Best of Buda of Budapest

High in the verdant hills of Buda, Buda Castle gazes across the Danube toward the plains of Pest.

This, our second post from Hungary, will focus on a few of our favorite discoveries on the Buda side of Budapest. (pronounced Buda-Pesht in Hungarian)

Budavári Palota or Vár 

Buda Palace or Castle, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the historical royal castle of the Hungarian Kings. The first royal structures may have been built in the first half of the 14th century but the massive palace today occupying the site was mostly built between 1749 and 1769. 

Buda Castle’s heyday is thought to be during the reign of Mátyás (Matthias) Hunyadi (1458 – 1490). He not only rebuilt and redecorated the palace, he created a coveted Library of Matthias, colorful hanging gardens and encouraged, supported and invited artists, historians, astronomers and scientists to live at court.

Unfortunately within a few years following Matthias’s death, the Turks conquered the city, the royal court fled from Buda and the conquerors moved into the palace. For the next 100+ years, the repeated efforts of the Habsburg-Hungarian army to recapture Buda nearly destroyed the medieval royal palace with the ongoing gunfire. In September 1686 the Habsburg-Hungarian armies finally captured the Castle. Rebuilding began early in the 18th century. Following major conflicts with Austria and the eventual creation of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the palace was enlarged and completed by 1905.

During WWII the Palace again was severely damaged in the 1944-45 Siege of Budapest when the Russians defeated and kicked the Germans out of Hungary. Post war reconstruction began in the 1960s but because the budget was so tight, the minimal restoration work that was done did not incorporate any of the Castle’s history or glory. Complete restoration is needed today primarily because of the poor renovations of the 1960-70s. Although there are no specific plans yet, the hope is to restore the Castle’s exterior to it’s once grand design. 

Buda Castle

Magyar Nemzeti Galéria

The Hungarian National Gallery was created in 1957 and can found in the Krisztinavárosi wing of Buda Castle.

The Gallery focuses on Hungarian art in all genres so we were excited to see a body of work by this country’s major artists and sculptors. Our favorite paintings were from the late 19th and early 20th century. We particularly enjoyed an exquisite collection of 15th century wood altar pieces. It was a treasure to find so many  600+ year old altar pieces together in a museum but we did wonder what happened to the churches or alters they may have once belonged to.

The Hungarian National Gallery

Budavári Sikló

Budapest Castle Hill Funicular offers quick and easy access from Adam Clark Square at the base of our favorite bridge, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, up to Buda Castle at the top of the hill.

Built in 1869, it was opened to the public in March 1870 and was only one of two funiculars in Europe at the time. Sadly the entire structure along with the cars were destroyed by bombs during WWII and it wasn’t until 1986 that the funicular was reopened.

There are two pedestrian foot bridges which cross above the tracks providing great photo ops. This particular funicular was quite beautiful. 😉

Budapest Castle Hill Funicular

Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum 

Between 1939-1944, deep beneath Buda Castle an emergency hospital, surgical centre and bomb shelter was built and connected to a 6 mile long system of caves. It is thought that very early settlers in the area may have lived in these caves.  During the Middle Ages the caves had been used as prisons and there is an urban legend that Vlad Tepes / Count Dracula may have been imprisoned in a cave in the Labyrinth in Buda.

We were frequently reminded to watch our head and duck when we toured a portion of this amazing space. 

The Hospital in the Rock was designed to treat 60–70 patients, but at one point in 1944-45, during the Siege of Budapest, the hospital was aiding up to 600 wounded soldiers. Both civilians and soldiers were treated in the hospital with a separate ward for women. They have on record that 5 babies were born here below ground. The facility had its own generators, portable X-ray machines, 2 operating surgeries, 40+ doctors, was under the protection of the Red Cross and was fully supported by the nearby, above ground, St. John’s Hospital.

After the war the hospital shut down. It was temporarily reopened in 1956 during the Hungarian Revolution and then in 1957 was converted and used as a ‘top-secret’ nuclear shelter dedicated specifically for keeping 200 doctors and nurses safe and available to treat the wounded should a nuclear incident happen. Between 1958-1962 new equipment was installed, including a 6600 gallon water tank, a ventilation and poison-gas filtering system and 2 Ganz diesel engines to power electrical generators.

For nearly 50 years, up until 2004, a caretaker and his wife lived in the hospital, raising their family and maintaining the ventilating equipment, the hospital and the facilities. Today it is an astonishing museum that feels frozen in time, complete with 1940’s-50’s-60’s hospital equipment and life-sized wax figures of patients and medical staff.

Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum

Fisherman’s Bastion

Fisherman’s Bastion, built 1895-1902, is a fantastic lookout that offers one of the better panoramic views of the entire city. Fisherman’s Bastion’s 7 towers represent the 7 Hungarian tribes who founded the present day country and there is a breezy walkway that connects them. The small cafe upstairs where we stopped for coffee was an ideal spot to sit and absorb the amazing views.

Fisherman’s Bastion

Citadella

The Citadella is the large fortress located on the top of Gellért Hill. 

It was built between 1851-1854 by the Austrian Empire using a Hungarian designer and Hungarian forced labor. Over the decades occupying Austrian, German and Russian forces have used and settled in the Citadella. At one time there were as many as 60 canons perched on Gellért Hill pointing toward the city. 

Today the Citadella offers another fantastic viewpoint over Budapest, all eight of her bridges and the lovely grey-green Danube River.

