Photo: Daniel Vegel, Zoltan Tuba / CEU Budapest's architecture spans from ancient Roman ruins to award-winning contemporary buildings, with plenty of treasures in-between. Below is a highly subjective list of buildings architecture buffs shouldn't miss in Budapest. (This map shows where each of them are located.)

Heads up: Budapest has an excellent architecture center, Fuga, where plenty of books about Hungarian and regional architecture are available in English.

Roman ruins

In the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire expanded to the Danube River, which served as its eastern border. Emperor Trajan made Aquincum, situated in the northern part of today's Budapest, the capital of its Lower Pannonia province. In its heyday in the 2nd century, Aquincum was a city with 40,000 inhabitants. While the Roman ruins in Budapest are smaller than ruins in some other places, they're free to visit, easily reachable from downtown by public transport, and usually empty so you can have these two-thousand-year-old remains all for yourself.

1 - The two best preserved Roman ruins in Budapest

The Aquincum Military Amphitheater was a 13,000-capacity complex used for gladiator combats and chariot races. The Thermae Maiores ("Great Bath") was a sophisticated public bath system complete with a steam room and a gym inside a former fortress that housed the occupying Roman soldiers. Bizarrely, a concrete overpass now runs above the ruins. Thermae Maiores is free to visit from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (it's closed on Monday); the amphitheater is accessible at all times. They're about a 15-minute walk from one another. You can complement your trip to the ruins with a visit to the nearby Aquincum Museum as well.

Medieval & Baroque

2 - The Castle Hill

The Castle Hill is split between the Buda Castle that once housed the royal family, and the civilian quarters packed with two- and three-story medieval homes. The countless battles waged on this small piece of land destroyed many of the original buildings, but the Baroque, and in some cases modern facades (e.g. the Hilton Budapest) stand on the original medieval walls. The narrow, winding streets of the area still exude a historic air.

3 - Király Baths (1565?)

Built by Ottoman ruler Sokollu Mehmed Pasha in the 16th century, this bath is one of the few remaining buildings from Budapest's century-and-a-half Ottoman occupation. The small openings on the dome admit little daylight, lending a mysterious atmosphere to the bathing hall. Of Budapest's thermal baths, this one is popular among local residents as well.

Revival Architecture

In 1867, Budapest and Vienna became the joint capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The subsequent 50 years marked Budapest's golden era during which the city experienced an unprecedented level of development. Inspired by Paris and Rome, Budapest's revival architecture and its eye-catching grand boulevards from this time dominate the city's layout.

4 - Andrássy Avenue & the Grand Boulevard

These two thoroughfares radically shaped Budapest's city fabric in the 19th century. The stately Andrássy Avenue is lined with imposing Renaissance Revival buildings. Often referred to as Budapest's Champs-Élysées, it connects the city center with the City Park. The Grand Boulevard is the main artery of modern Budapest, merging five different neighborhoods.

5 - Hungarian State Opera House (1884)

This is the finest work of Miklós Ybl, the most prominent Hungarian architect of the 19th century. The richly-adorned building features statues of Hungarian composers such as Ferenc Liszt, marble columns, and a giant bronze chandelier. It is considered to be one of the most stunning opera houses in the world. Due to renovation work, the building isn't open to visitors at least until 2019.

6 - House of Parliament (1902)

The House of Parliament is the largest building in Hungary. This turn-of-the-century Gothic Revival extravaganza of ornaments stretches imposingly along its Danube bank. Its resemblance to Westminster Palace was intended to enhance the building's legitimacy in the eyes of local residents. Parts of it are open to visitors, including the hall showing the Holy Crown of Hungary and the former Upper Chamber.

7 - St. Stephen's Basilica (1906)

Like the House of Parliament, the St. Stephen's Basilica is a statement building towering over Budapest, intended to convey the city's imperial ambitions. The construction of the church took more than half a century and outlasted two of its chief architects. Behind the calm limestone exterior hides a dimly-lit central space and the mummified right hand of St. Stephen, Hungary's first king. Note that the buildings's dome offers sweeping views of Budapest and is open to visitors.

