Budapest's Museum Landscape
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. The exhibits at the House of Terror and the Holocaust Memorial Center remember the dark sides of Hungary's 20th century.
For visual arts, the National Gallery is home to the finest Hungarian paintings since the birth of the nation. Ludwig Museum owns a renowned collection of contemporary international art. Although currently closed for renovation until fall 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts has first-class paintings of the old masters. Be sure to also check the temporary exhibits on the museums' websites or this event guide.
There are also thematic, specialty museums that present various pockets of Budapest’s past, whether it's about a famous liquor producing family business that first caught the attention of a Habsburg Emperor and is still thriving today (Zwack Museum), or the renowned workshop of Hungary's famed stained glass maker (Miksa Róth Memorial House).
All public museums in Budapest are open Tuesday through Sunday, normally from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and closed on Monday. Wall texts generally appear in both Hungarian and English. English audio guides are available at the House of Parliament, the House of Terror, and the Hungarian National Gallery. Museum admissions range from the equivalent of a few euros to up to c. €13 (the House of Parliament is an outlier, it costs €20 for non-EU citizens, but it's worth it).
There's always room for improvement. Painfully absent is an architecture museum in Budapest, as well as permanent exhibits about internationally well-known and 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 do little 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 change Budapest’s cultural landscape by creating a museum quarter inside the City Park. Overall, it's a welcome development as some of the institutions don't have 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 13
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, built at a time when Hungary 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.
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.
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 with victims names inscribed on the leaves. Attached to the synagogue is the Jewish Museum, where the highlights are the ornate seder plate made by Herend, the famed Hungarian porcelain manufacturer, and a carved tombstone from the 3rd century A.D.
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-foot of exhibition space are dedicated to contemporary art in 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.
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 meticulously 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 provides the backdrop.
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.
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 wine barrels (one of them is from 1937). 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.
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.
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 collection includes 150 selected pieces across Vasarely entire career.
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 iconic 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.
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. The 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 cute café on the ground floor.
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.
(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.