Hungary's turbulent history offers a wealth of museum-worthy materials. Just consider the country's recent past, which included two lost world wars, the Holocaust, and over four decades of communism. For visual arts, the National Gallery is home to the finest Hungarian paintings, while both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art own collections that could be the envy of most cities around the world. For the best temporary exhibits, refer to this event guide.
There are also smaller, thematic museums. Some of them show the lives of famous Hungarians like Ferenc Liszt and Béla Bartók, at others you can learn about well-known Hungarian products like the Unicum liquor, which first caught the attention of the Habsburg Emperor and is still a popular drink today.
All of Budapest's public museums are open Tuesdays through Sundays, normally from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and closed on Mondays. Unless noted differently, wall texts appear in both Hungarian and English. English audio guides are available at the House of Parliament, the House of Terror, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the Liszt Memorial Museum. Admissions range from the equivalent of a few euros to up to €13 (at €20 for non-EU citizens the House of Parliament is pricer, but it's worth it).
There's always room for improvement. Painfully absent is an architecture museum in Budapest, and also permanent exhibits about internationally accomplished Hungarians including Ferenc Puskás, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy, André Kertész, and Ernő Rubik. There exist a Ferenc Liszt and a Béla Bartók museum/memorial house, but in their current forms they don't do justice to the genius of these world-class composers.
In 2013, the government approved an ambitious museum-relocation plan (Liget Projekt). The €500 million development is going to fundamentally alter Budapest’s cultural landscape by creating a museum quarter inside the City Park. Overall, it's a welcome development as some of the institutions haven't had the platforms their rich collections would deserve, but the move has also sparked fierce public debate about the loss of precious green space.
The Top 20
#1 - Hungarian House of Parliament (location; usually 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; HUF 2,400 admission for EU citizens, otherwise HUF 6,000 which includes a multilingual guide; advance ticket purchase here): This enormous turn-of-the-century Gothic Revival building perched on the Danube's bank is the biggest building in Hungary. It was built at a prosperous time, when Budapest was a capital of the Austro Hungarian Empire. As part of a light, 45-minute guided tour, visitors will get to see Hungary's Holy Crown and the jaw-droppingly ornate interior of the former Upper Chamber. To avoid the lines, purchase your ticket in advance online.
#2 - House of Terror (location; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Monday; HUF 3,000 admission): One of the most popular museums in Budapest is not a happy one. The House of Terror remembers the brutalities committed by the Hungarian fascist and the subsequent Soviet-led communist regimes. Oddly, both the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party and later the Communist Secret Police occupied this very same building and used it for detention, interrogation, and torture. Through old newsreels, interviews with survivors, and curated objects, they portray the everyday cruelty and brokenness of the communist system.
#3 - Dohány Street Synagogue and Hungarian Jewish Museum (location; opening hours vary, closed on Saturday; HUF 4,000 admission includes a guided tour to the synagogue and entry to the Jewish Museum): Europe's biggest synagogue has been the main temple of Budapest's assimilated Jewish community since 1859. The building encloses the Garden of Remembrance, a mass grave for Jews murdered in 1944/45, and the subtle weeping willow Holocaust memorial. Attached to the synagogue is the Jewish Museum, featuring an ornate seder plate made by Herend, the famed Hungarian porcelain manufacturer, and also a Hebrew-inscribed tombstone from the 3rd century A.D.
#4 - Museum of Fine Arts (location; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Monday; HUF 1,600 admission): Central Europe's most important museum for international, mainly European art. The Italian Renaissance collection, much of which was purchased from the royal Esterhazy family in 1871, is considered to be among the finest in Europe, featuring works by Raphael and Titian among others. Don’t miss the exquisite Romanesque Hall, which, after decades of neglect, recently regained its former glory. Parts of the building are closed for renovation until the fall of 2019.