Art Nouveau & Art Deco

Ödön Lechner created Hungary's unique style of Art Nouveau. Some call him the “Gaudi of Hungary” because of his buildings' loose resemblance to those of the Spanish master. Lechner's signature style is marked by fluid shapes, floral motifs, and rich ceramic decoration using brightly-colored tilework.

Another important figure of Hungarian art nouveau architecture was Béla Lajta. A student of Lechner, Lajta took his master's national style in new directions, shifting Hungarian architecture toward art deco and early modernism.

8 - Museum of Applied Arts (1896)

The Museum of Applied Arts is of Lechner's early buildings. It pays homage to Indian and Persian folk art. At the time, some ethnographers (falsely) believed that Hungary shared a common history with these Eastern civilizations, which is what inspired the building's ornamental details. For example, the floral patterns on the facade and the plain white entry hall are modeled after the Taj Mahal. As of 2018, the building is undergoing a major renovation and can't be visited.

9 - Postal Savings Bank (1901)

Photo: Lakáskultúra Lechner's art nouveau masterpiece nestles on a quiet downtown street by Liberty Square. The building's facade is decorated with beehives, symbolizing industry and hard work, and motifs taken from Hungarian folk art. The building's colorful green and yellow roof tiles are best taken in from afar, for example, the nearby corner of Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Road and Nagysándor József Street.

10 - Török Bank Building (1906)

Photo: Kitervezte.hu This downtown art nouveau building boasts an oversized steel-and-glass facade topped with an enormous mosaic. The colorful glass mosaic is different from the clean simplicity of the rest of the building, but they blend into a visually appealing unity. The mosaic depicts Saint Mary, Hungary's patron saint, surrounded by prominent Hungarian revolutionary figures.

11 - Parisiana (1909)

Photo: Kitervezte.hu With a grey, unornamented marble facade, Béla Lajta's Parisiana, originally built as a cabaret venue, shows early modernist and art deco characteristics. There is a beautiful row of gilded cherubs perched atop the building, holding the stained glass lettering.

12 - István Széchenyi High School of Commerce (1912)

This large red-brick building emerges unexpectedly on the narrow Vas Street in the new-cool District 8. Its aluminum entry door and limestone frame depict themes of commercial transportation and Hungarian folk art patterns. The latin inscription above the door means "It's not for school, but for life we learn."

Modernism

Following WWI, modernism left a distinctive mark on Budapest's architecture. In fact, several well-known figures of the Bauhaus school were Hungarians (Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy), although many of them later migrated to the United States. The architecture of these modernist buildings was a form of protest by their middle class, mainly Jewish residents - they viewed the then still dominant Baroque Revival style and its political and social implications as outdated and backward-looking.

13 - Dunapark Apartment (1936)

Photo: 24.hu The highest concentration of modernist buildings are found along Pozsonyi Road in Újlipótváros. The most spectacular is located at #38: the limestone clad facade hides a staircase complete with marble finishes, custom blue-rubber floors, and the interior meticulously designed down to the last detail. For the best experience, wait for a chance to get a sneak peek at the staircase.

14 - Napraforgó Street Housing Development (1931)

Modernism fans should certainly visit the residential homes on Napraforgó Street in Buda. This row of 22 buildings was the result of a progressive government decree in the 1930s that commissioned leading architects to build affordable housing in the contemporary style of the day. This peaceful street is lined with a collection of charming single family homes, each one a slightly different take on the same theme.

15 - Madách Houses (1938)

Madách Houses are a group of 11 clinker-brick buildings, separating the historic Jewish Quarter from downtown. The barely perceptible geometric patterns on the otherwise unadorned facade lend the buildings an understated grace. The sweeping arch was supposed to be the grand entry of a boulevard running all the way to the City Park, but its construction was halted during World War II and never continued.

Communist-Era

Socialist realism was the state-imposed official artistic style in Hungary during the 1950s. In architecture, it aimed to combine classical elements with easily recognizable depictions of the communist ideology, like a carved relief showing happy workers on a building's facade. By the end of the decade it ran its course and architects were permitted to return to modernist designs that dominated Western architecture at the time. Because of limited access to both capital and high-quality building materials, however, most buildings in Hungary from the 1960s and '70s don't stand the test of time.

