Secrets of Castle Hill

The captivating beauty of Budapest’s Castle Hill is immediately apparent to anyone gazing at its towering attractions—in central Szentháromság Square, the Holy Trinity Column’s angelic figures gleam like golden charms with magnetic powers over camera lenses, their lofty allure rivaled only by the adjacent steeple of Mátyás Church cascading skyward with soaring gargoyles; nearby, the pinnacled promenades of Fishermen’s Bastion equally provide and draw views across the Magyar metropolis; and this venerable district’s winding cobble-stoned streets lined with preserved medieval homes provide awe-inspiring scenery for hours of enchanting strolling while stopping in at quaint shops, galleries, and cafés.

Yet this storied summit community bears many notable sights that are far from obvious at first glance—hidden both by active design and through unintended concomitants of fate—while still inviting the public to explore these bastions of Hungarian history. Whether seeking vivid exhibits of Budapest’s past, modern entertainment performed in regal venues, or high-caliber cuisine served amid romantic milieus, Castle Hill visitors can find an incredible array of secret destinations often only known (and unknown) by locals—but to discover them, you first have to learn where to look.

When entering this centuries-old neighborhood through the imposing
Vienna Gate at the walled hilltop’s northernmost entry point, snoop around the archway’s sides to uncover clandestine flights of stairs leading to the top—this often-empty lookout point provides a unique perspective over the Buda Hills, all of Margaret Island, and the riverside Parliament. An alternative (and little-known) way of going from the base of Castle Hill to its crest is the express lift of Széchényi Library, which takes riders to a hallway of picture windows overlooking downtown Buda opposite from a display case chronicling the area’s entire history.

But for 360-degree panoramic views over the entirety of Castle Hill and Budapest beyond, head farther upstairs to the
Royal Palace dome at the Hungarian National Gallery’s top floor—here museum visitors are welcome to step out onto the cupola ringing the castle’s green apex to enjoy sprawling vistas over almost every part of the city.

Back downstairs, the Lion Courtyard is completely enclosed by the Royal Palace’s stately wings, and many visitors never realize that it’s there—but this summer, those who stumble upon it will find a majestic display of Hungarian horsemanship at the
Epona Equestrian Academy dressage shows happening there on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Beside the nearby National Dance Theater, a building-engirdled cloister is the backdrop for the annual Dance in the Carmelite Courtyard performance program kicking off July 26. Meanwhile, back at Mátyás Church, the Classical Concert Series by top Magyar maestros highlights performances of Liszt, Mozart and Vivaldi amid the divinely designed nave on the 9th and 30th of this month at 8 pm, allowing guests to enjoy both the music and cathedral interior for the price of a single entrance ticket. And next door, another hidden plaza hosts excellent entertainment within an interior open-air segment of Dominican monastery ruins enveloped by the Hilton Budapest, where the String Duel concert by an ensemble of the Hundred-Member Gypsy Orchestra takes place on July 26.

More remnants of this fragmented abbey from centuries past are on view for no charge to those who locate the
Dominican Cloisters, marked outside only by a regal statue of King Matthias and tucked down a few nondescript steps between the Hilton’s lounge and a small galleria of Hungarian souvenir shops. Alongside intriguing relief sculptures, relics, and placards describing the abbey’s long history, visitors can also access the deeply subterranean Faust wine cellar. For further insight on Castle Hill’s religious past, discover the Medieval Synagogue dating back to the late 1300s that is now concealed within a row of unpretentious residences near the Vienna Gate—here visitors examine hand-carved tombstones and restored Hebraic inscriptions in red secco that bear stylistic attributes of Hungary’s era under Turkish rule. Castle Hill visitors looking for lighter reading are spoiled for choice if they track down the contents of Vadászbolt (meaning “hunters store” in Hungarian)—while this shop once sold handmade weapons, currently it’s a top-notch secondhand English-language bookstore, but its masterful old wrought-iron signage of a stag’s head in crosshairs is a protected vestige of the district’s once-diverse commerce.

One commodity continually sold atop Castle Hill from its earliest times until today is fine wine, and within the expansive cellars of the
House of Hungarian Wine—accessible through an unexceptional storefront near Mátyás Church—oenophiles can learn all about the world of Magyar-made libations with their eyes and palates. Another covert cavern offering bibulous lessons in Hungarian winemaking history is the maze-like House of Royal Wines and Cellar Museum, where Magyar monarchs kept their finest vintages, many modern varieties of which can be sampled after an intriguing tour.

For a more intense spelunking experience, descend deep underneath the sunlit hilltop buildings into the mysterious
Labyrinth of Buda Castle, carved out of interconnecting caves over thousands of years by varied inhabitants of this region dating back to time immemorial, whose presence is now evident both with genuine traces of ancient civilizations and fanciful decorations that are often kitschy but always worth exploring. For a more profound look back into the underground history of Castle Hill, don’t miss the Hospital in the Rock—a previously classified medical facility for Hungarian soldiers fighting in World War II, which was subsequently used throughout the Soviet era as a nuclear bunker. Countless relics from both historical episodes are spread throughout these somberly compelling halls, with exhibition spaces enlivened by mannequins donned in genuine period uniforms.

A more aesthetically pleasing peek at Castle Hill’s past is offered at the
Koller Gallery, a significant modern-art viewing space that happens to occupy the secluded former studio and residence of internationally renowned Hungarian artist Amerigo Tot, perhaps best known for his role as Michael Corleone’s bodyguard in “The Godfather Part II.” Nowadays, anyone is welcome to visit his memorial home exhibition and relax in the splendid sculpture garden downstairs.

It’s easy to work up an appetite after such extensive explorations both atop and within this history-rich hill, and fortunately many culinary surprises also await visitors here. One of Hungary’s very best restaurants is so well-known to locals that the exterior bears hardly any signage, but once guests arrive through the narrow archway entrance,
Alabárdos greets all patrons with award-winning Hungarian cuisine amid an ambiance of old-world class and photos of famed Magyar gastronomes. Pierrot is another notable fine-dining destination of Castle Hill that offers concealed summertime seating in a secret garden courtyard surrounded by ancient walls and colorful flowers. And at the newly opened Halászbástya restaurant—hidden in plain sight within the biggest tower of Fishermen’s Bastion—diners can feast alfresco while absorbing a picture-perfect Budapest panorama.

And even on the way back downhill, one of Budapest’s coolest nightspots awaits within a covert alcove—
Manna is the scene of a sleek cocktail lounge with a giant terrace perched directly on top of the tunnel entrance leading beneath Castle Hill, where locals enjoy groovy tracks by top local DJs while chilling out above it all.