The Castle District is one of the three World Heritage sites of Budapest. It is also the first stop of every sightseeing tour in Budapest, one of the main attractions of the city. The Royal Castle, Matthias Church and Fishermen’s Bastion are all clustered here, surrounded by quiet cobbled streets with spectacular panorama of the city spread out below.
The venue of class excursions for all schools in Budapest, a serene site of the city where young and elderly couples go for a stroll.
It is already a tradition for me and my daughter to ramble up here on the first warm day of the spring.
We hike up from the south side, from Elisabeth bridge, pass through the Royal Palace, admire the view from Fisherman’s Bastion (if the warm weather comes early, there is no need to buy an entrance ticket: win-win), then we have a hot chocolate or tea and poppy strudels in Ruswurm before descending on the north side of the Hill back to the busy reality of Széll Kálmán square.
But what is this place? Who were it’s the first Hungarian residents?
Short history of the Castle District of Buda: destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed, rebuilt…
The settlement on the top of the plateau of Castle Hill has always been a significant center during the hectic centuries.
The Hungarian royal center was not always at this place: founder of the state, King St. Stephen was crowned in Esztergom, number of kings were buried in Székesfehérvár, for example.
It was King Béla IV who realized that a siege-proof residence is needed against the Mongol invasion. He chose the Castle Hill for this purpose as it was easier to defend. Buda became the royal seat in the early 1400s and reached it’s peak glory during the realm of King Matthias (1458 – 1490) and his second wife, Beatrice.
It was seized by the Ottomans after the death of Matthias and a 145-year destruction took place. The Ottomans paid little attention to the district’s fate. Where once granite fountains bubbled with wine, running water served the Palace, soon piled the neglected and crumbled buildings.
145 years later a huge unified Christian force was able to finally reclaim the city. It’s liberation was celebrated across Europe.
Where 8000 residents lived during the era of Matthias, 300 inhabitants remained alive to see it’s recapture.
But the chance to build it again arrived. The remained medieval details of the houses are incorporated in the new houses and old street patterns are retained.
Look around attentively, search for these details, there are many.
The fate of the Castle District turned again: during the 1848-1849 War of Independence the district came under siege again.
It was rebuilt in time to be blasted into a pile of rubble again during the WW2. In 1945 Germans and Russians met here and before the eyes of the anguished civilian population, the district was battered to pieces. The German forces were surrounded, but held out for seven weeks. This was the city’s 31th siege, when citizens were hidden in the cellars.
And it was rebuilt – again.
Unfortunately the communist era did not pay attention to the details, the traditions and the past. It is clearly visible when we look at some of the non-decorated buildings.
Today, the Castle District is under heritage protection: no more modern buildings allowed to be built. Traffic is also significantly restricted to protect it’s buildings and the cave network underneath our feet.
Now let’s walk through the Castle District from north to south.
In medieval times, the only entrances to the city was through gates like this.
The road from here led to Vienna hence the name. It was also called as Saturday Market Square, as it was the place where weekly markets were held.
From here, it takes only a few minutes to walk down to the busy centre of Buda, Széll Kálmán tér.
The four streets that run the length of the hill converge at this square.
If a child talks back to his parents they are told: “Your mouth is as big as the Vienna Gate!”.
You can walk up to the top of the gate to enjoy the panorama of Buda, Pest and the Margaret-island.
Museum of Military History
This museum has collection regarding every war that involved Hungary from the conquest until this day.
The cannonballs that are displayed on the left side of the entrance was actually fired by the Hungarian army during 1849.
Tomb of the last pasha of Buda
Behind the Museum of Military History, on the Anjou Bastion stands the tomb of Abdurrahman. The caption says in Turkish and in Hungarian:
“He was a heroic enemy, may he rest in peace”.
Mary Magdalene Church
The church that originally stood here was built after the Mongol invasion.
Under Turkish rule this was the only permitted Christian church, while all the others were converted into mosques, but in the end, it too was connected into a mosque.
There was a clear division in the district:
Mary Magdalene Church in the north – for the Hungarian believers
Matthias Church in the middle – for German believers
Royal Palace in the south.
Unfortunately the church seriously damaged during the WW2.
Today, you can see a beautiful panorama from its top (free with Budapest Card, yeyyy! 🙂 ) and listen to the chiming of its 24 bells.
The Flying Nun
You can find this cute statue on the wall of a house at the corner of Nádor street and Országház street.
Medieval building details
Just have an attentive walk along the streets named Fortuna, Úri, Országház or Táncsics Mihály and you will notice parts of medieval buildings incorporated into new or beautifully renovated houses. Even there doorways of ruined houses held surprises.
