National Gallery
National Gallery
Budapest’s art scene has two crucial differences from that of other major European cities. Firstly, and this is perhaps more common, the building which houses the museum is always as beautiful, and probably as interesting, as the art itself. Secondly, and this is perhaps rarer, you actually get to see works by Hungarian artists. This is obviously possible elsewhere, but never in such concentrations or with such a strongly nationalistic flavour. The best example of this is obviously The National Gallery, which is housed in the already impressive Buda Castle. From ground floor to top, you can travel through the entirety of Hungary’s artistic history (as a general rule, stylistically just behind the rest of the world, but just as good when it catches up). Particularly worth looking out for is the Mihály Munkacáy Exhibition, a recent addition to the permanent collection which contains the largest body of works of Hungary’s favourite turn of the century realist. 

Also look out for this fountain devoted to King Matthias - it’s charming in the summer (I’m told).
Also look out for this fountain devoted to King Matthias - it’s charming in the summer (I’m told).
If, however, you want to seek your fine art on the Pest side of the city, then where better than the Fine Arts Museum on Heroes’ Square, fittingly designed as a neo-classical temple to the art it contains. This museum is less systematically curated, but no less interesting, as you explore the many winding stairways and corridors. As well as Hungarian art, they often have very prolific international exhibitions (such as the Rembrandt exhibition currently showing). Be careful though, Heroes’ Square is the latest area to succumb to the renovation bug, and from mid-February the exhibits from this museum will be found elsewhere in the city. In three years time, the whole area will have been transformed into a culture and museum centre, even more beautiful (and helpfully curated) than before – but until then, you may find that you have to work a little harder to find your art.

Ludwig Museum
Ludwig Museum
Right down at the other end of the city, almost purposefully antithetical to this, lovers of contemporary art will find the Ludwig Museum, fittingly housed in the Palace of the Arts, a concert and festival venue which is just as beautiful as it is different from the rest of the city. Spread across large, white walled open plan galleries, the art itself is challenging, thought-provoking and sometimes just incomprehensible, but is particularly interesting when you consider the political implications of a city which had to switch from socialist realism to complete freedom of expression, virtually overnight.

Budapest also has an interesting photography scene; the Robert Capa Center is always worth a look, with the current exhibition on Hungarians in New York presenting a fascinating insight into the lives of real people with a proud dual identity. Sadly, just finished is an exhibition of Capa’s own photographs – one of the world’s most famous war photographers from the forties and fifties, Capa’s frank and moving pieces are always worth seeing, wherever you may find them. (The Hungarians being as proud as they are of their legacies, it hopefully won’t be long until another exhibition of his works surface in Budapest once more).

Mai Manó House
Mai Manó House
Just round the corner, on the street known as Broadway for its plethora of theatres and music-halls, you’ll find the Mai Manó House, which not only preserves the artist’s studio of this much loved Hungarian Imperial photographer, but is also currently showing an exhibition of his work from the golden age of the Imperial court. If the Capa Museum shows you Hungarians separated by space, then Mai Manó House shows you those out of reach in time, their interest being as much historical as it is photographic – where else would you get to see many uncomfortable Hungarian children being forced to pose in a variety of sailor suits, alongside families and weddings from many generations past? This fascinating insight into the Hungarian past is complemented by a display of works by up and coming Hungarian photographers, whose abstract works throw the older portraiture into sharp relief.

Yet undoubtedly one of the best things about art in Budapest is that you don’t need to go to a museum to find it. Truly, it’s everywhere. You can broadly categorise the types of statue you will find into three types; 1) Statues of famous Hungarian people (who have probably led a revolution and/or composed music), 2) statues of unidentifiable people that look unsettlingly real, and 3) ‘art’. There are obviously some pieces that are more worth seeing than others, but part of the fun of the city is walking around and seeing what you come across – and knowing that your experience of Budapest is now subtly different from anyone else’s.

You might turn a corner and find some large books outside the law faculty:

Book

Or perhaps a giant abstract foot:

Foot

Or perhaps near the Erszébet Bridge some people dancing in a circle, celebrating the end of communism?

Dancing sculpture

This man at the top of Andrássy utca may be a famous Hungarian lyric poet, but he looks for all the world like he is checking his phone:

Poet

Whereas this sculpture on Dob street is an evocative and moving tribue to Carl Lutz, a Swiss Diplomat who saved many lives during the second world war.

Memorial to Carl Lutz
Memorial to Carl Lutz

The area around Dob street – that is, the Jewish Quarter – is actually a great place to investigate if you’re interested in street art. Thanks to a project instigated by the city to brighten up some of the renovated buildings, which has led to the area being nicknamed ‘Design Street’, all of the blank firewalls have been turned into canvasses for Hungarian artists to demonstrate their creativity. There is no uniting pattern to these murals - except, perhaps, the very eclecticness for which the city is known – but there’s something truly wonderful about turning a corner and finding a colourful tribute to the city, that is not only good, but that you know has been made by someone who really cares about their home.

Budapest is a city for artists and a city for art lovers - whichever you are, and no matter what type of art you like, you will find something to please your palate. There is so much to discover that you can visit the city as many times as you like and always find something new to delight and interest you.

Mural 3
Mural 1
Mural 2
Mural 4