#5 - Hungarian National Museum (location; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Monday; HUF 1,600 admission): If you're looking to do a deep dive into Hungarian history, look no further. This imposing Greek Revival building houses four permanent collections about the Carpathian Basin. The exhibits go back to the Stone Age and follow the region's history through the Romans, the Huns, and finally, the Hungarians, up to the end of communism. Even if you don't feel like spending a whole day here, the National Museum’s incredibly rich and varied artifacts are worth at least a glance.
#6 - Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art (location; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., closed on Monday; HUF 1,600 admission): The scenic way to reach Budapest's main outlet for modern artworks is through the Danube promenade stretching from the Great Market Hall. Three floors and over 35,000 square feet of exhibition space are dedicated to contemporary art inside a limestone-clad modern building. The most well-known is the Pop Art collection, boasting familiar names like Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol, but lesser-known Eastern European artists from the era receive equal floor space, enabling visitors to appreciate the parallels and differences.
#7 - Hungarian National Gallery (location; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Monday; HUF 1,800 admission): Located inside the former Royal Palace on the Castle Hill, this museum has an exhaustive collection of local artworks spanning from the beginning of Hungary's history to the present day. From carved Gothic winged altars to avant-garde paintings, the museum features works of the country’s best-known artists including Rippl-Rónay, Csontváry, and Lajos Vajda. As you take in the artworks, the river bank and the Pest skyline provide the backdrop.
#8 - Holocaust Memorial Center (location; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Monday; HUF 1,400 admission): An informative and deeply moving exhibit about the Holocaust in Hungary, showing the gradual disenfranchisement of Hungarian Jews that culminated in the extermination of 500 thousand people. Aside from the museum, the venue includes of a restored synagogue from 1924 (the second largest in Budapest), a memorial garden with a wall of victims, and a tower of lost communities listing all Hungarian towns where Jews have ceased to exist as a result of the deportations. The exhibit offers a 21st century museum experience through newsreels, photos, and interactive objects.
#9 - Budapest History Museum (location; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, with extended hours to 6 p.m. on weekends, closed on Monday; HUF 2,400 admission): In 1967, this was the first museum to move into the former Royal Palace, decades after the building was destroyed in WWII. The lower floors show the history of the Royal Palace through labyrinthine hallways, featuring the excavated Gothic- and Reinassance-style medieval halls from the 15th century. The top floor presents Budapest’s history from the Bronze Ages to current day. English language wall texts appear throughout.
#10 - Museum of Hungarian Agriculture (location; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, 10-5 on weekends, closed on Monday; HUF 1,600 admission): One of Budapest’s oldest and grandest museums is a tribute to Hungary’s rich soil and animal life. Perhaps there’s more information than you’d ever wanted to know about plowing techniques, field crops, and forestry, but the best parts require little reading: nomadic yurts, mounted animals, and Habsurg hunting trophies. Don't miss this adorably quirky, under-the-radar museum.
#11 - Zwack Unicum Museum (location; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Sunday; HUF 2,200 admission): Unicum is an iconic Hungarian herbal liquor made from a secret formula containing more than 40 types of herbs. It was initially prepared for the Habsburg Emperor in the 18th century to aid his digestion. The exhibit begins with a short video portraying the tumultuous history of the company's founding Zwack family. A guided tour follows to the plant where visitors get to taste different types of Unicums in the cellar packed with old wine barrels. If you like the complex taste of this royal concoction, you can fuel up on Unicum at the gift shop. The guided tour is included in the general admission ticket.
#12 - Victor Vasarely Museum (location; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Monday; HUF 800 admission): Hungarian-born and educated Victor Vasarely was the founder of the Op Art movement, a popular form of abstract art starting in the 1960s that relied on optical illusions and spatial tricks. The roots of Vasarely’s art can be traced back to the Bauhaus-type Budapest art school he attended before moving to Paris in 1930. This grand collection includes 150 selected pieces across Vasarely entire career.
#13 - Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center (location; 11 p.m. to 7 p.m., open every day; HUF 1,500 admission): The name of this museum is somewhat misleading because only one of the halls, with about 50 photos, shows the works of Robert Capa, the legendary Hungarian war photographer. Nonetheless, it's a well-curated museum specializing in contemporary photography, featuring works of leading international and Hungarian artists. Before leaving, take a look at the gracious-but-rundown art nouveau building whose top floor still houses artists' studios.
