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