It was in 1896, not surprisingly, that the Budapest Metro running along Andrássy út to Hősök tere carried its first passengers.  The quest to enshrine the Magyar arrival and conquest of the Pannonian Plain in architecture seemed never ending.  St. Stephen’s Basilica, completed in 1905 and not far from Andrássy út, is 96 meters high.  The Hungarian Parliament, based on the Houses of Parliament in London, opened in 1896, and completed in 1904, also is 96 meters high.

In the spring of 1848, liberal revolutions spread across Europe, beginning in France, and all three of the Habsburg Monarchy’s cities, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, were in turmoil.  The Hungarians dethroned the Habsburgs and established an independent state that survived until August 1849, when the Habsburgs called on the Russians to help put down the Hungarian revolt.  The unrest in Budapest had its beginning when, on the Ides of March, a crowd gathered at the National Museum, which had opened in 1847, to hear a reading of the Hungarian demands to the Crown in Vienna and of the “National Song,” a poem by Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849).  In July 1849, Habsburg troops entered Budapest, and they were executed revolutionaries at the National Museum.  After the defeat of the Hungarians the following month, 13 generals were executed by hanging in Arad, now in Transylvania, and according to legend, the Habsburg officers clinked their beer mugs in a toast to the end of the revolution.  Since then, no Hungarians clink beer glasses (they do not extend this cultural ban to other types of alcoholic beverages).  Count Lajos Batthyány (1806-1849), the head of the government, faced execution in Budapest in what is now Freedom Square (Szabadság tér) by being shot in the head (the American Embassy is on Freedom Square).

Bridging the era of the Revolutions of 1848 and the aftermath of the Second World War is Budapest’s fabled Chain Bridge (Lánchíd), formally the Széchenyi Chain Bridge (Széchenyi Lánchíd), named after the Hungarian politician, István Széchenyi (1791-1860), who had called for a bridge to link Buda and Pest.  The bridge is the design of the English engineer William Tierney Clark (1783-1852), and Adam Clark (1811-1866), a Scottish engineer who was no relation to the designer, supervised its construction (Adam Clark also built the tunnel on in 1857 on the Buda side of the bridge, and the square between the tunnel and the bridge is named in his honor).  The Chain Bridge was complete in 1849, and Adam Clark, during the fighting of 1848-1849, thwarted the plans of both an Austrian and a Hungarian general to blow up the bridge.  In 1849, when the bridge officially opened, the Hungarian general associated with the Habsburgs ceremoniously walked across the bridge, receiving cheers on the Buda side from the Habsburg administrators and arriving on to the stares of an absolutely silent crowd on the Pest side.  During the Second World War, the bridge was partially destroyed, as were all the bridges crossing the Danube in Budapest.  In 1949, the Chain Bridge reopened, one hundred years after it was constructed.

Another area that reminds one of the expanse of Hungarian history is Gellért Hill (Gellért-hegy).  The statue half way up the hill is of St. Gerard (980-1046), Gellért in Hungarian, who tried to Christianize the pagan Magyars, who killed him by placing him in a barrel (some legends say on a cart) and rolled him toward the Danube River.  At the base of the hill are the Gellért Baths (see The Baths below), part of the heritage of the 1526-1699 Turkish occupation.  The Gellért Hill cave (Gellérthegyi-barlang) eventually became a Catholic chapel and monastery, but the Communist regime tore down the monastery and boarded up the cave entrance.  It again is a chapel under the direction of the Pauline monks and somewhat of a tourist destination.  At the top of Gellért Hill is the Citadel (Citadella), which the Habsburgs constructed to better control the city after the 1848-1849 Hungarian Revolution.  To the Hungarians, it was a reminder of Habsburg occupation, even well after the 1867 Ausgleich (Compromise) that internally divided the Habsburg Monarchy between the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary.  After the Second World War, the Hungarian sculptor Zsigmond Kisfaludi Strobl (1884-1975) designed the Liberty Statue (Szabadság Szobor) in front of the Citadel and overlooking the city to commemorate the Red Army’s liberation of Hungary.  According to Strobl, however, he actually began designing the memorial to commemorate István Horthy (1904-1942), who had died in a plane crash while fighting on the Eastern Front and who was the popular son of Hungary’s regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy (1868-1957).  During the Soviet invasion that put down the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Red Army bombarded Pest from the Citadel.  After the fall of communism in 1989, authorities hauled off to Memento Park (see Museums in Budapest above) two statues directly associated with the Red Army that had flanked the Liberty Statue.  Furthermore, the inscription on the pedestal of the Liberty Statue no longer glorifies the Red Army but reads: “To the memory of all those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.”

