You will not find in Budapest the monumental fine art museums with all-encompassing international collections like the MoMA in New York, or the British Museum in London (the Museum of Fine Arts comes closest, but it is currently closed for renovation until 2018). What Budapest does have, however, is a rich, and impossibly turbulent history, which makes for a wealth of museum-worthy materials. Just consider the city’s past 150 years or so that included a national revolution, a golden era of empire-building, a holocaust, and over four decades of communism (and another revolution in 1956).
For visual arts, the National Gallery is the home to the finest Hungarian paintings and sculpture since the birth of the nation. Ludwig Museum owns a renowned collection of contemporary international art, and, although closed until 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts has first class paintings of the Italian, Dutch, German, and English old masters. See which one strikes your fancy.
The thematic, specialty museums listed below capture various segments of Budapest’s colorful past, whether it is about a famous liquor producing family business that first caught the attention of a Habsburg Emperor and is still a thriving business today (Zwack Museum), or the deeply moving exhibit on the communist past (House of Terror).
As often is the case, temporary exhibits can be the most exciting ones, so make sure to be on the lookout for them.
In 2013 the government approved a highly ambitious, over €500 million museum-relocation project (Liget Projekt), which is going to fundamentally alter Budapest’s cultural landscape. By 2020, the City Park will become a “museum quarter”. New buildings will house each of the National Gallery, the Museum of Ethnography, and the House of Hungarian Music, as well as other smaller projects. Overall, it is a welcome development as some of these institutions have not had the proper platforms their rich collections would otherwise deserve, but the move has also sparked fierce public debate about the loss of precious green space.
All public museums are open Tuesday through Sunday, normally from 10 AM until 6 PM, and closed on Monday. Labels on exhibits are generally in both Hungarian and English (the Hungarian-only exhibits are pointed out below). Additionally, English audio guides are available at the House of Terror and the Hungarian National Gallery. Museum admission ranges from the equivalent of a few euros to up to c. 7 euros.
There's always room for improvement. Painfully absent are permanent exhibits in Budapest about such internationally well-known and accomplished Hungarians as Ferenc Puskás, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy, André Kertész, and Ernő Rubik. There is a Béla Bartók museum/memorial house, but in its current form it doesn't do justice to the genius of Bartók (too little information, few labels, no samples of music, etc.).
House of Terror (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): One of the most highly attended museums in the city is not a happy one. This Budapest landmark is dedicated to remembering 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 used this very same building on Andrássy Avenue for detention, interrogation, and torture. Old newsreels, interviews with survivors, and carefully curated objects from the time portray the cruelty of these systems. The tiny prison cells and the gallows in the basement are particularly poignant reminders of the country’s tainted past.
Ludwig Museum (location; 10 AM to 8 PM; closed on Monday): The scenic way to reach the city's main outlet for modern international and Hungarian artworks is through the promenade that stretches from the Great Market Hall along the Danube. Three floors and over 35,000-square-foot of exhibition space are dedicated to contemporary art in a stunning limestone-covered building. The most well-known is the Pop Art collection with works of international heavyweights (e.g. Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol). But lesser-known Eastern European/Hungarian artists from the era receive equal floor space, enabling visitors to see parallels and differences between the artistic approaches at the time.
Holocaust Memorial Center (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): A most informative and deeply moving exhibit on Jewish life and the holocaust in Hungary. The venue consists of a beautifully restored synagogue from 1924 (second largest in Budapest) and a memorial garden with a wall of victims, and a tower of lost communities that lists all towns where Jews have ceased to exist as a result of the deportations. The museum inside is a distinctively 21st century interactive venue. Through newsreels, photos, and objects, visitors can follow the gradual disenfranchisement of Hungarian Jews that culminated in the killing of 450 thousand people. If there is one museum you wish to visit to learn about the Hungarian holocaust, this should be it.