Stone door frame
Stone cross window
Old shop window
There are 63 sitting bays in the streets of the District. Nobles decorated their gateways with these, and they also served practical purposes. In the winter thick furs and carpets were laid on the stone seats.
The oldest of these niches, from the 13th century, are simply round arches, while the later ones are richly decorated.
Red Hedgehog House
This building is the oldest building in Budapest (Hess András Square 3) and it is still in use today.
It is a merge of houses that were built around 1260.
Abdurrahmam Abdi Amaut pasha, the last pasha of Buda was killed in battle right in front of this house in 1686.
The house was already called its cute name as early as 1696, but the origin of this appellation is unknown.
It was functioning as an inn until 1805 and got the cute hedgehog embossment that is still visible on its facade in 1810s.
In the 1760s it was home to the first children’s theater of Hungary.
Fortunately the building was not damaged severely in the WW2.
This house is a standing proof that reminiscent of another ages can live side by side with modern glass palaces like the Hilton Hotel in its close proximity.
The King Matthias Relief
Hess András Square 1-2
The Relief shows King Matthias in full armour sitting with his feet on a lion.
It is a replica, the original made in 1486 was placed on the tower of the German city, Bautzen’s gate.
Two angels hold a crown over his head.
Around him are the coat of arms of (top) Hungary, Bohemia, (left) Bosnia, Hunyadi, Styria, (right) Klagenfurt, Austria, Silesia, and Lusatia.
The inscription above states: Mathias Rex, the one below reads: ANNO – MCCCCLXXXVI – SALV (1486, year of retrieval).
If you inspect the walls of the Hotel carefully, you can see ruins incorporated into the building. The reason is, the hotel was built on the ruins of St Nicholas Church, a Dominican monastery and a Jesuit College in 1976.
Inside the hotel, centuries-old stone relics of the original abbey are on display in their original places where they stood during Hungary’s early history, for example, carved archway decorations, intricately inscribed tablets, and decorative stone window panes, showing the numerous layers of history that lie within the Castle District.
At the opening ceremony, the president of Hilton International called this hotel the most beautiful pearl in the whole string.
In the 70s it was the embodiment of luxury, wealth and freedom of the “West”, the American Dream.
When I was a small child, all my wish was a Matchbox car. But is wasn’t sold anywhere else in the whole city (and country) only in the shop of the Hilton Hotel. I still remember the day when my mother took me there to buy me a toy car. That was one of the most memorable days of my childhood. 🙂
Today everyone can freely access the Dominican Cloister by entering the hotel’s main doorway and walking through the Lobby Café and Bar.
Holy Trinity Column - Holy Trinity Square (Szentháromság tér)
In 1691 series of plague epidemics tortured the new settlers who tried to start their new life in the recaptured Buda. Unfortunately the bad sanitation situation among the ruins of Buda made the expectations worse.
The residents were so desperate, that they swore that if the Black Death left, they would erect a column to the Holy Trinity as a gratitude.
They kept their word and in 1713 the column was erected.
It is decorated with fluffy clouds, angels and the Holy Trinity in the form of a dove. There are also three reliefs on the memorial column:
King David is begging God to stop the epidemic
One that recalls the memory of the Black Death
One that commemorates the work of the column builders
One of the most beautiful and famous square of the Castle District was named after the monument in 1877, after the unification of Pest, Buda and Óbuda. Until then it was named as Maria Square, Column Square and Market Square.
Matthias church is full of surprises, mysteries and treasures, with breathtaking interior and mystically exotic atmosphere.
Bored with churches? Not with this one.
The bastion that was not built for defense but for the Millennial anniversary of the founding of Hungary.
Both Matthias church and Fisherman’s Bastion were rebuilt by Frigyes Schulek around the Millennium.
For more information check out this blog post: Guide to Fisherman’s Bastion
Equestrian Statue of St Stephen, the first king of Hungary
The statue stands right between the Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion.
St Stephen is sitting on a heavily armored horse with the Holy Crown on his head. The halo above him means that he was canonized.
Have a close look at the pedestal, it represents important moments from his reign, such as his coronation, law-making, church-building and on the fourth relief, Vienna pays homage to the King.
You can also see the symbols of the four evangelists:
angel – Matthew
bull – Luke
eagle – John
lion – Mark
The patriarchal cross is on the back, representing that power not only comes from the people, but also from God.
Old Town Hall of Buda
Opposite Matthias Church stands the building that was the public administrative centre of Buda for more than 160 years and of the 1st district for 70 years. Recently it was converted into an education centre.
On its corner there is a statue of Pallas Athena, Greek goddess of cities, with the coat of arms of Buda in her right and a bronze spear in her left hand.
The oldest confectioner’s in Budapest, in service since 1827. It’s furnishings survived both the 1849 fight for independence and WW2.
