A Gripping Story From the Early Times to Present Days
Budapest history is not the least bit boring, though the city was born only in 1873, with the unification of Buda, Pest and Óbuda. The three city parts were developing separately for centuries.
Budapest experienced many wars, invasions, liberations, just to be reoccupied again. But she is a tough a lady, always manages to survive and miraculously revive.
This constant cycle of destructions and restorations formed the current captivating cityscape.
In Budapest you can see traces of history everywhere.
On her magnificent buildings, cobbled streets and on people’s faces. Lots of pages could be written about Budapest’s history.
We don’t aim to tell you the whole story in details. On our pages we’ll give you an overview of the city’s most important and influential periods.
Where possible, we will refer to other sources and recommend further reading in case you want more in-depth information.
Table of Contents
Museum Tips: You can see some rare relics in the permanent exhibitions presenting Hungary’s history in the Hungarian National Museum.
Visiting the Light and Shadow exhibit in the Budapest History Museum in Buda Castle is another great way to learn about the history of Hungary’s capital.
Many nations realized the strategic importance of the Hungarian capital and the surrounding area in early times in history. The Buda Hills are towering above the Danube and provide excellent defensive positions and potential control of Central Europe’s main waterway to its inhabitants.
Archaeologists found evidence of human settlements as early as 500,000 BC. During the first 1000 years BC Illyrians and Celts lived in the area. Written Budapest history starts with the Romans.
They conquered the area without resistance in 35 BC and founded a colony here known as Pannonia. Although the Romans stayed here only for a couple of centuries, we can still feel their influence on the city and see the traces they left behind.
They exploited the thermal springs in the area and built the first public baths. No wonder they named current Óbuda Aquincum, meaning “abundant in water”.
Where to See Traces of the Roman Era in Budapest?
Traces of the Roman settlement can be seen in the open-air Aquincum Museum in Óbuda, district III.
There is also a unique underground museum featuring an amphitheatre.
In the lavish Hercules Villa visitors can see splendid mosaics – one depicting Hercules and Diana -, more rooms adorned with mosaics, a room with floor heating.
Remains of the Aqueducts that supplied water for the bath are in the ruin garden.
Read more about Roman Sights in Óbuda. Remains of a Roman fortress, Contra Aquincum, stand in Pest, near the Erzsébet Bridge, north of the Inner City Parish Church.
After the Romans, several tribes controlled the city: Huns, Eastern Goths, Longobards, Avars.
In the 9th century a fierce nation arrived from the Ural Mountains area and settled down along the Danube in the Carpathian Basin. They were the Magyars, the ancestors of current Hungarians.
They founded a strong state here, under the rule of our first king, St. Stephen. At this time Buda and Pest were only tiny villages.
The king ruled the country from its palace in Székesfehérvár, from the Queen’s residence in Veszprém and from the center of the Hungarian church, Esztergom.
Read more about the Foundation of the Hungarian State.
After King Stephen’s death, kings from the House of Árpád ruled the country.
All was going well in the early Middle Ages, when in 1241-42 Hungary had to face a new threat. The Mongols invaded and devastated the whole country.
They destroyed Pest and Buda, and conquered the Transdanubian region, as well.
The Mongols burnt the crop and decimated the Hungarian population. Famine and hunger followed the raids.
Luckily the Khan of the Mongols died suddenly, and they returned to Asia. King Béla IV. rebuilt the country.
One of the first things on his to-do-list was building a fortress on Buda Hills, to provide defense against future attacks. He invited settlers from Western Europe in place of Hungarians killed during the invasion.
Where to See Traces of Early Medieval Buda & Pest?
The old settlement, north of Buda (Aquincum) became known as Óbuda (Old Buda. Buda became the king’s residence and started to develop at rapid pace.
More and more aristocrats and burghers settled down on Castle Hill too.