Zwack Unicum Museum (location; 10 AM to 5 PM; closed on Sunday): Initially prepared for the Habsburg Emperor in an effort to aid his digestive problems, Unicum is a herbal liquor made from a secret formula containing more than forty types of herbs. The exhibit begins with a short video portraying the tumultuous history of Hungary's most famous liquor maker, followed by a guided tour to the plant where visitors can learn about the ingredients and the production process. The highlight is the tasting in the cellar, where, amid enormous wine barrels (one from 1937), visitors can sip these royal concoctions. Those who like the distinctively complex taste of Unicum can fuel up at the gift shop at the entrance. A guided tour is included in the admission ticket.
Hungarian National Gallery (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): Located inside the Royal Palace in the Castle District, it is an enormous collection of mainly Hungarian artworks from about 1000 A.D. to the present. From Gothic winged altars to 20th century paintings and sculpture, the museum features works of the country’s best known artists such as Mihály Munkácsy, József Rippl-Rónay, and János Vaszary. As you look at the works of art, the river bank and the Pest skyline provide a splendid backdrop. The cupola is also worth a visit for the 360 views. Until the renovation of the Museum of Fine Arts is completed in 2018, some of its best works, by the likes of Raphael, El Greco, and Rodin, are displayed here.
Goldberger Textile Collection (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): An interactive, highly informative, and ultimately heartbreaking exhibit about the Goldberger family’s thriving textile manufacturing business, one of the biggest in Central Europe before WWII. 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 personal visit. Besides family history, visitors can learn about blue-dyeing, roller printing, and screen printing techniques, trying their hand at making pattern designs, or figuring out the right ingredients of blue dye.
Museum of Applied Arts (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): The ornate building with green-and-yellow ceramic roof tiles is a Budapest landmark and itself a stunning piece of art. It was designed by Ödön Lechner, the pioneer of the Hungarian art nouveau movement also known as the “Gaudi of Hungary”. The permanent collection ranges from Han dynasty-era ceramics to 19th century Tiffany stained glass and a Mies van der Rohe tubular steel chair. One can stumble upon excellent temporary collections too, like the recent exhibit on Marcel Breuer’s furniture designs and the works of Breuer’s Hungarian contemporaries. Make sure to check online before you go as the museum is scheduled to shut down for major renovation works.
Miksa Róth Memorial House (location; 2 PM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): Name a famous Budapest building and chances are that its grand stained glass windows were made at Miksa Róth’s renowned atelier (e.g. Parliament, Gresham Palace/Four Seasons Hotel). The museum features 60 or so splendid works of stained glass, and over a dozen elaborate glass mosaics. A lifelong explorer of new techniques, Roth’s development from eclecticism to art nouveau/jugendstil and finally art deco are nicely traceable. The memorial house is in a slightly sketchy neighborhood near Keleti train station, which means that the contrast will be even sharper as you enter the serene turn-of-the century building packed with jewel-like artworks. The lady in charge of the museum speaks English and is happy to navigate guests through the small exhibit. Art nouveau fans and adventure seekers should not miss it.
Mai Manó House (location; 11 AM to 7 PM; open every day): This elaborately adorned building from 1894 just off Andrássy Avenue used to be the studio of Manó Mai, a royal court photographer during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After arbitrary tenants during communism (including the Hungarian Auto Club), the building is once again dedicated to its original function - photography. The temporary-only exhibits show the best of contemporary Hungarian works, although artists and themes are wide-ranging. Make sure to visit the second floor which retains a turn-of-the-century feel with the original stained glass windows, wood paneling, and Mai’s former studio with sweeping views onto Nagymező Street. Also, it is worth popping in to the bookstore on the mezzanine and the cute café on the ground floor. For more photos, visit the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center just down the street.
Kiscelli Museum (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): You will need to climb a steep hill to reach the baroque edifice of a former Trinitarian monastery and church from the 18th century. This mysterious space is an unlikely venue for a museum but that is part of the charm. The permanent exhibition on Budapest’s history will be of limited enjoyment for foreigners due to the lack of English translations (plenty of old objects, photographs, and maps though), but the collection of 19th and 20th century Hungarian paintings by some of the city’s best-known artists (e.g. Rippl-Rónai, Ödön Márffy) should more than compensate. A most bizarre temporary exhibition space is inside the former church, today a gutted, bare-bones, exposed brick structure looking impossibly cool. Make sure to pop in there as well.