This is the place where we always have a rest during our stroll. We like to sit at a table on the street or a smaller table inside its back room. The whole place is tiny so during high season it is almost impossible to find a free table, but it is worth trying.
We really love – and recommend – their somlói galuska (sponge cake), scone with goat cheese and poppy seed strudel.
Statue of András Hadik
Hadik was one of the most famous Hussars, he fought in the Habsburg army during Maria Theresa’s reign. He was the commander of Buda Castle.
What seems to be an average statue, has a secret: if polished, the horse’s testicles will bring you luck. Have a look at it closely, the entire statue is covered in green rust and tarnish except this area. Students of the Technical University started this tradition, they believe that this ritual brings them good result during their exams.
The ranks of hussars, these typical cavalrymen of Hungarian origin, were primarily filled by Hungarian nationals. The first hussar units of armies all over the world were organized by Hungarians. The terms for Hussar uniforms and arms come from Hungarian.
Hussar horses were an eastern type, mostly smaller, faster and more agile than those used by other cavalry units. Based on individual initiative, sudden strikes and feigned retreats, hussar tactics differed greatly from those of the European heavy cavalry. Also, hussars made a difference in terms of their uniforms with their “thousand buttons”, cords and fur.
Existing as an irregular force since the end of the 1400s, hussars were organized into regiments in the late 17th century. The hues of their multicolor uniforms (green, red, blue) were made standard by the 1769 military reform of the Habsburg Empire.
The term “honvéd” (Hungarian for soldier) emerged during the 1848-49 revolution and war of independence, where hussars also played a major role.
Tóth Árpád promenade
The walkway that has the best view of the Buda side, rimmed by trees that were planted it the 19th century. It is one of the most beloved parts of the Castle District with its view over towards the Buda Hills, with the highest hill of Budapest, the János Hill with Elisabeth lookout tower on its top.
Grab a cup of coffee, sit down to one of its benches and just watch people as they walk by.
It you take the stairs from here, you will get to the Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum.
The main street in the Castle District was called as “storekeepers’ street” and “grocers row” in the Middle Ages.
The only part of the street that survived the storms of the centuries is 14 Tárnok street. On its ground level there were shops, while the first floor was used as accommodation.
While most European cities at that time were known by their narrow streets, in Buda the roads were wide, the squares spacious and there were generous space and height in the buildings, so even carts with highly piled goods could enter easily through the gates.
Memorial to the Soldiers of 1848-1849
On 21 of May, 1849, the Hungarian forces reclaimed Buda from the emperor’s army during the revolution – the day is called the Day of Defense.
The sculpture commemorates this event.
A soldier is shown with a sword and the national flag in his hands. The banner says: Freedom or death.
Former Ministry of Defence
It is hard to believe, but originally this building was a four-story block, with a dome on its top. Unfortunately it suffered such a crucial damage during WW2 and stood in ruins for more than 50 years.
It was recently renovated, but as usual (even during the renovation of the Parliament), some of the wartime bullet holes are left untouched as a reminder to the horrors of war.
Today the building hosts temporary exhibitions.
St George Square
As the visible remains of the houses prove it, the area was a densely lived quarter before. A chapel, where Catherine, the first wife of Matthias was buried stood here.
The buildings standing here before the WW2 suffered severe damage during the war. Possibly the only benefit of its destruction was that the medieval castle walls were revealed in the bomb craters. The artifacts are now in the Budapest History Museum.
The line of flags represents the various chapters of Hungarian history starting in 896.
Prime Minister’s Office - the former National Dance Theatre
Carmelite monks had a monastery here where they lived their quiet life, until King Joseph II (1741-1790) eldest son of Empress Maria Theresa and the brother of Marie Antoinette, closed it.
The church was then converted into the first theatre of Buda and the monastery became a casino.
Performances were held in German, but the first Hungarian theatre company also held their debut here in 1790.
The building is the Prime Ministers Office now.
The white palace was the home of the Prime Minister for years. During the WW2 it was damaged and after its restoration, it houses the President of the Republic and his office today.
The building is protected by guards of honor. The ceremonial changing of the guards happens every midday, while palace guards changing every hour from 10 to 5.
Legends say a trull led the Hungarians during their settlement in the Hungarian basin.
The statue was built soon after the Millennial celebrations.
The gate next to the turul bird is the entrance to the terraces and courtyards of the Royal Palace and is called the Baroque or Habsburg gate.
The gate on the other side of the square has a raven, King Matthias’s heraldic animal, on its top with a golden ring in its beak.
The Royal Palace
Sprawling complex of wings, courtyards and cultural institutions.
Since King Béla IV established the residence in the mid-13th century, the Royal Palace has been built and rebuilt numerous times.