The castle itself recalls much of Hungary’s history.  Once the home of the Hungarian kings, the Turks used it as a barracks and storage facility after 1541, when they finally conquered Buda.  The castle received further damage by the time the Habsburgs took it in 1686 from the Turks.  Maria Theresa (1717-1780; reigned 1740-1780) undertook the construction of a new palace in the Baroque style that was the design of several builders, including the French architect Jean-Nicolas Jadot (1710-1761).  It served as the administrative center of Hungary, and after the Ausgleich of 1867, it was the seat of the King of Hungary, who also was the Emperor of Austria.  After the First World War, it was the residence of the regent of Hungary, Admiral Miklós Horthy (1868-1957).  The castle sustained heavy damage during the siege of Budapest in 1944-1945, and it underwent extensive modification and restoration afterward.  Today, the castle houses the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum, and the  National Széchényi Library.  Outside the castle, in St. George Square, stood a monument to those who died in 1848-1849 while defending the right of the Habsburgs to rule Hungary.  Franz Joseph (1830-1916; reigned 1848-1916) unveiled the monument in 1852, and it was unpopular.  Authorities removed the statue in 1899, and in 1918, its base was destroyed.

Aside from Warsaw, Poland, 80 percent of which the Germans destroyed as a punishment for the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, no other major city in the non-German countries between the Black Sea and the Baltic suffered as much destruction as Budapest.  During much of the war, Budapest was safe, but as the Nazis failed to turn the tide against the Allies, Admiral Horthy tried to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies.  Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) removed Horthy and installed in his place Ferenc Szálasi (1897-1946), a rabid fascist.  Beginning on 19 November 1944 and for the 102 days that followed, the Germans and Hungarian troops under Szálasi resisted the Soviets, who had to fight for every inch of the city.  Many buildings still show the scars of bullet holes from the fight (more bullet holes appeared during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution), but the most prominent witness to the destruction during the siege is the former Ministry of Defense building outside of the Budapest Castle that stands as a reminder to the destruction of the war.  The Red Army took Budapest, and the Communist party came to power in 1947, a time when it redoubled its efforts to eliminate the last vestiges of democratic rule.

St. Stephen's Basilica has a mixture of Neo-Classical and Neo-Renaissance styles.  The architect József Hild (1789-1867), who in 1856 had completed the Neo-Classical Esztergom Basilica, designed St. Stephen in the same style.  He began construction of St. Stephen's Basilica in 1851, but the dome collapsed during a snow storm in 1868, the year after Hild had died.  Miklós Ybl (1814-1891), who built the State Opera House between 1875 and 1884, reconstructed the building in the Neo-Renaissance style.  In 1905 the basilica opened.  As an affront to religion, the Communist authorities allowed the Budapest Metro to run directly under the church, and the rumbling of the trains is a constant distraction during religious services.  The construction of the Most SNP in Bratislava is linked to a similar experience.  Today, visitors to the basilica can view the right hand of St. Stephen of Hungary and climb to the inner dome of the structure and the balcony that affords various marvelous vistas of the city.  The basilica is also a venue for various liturgical and classical concerts.