The whole court moved to Buda in 1347, and the Castle was enlarged into a Gothic Palace. Pest also recovered and continued to grow across the Danube. Few monuments survived from the early middle ages. Most of them can be seen in the Castle District in Buda:
- the Mary Gate of Matthias Church (Mária kapu)
- underground labyrinth system and cellars, several of which today function as wine bars,
- the reconstructed lower chambers of the Royal Palace,
- foundations and other parts of mansions dating from the era.
Ruins on Margaret Island
King Béla IV. had made an oath that if he succeeds in beating back the Mongols, he would offer his daughter, Princess Margaret (Margit in Hungarian) to the service of God.
True to his oath, he built a church and convent on the Island of Rabbits (today’s Margaret Island).
Margaret went to to live there at the age of 9 in 1251. The convent and church were demolished during the Turkish reign and by several floods.
Ruins can be seen on Margaret Island (Margitsziget) which received its name after Princess Margaret.
At the beginning of the 14th century the House of Árpád died out.
In the next centuries foreign-born kings and Hungarian kings were followed each other on the throne.
King Charles Robert from the House of Anjou moved his court from Visegrád to Buda in 1347. His son, Louis the Great (Nagy Lajos) expanded the Castle.
As Buda became the king’s residence it started to develop at rapid pace.
Aristocrats and burghers followed the king accelerating the flourishing. The town began to really flourish under the rule of King Sigismund.
He built a magnificent Gothic Palace in Castle District. King Matthias developed Buda into a dazzling Renaissance Royal Residence that was renowned throughout Europe. The city was a cultural centre.
Monuments from the Gothic & Renaissance Era
Matthias Church – built during the reign of Hunyadi Mátyás (King Matthias) boasts some splendid gothic details.
A royal chamber from the period of Anjou kings can be seen in the Budapest History Museum.
Visegrád – Summer Palace – constructions started under Charles Robert and the palace was later extended by his son Louis the Great.
Sigismund of Luxembourg added more courtyards and gardens.
Visiting Visegrád in the Danube Bend can be done during a day trip duing your Budapest stay.
During medieval times Pest (today the Inner City part of district V.) functioned as the outskirt of Buda and developed into a thriving crafts and trade city under the reign of King Matthias.
The city wall was built at that time too, following the line of today’s Deák Ferenc utca-Károly körút-Múzeum körút-Kálvin tér-Vámház körút.
Where to See Remains of Budapest’s Medieval City Wall?
After the end of the Ottoman rule the walls stood in the way of the city’s quick development so they were either pulled down or incorporated into buildings.
Remains of the city wall still can be seen today at few spots. One is in Kecskeméti utca near Kálvin Square, in district V.
Things were going well again, when another enemy appeared at the borders of Hungary.
In the 15th century the Turks invaded the country and defeated the Hungarian army at the battle of Mohács in 1526.
Very few buildings remained from the Ottoman era because most of them were destroyed by the Habsburgs.
They occupied Buda in 1541. Besides their raids the Turks contributed to Budapest history in many ways. They built fine bathhouses in the city. Several of them are still in use.
See our page about Turkish Baths in Budapest. Besides the baths, there are a few tombstones with turbans on their top in Tabán in Buda.
Churches that were converted into mosques were transformed back into their original functions. Distinctive Moslim mihrabs (niches oriented towards Mecca) survived the following centuries in the Inner City Parish Church (Belvárosi Plébánia Templom) in Pest near Elizabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd).
Tomb of Gül Baba (Mecset utca 14., II. district), a Turkish dervish who died in 1541, is in North Buda (north of Margaeret Bridge) is another monument of this era.
Read more about the Tomb of Gül Baba in Buda.
A Christian army, led by the Holy Roman Emperor, liberated Buda and Pest in 1686.
The two towns were completely destroyed in the siege. The Royal Palace on Castle Hill was in ruins.
Only a few thousand people survived the fights inside the walls of Buda. The liberation from the Turkish rule did not bring freedom to Hungary after all.
The country became a province of the Habsburg Empire. In the 18th century large-scale reconstruction works started both in Buda and Pest.
Baroque dwelling houses and churches replaced the demolished buildings.