16 - Budapest University of Technology (1955)

This wing of the Budapest University of Technology is a good example that Hungarian architects often skillfully managed to circumvent the social realist dogma, which they viewed as outdated. Notwithstanding the obligatory pediments and columns of the front entrance, the building retained its modernist skeleton: it's as if the entry could be sliced off with a razor and leave behind a beautifully linear and simplified edifice in the modernist tradition.

17 - Prefab Residential High-Rises (1960-70s)

Tens of thousands of residential apartments made of precast concrete slabs were built in the 1960s and ‘70s to address Budapest’s critical housing shortage. They were cheap and quick to construct, and with district heating and hot running water improved the living conditions of their residents. Today, however, these dull, impersonal blocks, which account for over 20% of Budapest's apartment stock, are blights on their neighborhoods.

Post-modernism

Post-modernism emerged relatively late in Hungary, in the 1980s. The communist leadership viewed it as a harmful movement with origins in the "declining West." The style's leading architect was József Finta, whose buildings fundamentally shaped Budapest’s contemporary skyline. Finta’s coming-of-age coincided with the international shift away from unornamented, geometric, box-type buildings to more playful, expressive designs with historical elements: interestingly, the current-day Marriott and Intercontinental hotels along the Danube bank are also Finta’s brainchildren from his early days.

18 - "Makovecz House" (1993)

This 4-story extension atop a 1867 Renaissance Revival building is one of the few Budapest works of legendary Hungarian architect, Imre Makovecz. Vertically repeating blank pediments are flanked by two curved towers dotted with Gothic-arched windows that are split by light blue columns. Enough said. Notwithstanding the spectacle (it's impossible not to stop and try to make sense of it), the building feels more self-serving than witty or sensitive to its surrounding.

19 - Police Headquarters (1997)

Photo: fintastudio.hu Finta's style fully emerged with the Police Headquarters building (colloquially the “Cops' Palace”). The beautifully proportioned, 58 thousand sqm building looks like a high-tech battleship, or a sphynx fixing his vigilant gaze toward the city center. In addition to playful reflections, the building also includes subtle references to the work of Pritzker-winning architect, I. M. Pei.

20 - Lehet Market (2002)

Photo: blog.atlatszo.hu Love it or hate it, if you want to get a kick out of an intentionally kitsch Budapest building, you can't miss the Lehel Market. The boat-shaped glass-and-steel construction is packed with harsh colors and embellished, radically eclectic historical references like a bright yellow oversized entablature. Aside from the quirky architecture, you can enjoy the lively marketplace here frequented mainly by locals residents from the neighborhood.

Contemporary

Large-scale contemporary buildings in Budapest are fewer in number than you might expect. Part of this has to do with the shortage of deep-pocketed developers. In addition, many downtown buildings are under landmark protections, so architects need to walk a fine line between preserving the old, be it the fabric of a street or the facade of a building, and creating something truly contemporary.

21 - Central European University Building (2016)

Photo: Daniel Vegel, Zoltan Tuba / CEU The main building of the prestigious Central European University, completed in 2016, seamlessly blends old and new: the indented facade is distinctively modern, but it also integrates into the otherwise 1820s Neoclassical street view. The inside of the building has beautiful details and unexpected color combinations.

22 - CET Building (2011)

The CET Building is a mixed-use cultural and commercial space consisting of a set of restored warehouses and a huge whale-shaped, steel-and-glass modern structure inserted in-between. It's one of the few buildings with direct access to the Danube River, lined with several riverfront bars (Esetleg and Jonas are two of my favorites).

23 - M4 Subway Stations (2014)

Photo: ArchDaily Budapest's new metro line #4 is both a commercial failure and an architectural success. Completed late and over budget, it doesn't generate nearly the passenger traffic it was projected to. The designs of the stations, however, are among the best works of contemporary Hungarian architecture. The Fővám Square and Szent Gellért Square stations won the highly prestigious Architizer A+ Award in 2014.

The stations are filled with natural light, playful lighting solutions, a crisscross system of heavy exposed concrete beams that appear to be floating in the air, and colorful mosaics paying homage to the buildings above ground. The sophisticated design and disability-inclusive infrastructure of these stations are wildly different from Budapest’s otherwise outdated socialist-era subway stations (at the Kálvin Square station you can compare the two).


Reviewed by Sándor Sólymos, Department Head of Fine Arts, at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts.