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Know before you go
As in other cities, the medieval Castle Hill of Budapest today is a unique 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 drink options along the way. Note, however, that 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 benefits of the hilltop on the other side of 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 badly destoryed—that's why there are so many modern buildings interspersed between the medieval and Baroque houses.
During communism, the state rehabilitated parts of the the Castle Hill, but never completed the restoration works because of capital constraints and limited access to high-quality building materials. For example, they fitted the Buda Castle—currently home to the Hungarian National Gallery—with inexpensive, modern furniture, lending a bizarre interior to these once-stately halls. Today, partially funded by the EU, many of the buildings that had been reduced to rubble in WWII 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 more or less by Dísz Square: the Buda Castle houses museums and government buildings today, whereas Úri, Országház, Fortuna, and Táncsics Mihály Streets are home to residential apartments. Most Castle Hill residents comprise senior citizens who’ve 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 here, meaning that as night falls and tourists retire, the Castle Hill becomes eerily empty.
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 vendors 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, and then climbing Király lépcső, the trail setting off on the right-hand side of the Buda Castle 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 enormous Buda Castle. The best photo ops are from the two narrow cantilevered structures hanging over the city walls, beyond the equestrian statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy (he was the General of the Imperial Army that ultimately chased out the Ottomans from Buda in 1686). 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 and paintings and drawings by the country's best artists, including József Rippl-Rónay, Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, and Lajos Vajda.
From the cantilevered viewing point, take the stairs down through the medieval-looking garden—few people come all the way out here, so it can feel like roaming around your own oversized private garden. Then climb the steep stairs on the other end to arrive at the entrance of the Budapest History Museum. The museum showcases the remains of the original Gothic castle that stood here in the 14th century, and also provides a history of area and the city itself on the upper floors.
Exit the museum toward the Lion Courtyard, where nestles the National Széchényi Library, the country’s largest, with a collection of over two million Hungarian books and illustrated medieval codices. As you head to Dísz Square, first you will see some of the recently resurrected buildings in their full splendor on your left, then the gleaming Office of the President and the Prime Minister's Office on your right on Szent György Square. Instead of the busy Tárnok Street, take the scenic and quieter Tóth Árpád Promenade from Dísz Square, which overlooks the rolling Buda hills. It’s here that you’re most likely to catch a glimpse of long-time Castle Hill residents. Then, turn on Szentháromság Street and head toward the dramatic building of the Matthias Church.
You'll pass the legendary Ruszwurm pastry shop that counted Empress Sisi, wife of Austro Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I, among its notable clients. Operating continuously since 1827, the original Biedermeier interior furnishings will transport you back to the early-19th century. The specialty of the house is the krémes, a popular custard cake in Central Europe, and also 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 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 once again glow from near and far.
Things usually get crowded at the Fisherman’s Bastion, but it's worth a quick stop for the striking views onto the Parliament building. Next door, the Hilton Budapest flaunts a mixed facade, showing 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 residential building, and 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 nobility before communism, including 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 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 never properly excavated since.
Táncsics Street terminates in the northern gate of the Castle Hill. Don't leave the Castle Hill before stopping by the tower of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. It's a most bizarre sight. This medieval church was bombed during WWII, but instead of renovating it, the communist leadership decided to just raze its nave. The Gothic-style tower still stands, and offers sweeping 360-degree views of Budapest. Exit the Castle Hill by weaving your way through Európa Liget to the right of the northern gate. The park is lined with trees planted in 1972, each indigenous to a European capital. Outside the Castle Hill, but within walking distance is Csalogány 26, a mid-to-high-end restaurant with excellent Hungarian dishes. A bit further away is Bambi Eszpresszó, an affordable cafe and bar that dates back to the communist era. For trendier vibes, try Déryne Bistro on the other side of the Castle Hill, but within walking distance, or Dang Muoi Pho, a casual Vietnamese restaurant. If you're looking to splurge, head to Arany Kaviár restaurant, very near the Castle Hill's northern gate.
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