On our first day exploring Budapest we noticed a huge statue on the top of Gellért Hill over on the Buda side. When we made our plans to visit the Citadella and Gellért Hill a week later, we wanted to be sure to get a closer look at this statue. It is called the Freedom Statue, also referred to as the Liberty Statue. She is a 45-foot tall (14 meter) woman holding a symbolic palm leaf in her hands high over her head. A dedication beneath her reads: “To the memory of all those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary”. 

On each side of the Freedom Statue are two smaller figures. The torchbearer statue on the left symbolizes “progress” and the statue with a figure punching a 3-headed dragon in the face on the right, symbolizes the “fight against evil”. 

The combined message of these three statues, we thought, is a fair representation of the Hungarian psyche.

The Freedom Statue

Garden of Philosophers

In a peaceful corner of Gellért Hill we found a group of statues called the Garden of Philosophers. Facing each other in a circle are elegant life-size sculpted figures of the five founders of the world’s main religions. Abraham, actually bowing down, Echnaton (known also as Egyptian Amenhotep IV and noted for introducing worship of only one deity, Aten), Jesus, Buddha and Lao Tse are standing together as if in conversation.

Mahatma Gandhi, Daruma Taishi, known as Bodhidharma and Saint Francis stand to the side, outside of this photo, each representing leaders in spiritual enlightenment.

This is a simple but powerful monument and the message here may be that tolerance and communication is especially vital for our world today.

Garden of Philosophers

Churches and Synagogues

St. Teresa of Avila Parish Church

This two-toned bright yellow church opened in 1809. St. Teresa of Avila radiates peace and tranquility as you walk inside. A number of renowned Hungarian architects worked on both the outside and the inside resulting in a wonderfully peaceful respite from the city outside its doors.

Dohány Street Synagogue

Prior to Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany and participation in the Holocaust, Budapest was home to more than 200,000 Jewish people. We were able to visit the magnificent Donhány Street Synagogue as well as monuments, memorials and cemeteries to witness the rich Jewish pride, courage and heritage.

The American actor, Tony Curtis, funded the weeping willow memorial located behind the Dohány Street Synagogue. His father, Emanuel Schwartz, was a Hungarian Jew and the tree is named ‘Emanuel Tree’ in his honor. 30,000 names of Holocaust victims have been inscribed on the tree’s metal leaves. The small garden behind the synagogue was named the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park, after a Swedish diplomat living in Budapest, who saved tens of thousands of Jews from the concentration camps.

The Emanuel Tree Memorial

Matthias Church

The tall and gracious white spire of the 700 year old Matthias Church can be spotted from almost any direction in Budapest. The church sits high on a hill in the heart of Buda’s Castle District. According to historical records the first church, called The Church of Mary, was built on the site by Saint Stephen, King of Hungary in 1015. That church was destroyed in 1241 by the Mongols and the current structure was built in the late 14th century undergoing multiple renovations since. In the 19th century the church was renamed Matthias Church after King Matthias (Mátyás Hunyadi, 1458 – 1490).

We visited the Ecclesiastical Art Museum that is upstairs inside the church and found beautiful replicas of the Hungarian royal crown and coronation jewels.

Matthias Church

Gellért Hill Cave Church

The Order of Saint Paul, known simply as the Pauline Fathers, is a monastic order founded in Hungary in the 13th century. In 1784 they were forcibly disbanded and most of the monks found refuge in Poland. By 1934 a handful of monks had returned to Budapest and began to use Gellért’s cave as their spiritual sanctuary, monastery and church.

In the late 1950’s, during the Soviet rule, the Communists raided the church, the monastery’s superior was condemned to death, the monks were imprisoned for 10+ years and the cave entrance was sealed with a 3 foot concrete wall.  As soon as the Iron curtain fell in 1989, the concrete wall was removed and the monks began to restore their church. 

Today there is a small fee to visit the cave church, (closed to visitors during a service) and you are handed an excellent audio guide. The walls and ceiling of the cave church are formed out of natural rock and the temperature inside is maintained at a steady 70° F (20C) thanks to the close proximity of nearby thermal baths. Our favorite room was full of wonderful furnishings, all intricately carved, by a devoted Pauline follower, out of wood from the Linden tree.

Gellért Hill Cave Church

On the terrace in front of the cave entrance is a beautiful statue of Saint Stephen standing next to his horse. Scroll in to look at the statues footwear. 😁

Saint Stephen standing next to his horse

Building began of St. Stephen’s Basilica in 1848 but with various interruptions it took nearly 60 years before it was completed in 1905. This magnificent co-cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest can be found in the heart of Budapest. One of the largest churches in Hungary, it was named in honor of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (ca 975–1038). 

St. Stephen’s Basilica

Budapest’s complex history is completely different than the history of cities in Spain, Portugal, France and Italy where have we spent much of our time the past year and a half.  This fascinating city begs to be discovered and explored.

Egészségedre from these Budapestians,

Ted and Julia

View our Buda Castle photo gallery here

View our Hungarian National Gallery photo gallery here

View our Best of Buda photo gallery here
– Budapest Castle Hill Funicular
– Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum
– Fisherman’s Bastion
– The Citadella
– Garden of Philosophers

View our Churches and Synagogues photo gallery here
– St. Teresa of Avila Parish Church
– Dohány Street Synagogue
– Matthias Church
– Gellért Hill Cave Church
– St. Stephen’s Basilica

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