Cobblestoned medieval streets, distinctive tiled roofs, ornate Art Nouveau façades and Neo-Gothic landmarks – Budapest’s fairy-tale cityscape leaves visitors in awe. These architectural wonders also illustrate the history that has left its mark on the city.
Evidence of civilisation before the Magyar conquest of the 890s is scant and scattered. Ruins of this former Roman outpost are most visible at Aquincum, Óbuda today. A kilometre from the finds displayed at the Aquincum Museum, the Hercules Villa reveals the intricate mosaic floor of a once sumptuous Roman residence.
The first prominent era of Hungarian architecture was under King Matthias in the 15th century, when Buda embraced the Renaissance. The Royal Palace was rebuilt in an early Renaissance style, though little of the original remains after subsequent invasions. Matthias Church (Mátyás-templom) you see on Szentháromság Square incorporates fragments of the medieval original.
The 150-year-long Turkish Occupation from 1541 left bathhouses such as the Király and Rudas, while the Tomb of Gül Baba (Gül Baba türbéje), a steep climb from Margaret Bridge in Buda, was left undamaged after the Habsburgs took the city.
Much of surrounding Buda had been razed. Churches such as St Anne’s in Batthyány Square were then created in Baroque splendour, later complemented by the Classicist grandeur of the Reform Age as a municipal identity was forged in the 1800s. Stately institutions – the Academy of Sciences and the National Museum – arose on the Pest side, now linked to Buda by the Classicist Chain Bridge (Lánchíd), the first permanent span over the Danube.
Architects József Hild and Miklós Ybl devised Neo-Classical St.Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István Bazilika). Over the 54 years of its construction, Budapest had become a magnificent European capital. Ybl created the sumptuous Opera House and the elaborate Várkert Bazaar (Várkert Bazár) below Buda Castle (Budai Vár), recently since reopened.
Above them tower the Neo-Gothic rebuild of Matthias Church and Fishermen’s Bastion (Halászbástya), both the work of Frigyes Schulek. Across town, riverbanks and squares were refurbished, bridges and rail stations built, Nyugati designed by the Eiffel Company of Paris tower fame. A decade later, it was complemented by another great steam palace, Keleti station.
Historicist edifices defined the burgeoning metropolis, as it staged the Millennial Celebrations of 1896 to mark the Magyar conquest. A Neo-Gothic Parliament dominated the Pest riverbank, inspired by Westminster and conceived by Imre Steindl, who went blind before its completion. The grand boulevard of Andrássy Avenue was created, leading to Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere). As its centrepiece was the Millennium Monument, a half-moon colonnade showcasing Hungarian history, while below ran the first underground line on continental Europe.
By the late 1890s, Art Nouveau had come into fashion. Ödön Lechner decorated his buildings with bright Zsolnay tiles, such as atop the Museum of Applied Arts (Iparművészeti Múzeum) on Üllői Road. Of the same era, the Bedő Ház on Honvéd utca now contains the House of Hungarian Art Nouveau, a gallery dedicated to the genre. Also at this time, Hotel Gellért was planned but only completed after the devastation of World War I.