Architecture / Hungary / Travel

A View From the Top: Budapest’s Castle Hill

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In the Middle Ages, the most basic rule of kingship was to hold the high ground. Castles and fortresses all over Europe prove the point, and Medieval Buda was no different. Castle Hill, rising 500 feet on the west side of the Danube is Budapest’s premier tourist destination. Its medieval buildings, museums and grand views, make it a magnet for visitors.

We wanted to save our walking mojo for exploring the hill, so we opted to take bus #16 up to the top. Normally, this kind of information wouldn’t be important, but our bus trip deserves some digital ink.

Budapest Chain Bridge

Budapest is a modern European capital, and the transit system works well. But ol’ #16 was a rattletrap to equal the “boneshakers” we experienced in Malta. We’d read dire warnings about being extra vigilant on validating tickets, so immediately after stepping onto the bus, we made a dash for the little orange box. The driver, obviously having a bad day, put the pedal to the metal, almost dumping us, and the 10 other people stampeding toward the validation box. It was not a good start, but luckily, the bus crossed the Chain Bridge and chugged up the hill without mishap.

Castle Hill DoorsCastle Hill Homes

Castle Hill has two distinct parts, the Old Town in the North with historical residences and shops, and the Royal Palace to the south, which today houses a number of museums.

Roughly midway on the hill is the area we found most interesting – the Matthias Church and the Fishermen’s Bastion.

Maatthias Church

The large Matthias Church dominates the space, and while originally medieval Gothic in style, a 19th Century restoration made it the attractive, Art Nouveau and Byzantine mashup that it is today.

Matthias church roof

The colorful roof looks modern, but is actually a ceramic tile called pyrogranite manufactured in Hungary in the 1800s. And the distinctive architectural details add charm.

Matthias church 2

Hugging the cliffside immediately behind the church is the romantic Fishermen’s Bastion with its 7 fairytale, white towers. Even if you haven’t been to Budapest, the bastion may look familiar. The first thing that came to my mind was Mickey Mouse.

Bastion tower

View through columns

The bastion and its long terrace provide wonderful, hazy postcard views of the Danube, the Parliament Building, and Pest on the opposite bank.

Budapest Parliament

One of the other qualities that makes this area pleasant is its relaxed ambience. It’s a hugely popular tourist destination, and while crowds frequently detract from the experience, in this case, they made it better. It was a warm and sunny autumn day, and the happy, low-key vibe was infectious.

A pair of busking brothers played Hungarian favorites for the crowd.

Musicians

A dreadlocked knight provided photo ops with his very large eagle.

Knight with eagle

And thanks to an inconsiderate pigeon, King Stephen suffered his humiliation stoically.

King Stephen

We found a sunny bench, enjoyed our Hungarian picnic, and watched the ebb and flow of Castle Hill. By afternoon we were in such a good mood that we didn’t even mind riding #16 back down the hill.

Happy Trails,
James

Twin spires

60 thoughts on “A View From the Top: Budapest’s Castle Hill

    • Thanks Sue. The photos really don’t do this eagle justice. He really was huge. I did a bit of research and thought he might be a golden eagle. But maybe because of his size, he could be an imperial eagle. Huge either way. ~James

    • The entire church has been cleaned and it really looks great. In our research, we saw some old photos of the uncleaned version, and the transformation is amazing. It reminds me of some of the great old buildings in London and their before and after appearance. ~James

    • Thanks Vicki, I’m sure that you’d enjoy Budapest. As we’ve said, one of the things we enjoy about historical buildings is the architectural details. We just had a conversation about the fact that modern buildings, of all types, don’t really seem to have many artistic details. Mostly, the money and time seems to be invested in making buildings bigger. ~James

  1. Our favourite experience was the morning we spent on Castle Hill overlooking the river and the Pest side. I found the tiles on the church fascinating. It was those little touches that made Budapest so unique for me.

  2. I certainly had visions of Disneyland when seeing your castle photo. Wow – just wow! And you must certainly be living charmed lives to have experienced as many sunny days as you have at this time of year. We saw a similar tile roof on an Orthodox church in Zagreb, only in the red, white and blue colors of Croatia. Our guide referred to it as the ‘Lego Roof’ – a bit glib but a good line for tourists. We are finding numerous hotels and hostels closed at this time of year on the Dalmatian Coast except the largest cities. Are you seeing that on your trip as well? Great job as always on the photos – travel magazine quality! – Mike

    • When I first saw these tiles, I was amazed at how colorful they were. And on this old church, they almost seemed too colorful. But after some research, I was surprised that they were from the 19th century. They’re a Hungarian story in themselves: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zsolnay. Re: closings. Like you, we always prefer to travel in the low season (sometimes the very low season), and determining what is and isn’t open is always important. On the Dalmatian coast, we only visited Dubrovnik, and it wasn’t too bad, and E. Europe hasn’t been much of a problem. But, we found this particularly important in places like Greece. You can go to the most wonderful island in the Med, but if there’s only one hotel and restaurant open with no buses running, you’re stuck. ~James

  3. Great photos. BTW, a less harrowing and more fun way up Castle Hill is to walk across Chain Bridge and take the funicular.

    Budapest definitely seems to be on the tourist circuit now, much more crowded than when I went for the first time in 2004, but then it’s such a good place to explore. Lots of Art Nouveau, too.

