The Favorite Budapest Places Of An Art and Urban Critic

Photo: Tas Tóbiás

András Zsuppán is an influential art and urban critic. Over his nearly two-decades-long career, András has worked for some of the leading Hungarian papers including Magyar Narancs, Heti Válasz, and Index. I never miss his regular columns in Válasz Online about local art, architecture, and urban design. Recently, I had the chance to chat with him about all things Budapest.

Which neighborhood do you like to hang out in?

I’m a native Budapest resident with deep roots in Erzsébetváros (District 7). For many generations, my family has been anchored in a small pocket of mid-Erzsébetváros, in fact, I currently live in the same apartment where my great-grandma did many years ago.

Erzsébetváros is highly diverse; my neighborhood is very different from the inner part, which is better known as the old Jewish Quarter and as the party district. Out here, life is a little slower and the housing stock a little younger, most of it built during the construction boom of the Austro Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century. The streets are densely packed with multi-story residential buildings.

The prettiest is Rózsák tere, a peaceful square dominated by religion: there’s a striking Roman Catholic church, designed by Imre Steindl who also did the Hungarian Parliament Building; a Greek-Catholic church; a Buddhist education center inside an old brewery; and a Lutheran dormitory. According to an urban legend, during a film shoot Angelina Jolie was so charmed by Rózsák tere that she bought an apartment in a building flanking the square. Is it true? All I can say is I’ve yet to run into her.

Where do you usually go for coffee or a drink?

I rarely go downtown (District 5) or to the party district these days. As I get older, I’m drawn to the greenery of the Buda side, especially to Normafa and János-hegy. It’s a strikingly different world and I find it magical that there’s this massive forested hill all within city limits and easily approachable by public transport. Even after years of exploring it, I still get lost occasionally or stumble into a gem of a building I hadn’t known about.

But to also name a few specific places, I often drop by Kalicka Bistro for a quick lunch near my place, and the Italian pastries at Dolcissima can stand up to those served in the motherland.

Where do you go to see local art in the city?

The Hungarian National Gallery provides a good overview of the country’s top artworks. There are two great Hungarian painters who are relatively unknown outside Hungary for no good reason: Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka and Pál Szinyei Merse. Most of Csontváry’s paintings are exhibited in Pécs (a great city, by the way), but Szinyei Merse’s “Léghajó” and “Pacsirta” are in the Gallery and well worth seeing.

Within photography, there were many world-famous Hungarians. Most prominent is Robert Capa and André Kertész, but street photographers such as György Klösz, Mór Erdélyi, and Imre Kinszki were also important. It would be good to have a permanent exhibit showcasing the whole history of Hungarian photography; for now the Robert Capa Center and the Mai Manó House come closest.

The beautiful Walter Rózsi Villa is part of a yet-to-come Hungarian Architecture Museum. It’s a stunning Bauhaus building comparable to Mies’s Tugendhat House in Brno and open to the public.

What are your favorite buildings in Budapest?

I really like the neoclassical houses from the early 19th century, especially those designed by Mihály Pollack and József Hild. Unfortunately, few of them remain because the city cleared out whole neighborhoods to make space for bigger and grander buildings later in the century (they even tore down the old City Hall). This is the reason Budapest has a surprisingly young housing stock. A building from 1810 would be considered very old. Pest’s old city center, Tabán, and Óbuda all had this charmingly rural feel to them before they were razed. The one exception from this is the medieval Castle Hill.

Anyway, these neoclassical houses — most of them are near the Danube between Erzsébet and Szabadság tér and a few in the Jewish Quarter — are very dear to me. They are less spectacular than the bombastic revival buildings or the more popular Art Nouveau architecture, but to me they are symbols of a more restrained and elegant period in history.

What tip would you give for Budapest visitors to get the most out of their time in the city?

Budapest is a pedestrian-friendly city and the best way to appreciate it in its fullest is by walking to less popular destinations. Of course, the Castle Hill, Andrássy Avenue, and the Hungarian House of Parliament are rightfully the main tourist attractions, but I’d also recommend the inner parts of District 8, known as the Palace Quarter. The area has a fascinating history and charming side streets and squares including Mikszáth tér and Lőrinc pap tér.

During the long decades in the 19th century when the current Parliament Building was under construction, this neighborhood was the center of political life in Hungary. Members of the Upper Chamber assembled inside the National Museum (the lower chamber was in a building across the street from it). As a result, the Hungarian nobility — such as the Esterházy, Festetics, Károlyi, Wenckheim, and Almásy families — built their lavish homes in the streets surrounding the museum. There was even a riding hall so they could indulge in their favorite pastime. The Szabó Ervin Library – formerly the Wenckheim Palace – is worth visiting for its interior, which has retained part of its aristocratic splendor. The former ballroom, for example, was turned into a study hall.

This area was also known as “Little Vatican” because religious orders — Jesuits, Piarists, Premonstratensians and many others — had their clergy houses and schools here, especially on Horánszky Street. The schools were hidden in the interior courtyards and aren’t visible from the street level (few have remained in the post-Communist present).

Interestingly, the neighborhood is gradually transforming into something of an ad hoc student district: today, 5-6 colleges are concentrated here near one another. Historically, Budapest didn’t have a traditional student quarter and this organically developed university area is a wonderful addition to the city.

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