With charmingly winding streets and Baroque houses, medieval old cities exude a special atmosphere. They often, however, become victims of the commercial forces of mass tourism - overpriced “tourist menu” restaurants, “I love NY” T-shirt vendors, and all the rest. Budapest’s Castle Hill is no exception. This guide will help you get the most out of the Castle Hill and discover some of the less-trodden paths, and also provide some recommendations for food and drinks along the way.
Buda's Hungarian history began in the 13th century after the Mongolian invasion on the flat Pest side wiped out much of the population and the survivors realized the strategic benefits of the Buda hills. The Castle Hill today bears marks of countless battles that took place on this small piece of land over the centuries. The most recent one was a month-long, bloody siege between the Soviet/Romanian and German/Hungarian armies during WWII that reduced parts of the Castle Hill to rubble (that's why so many modern buildings stand today interspersed between the medieval and Baroque homes).
Although the state tried to rebuild the area during communism, they had limited money and used low-quality materials. For example, they fitted the Buda Castle with cheap, modernist furniture, lending a bizarre interior to these once stately halls that currently house the Hungarian National Gallery. Today, partially funded by the EU, many of the buildings that were destroyed in WWII are springing back to life again in their original forms. And since the government is moving the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of Finance back to the Castle Hill, where they had been before the war, the area will soon regain some of its political weight.
A few thousand local residents live currently in the Castle Hill, many of them senior citizens who’ve been here for decades. Younger people tend to flock to other parts of town where the stores and restaurants aren't so expensive and geared to tourists. Additionally, the strict landmark regulations make it difficult for new places to open, meaning that there are few restaurants and bars. As night falls and tourists retire, the streets of the Castle Hill become emptier (that's when I most enjoy strolling the neighborhood).
Since the Castle Hill has few reasonably priced and/or decent options for food or drinks, the best strategy is to stock up on caffeine and arrive with a full stomach (there is a Starbucks at the Matthias Church to satisfy any caffeine cravings). If you’re fine with walking, the best way to reach the Castle Hill from Pest is to cross the Chain Bridge, then hike up on Király lépcső, the trail setting off at the right hand side of the Buda Castle Tunnel. Take a sharp left at the first intersection for a postcard panorama of Pest from the terrace perched above the tunnel.
Then zigzag your way up to the enormous Buda Castle and take in the views. The most expansive vistas are from the two narrow cantilevered structures hanging over the city walls, beyond the equestrian statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy outside the Hungarian National Gallery (he was the General of the Imperial Army that defeated the Ottomans in 1686). The Hungarian National Gallery occupies the river-facing side of the Buda Castle Since 1975. The disappointingly cheap interior is home to an enormous collection of mainly Hungarian artworks from about 1000 A.D. to the present day, including everything from Gothic wood carvings to the most important Hungarian paintings by the likes of Rippl-Rónay, Csontváry, and Vaszary.
Take the stairs from the cantilevered viewing point down through the medieval-looking garden toward the Budapest History Museum. So few people come all the way out here that it feels like roaming in your own oversized private garden. Once you’ve explored it, walk back up on the other side to the entry hall of the Budapest History Museum (warning: steep stairs ahead). The museum displays some of the remains of the original Gothic Buda Castle built in the 14th century.
The Lion Courtyard hides the country’s largest library, the National Széchényi Library. It has a collection of over two million Hungarian books and illustrated medieval codices. Although most books aren’t displayed for the public, it’s still worth popping in (admission costs little over a euro) for the sweeping views from the reading rooms on the seventh floor. And also for a journey back in time: the ground floor cafeteria will immediately transport you back to the ‘80s, both in terms of prices and the meager selection of forlorn-looking sandwiches.
As you leave the Buda Castle and walk toward the center, you will pass the Office of the President and the soon-to-be Prime Minister's Office on the right hand side of Szent György Square. Dísz Square, the heart of the Castle Hill, separates the Buda Castle from the more modest residential buildings where the civilian population has lived since the 13th century. Instead of the busy Tárnok Street, stroll down the serene Tóth Árpád Promenade overlooking the Buda hills. It’s here that you’re most likely to catch a glimpse of longtime Castle Hill residents. Turn on Szentháromság Street and head to Matthias Church.
Near the Matthias Church is the legendary Ruszwurm pastry shop, operating continuously since 1827. It once counted Empress Sisi among its notable clients. The Biedermeier wood interior fittings will take you back to the early-19th century. Specialty of the house is the krémes, a custard cake popular in Central Europe, and the hot chocolate. Try to go in the morning (they open at 10 a.m.) for the shortest lines and broadest selections.
The oldest in the Castle Hill and the most famous in the country, the Gothic Matthias Church stands in a category of its own. It served as a mosque during the Ottoman occupation, a coronation church in the 19th century, and a horse stable for the Soviet Army during WWII. Thanks to a recent gut renovation, its limestone exterior and glazed ceramic tiles gleam from near and far. Things normally get crowded at the Fisherman’s Bastion, right behind the church, but the views onto the Parliament building are worth a quick stop. Next door is the Hilton Budapest flaunting a mixed facade with the original Baroque walls on one side and modern glass and precast concrete panels on the other. Around the corner from here is Alabárdos, a long-standing fine dining restaurant inside a medieval building featuring original Gothic tracery.
The tucked-away Táncsics Street is home to several grand homes that belonged to the nobility before communism, like the building at #7, today the Institute for Musicology. (The bronze crown atop the building indicates the family’s place within the aristocratic pecking order.) This street is also where the medieval Jewish Quarter once was. A small exhibit at #26 shows the remains of the Sephardic prayer room and headstones found in the nearby Jewish cemetery.
Táncsics Street terminates at the northern gate of the Castle Hill. For an upscale dining experience try Arany Kaviár, a fish-focused fine dining restaurant located near here. Otherwise leave the area by weaving your way through Európa Liget to the right of the gate, where trees indigenous to other European capitals were planted in 1972.
To avoid overpriced dishes, you're best off leaving the Castle Hill for food and drinks. Outside the Castle Hill, but within walking distance are Róma Ételbár, a cheap and popular eatery with a communist-era dining atmosphere, and Csalogány 26, a higher-end option with excellent Hungarian dishes. A 10-minute walk from here is Bambi Eszpresszó, an affordable bar with the original 1960s furnishings that's perfect for coffee, beer, and people-watching. For trendier vibes, go to Déryne Bistro or Fáma, both located on the other side of the Castle Hill but within walking distance. Also near is the casual Dang Muoi Pho, one of Budapest's best Vietnamese restaurants.