    • Thanks Kathy. We considered the funicular but preferred to start our trip on the north end of the hill. Like everything else on the hill, the funicular is a wonderful piece of history. And you’re right, Budapest has made it onto the hot list. The city seems to be handling it pretty well, but you know how this goes. ~James

    • Thanks Anita. On this particular day, the weather started out gray and overcast. Luckily, it cleared and turned into the perfect autumn day later on. Also, they have done everything possible to make this area photogenic. ~James

  4. was there in 2009 and thanks for the ‘revisit’ through your beautiful pictures.

    the music scene was interesting too as they do have a nice concert venue called Trafo and I did get to see a few Gypsy bands playing outdoors…

    • These were the only buskers that we saw. I think that the city government has really cracked down on this kind of thing. I guess that they want only officially sanctioned people playing on the streets. It’s unfortunate really. ~James

    • Thanks LuAnn. We really enjoyed Budapest, and it was great to be back. Alert – shameless name-dropping to follow. When we were in Budapest (gulp-20years ago), Michael Dukakis (remember him?) strolled by our table during dinner. I’m sure that he didn’t know we were registered voters or he would’ve stopped and had a drink. ~James

  5. Your pictures are amazing and actually show just how beautiful Castle Hill is. I thought this area was so interesting and felt immersed in the architecture. Thanks for the tips on bus #16, we took the green tourist bus (totally touristy but useful) up the hill. :)

    • Thanks Chad and Jennifer! Were you in Budapest this past year? Rickety Bus #16 did the job, and as Kathy mentioned above, the funicular at the base of the Chain Bridge looks like fun. Are you in Thailand now? All the best, Terri

      • Yes, We were in Budapest in July of this year. We did take the funicular and loved it!
        We are in Hua Hin Thailand right now and will be for the next few months, using it as a home base while we explore other parts of Thailand.

    • Thanks Jo. The tiles make a wonderful, colorful rooftop for sure, and as I said to another commenter, they almost seemed out of place. But they’re Hungarian, and you can see their interesting story here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zsolnay. Also, we’re big believers in picnics, particularly when we travel. A picnic gives us the opportunity to sample local foods, sip local wines (or beer), and enjoy the nice weather. ~James

    • Thanks Ruth. Most of the post-communist cities we’ve visited in E. Europe still have lots of big, drab Soviet-style apartment buildings, but usually, they’re located in the suburbs. In the center, and especially in the historic areas, things have been cleaned, painted, and renovated. ~James

    • Thanks Robyn. For years Budapest was on a number of “best hidden gems” lists, and as a result, it became popular. From our time there, I’d say that the city has moved to the A list. It still has the “Old Europe” vibe, and yet feels modern and vibrant as well. If you visit, you won’t be disappointed. ~James

    • This church has recently had a top-to-bottom cleaning and renovation, so everything is in top shape. The tiles really are colorful, and I’ve never seen anything quite like them. Very photogenic. ~James

  6. The wildlife vet in me had to weigh in on that ginormous (medical terminology, of course) eagle. I’d definitely say you’re right in deeming it a Golden! From what I’ve seen of the Eastern Imperials, this guy doesn’t quite have the right markings. Even though the Goldens can get to be surprisingly large (I swear we saw one that was 3 ft in length), this guy is on the large end of the spectrum!

    • Thanks Miranda. I was hoping for a bit of input on the ID and a pro like you is just what I needed. We live on St. Simons Island in SE Georgia, and like most barrier islands, it’s great for bird watchers. Between the marine, island and marsh birds there’s always something interesting to see. And maybe you can help me with another ID. I shot a few closeups of what I believed to be an osprey, and in true Gallivance tradition, I wrote a post about it. One of our commenters said that it was an immature red-tailed hawk (which we also have on the island). Care to weigh in with another ID?
      http://gallivance.net/2012/08/01/gone-fishin-osprey-style/
      ~James

      • I’m always up for this game! Beautiful close-ups of a gorgeous bird, James! But unfortunately not an osprey. No matter the age, osprey have a dark stripe of feathers adjacent to their eyes (almost like a mask), which I’m not seeing on this handsome fellow. He’s definitely in the genus Buteo, which includes so-called hawks, and red-tailed would be my best guess, too! And it looks like he was all too happy to pose for your shots!

      • Thanks for the critter ID Miranda. I guess it’s time for me to eat some Corvus. I checked the Peterson’s guide and see what you mean. These are exactly the type of tips I need: the ones that say “you know it’s a osprey when…” And this will also be grist for the post mill. I have no shame, I’ll just make a correction and repost. ~James

  7. Hi there Terri and James I’ve just created a couple more pingbacks to your blog again. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve actually linked back to a couple of your informative posts about Hungary on my own post about Budapest. It will publish tomorrow morning Australian time. You can find my post at kidazzleink.com if you are looking for it. I just thought some people may like the link to your post as well.

  8. Pingback: Day 14 – Budapest; A City to Watch in the 21st Century. | European Holiday and River Cruising Memoirs

  9. Stunning photos of Budapest! I just visited in September and this was one of my favorite spots in the city. The views are beautiful! The day you were up there looks like it was perfect! I love your photo of the Parliament building through the bastion!

    • Thanks Bridget, for the comment and for dropping by the blog. We visited Budapest years ago (right after the communists departed), and it has changed radically. Improvements in tourist sites and infrastructure have made it a real pleasure to visit. Also, it’s on the hot list, so I’m sure that the number of tourists will only increase. ~James

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