You can still see most of these buildings today in Budapest Castle District. The Habsburgs built a new Baroque Palace as well. Pest also expanded fast with the development of Lipótváros that is part of current downtown Budapest.
By the 19th century Buda and Pest had became the political and cultural centre of the country.
In 1838 a flood destroyed much of Pest, but it also provided an opportunity to rebuild the city part in contemporary style.
For the first time Pest began to outrank Buda in development. Mid-19th century is called Reform Era in Hungary’s history. Many important and grand buildings were established during these years.
Despite the developments, Budapest still consisted of three separate parts, with no bridge across the Danube.
The first permanent bridge, the Chain Bridge was built between 1839-49.
The project was the idea of Count Széchenyi, one of the most outstanding figures of the Hungarian nation. Széchenyi facilitated the reunion of Buda, Pest and Óbuda in 1873.
Suddenly Budapest started to flourish like never before. A grandiose building project began to celebrate the Millennium (the thousand year anniversary of the settlement of the Magyars in Hungary) in 1896.
The eclectic and art-nouveau buildings along Andrássy Avenue and Grand Boulevard are fine examples of the era’s great architecture too.
The first metro (M1, yellow metro line) in the European continent was built at that time too connecting Budapest City Park with the city centre.
New roads, a triple ring of boulevards with avenues were constructed. Industry and commerce were also booming. Budapest Coffee Houses became the centre of cultural and social life.
This era was definitely Budapest’s heyday.
Somehow our nation stood on the wrong sides in both world wars. Although Hungary became indpendent from Austria after World War I, the Treaty of Trianon deprived the country of three-fifths of its land.
Trianon is still a sensitive issue in everyday-life in Hungary. Budapest and the country needed a few decades to recover from the war, but our nation needs a couple of centuries to get over Trianon forever.
The consequences of the Treaty resulted in the outbreak of World War II, when Hungary backed the wrong horse again. Budapest was demolished in the siege in 1944-45.
The Germans blown up all the Danube bridges. It took 30 years to rebuild the Hungarian capital.
Again the Soviet liberation did not mean freedom. The communist seized power with the support of the Red Army in 1949.
In October-November 1956 people in Budapest rebelled against the communist dictatorship.
Imre Nagy led the uprising. The Soviet troops crushed the revolution within days. Thousands died and even more fled the country to start a new life in the West.
Nagy Imre and many of his supporters were executed. You can still see the bullet scars of the 1956 fights on several Budapest buildings today.
Find out more on October 23rd 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
János Kádár became leader of Hungary, and the Soviet government gave him the task to clean the political mess of 1956.
Kádár obeyed and was loyal to the Soviet Union, however he started to loosen the reins in the 1960s.
His “goulash communism” resulted in a degree of cultural and scientific freedom that was unknown in other Eastern European countries. Budapest experienced a cultural resurrection.
As a result of Kádár’s economic reforms, small-business started to boom in the early 1980s, thus Hungary was more prepared for the free commerce than most other cities in Eastern Europe.
The first cracks on the Iron Curtain appeared in Hungary in 1989.
In 1990 the first free elections since 1945 took place. Hungary elected a radical conservative government. The last Soviet troops left the country in 1991.
Privatization started and Western investors helped to revive the country’s economy.
The complete reorganization of the economy had a cost: high inflation and unemployment. Hungary joined NATO in 1998, and since May 2005 the country is member of the European Union.
How have these events affected Budapest’s cityscape?
All Communist Statues were removed, but instead of destroying them they are displayed in the Statue Park just outside Budapest. They are a reminder of grim times.
Today Budapest is a fast-developing metropolis. New hotels, restaurants, cafés, shopping malls appear month by month.
We know that lots of things need improvement, but there are large scale development plans to make the Hungarian capital a place where you’re happy to live and stroll around.
We all hope that Budapest will be an even more shiny Pearl of the Danube than she is today.
TIP: The Budapest 100 is a great event for lovers of architecture and city history. Held in mid-April each year, the 2-day program celebrates buildings that turn 100 year old.
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