Blue Guides celebrate their centenary year with this new edition of Blue Guide Budapest, an in-depth companion to the history, art, architecture, food, wine and thermal baths of this exceptional city.
View the book’s contents, index and some sample pages, and buy securely from blueguides.com here »
Budapest is a city in constant renewal, with important renovation and reconstruction taking place all the time. For updates, as well as reader comments on the new edition, see below.
József nádor tér
This pleasant square in downtown Pest, enclosed on three sides by stately buildings, is once again an open public space. After a lengthy restoration (and the opening of an underground car park) it can now be enjoyed as a mini park, with flower beds, patches of lawn, a sprinkling of benches and a tinkling of two fountains designed by Hungary’s premier ceramics and porcelain manufactories, Zsolnay and Herend. The Herend fountain is in the shape of a tree in luxuriant bud. The Zsolany fountain (pictured) is encrusted with polychrome tiles depicting water fowl. In the centre of the garden is the statue of Archduke Joseph, Palatine of Hungary, after whom the square takes its name. Joseph, son of Leopold II of Austria, was the emperor’s viceroy in Hungary, a role which he played with considerable aplomb. He set up a body known as the Beautification Committee in 1808, responsible for town planning, and it is to him and his architects that we owe the layout of much of present-day Pest. It might be fair to say that he is the only member of the Habsburg dynasty whose rule the Hungarians every fully tolerated. His grand-daughter Stephanie was to marry the Crown Prince Rudolf, who shot himself in a suicide pact in a hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889. But that’s another story.
Congratulations on your impressive attempt to describe the soul of the city. In the bookshop of the Szépmuvészeti Múzeum your city-guide (in fact it is much more than a city-guide) was the only serious guide to buy (besides the beautiful “A Martian’s Guide to Budapest” by Antal Szerb). Your impressive “work of art” contains such a wealth of ideas that I decided to “do Budapest” this year “your way”. I have been to Budapest several times, but now I have seen a different city. Thank you so much for sharing your marvelous and fantastic knowledge.
Imre Nagy statue
One of the most popular public sculptures in Budapest, Tamás Varga’s statue of the Communist leader Imre Nagy, which stood close to the Hungarian Parliament, has been removed as part of a plan to redevelop the area. The sculptor had placed his subject leaning on the parapet of a round-backed, Japanese-style bridge, which spanned a small pool: people loved posing next to him. Imre Nagy, who became Prime Minister after the death of Stalin and announced a programme of reform, was eventually betrayed by his own party, arrested by the KGB after the 1956 Uprising, hanged in 1958 and ignominiously buried in an unmarked grave. His exhumation, reburial and posthumous rehabilitation in June 1989 was a cathartic moment for the nation. 2019 is an anniversary year of that event and it has been promised that the statue will be re-erected in good time in the new site that has been chosen for it, close to the Pest side of Margaret Bridge.
Fine Arts Museum acquires a Van Dyck
Van Dyck’s portrait of Mary, the Princess Royal, eldest daughter of Charles I of England, sister of the future Charles II and James II, has now gone on display at the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum). It was bought at a Christie’s auction at the end of 2018. The work was painted in 1641, the last year of Van Dyck’s life. It shows a very young princess, not quite ten years old, and was painted to mark her marriage to the Prince of Orange, who was only a few years older. The sitter’s slightly awkward pose is accentuated by the fact that the position of her right hand against her stomach has been altered. Mary’s husband died in 1650, the same year that her son, the future William III of England, was born. She herself just lived to see her brother Charles’s restoration, but died in the same year (1660) of smallpox. She was 29. This stunning portrait marks an important addition to the museum’s holdings of 17th-century European art.