Today it has a mixture of styles, with little left of the grand residence it developed under King Matthias in the second half of the 15th century. His original palace was sumptuous, with ornate fountains and running water (through conduits from the mountains).
After the Turks took Buda, the palace was partially damaged, and then it was reduced to rubble by the Holy League as they retook it from the Turks in 1686.
The present day structure of the palace is mainly down to Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, who commissioned a new complex in the late 1700s.
Later, during the War of Independence between Hungary and Austria, much of the 200-room building was severely damaged.
After Budapest became a twin capital of the Habsburg empire in 1867, the palace was reconstructed in Neo-baroque style by the two leading architects of the day, Alajos Hauszmann and Miklós Ybl.
Today, the Royal Palace houses the Hungarian National Gallery, the Castle Museum, and the National Széchényi Library.
Today, the inner courtyard of the Palace is used as a concert venue on hot summer nights and the whole area is often used as a filming location.
Here is an example 😊
Hungarian National Gallery
The Hungarian National Gallery is almost too big to explore during one visit, it’s permanent collection covers more than half a millennium of Hungarian art.
Highlights include works by the nation’s most renowned artists, Mihály Munkácsy, József Rippl-Rónai and Tivadar Koszta Csontváry.
National Széchényi Library
Treasures from the Golden Age of Buda under King Matthias are housed in the National Széchényi Library, such as the remains of the king’s library.
Budapest History Museum
The history of Budapest is told in the Budapest History Museum, which shows life here from prehistoric times to present day, with the displays relating the victory over the Ottomans in 1686 and Budapest’s role as capita of the short-lived Soviet republic in 1919.
Castle Garden Bazaar
At the foot of the Castle Hill facing the Danube stands this eye-catching building with its gardens. The area has been completely renovated recently. Today it has an underground event hall, exhibition rooms and restaurants.
Especially on summer nights the neighborhood is buzzing with life.
But it wasn’t always the case.
During the 19th century, compared to the liveliness of the Pest side, especially the promenade, Buda side was quiet and was out of the way.
The Várkert Bazaar was built to balance out this difference so between 1875 and 1883 the building was built.
Its architect was Miklós Ybl, whose statue can be found in front of the Bazaar.
After its opening the Bazaar gave rooms to sculptors, for example the statue of Anonymous that you can see in City Park was crafted here.
It had commercial functions, too, it had many shops under its arcade.
Unfortunately the area did not become as popular as they thought it would be. The stores soon closed and the neighborhood started to be forgotten.
The WW2 did not spare the building, it was seriously damaged.
Between the 60s and early 80s it was the home of a Youth Park, and it functioned as venue of concerts. Then in 1980 its staircase crashed down during a concert. It was closed in 1984.
The reconstruction started in 2013.
Today it is a unique jewelry box, that is worth visiting.
Várkert Kiosk (Castle Garden Kiosk)
Originally, the purpose of this building was to conceal the water pump that supplied the entire Royal Palace with water from the Danube.
Between the two World Wars and even in the 60s it gave place to a cafe terrace. Later it functioned as a casino.
Today, it is a beautifully renovated little palace with exhibitions and coffee shop.
What today is a scenic transportation method mainly for tourists, was originally built to make transport cheaper and quicker for clerks working in the Castle District.
It opened in 1870, and its 95 meter track has a 48% incline.
The travel time is about a minute.
Originally it was operated by steam engine, it changed to electricity in 1986.
The two carriages are connected like pendulums, so as one takes passengers up, the other goes down.
Their names are Margit and Gellért and each can carry 24 passengers.
If you happen to chose the funicular as a method to go up the Hill (Castle Hill rises only 50-60 meters above the riverbank so you can walk to the top in 5-10 minutes if you take the Király stairs for example – just start walking up the slope and soon you will find a small gate on the right), you will have the time to observe a few things around you while standing in the queue.
Behind you stands the 0 kilometer stone, showing that almost every single-digit main road in Hungary originates from here.
On your left, there is a huge red brick wall. Two angels hold the Hungarian crown above the Hungarian coat of arms.
Behind you on the far right stand the Chain Bridge Palace.
Many important decisions were made between its walls that resulted in Budapest becoming a world city by the end of the 19th century.
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3 thoughts on “The Castle District of Budapest – a historic hilltop”
I have a pretty lengthy list of places I want to travel, however, Budapest never made the list. After reading about the castle district, I am in awe. I need to go! Thanks for the great article!
We are going to Budapest next year for a wedding. I‘ll definitely be coming back to read this and other posts before then! Lovely pictures!!
Wow! The interwoven history of the architecture is astonishing! Matthias Church is beautiful and The King Matthias Relief is filled with awesome symbolism!