My love affair with Budapest started about 20 years ago, when my (Hungarian) husband took me on my first trip to Hungary. I had very little information about Budapest at the time, but my jaw literally dropped when I first saw the Old Town area and its many attractions.
Throughout the years I took countless trips to Budapest, so I had the opportunity to visit not only the Old Town attractions, but also the off the beaten parts of Budapest and the less known spots.
- A Brief History of Budapest Old Town
- What to Expect in Budapest Old Town
- Budapest Old Town Attractions
- Sought After Tours in Budapest
- Where to Stay in Budapest Old Town
A Brief History of Budapest Old Town
Not many visitors to Budapest know that the Hungarian capital used to be two distinct towns till the 19th century: Buda and Pest. Separated by the River Danube, the two parts of Budapest couldn’t be more different. While Buda is the hilly and more historical part of the city, Pest is flat and more modern one.
Buda was once the place where the Hungarian Kings resided. They chose this side of the Danube for strategic reasons. From up here they had a clear view of the river and the area across it.
Castle Hill, the knoll on which Buda sits, is home to the main Budapest Old Town attractions: the Buda Castle, the Fisherman’s Bastion, and Matthias Church.
What to Expect in Budapest Old Town
For the most part, Budapest Old Town is a lovely pedestrian zone, small enough to be discovered by foot. Here you’ll see houses dating back to the 14th century, walk on cobblestone streets, and dine into some of the best restaurants in Budapest. Old Town Buda is where you’ll get a real feel of old, medieval streets.
If you are staying in Downtown Budapest (the Pest side), you’ll have to cross one of the bridges across the Danube to get to the Old Buda. The most common crossing point is at the Chain Bridge (Lanchid). From here you can climb up the hill to the Fortress on foot. Or you can take the little funicular that will drop you in front of the Buda Castle.
Budapest Old Town Attractions
 Buda Castle
Buda Castle (Budavári Palota) is the most popular attraction on Castle Hill. The castle was completed by King Bela IV in 1265 and served as the royal seat of power for centuries. Over time, the Royal Castle was rebuilt, extended, burned down and rebuilt again, which explains its current eclectic appearance.
Today the castle is home to the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum, and the National Széchényi Library. If you don’t have time for both museums, you should at lease visit the National Gallery, which displays an amazing range of artworks, from Gothic altarpieces to paintings by Hungarian realists.
Every fall, one of the most famous gastronomic events in Budapest –the International Wine Festival– takes place on the castle grounds. If you are ever in town in September, make sure you check it out.
To the east of the palace entrance you’ll see a bronze statue of the Turul Modár, a mythical bird resembling an eagle or a falcon. According to legend. the emblematic bird impregnated Emese, grandmother of Árpád, the military commander who led the Magyar tribes into the Carpathian Basin in about AD 895.
At Christmas time, the square next to the Royal Palace hosts one of the most popular Christmas markets in Budapest.
 The Labyrinth
Right beneath the Castle Hill there is an underground Labyrinth (Budavari Labirintus). The Labyrinth is part of a complex of caves and cellars that came to be as an effect of the hot water springs. In the 15th century the caves served as a prison.
The most famous prisoner of the Labyrinth was Vlad Tepes, also known as Count Dracula. Tepes was King Matthias Corvinus’s prisoner for 12 years.
During World War II, the underground labyrinth served as a shelter and a military hospital. Later on, in modern times, the Budapest Labyrinth became a museum.
 The Fisherman’s Bastion
The Fisherman’s Bastion –Halaszbastya, in Hungarian– is arguably the best known of Budapest Old Town attractions.It’s easy recognizable neo-Gothic style terrace dominates Castle Hill.
The stronghold is believed to derive its name from the guild of fishermen who were responsible for defending this area in the Middle Ages. Fishermen’s Bastion was built as a viewing platform after the Siege of Budapest, since Buda Castle was no longer considered to be of military importance.
The panorama terrace was built with the idea to recall the old times. Therefore, the bastion looks rather like a fairy tale castle than a fortification. From here you have the best unobstructed views of the entire Budapest downtown, Parliament Building and Danube River.
At the top of the terrace there is a little café that serves beer, sandwiches, and cakes in a very casual atmosphere. The café looks a little like a tourist trap, so don’t expect anything spectacular other than the view. But if you just want to enjoy a little break in the shade, this is a nice place to stop.
The Bastion can be visited during the day time for a small entrance fee, but if you come at night you can easily bypass the small metal gate and see the towers and terraces.