Budapest Museum of Fine Arts
Since October last year, the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum) is once again open to the public. The project of re-hanging and rearranging is still ongoing: when finally complete, the museum will present the full spectrum of European art and sculpture from 1100 to 1800, as well as Budapest’s holdings of Classical antiquities. At present the treasures of Ancient Egypt, the Hellenic world and Rome are on display in the basement; European (non-Hungarian) Old Masters (1200-1600) are on the first floor; European Sculpture (1350-1800) is on the second floor; and on the top floor are some (rather cramped) rooms with displays of Hungarian 17th- and 18th-century painting and sculpture moved here from the Hungarian National Gallery on Castle Hill. A full review of the new displays will appear on this website in due course. We will continue to add updates about the merging of the Hungarian and non-Hungarian art collections when information is available (at the time of writing, Hungarian medieval and Renaissance artworks now in the National Gallery were scheduled to arrive here in the autumn of 2019). The Romanesque Hall, once used as a cast gallery and now lovingly restored as a temporary exhibitions and events space, has been written about already on this site (see the Hungary section under “All articles and reviews”).
If you knew and loved the Museum of Fine Arts before its restoration, you will not be disappointed with the results in the Old Masters section. The excellent and representative collection is still all there, beautifully displayed and captioned. Highlights include a superb Giorgione, works by Raphael, several glorious El Grecos, rich holdings of Italian and Netherlandish art (excellent Cranach), and a small bronze “Horse and Rider” by Leonardo da Vinci. The painting illustrated here is a panel from the predella of an altarpiece painted for the Florentine guild of wool merchants by the 15th-century Sienese artist Sassetta. It shows Thomas Aquinas in prayer before an altar as the dove of the Holy Spirit (clearly seen against the pale yellow double doors) shoots towards his heart. Beyond is a tranquil cloister with a central well, and to the right, a transept chapel whose pews are laden with psalters and breviaries. The altarpiece was dismembered and this is one of seven such panels now dispersed around the world (two others are in Siena, one in the Vatican and another in Melbourne).
The new Szépművészeti now has a system of lockers instead of the old-fashioned garderobe (you will need a 100Ft coin, which you get back when you pick up your items). It is also possible to buy tickets online via jegymester.hu, which saves having to stand in what used to be horribly slow-moving queues. There is a café in the basement, the Fine Art Bistro (a little gloomy–or perhaps I am being picky) and an excellent shop.
The György Ráth Villa
Closed for some years, this former home of the art collector and director of the Museum of Applied Arts has now reopened with a stunning new permanent exhibition on Art Nouveau. You can find a review of the show on the Reviews page of this website.
The Orczy Garden
Overlooked on one side by the Semmelweis University tower, the first skyscraper in Budapest (89m, built in 1976) and by the elegant Neoclassical façade of the former Ludovika Military Academy on the other (now home to the Public Service University), work on replanting the Orczy Garden at the far edge of Budapest’s District VIII is finally complete and the park is open to the public. The space was originally laid out in the English manner in the 18th century, by the barons Orczy (a descendant, Baroness Orczy, wrote the famous novel “The Scarlet Pimpernel”). It has now been restored to a semblance of the kind of beautiful manicured wilderness that was so popular in the Romantic era. There is an expansive central lawn, shady chestnut trees, a small lake (with rowing boats for hire), a café, fountain, running track and statuary. The picture shown here shows park keepers in a cherry picker cleaning the statue group of Lajos Kossuth and other revolutionary Hungarian heroes.
The Biodome at the Zoo, on the edge of City Park, has left the drawing board and is under construction.
Gül Baba’s Mausoleum
The renovation of the türbe of the dervish Gül Baba, who died in the same year as the Ottoman conquest of Buda (1541) and which is a project partly financed by the Turkish government, is now partially complete and open to the public. This is a holy site for Muslims and re-landscaping of the gardens around the small mausoleum has been extensive. You approach up a flight of new stone-clad steps, past terraced plots (Magnolia Garden, Lavender Garden, Rose Garden, all planted with the said plants) to a paved area with a commemorative chestnut tree, a brand new visitor centre and a starkly paved broad forecourt. The tiny little türbe is now completely enclosed and partly obscured by the new buildings: getting a good view of it is difficult. A promenade walkway leads to the edge of the hill, from where there are fine views (as shown in the illustration here: the spire of the Matthias Church and the Royal Palace (National Gallery) are prominent in the distance). As yet the türbe itself is still inaccessible.