Another failed revolution took place in 1956, a time when Hungarians hoped to shed Soviet influence and Communist party rule.  One of the key events was the toppling of Joseph Stalin’s statue that was located on Dózsa György út behind the Hall of Art.  The images of Hungarian flags stuck into Stalin’s boots, the only thing that remained on the pedestal, and Stalin’s head on the street are iconic.  The Soviet Red Army invaded Hungary twice, once on 24-28 October, when a cease fire and negotiations resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and again on 1 November, which brought heavy fighting until 11 November, when the Red Army had control of the entire country.  The Soviets installed a new Hungarian Communist regime, whose leader, János Kádár (1912-1989), initiated economic reforms in the late 1960s and early 1970s that mixed market mechanisms with communist central planning and paved the way for the liberalization of communism in Hungary.

The fall of Communism in Hungary in 1990 was peaceful, but space played an important role in the changes that took place. Well before the events in Berlin unfolded, Hungary began a process of liberalization.  In June 1989, the Hungarians exhumed the body of Imre Nagy (1898-1958), the prime minister during the 1956 revolution whose body had been placed face down in an unmarked grave in the New Municipal Cemetery after his execution, and reinterred it in the same grave during a hero’s funeral.  Appropriately, the ceremonies took place at  Hősök tere.  Less than two weeks later, the Hungarians cut the barbed wire between Hungary and Austria.  After the Candlelight Revolutions, there were a number of symbolic changes in Budapest.  In 1950, authorities placed a red star symbolizing communism atop the Hungarian Parliament.  It remained lighted at night, and served as a constant reminder of the leading role of the party in daily life.  In 1990, the star was removed.  Significant statues celebrating communist throughout Budapest, like the ones from the Liberty Statue, did not face destruction or being locked away in a warehouse after the Communist party lost power.  Instead, they found a new home in Memento Park (see Museums in Budapest).  Spaces once celebrating an undesirable past as well as newly-created spaces now serve to commemorate the achievements of the present and a past almost forgotten.

The Baths

The Turks defeated the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 on the Danube River, which is in Hungary near the Croatian-Serbian border.  They remained in Budapest until Habsburg troops expelled them in 1686, but they retained parts of Hungary until 1699 and the Treaty of Karlowitz.  After nearly 175 years of Turkish domination, little remains today of the mosques, buildings, and other aspects of Turkish culture, with one important exception--the baths.  As with many Islamic cultures, the baths play an important role in Hungarian society.  They not only are for a relaxation, curative waters, and exercise; they also are a place where people transact business and meet socially.  As many American business executives head to the golf course to exercise and meet contacts, the Hungarians go to the baths.

Budapest has several important public baths with mineral-rich thermal spring water (a rather unusual geological feature for an urban area), and taking the time out from touring to relax in a thermal bath, swim, or sit in a sauna is an unforgettable experience. The largest bath in Europe is the Széchenyi Bath, located in the City Park just a short walk behind Hősök tere (Heros' Square).  Another large bath in Budapest is Gellért Bath, which is on the Buda side of the city, just across the Szabadság híd (Szabadság Bridge) and at the foot of Gellért Hill.  Both the Széchenyi Bath, whose buildings are in the neo-Classical style, and Gellért Bath, a Secession structure, were built just after the turn of the twentieth century.  The Rudas Bath, on the Buda side just down stream from the Erzsébet híd (Elisabeth Bridge) alternates days for men and women, but on Saturday and Sunday, the crowd  is mixed.  On Fridays and Saturdays, Rudas Bath is open only at night, and there are rousing public parties on Saturday nights.  The most romantic spa is Király Bath (see the photograph to the right), a bit downstream from the Margit híd (Margaret Bridge) on the Buda side.  The main building of Király Bath dates from the second half of the sixteenth century and has unmistakable Byzantine architectural influences.  The bath is small, but few tourists know about it, so it may not be crowded.  In the past, the bath was largely for men, and there were only certain days when men and women could bathe together, but it is now mixed every day.  To experience late nineteenth-century elegance, visit the Lukács Bath, which is on the Buda side, just upstream from the Margit híd.  Although the current buildings date from the 1880s, the bath originated in the middle ages.

Do not forget your bathing suit, and get ready for a unique and relaxing experience.  For more information about the baths in Budapest, click here.