What is Budapest? It is the picturesque embankments of Pest and the alluring hills of Buda, thermal baths and bars, buzzing from night to morning. Everyone who has been here recalls the yellow trams connecting the two parts of the city, the aroma of a local bakery with the typical cinnamon called kürtőskalács, or the revitalizing treatment of its thermal baths. But it is also the architecture that makes Budapest such a compelling place. Besides ancient ruins and medieval castles, it is the Hungarian Secession architecture that richly decorates the historical streets of Budapest.
Hungarian Secession is a local implementation of the better-known style of Art Nouveau. In the old part of Budapest, this style can be seen on nearly every corner, represented by stunning buildings decorated with flamboyant patterns, curved doors and colourful tiles. The shapes and details of Hungarian Secession can turn an ordinary house into a masterpiece. But where did this style come from and what are the buildings to look out for in Budapest?
Art Nouveau flourished in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, under the influence of eastern art. The term “art nouveau” originates from the name of the workshop Maison de l’Art Nouveau in Paris, where they used to show objects of “new art”. The pieces of art displayed there were more intricate, and their shapes more rounded and curved, as if imitating nature. Over time, similar details started to appear in architecture as well, although named differently across Europe. The style is known as Jugendstil in Germany, Stile Liberty in Italy, Modernismo Catalán in Spain, or as the Modern Style in the United Kingdom. In Hungary, but especially in Austria, it appeared under the name Secession (szecesszió). What bound all these styles together is that they entered the world of art in an effort to replace the strict academicism that had reigned for centuries.
The word Secession was not chosen utterly by chance. Literally, this means "withdrawal". In 1897, a group of Vienna artists refused to participate in an exhibition organized by the Vienna Academy of Arts, after the Academy had refused to accept their innovative works. The artists subsequently united in a group that became known as the Vienna Secession, emphasizing their move away from the accepted academic standards. For Budapest, the word Secession has even a deeper meaning.
By the end of the 19th century, the process of Magyarization had been intensifying on the territory of Austria-Hungary. It refers to the fight of Hungarians to separate their culture from the influence of the Habsburg empire. Thanks to this process, the Hungarian language started spreading to all spheres of life and wasn't considered just a language of peasants anymore. And this new trend in arts and architecture came in utterly handy, as it provided a new opportunity to express the identity of the Hungarian people.
It is impossible to talk about Hungarian architecture without mentioning the outstanding architect Ödön Lechner – the man who designed most of the colourful and gorgeous buildings in Budapest. It is believed that through architecture, Lechner tried to express the Magyar identity. While working on his first major project of designing the Museum of Applied Arts, he was studying the prevalent theories of the Magyar people. Learning about the Asian origin of the Hungarian people and their connections with Persia and India, Lechner started developing his own unique style. A style that combined the curved lines common to Art Nouveau buildings together with Hungarian ethnic patterns and ornaments. In addition, Lechner very often used ceramic tiles of all shapes and colours, which became a hallmark of the Secession architecture in Budapest.
Let's start off with one of the most recognizable buildings in Budapest and the first major work of architect Lechner. This is the Museum of Applied Arts, opened in 1896 to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of the state foundation of Hungary (get directions). It was during this project that Lechner first showcased his unique style, which he considered primordially Hungarian.
Believing that Hungarians had a connection with Islamic and Indian cultures, he got attracted to some of their architectural concepts. Inspired by the mosaics often seen in the decoration of mosques, Lechner used tiles for depicting his Hungarian ornaments. The multifoil arches and pointed windows inside the museum are reminiscent of palaces in India.
Today it is impossible to imagine Budapest without this green palace but in the early days, many scolded Lechner for such an excess. But the architecture is not the only treasure of the museum. Under the fascinating emerald roof, there is a broad collection of European applied art from the 16th century onwards. Find here jewellery of the famous Hungarian Esterházy family, Augsburg gold, French aristocratic interiors, Italian majolica, antique mirrors and much more.
Please note that the main building of the Museum of Applied Arts is currently closed due to renovation works and is scheduled not to reopen before 2021. During this period, exhibitions take place in the György Ráth Villa of the Museum of Applied Arts.
It was also Ödön Lechner who designed the building of the Hungarian Geological Institute in 1899 (get directions). Although it is not located in the very centre of the city, fans of Art Nouveau architecture should definitely check it out. Everything in this building resembles forms of nature, with ornaments depicting flora and fauna, or the shapes of windows mimicking leaves. If you look closely, you will notice blue ceramic decorations that look like fossils, or decorative branches with leaves. Inside the building, you will see corridors with painted arches of gentle shapes that remind of water waves.