 Matthias Church
Right next to the Hilton Hotel in the Holy Trinity Square stands one of Budapest oldest and most beloved church: Mátyás Templom. This Roman Catholic church was named after the beloved king Mattias Corvinus, the promoter of Italian cultural influences in Hungary.
Although the initial construction dates back to the 14th century, the church’s tiled roof and fantastic Neo-Gothic ornamentation is actually newer (19th century).
Over the centuries Mátyás Templom served as the coronation church for the Hungarian kings. The church was under renovation for a long period of time. Finally, a few years ago, the scaffold disappeared and the church is now more beautiful than ever. On the upper level of the church there is a small museum, really worth visiting
 The Citadel
Citadella is an U-shaped fortress located on the strategic Géllert Hill, also on the Buda side.The fortress served initially a place of surveillance for the Habsburg Monarchy.
After the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the Habsburgs used this place to keep the rebellious city under control. Although the fort had 60 cannons, it was never a working fortification, but rather a threat for those who might think of.
After the Austro Hungarian Compromise of 1867, the Hungarians demanded the destruction of the Citadel. But it didn’t happen. In the 1960’s, after much debate, the local government decided to turn it into a tourist center. In front of the Citadel rises the Liberty Statue, a peaceful female figure holding a palm branch in her hand.
The statue was erected by the communists to celebrate Budapest’s liberation from the Nazi troops. The Citadel houses a free exhibition about the history of Budapest, as well as a World War II museum that charges a small entrance fee.
 Gellert Monument
Gellért Hill offers the most spectacular views of Budapest, the River Danube and its eight bridges. The place is less crowded at night, when the arts and crafts bazaar closes.
From the Citadel, you can to climb down to the city following a very beautiful shaded path though the woods that cover the hill. At the foot of the hill, right before reaching the street, you’ll come across Gellért’s Monument.
The statue represents Saint Gerard (Gellért), who was was put in a barrel and rolled down from the top of the hill for trying to convert the pagan Magyars to Christianity.
The slopes of the Géllert Hill are steep and hard to walk. Especially during the hot summer days. A better option is to take the tram up to the top of the hill. Tram 47 or 49 from Deak Tér will go there. Also, bus #7 from the Keleti Station, Astoria, or Ferenciek tere.
 Gellért Baths
Gellért Baths are one of the most popular attractions in Budapest Old Town – a favorite for locals and visitors alike. This is an equally beautiful bath that rivals with Szechenyi Baths, located in Downtown Budapest.
The baths are fed by natural springs which are rich in calcium, magnesium, chloride, sulfate and fluoride. As a result, they have great healing and cleansing properties.
The baths feature pools with various water temperatures, two kinds of saunas, massage, and spa treatments at reasonable prices.
The building’s architecture is outstandingly beautiful and very unique. Intricate mosaic floors, stained glass windows, wooden interiors the changing rooms. Every corner is beautiful down to the finest detail.
 The Cave Church (Sziklatemplom)
The Cave Church is perhaps the least famous of the Budapest Old Town attractions. This small still functioning chapel is located in the cave system of Géllert Hill.
The communist regime sealed the church entrance with concrete for nearly 40 years, therefore if you visited Budapest before the 1990s chances are you haven’t heard about it.
The The entrance is across the street from Géllert Baths. The church reopened in 1989, after the fall of Communism. The interior of the church is certainly interesting, but not particularly beautiful. There is an audio-guide available that I would recommend.
Sought After Tours in Budapest
Below is a list of some of the best activities in Budapest. My favorite one is the 1 hour Budapest Night Cruise. It’s a beautiful, narrated tour that takes you along the Danube river and lets you enjoy the most fascinating sights of Budapest. There is nothing like seeing the city lights from the panoramic deck while sipping a glass of Champagne!
Where to Stay in Budapest Old Town
Staying in Budapest Old Town has its own advantages. This is the ideal location if you want a quieter, more relaxed setting. This side of the Danube is way less crowded and has some of the most spectacular views of the city.
While many visitors to Budapest prefer the Pest side because of its proximity to shopping and restaurants, Budapest Old Town attractions and spectacular views weigh in favor of this side of town.
There are many lodging options in this area, from reasonably priced apartments, to bed-and-breakfasts, hotel rooms, and hostels. To find the best deal and compare prices you should check TripAdvisor, which is also a good source if you want to read what other travelers have to say about these places.
Another good option to keep in mind is VRBO – Vacation Rentals By Owner, also a great resource for affordable accommodations.
Planning a trip to Budapest? You may find these articles helpful:
Day Trips From Budapest: Where to Go to Escape the Summer Heat
What You Should Know About Hungarians before you Travel to Budapest
How to Spend a Magical Winter Holiday in Budapest
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