Budapest's diverse architecture spans from Roman ruins to award-winning contemporary buildings, with plenty of treasures in-between. We've assembled the below highlights with the help of local architects; the buildings are grouped chronologically, and this map will help you find each one of them.
Heads up: Budapest has an excellent architecture center, Fuga, where myriad books about Hungarian and regional architecture are available in English, too.
In the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire expanded to the Danube River, which served as its eastern border. Aquincum, situated in the northern part of today's Budapest and with a population of 40,000 people in its heyday, was the capital of Lower Pannonia province. While Budapest's Roman ruins are smaller than ruins in some other places, they can be visited for free, they're easily reachable from downtown by public transport, and they're usually deserted, so you can have these two-thousand-year-old remains all to 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, while Thermae Maiores ("Great Bath") was a sophisticated public bath complete with a steam room and a gym (bizarrely, today a concrete overpass runs above it). You can visit Thermae Maiores for free from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (it's closed on Mondays); the amphitheater is accessible at all times. They're about a 15-minute walk from one another. If you're curious to see more Roman ruins, stop by the nearby Aquincum Museum, too.
Medieval & Baroque
#2 - The Castle Hill
Budapest's Castle Hill is split between the grand Buda Castle, and the civilian quarters lined with two- and three-story residential homes. The countless battles waged on this small area—most recently WWII—left many of the original buildings damaged, but the Baroque and in some cases modern facades stand on medieval walls. The neighborhood's narrow, winding streets still exude a charming, historic air.
#3 - Király Baths (1565?)
Built by Ottoman ruler Sokollu Mehmed pasha in the 16th century, Király Baths 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 ambiance to the bathing hall beneath. Of Budapest's thermal baths, this one is popular among local residents, too.
In 1867, Budapest and Vienna became the joint capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The subsequent 50 years marked Budapest's golden era, when, inspired by Paris and Rome, much of the city's grand boulevards and eye-catching revival architecture sprung up. Still today, these are the buildings that define Budapest's urban landscape.
#4 - Andrássy Avenue & the Grand Blvd. (1876, 1896)
These two thoroughfares profoundly shaped the city's fabric in the 19th century. The stately Andrássy Avenue, often referred to as Budapest's Champs-Élysées, stretches from downtown to the City Park, while the Grand Boulevard is Budapest's main artery, connecting five neighborhoods.
#5 - Hungarian State Opera House (1884)
Designed by Miklós Ybl, the building is one of the most stunning opera houses in the world. The meticulous decorations feature statues of famous composers, including Franz Liszt, a Hungarian native, and marble columns and a giant bronze chandelier.
#6 - House of Parliament (1902)
This Gothic Revival extravaganza stretching along its Danube bank is Hungary's largest building. The Hungarian Parliament's resemblance to the Westminster Palace is no coincidence—the design was meant to enhance its legitimacy in the eyes of local residents. Parts of the building are open to visitors, including the hall with the Holy Crown of Hungary, and the former Upper Chamber.
#7 - St. Stephen's Basilica (1906)
Towering over Budapest, the St. Stephen's Basilica is another statement-building that intended to convey the city's imperial ambitions at the time. The construction works lasted for more than half a century, outliving two of the building's chief architects. Behind the calm limestone exterior hides a dimly lit central space, and stored inside is the mummified right hand of St. Stephen, Hungary's first king. Note that the church's dome offers sweeping views of Budapest and is open to visitors.
Art Nouveau & Art Deco
Ödön Lechner pioneered Hungary's unique brand of Art Nouveau. Some call him the “Gaudi of Hungary” as his buildings—featuring fluid shapes, brightly colored tilework, and motifs taken from folk art—loosely resemble those of the Spanish master. A student of Lechner, Béla Lajta designed some of the first art deco and modernist buildings in Hungary, many of which predate comparable buildings in the rest of Europe.
#8 - Museum of Applied Arts (1896)
Lechner's over-the-top ornaments pay homage to the folk art of India and Persia, because at the time some ethnographers falsely believed that Hungary shared a common history with these civilizations. For example, the plain white entry hall of the Museum of Applied Arts is modeled after the Taj Mahal. The building is currently undergoing a major renovation and can't be visited.
#9 - Postal Savings Bank (1901)
This art nouveau masterpiece nestles on a quiet downtown street by Liberty Square. Lechner decorated the facade of the Postal Savings Bank with beehives, symbolizing industry and hard work. The building's colorful green and yellow roof tiles are best taken in from afar, for example, from the nearby corner of Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Road and Nagysándor József Street.
#10 - Török Bank Building (1906)
The enormous mosaic atop the Török Bank Building, a steel-and-glass art nouveau construction, is a perfect counterpoint to the unadorned facade. The mosaic depicts Saint Mary, Hungary's patron saint, surrounded by prominent Hungarian revolutionary figures.
#11 - Parisiana (1909)
With a plain marble facade, Béla Lajta's Parisiana, originally built as a cabaret venue, shows early modernist and art deco characteristics (it was built in 1909). Note the beautiful row of gilded cherubs perched atop the building, holding the stained glass lettering.
#12 - István Széchenyi High School of Commerce (1912)
This massive red-brick building emerges unexpectedly on the narrow Vas Street in the new-cool District 8. The decorated aluminum entry door and limestone frame depict themes of commercial transportation and Hungarian folk art. The latin inscription above the door is a daily reminder to students: "It's not for school, but for life we learn."
Several well-known figures of Germany's Bauhaus school, including Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy, were Hungarian, which meant that modernist architecture quickly spread in Hungary, too. In the 1930s and '40s, modernism became a symbol of a protest against the state, which favored the Baroque Revival style. Many people, especially middle-class, Jewish residents, viewed Baroque as politically and socially outdated.