The most fascinating detail of the edifice however, may well be its blue roof that represents the ancient Tethys Ocean, which existed in the Mesozoic era. It is made of ceramics from the Zsolnay Porcelain Manufacture, a company with which Lechner often collaborated. On the very top of the roof, you can see a globe carried by mighty Atlanteans. Be sure to visit the museum, if you want to learn more about the secrets of our planet.
Our next Art Nouveau destination is the Magyar Szecesszió Háza, as designed by the architect Emil Vidor (get directions). It is also known as the Bedő House, referring to the wealthy industrial Bela Bedő who used to live here. He built his house according to the fashion of that time, in the style of Art Nouveau. On the ground floor, there used to be the office premises of his factory. Today the building includes a museum, a shop, a café, and residences.
Striking to see is the elegant asymmetric facade of the building. Large windows and balconies have different shapes on each floor. They are decorated with terracotta tiles made by the already mentioned Zsolnay factory.
In 2003, the architect Benkovich Attila and the architectural historian János Gerle revitalized the Bedő House after winning the tender for the vacant rental. They restored details according to old photos and filled 600 square meters of the house with a magnificent Art Nouveau collection of furniture, paintings and porcelain.
The House of Hungarian Art Nouveau welcomes visitors every day, except on Sundays. A pleasant bonus for everyone will be a cup of aromatic coffee, that you can enjoy sitting near a window designed in the shape of a peacock's tail.
Our next stop is another creation of Lechner, the State Treasury of Hungary, also known as the Royal Postal Savings Bank (get directions). This colossal building appears refined and festive, with elegant decorations on a white base colour. On its facade, you can see flowers, wings of angels and images of bees. It all creates a fabulous impression, as if fairy-tale characters are living in this building. By the way, the bees were put here with a purpose. They are climbing to the turrets, bringing their honey, just like people bringing their savings to the bank. Since ancient times, bees represent hard work. So the eminent message is that to increase your savings, you need to work as hard as a bee does for making honey.
Passing by this construction, you might not realize that it is something special. Trees are blocking the sight, and in addition to that, the most extraordinary part is located above our heads. It is its gorgeous green roof. To view it properly, it is best to go out onto the roof terrace of the nearby President Hotel.
Our next destination is Gresham Palace, the current Four Seasons Hotel on Széchenyi Square (get directions). Its current appearance dates back to 1880, when the previous building on this site was bought by the Gresham Insurance Company. Its management hired the local architects Zsigmond Quittner and József Vágó amongst others, to redo the design of the building and bring it more in line with the fashionable architectural trends. The Gresham Palace in its present form was delivered in 1906, whereas its Secession interiors have been left untouched up to today.
The palace is decorated with the most characteristic elements of the Hungarian Art Nouveau style – wrought iron, bright ceramics, flowing floral ornaments and allegorical figures. Inside the building everything is in harmony, with mosaic floors, stained-glass windows, curved lines and ceramic parrots. Even if you are not staying at such a luxurious place, you can always go inside for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and enjoy beauty that makes you dizzy.
We could not but mention the fantastic building of Hotel Gellért, towering on the banks of the Danube since 1918 (get directions). This colossal Secession building with stucco on the facade has been attracting visitors for over a hundred years. Its interior is striking in its magnificence, with stained-glass windows depicting heroes from epic poems, marble columns, bronze statues, leather sofas and fountains with mineral water. All this is pleasing to the eye and creates an atmosphere of luxury.
But the architecture and design are not the only things about Gellért Hotel, as the main treat here is the baths. The sources of Gellért Hill generously supply its pools with thermal water of temperatures up to 40 °C. According to the legend, the monk hermit Gellért, after whom the hill got its name, was the first to feel the water's healing effects, already back in the 11th century.
Today you can dive into the thermal waters of Gellért Hill yourself, and bathe amidst rich Art Nouveau interior. Not surprisingly, Gellért Baths is also one of the more expensive bathing options in Budapest, with an entrance fee of about € 20 (which includes a private cabin).
Budapest is a stunning city, ready to offer its guests everything they want. There is plenty of museums for history buffs, the food strikes with its taste, and at night you can go out until the dawn breaks. But perhaps the coolest thing in Budapest are its thermal baths. They come in all shapes and sizes: huge ones with several pools, or more hidden bathing houses that survived from Ottoman times.
On our map of Budapest, we have highlighted the very best baths to help you making your choice. For more background on the baths and how to best prepare for your visit, read our article Budapest Baths: what to bring and which bath to pick? Regardless of whether you come in search of amazing architecture, or for the healing powers of its thermal waters, Budapest will definitely not disappoint you.