Exploring Budapest: The Historic Charm of Castle Hill

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Budapest’s Castle Hill District is dominated by an impressively sprawling green-domed Royal Palace originally built for the Hapsburg rulers in the 18th century. Sadly, like the rest of the city, the palace took a serious beating from artillery fire during World War II. It was eventually rebuilt in the 1960s – a major achievement given Communist feelings on all things royal at that time. The structure was modernized, stripped of excessive ornamentation and turned into a cultural center. Today it is home to two excellent museums, the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum, which I’ll review in a separate post.

The Hapsburg palace was constructed atop a much older royal abode, the ruins of which were excavated during post-war reconstruction. Some of the 14th century fortifications were recreated, giving visitors an idea of how the medieval castle might have looked.

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Corvinus Gate, the southwest entrance to the palace. The raven is a symbol of King Matthias Corvinus and live birds can be found hopping around the yard.

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This fountain of King Matthias Corvinus and his dogs was destroyed during the war, but the Hungarians loved it so much they had an exact copy made.

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This monument to Eugene of Savoy is widely considered to be Budapest’s premiere equestrian statue.

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The palace’s ornamental main gate is guarded by a statue of a Turul, a mythical bird that has come to represent the strength of the Hungarian people.

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Reconstructed 14th century castle ruins.

One of the most striking structures on Castle Hill is Matthias Church and its brilliantly tiled roof. I first visited Matthias Church in 2010 in the middle of its restoration, when bad lighting was used to mask the chipping paint. Three years later I could hardly believe the difference! The interior has been given a beautiful face lift which warm lighting shows off to full effect. Be sure to visit the upstairs treasury, which has a display on painting techniques used in the makeover. Entrance to Matthias Church costs HUF 1,000 (US$4.50). The ticket booth is in a stone bunker facing the church.

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BEFORE: This photo was taken in 2010, in the middle of the afternoon.

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AFTER: This is what the interior looks like in 2013.

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Tomb of King Béla III and his wife, Anna.

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One of the most popular attractions in Budapest is Fisherman’s Bastion, a faux-fort and viewing platform that reminds me of a giant sandcastle. Though it looks medieval, it was originally built in the 19th century and was recently restored. Fisherman’s Bastion was apparently named for the group of fishermen who protected the castle during the Middle Ages.

Most of the structure is free to visit, though a small fee is necessary to access the highest turrets. Busiest in the afternoon, by 6:30pm tour groups will have moved on and you will very nearly have the place to yourself. Cafes along the terraces make the perfect spot to relax and enjoy the view.

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Buda Castle Labyrinth is one of the stranger attractions I’ve been to. A system of caves formed by pockets of thermal water, the underground maze is located 12 meters below ground and loops a distance of just over 1,000 meters. Some of the caves served as cellars to the buildings above and provided shelter to residents during the battles of World War II. Today the caves are used to display archaeological finds and, oddly, a mock-up of Dracula’s grave.

I was greatly amused by the mannequins staged in scenes from classic operas, replete with costumes and stage props from the Hungarian State Opera House. Imagine walking through a dark, damp underground tunnel while an operatic soundtrack plays. Out of the dark masked figures appear … this could be highly entertaining at Halloween if done correctly! If nothing else, the tunnels offer a respite from the blazing summer sun. Entrance costs HUF 2,000 (US$9).

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From the description in our guidebook, the Golden Eagle Pharmacy Museum sounded like an interesting diversion. Built on the site Budapest’s first pharmacy, the museum contains an assortment of items once used in 17th century apothecaries, such as glass jars, ancient medical textbooks, dried bats and even a mummified head. I thought it was charming in a Hogwarts sort of way, but hubby was not impressed. There are no English captions but the proprietor will provide a half-hearted information sheet. Entrance costs HUF 500 (US$2.25).

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Part of the charm of the Castle District lies in its gently curving cobblestone streets lined with row upon row of brightly painted buildings. The restored villas, many now converted to apartments and hotels, belie the serious fighting that took place here during World War II.

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No visit to the neighborhood would be complete without a stop at Faust Wine Cellars. Located deep in the basement of the Budapest Hilton (itself housed in the remains of a 14th century church), getting to the cellar is half the fun. After walking past a wall of wine bottles, we carefully picked our way down seemingly endless flights of stairs and arrived at a small cave made warm by candlelight and 15 or so guests. Had Jennifer of JDomb’s Travels not recommended the place, we never would have found it on our own!

We were given the option of either a six- or nine-glass tasting and opted for the former knowing we had to make it back up all those stairs. The owner, Gábor Nagy, explained the Hungarian wines as we went along and his wife brought us a basket of freshly baked cheese scones. Most of the wines are available for purchase and we came home with the Szekszárdi Fuxli 2012, a buttery rosé with hints of cranberry. Other highlights included a crisp, grassy Móri Sauvignon Blanc 2012 and a wonderfully spicy Villányi Aureus 2006 of such special vintage that it was unavailable for purchase. The six-wine tasting costs HUF 4,900 (US$22) per person – cash only.

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Convenient ways to get to Castle Hill include taking the 16 bus from Deák tér in Pest and the specially marked castle shuttle bus from Széll Kálmán tér in Buda. A more scenic option is to walk across Chain Bridge and take the tram up the hill. Tickets for a one-way ride cost HUF 1,000 (US$4.50) and the terminus station is right next to the palace.

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This is the view from the tram – not too shabby!

Which attraction on Castle Hill would you most like to visit? Tell me in the comments!

Heather Hall

Heather Hall

Passionate about travel, food, history and animals, Heather brings a curiosity and fun-loving attitude to most any experience that comes along. The Virginia native has lived abroad since 2011, first in Shanghai, China and now in Riga, Latvia. Follow along as she explores the cultures and cuisines of Europe on her blog, Ferreting Out the Fun!

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12 thoughts on “Exploring Budapest: The Historic Charm of Castle Hill

  1. Great Photos! They helped me remember so much I had forgotten. Did you see the hotel where we stayed? Maureen is waiting for pictures of the food you ate. Did you eat any cream puffs? That is about the only food I remember. Anyway, great post!

    • Thanks! We went up to Castle Hill several times this trip and walked by the hotel where you and I stayed. Looks the same from the outside! We also ate and the restaurant you and I loved but they no longer offered cream puffs. I’ll do a food post soon 🙂

    • And this was just one neighborhood! Budapest is an amazing place. We could often be found somewhere in the city with a glass of wine in hand 🙂

    • I couldn’t believe my eyes when I walked in! The church was pretty before, but wow! It’s such a shame all restoration work can’t be done with as much attention to detail. I’ve seen some “restored” temples in China that made me cringe. The workers didn’t even lay down tarps to protect the floor from paint drips!

    • He really is! He shared such interesting information about the wines and the vineyards and even little tidbits about himself for a very personal experience. Apparently he and his wife saved one of the last bottles of a particularly special vintage for Valentine’s Day. He also remembered your visit vividly and pointed out which wines you’d also sampled and enjoyed 🙂

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