#13 - Dunapark Apartment (1936)
The highest concentration of modernist buildings are on Pozsonyi Road in Újlipótváros. The most spectacular is located at #38: the limestone-clad facade hides a delicately elegant staircase featuring marble finishes and custom blue-rubber floors. For the best experience, wait for a chance to sneak in for a glance.
#14 - Napraforgó Street Housing Development (1931)
A progressive government decree in the 1930s commissioned leading Hungarian architects to build affordable housing in the modern style of the day. The result was 22 refined single-family homes on the leafy Napraforgó Street in a Buda suburb. Each of the buildings has a unique character, while also being part of a greater aesthetic whole.
#15 - Madách Houses (1938)
Madách Houses are a group of 11 clinker-brick buildings that separate 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 at the center was supposed to be the grand entry of a boulevard running all the way through to the City Park, but its construction was halted during World War II and never continued.
Socialist realism was a state-imposed art form in Hungary in the first half of the 1950s. In architecture, it combined classical elements with communist ideology—imagine a columned entrance decorated with a relief showing joyful laborers. Socialist realism was painfully out-of-date at a time when sleek modern architecture reigned supreme in the Western world. By the end of the '50s, it ran its course, and architects were permitted to return to modernist designs. But because of capital constraints and limited access to construction materials, many Budapest buildings from the '60s, and especially the '70s, don't stand the test of time.
#16 - Former Communist Party HQ, District 2 (1952-53)
The unusually long and royal staircase leading up to the party's local headquarters, sitting perched atop a park, was meant to project the authority of communism. Bizarrely, but in line with the socialist-realist dogma, a colonnade of Doric columns decorate the facade (remember, this is the 1950s). Before the fall of the regime, a five-pointed star topped the building.
#17 - Körszálló - Hotel Budapest (1967)
Contrary to popular opinion, Hungarian architects designed many tastefully modern buildings during communism, mainly up to the 1960s (state censorship of architecture wasn't as strict as in other fields like fine arts). One of the best examples is the Körszálló, a 64 m (210 ft) tall circular hotel towering over the Buda hills. Even if you aren't a guest of the hotel, you can try to ask the receptionists to let you up to the top floor, which offers sweeping views.
#18 - Prefab Residential High-Rises (1960-70s)
In the '60s and ‘70s, the city built tens of thousands of residential apartments made of precast concrete slabs to address Budapest’s critical housing shortage. These high-rise blocks were cheap and quick to construct, and also came with district heating and hot running water, amenities previously unavailable to many of its residents. Today, however, these gray, lifeless boxes, which account for almost 30 percent of Budapest's apartment stock, are a blight on their neighborhood.
Postmodernism emerged relatively late in Hungary—in the 1980s—because the communist leadership viewed it as a harmful aesthetic that originated in the "declining West." Budapest's leading postmodern architect was József Finta, whose buildings have fundamentally shaped the city's contemporary skyline.
#19 - "Makovecz House" (1993)
This four-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.
#20 - Police Headquarters (1997)
Finta's best work is the Police Headquarters, colloquially the “Cops' Palace,” a beautifully proportioned, 58,000 sqm building, which looks like a high-tech battleship, or a sphynx fixing its vigilant gaze toward the city center. In addition to playful reflections, it also features subtle hat-tips to Pritzker-winning architect, I. M. Pei.
#21 - Lehet Market (2002)
Love it or hate it, you'll likely get a kick out of this intentionally kitsch Budapest market hall. The boat-shaped building is packed with harsh colors and overblown historical references, like the bright-yellow entablature. If you decide to visit, go on a Saturday morning, when the market is liveliest.
Large-scale contemporary buildings in Budapest are fewer than you might expect. Deep-pocketed private developers are rare, and the state-funded mega-projects tend to focus on the refurbishment of historic buildings, rather than new constructions. The modern buildings below are the exceptions, and well worth a visit.
#22 - Müpa Budapest (2005)
Müpa is an enormous cultural building on the Danube's bank, and arguably the most important work of architecture in Budapest so far in the 21st century. The warm limestone exterior encloses oversized window panes that permit plenty of light. Inside, note the gracious transition of materials: from wood to metal and glass and stone. The building is home to the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, and also the National Concert Hall, known for its high-quality acoustics.
#23 - Central European University Building (2016)
Photo: Daniel Vegel, Zoltan Tuba / CEU The central building of the prestigious Central European University, designed by O'Donnell + Tuomey, seamlessly blends old and new—the indented facade is distinctly modern, but it fits into the otherwise 1820s street view. The inside, which is open for all to see, boasts expensive-but-understated details, unexpected color combinations, and contrasting materials.
#24 - CET Building (2011)
The CET Building is a mixed-use cultural and commercial center consisting of two restored warehouses and a whale-shaped, high-tech structure inserted in-between them (apart from Central European Time, CET means "whale" in Hungarian). The building, lined with riverfront bars like Esetleg and Jonas Craft Beer House, is one of the few with direct access to the Danube.
#25 - M4 Subway Stations (2014)
The stations of metro line #4 are among the best works of contemporary Hungarian architecture. These disability-inclusive platforms are wildly different from Budapest’s otherwise outdated subway stops (at the Kálvin Square station you can compare old and new). The Fővám tér and Szent Gellért tér stations won the highly prestigious Architizer A+ Award in 2014.
If you're interested in a thematic architecture tour of Budapest, the Center of Contemporary Architecture (KÉK) offers walking tours where enthusiastic and highly competent local architects show around specific pockets of the city.
Reviewed by Sándor Sólymos, Department Head of Fine Arts, at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts.
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