#14 - Goldberger Textile Collection (location; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Monday; HUF 1,400 admission): An interactive, highly informative, and ultimately heartbreaking exhibit about the Goldberger family’s thriving textile manufacturing business. The exhibit traces the stages of development from a one-man shop to a vertically integrated conglomerate to which even the Habsburg Emperor, Franz Joseph, paid a visit. Besides family history, visitors can learn about blue-dyeing, roller printing, and screen printing techniques, and trying their hand at making pattern designs.
#15 - Ferenc Liszt Memorial Museum (location; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9-5 on Saturday, closed on Sunday; HUF 2,000 admission): A small exhibit inside the apartment where Hungary's most famous composer, Franz Liszt, spent his final years between 1881 and 1886. While the modest furnishings speak of an unpretentious life, the array of memorabilia and unique musical instruments (many of which were sent to him as gifts) also indicate the level of worldwide fame Liszt has attained. Be sure to get the audio guides - they contain a lot more information than the handouts.
#16 - Béla Bartók Memorial House (location; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Monday; HUF 1,600 admission): This is a small museum outside the city center, in the house where composer Béla Bartók spent his final years before leaving Hungary in 1940. You will find the phonograph Bartók used for his field recordings, a range of vases, clothes, and other items adorned with folk motifs he collected in Transylvania. They also show some of Bartók's most precious personal belongings including his metronome and civilian awards of the highest order. Note that there are no wall texts but the admission fee includes a short (c. 40-minute) guided tour in English.
#17 - Imre Varga Collection (location; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Monday; HUF 700 admission): This museum, which is a bit outside the city center, is dedicated to the works of Imre Varga, one of Hungary's most famous and prolific sculptors in the 20th century. Most of the 200 statues portray notable figures from Hungary's history, but some of his works you might already know: both the poignant willow-tree memorial behind the Dohány Street Synagogue, and the bronze-and-granite Wallenberg monument were made by Varga and are shown here. The place is a bit run-down and has no wall texts, but the sassy guide more than makes up for them.
#18 - (Stained Glass Maker) Miksa Róth Memorial House (location; 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Monday; HUF 750 admission): Name a famous Budapest building and chances are that its stained glass windows were made in Miksa Róth’s renowned atelier (e.g. Hungarian Parliament Building). The museum features 60 or so splendid works of stained glass and over a dozen glass mosaics. A lifelong explorer of new techniques, Roth’s development from eclecticism to art nouveau and art deco is traceable. One of the staff members speaks English and she can navigate guests through the small exhibit. The memorial house is a bit outside the city center, but art nouveau fans and adventure seekers should not miss it.
#19 - Kassák Museum (location; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Monday and Tuesday; HUF 800 admission): Lajos Kassák (1887-1967) was the father of the Hungarian avant-garde. Besides being a poet, writer, painter, and typographer, he was also the founder and editor of the activist Ma ("Today") art magazine, to which people like Chagall, Picasso, and Moholy-Nagy have contributed. The small exhibit, which also details Kassák's continuous struggle with the Hungarian authorities, should be interesting to anyone curious about the European avant-garde movements. Note that the museum is very close to both the Vasarely and the Imre Varga collections (also on this list), so you could bundle them together if you're hungering for more art.
#20 - Hungarian House of Photography (Mai Manó House) (location; 12 p.m. to 7 p.m., closed on Monday; HUF 1,500 admission): For more photography, walk a couple of blocks from the Robert Capa Center (see above). This eclectic building just off Andrássy Avenue used to be the studio of Manó Mai, a royal court photographer during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, temporary-only exhibits present local and international photos spanning across styles and periods. Be sure to visit Mai’s studio on the second floor with sweeping views. It's also worth popping in to the bookstore on the mezzanine and the cozy café on the ground floor.