You won't find in Budapest the monumental fine art museums with all-encompassing international collections like the MoMA or the British Museum (the Museum of Fine Arts comes closest, but it's currently closed for renovation until the fall of 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 recent past that included a golden era of empire-building, two lost world wars, the Holocaust, over four decades of communism, and a revolution in 1956.
The thematic, specialty museums listed below capture various segments of Budapest’s colorful past, whether it's 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).
For visual arts, the National Gallery is 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 currently closed, the Museum of Fine Arts has first class paintings of the Italian, Dutch, and German old masters. See which one strikes your fancy. Temporary exhibits are often the most interesting ones so make sure to be on the lookout for those too on the museums' websites (see below).
All public museums in Budapest are open Tuesday through Sunday, normally from 10 AM until 6 PM, and closed on Monday. Wall texts and labels on exhibits are generally in both Hungarian and English. Additionally, 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. €10 (the House of Parliament costs €20 for non-EU citizens).
There's always room for improvement. Painfully absent are permanent exhibits in Budapest about internationally well-known and accomplished Hungarians like Ferenc Puskás, Marcel Breuer, 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.
In 2013 the government approved a highly ambitious museum-relocation plan (Liget Projekt). The €500 million development is going to fundamentally alter Budapest’s cultural landscape by creating a museum quarter inside the City Park. 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's a welcome development as some of these institutions haven't had the appropriate platforms their rich collections deserve, but the move has also sparked fierce public debate about the loss of precious green space.
Find below the best Budapest museums that are unique to the city, have English wall texts, and are easily reachable from downtown (most often even by foot).
Hungarian House of Parliament (location; usually 8 AM to 6 PM; HUF 2,400 admission for EU citizens, otherwise HUF 6,000 which includes a multilingual guide; advance ticket purchase here): You might be wondering why the national assembly of a country the size of Hungary is so enormous (it has 691 rooms). Well, it was built at a time (1885–1904) when Hungary was three times bigger than in the present day. This was also a period when the country was getting a taste of empire, which explains the grand, monumental, perhaps even over-the-top architecture. But it also makes for a fun visit inside. Aside from the jaw-dropping interior and Hungary's Holy Crown on display, visitors will learn interesting facts about the building and the country's history. It's recommended to purchase tickets online in advance, which include multilingual guided tours that run throughout the day.
House of Terror (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday; HUF 2,000 admission): 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 occupied this very same building on Andrássy Avenue and used it for detention, interrogation, and torture. Old newsreels, interviews with survivors, and carefully curated objects portray the everyday cruelty and dysfunctionality of the communist system. The tiny prison cells and the gallows in the basement are particularly poignant reminders of the country’s tainted past.
Dohány Street Synagogue and Hungarian Jewish Museum (location; opening hours vary, closed on Saturday; HUF 4,000 admission, which includes a guided tour to the synagogue and the entry to the museum): This enormous building has been the main synagogue of Budapest's Jewish community since 1959. It's the largest synagogue in Europe today, the second biggest in the world, and as part of the guided tour you can learn why it so much resembles a Christian church. The colonnade connecting Heroes’ Temple and the Central Synagogue encloses the Garden of Remembrance, now a mass grave for Jews murdered in 1944/45. In the weeping willow memorial, the names of Holocaust victims have been delicately inscribed on the leaves. Attached to the synagogue is the Jewish Museum, a recently-modernized exhibit of Jewish relics from Hungary. The highlights are the ornate seder plate made by Hungarian porcelain manufacturer Herendi, and the tombstone from the 3rd century A.D. depicting a carved menorah.
Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art (location; 10 AM to 8 PM; closed on Monday; HUF 2,600 admission): The scenic way to reach the city'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 international and Hungarian art in a stunning limestone-covered building. The most well-known is the Pop Art collection which boasts some headline artists like Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. But lesser-known Eastern European/Hungarian artists from the era receive equal floor space, enabling visitors to appreciate the parallels and differences.
Holocaust Memorial Center (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday; HUF 1,400 admission): An 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 500 thousand people.
Zwack Unicum Museum (location; 10 AM to 5 PM; closed on Sunday; HUF 2,000 admission): Initially prepared for the Habsburg Emperor in an effort to aid his digestive problems, Unicum is an 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. Then comes a guided tour to the plant where visitors can learn about the ingredients and the production process. The highlight is a tasting that takes place in the cellar packed with enormous wine barrels (one from 1937). Those who like the distinctively complex taste of this royal concoction can fuel up on bottles of Unicum at the entrance gift shop. The guided tour is included in the general admission ticket.
Hungarian National Gallery (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday; HUF 1,800 admission): Located inside the stunning Buda Palace on the Castle Hill, the Hungarian National Gallery has an exhaustive collection of mainly Hungarian artworks from about 1000 A.D. 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 Vaszary. As you take in 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.
Goldberger Textile Collection (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; 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, as well as trying their hand at making pattern designs.
(Stained Glass Maker) Miksa Róth Memorial House (location; 2 PM to 6 PM; closed on Monday; HUF 750 admission): 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 sixty 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 located in a slightly sketchy neighborhood near Keleti train station, so expect a sharp contrast 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.
Budapest History Museum (location; 10 AM to 4 PM on weekdays, with extended hours to 6 PM on weekends; closed on Monday; HUF 2,000 admission): It was the first museum to inhabit the former Royal Place in 1967, decades after the building was severely damaged by WWII bombings. The institute serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, it portrays the volatile history of the Buda Castle until present day: several of the Gothic-style medieval halls were excavated in the 20th century and these are now part of the exhibit. The other sections cover Budapest’s history from the Bronze Ages to modernity. English language wall texts appear throughout. Before you leave, explore the medieval-looking gardens just off the entrance.
Hungarian House of Photography (Mai Manó House) (location; 11 AM to 7 PM; open every day; HUF 1,500 admission): 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 a number of 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 contemporary Hungarian artworks, although artists and themes are wide-ranging. Make sure to visit the second floor, which retains a turn-of-the-century feel and the original stained glass windows, wood paneling, and Mai’s former studio that has sweeping views onto Nagymező Street. Also, it's 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.