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Know before you go
Like in other cities, the medieval Castle Hill of Budapest today is a blend of old city charm and mass tourism. This guide will help you unearth some of its less-trodden paths and provide recommendations for food and drinks along the way. But the area is more known for its sweeping views and historic air than for its memorable restaurants.
For Hungarians, life on the Castle Hill began in the 13th century, after the Tatars and Mongols decimated the flat Pest side and the survivors recognized the strategic benefit of the hilltop across the Danube River. The Castle Hill today bears marks of countless battles that took place here over the centuries. The most recent was a month-long, bloody siege between the Soviet-Romanian and German-Hungarian armies during WWII, which left tens of thousands of people dead and the area destroyed — that's why there are so many modern buildings mixed in among the medieval and Baroque houses.
During the Communist era (1947-1989), only parts of the Castle Hill were restored because of money constraints. Today, partially funded by the EU, many of the vanished buildings are springing back to life in their original forms. In fact, the neighborhood is regaining some of its political weight as government ministries, including the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of Finance, are moving back here from the Pest side.
The Castle Hill consists of two parts, split by Dísz tér in the middle: the Buda Castle today houses museums and government buildings, whereas Úri, Országház, Fortuna, and Táncsics Mihály Streets are home to residential buildings. Castle Hill residents comprise mainly senior citizens who have lived here all their lives. Younger people tend to flock to less-touristed parts of town, where prices are lower and the nightlife more active — strict landmark regulations make it difficult for new places to open; for example, there's just a single grocery store up here. As night falls and tourists retire, the Castle Hill becomes eerily empty (which makes it a good time to visit it!).
Your step-by-step guide
Try to stock up on caffeine and arrive with a full stomach to not have to rely on the overpriced restaurants and cafés of the Castle Hill. If you’re fine with walking, the best way to reach the area from Pest is by crossing the Chain Bridge, then climbing up Király lépcső, the trail setting off on the right-hand side of the tunnel. Take a sharp left at the first chance for a postcard panorama of Pest from the terrace perched atop the tunnel. (The funicular is also a good option, but the ticket line can be painfully long.)
From here, zigzag your way up to the Buda Castle. The best photo ops are from the narrow cantilevered structures hanging over the city walls, beyond the equestrian statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy, the great general who routed Ottoman Turkey from this part of Europe. Since Hungary is no longer a monarchy, it's the Hungarian National Gallery that occupies the river-facing side of the Buda Castle. The museum's expansive collection features Gothic wood carvings, paintings, and drawings by the country's top artists, including József Rippl-Rónay, Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, and Lajos Vajda.
From here, walk through the arch, passing an elaborate fountain dedicated to Hungary's renaissance king Matthias, and arriving in the Lion Courtyard. Here nestles the Budapest History Museum, which showcases the remains of the original Gothic castle that stood here in the 14th century. Next door is the National Széchényi Library, the country’s biggest, with a collection of over two million Hungarian books and illustrated medieval codices.
As you head toward Dísz tér, you'll see some of the recently resurrected buildings on your left (Royal Guard and Riding Hall), then the gleaming offices of the Hungarian President and Prime Minister on your right on Szent György Square. Instead of the busy Tárnok Street, take the scenic Tóth Árpád Promenade from Dísz tér, which overlooks the softly rolling Buda hills. It’s here that you’re most likely to catch a glimpse of long-time Castle Hill residents. Turn right at Szentháromság Street and you're just steps away from the Matthias Church.
You'll pass the legendary Ruszwurm pastry shop that counted Empress Sisi, wife of Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I, among its notable clients. Operating continuously since 1827, the original Biedermeier furnishings will transport you back to the early 19th century. The specialty of the house is the custardy krémes and the creamy hot chocolate. Try to go in the morning (they open at 10 a.m.) for the shortest lines and widest selections.
The oldest in the Castle Hill and the most famous in the country, the 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 once again glow from near and far.
Things get crowded at the Fisherman’s Bastion, but it's worth a quick stop for the striking views onto the Hungarian Parliament. Next door, the Hilton, Budapest's first five-star hotel in the Communist period, flaunts a mixed facade, showing the original Baroque walls on one side, and modern glass and precast concrete panels on the other. There's a Starbucks near the Fisherman’s Bastion to satisfy any caffeine cravings.
The tucked-away Táncsics Street is home to several lavish homes that belonged to the aristocracy before the Communist nationalizations, including the building at #7, today the Institute for Music. (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 a Sephardic prayer room and headstones found in a nearby Jewish cemetery. Across the street from here, under the building at #23, stood the much larger Gothic-style synagogue of the Ashkenazi Jews, but it was destroyed during the 1686 siege against the Ottomans and the remains haven't been excavated since.
Táncsics Street terminates at the northern gate of the Castle Hill, but don't leave before stopping by the lonely tower of the Saint Mary Magdalene church just a block away. It's a bizarre sight: the church was bombed during WWII, but instead of restoring it, the anti-religion Communist leadership decided to raze it. But its Gothic-style tower still stands, offering 360-degree views of Budapest.
Exit the Castle Hill by sauntering through Európa Liget to the right of the gate. The park is lined with trees planted in 1972, each indigenous to a European capital. Finally, some dining options nearby. If you're looking to splurge, head to Arany Kaviár, just steps away. 101 Bistro is a trendy pan-Asian restaurant on Széll Kálmán tér. A bit further away is Bambi Eszpresszó, a low-priced, old school cafe dating back to the 1960s. Also within walking distance are Déryne, an upscale option and Dang Muoi, a casual Vietnamese restaurant.