The Seuso treasure
When Blue Guide Budapest went to press, the extraordinary trove of late Imperial Roman silver known as the Seuso (or Sevso) Treasure had not yet gone on public display. As of yesterday, it is on show in the Hungarian National Museum, well lit and excellently captioned, in a separate room on the first floor. We have written about the silver more than once on this website: a fully updated post will appear shortly. Meanwhile, below, is a detail from one of the pieces of the hoard, the beautiful strigilated washbasin.
The old Párizsi department store, with the late 19th-century frescoed ballroom of the former Terézváros Club (Blue Guide Budapest pp. 197-8), has now found a new role as the “Andrássy Adventure Centre” with the TeamLab Future Park, an interactive experience aimed at children. The frescoed Lotz Room upstairs at the back, until recently a café, is at present empty but there are apparently plans to reopen it as a café again. Ask at the ticket desk to be allowed to go and look at it (there is no charge but you can’t go beyond the cordon at the entrance). Still, it is worth it; the room is resplendent with mirrors and gilding and the frescoes are splendid, by Károly Lotz, the foremost decorative painter of his day, and assistants including Árpád Feszty. Feszty’s brother Adolf, incidentally, was the architect of many of the fine town houses that line Andrássy út itself. The likeness that appears as one of the personifications of the arts and industries around the cornice (the joiner; very grainy photo taken from too far away) is said to be a self-portrait by Árpád Feszty. But it could equally well be his brother.
A tip for those who plan to visit the Dandár Baths: bring a bank card with you. The downstairs buffet has recently stopped taking cash. Another thing you might take along is a set of chess pieces. The hotter of the outdoor hot pools is equipped with a chessboard and when we last visited, players had been making do with dark and light pebbles.
Soviet labour camp memorials
The English word Gulag is commonly used to denote the Soviet forced labour and internment camps of the post-WWII period. In fact there were two categories of such camps, both of them designated by a Russian acronym. There were the GUPVI camps, to which prisoners were deported en masse, and the GULAGs, where individuals were sent, often as a result of arrests on trumped-up charges. There are memorials in Budapest to the victims of each, clearly distinguishing between the two. In the heart of central Pest, very close to the Parliament building, is Honvéd tér, a square containing a playground and beautifully maintained public park, planted with ornamental trees and shrubs including a lovely Japanese maple. Here you will find the GULAG memorial, set up here in 1993. It takes the form of a stylised figure in Carrara marble, criss-crossed with stylised barbed wire. Further from the centre in Ferencváros, occupying a wartime concrete bunker designed for head personnel of the Hungarian Railways, is the Malenki Robot Memorial, curated and maintained by the Hungarian National Museum and honouring prisoners of the GUPVI camps. Blue Guide Budapest has the contact details for arranging a guided tour. Outside the old bunker is a railway wagon adorned with relief sculptures of the deported.
Blaha Lujza tér
As plans to rehabilitate Blaha Lujza tér, a wide and busy square in the heart of Pest, take shape, the removal of the 1960s’ aluminium cladding on the Corvin department store finally began yesterday (23rd May). The store, an elegant and fashionable emporium in its heyday, was built in the 1920s and was an excellent example of the new architectural Historicism that was popular in Hungary after the First World War. Now, as the aluminium panels come down, a grimy former splendour is being gradually revealed: ionic pilasters, a running key pattern, Neoclassical medallions and a mask of Hermes. The building, badly damaged in the 1956 Uprising, was never restored. Instead, in 1968, its battered lineaments were encased in functional metal sheeting. A full-scale renovation of the building is planned. According to the Józsefváros (8th District) local government website, the newly restored building will be used for cafés, restaurants and offices. Blaha Lujza tér was also once the site of another grand building, the National Theatre, which was demolished in 1965 during the construction of the M2 metro line.