Hungarian National Museum (Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum) © Bachtrack Ltd / Hannah Marcus
Hungarian National Museum (Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum)
© Bachtrack Ltd / Hannah Marcus
As a general rule, in Budapest, it is safe to assume that every building you enter was something else before its present function; with so many beautiful, but now empty buildings, it’s the option that makes the most sense for a city keen to preserve its lengthy and complex history. It is perhaps apt, then, that the most notable exception to this rule is the Hungarian National Museum (Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum), a vast, neoclassical complex devoted solely to the history of Hungary. There is no better evidence of the love the Hungarians have for their history than this museum; with over 4000 exhibits, the main permanent exhibition spans the entirety of Hungarian history from the Arpads until the end of the Soviet occupation, via a fascinating array of artefacts, furniture and clothing, including instruments that belonged to Beethoven and Mozart and a small section devoted to the history of the museum itself. An audio-guide or guided tour might be a good option for those not fluent in Hungarian, since the translations of exhibits is frustratingly sporadic – but this is not for the faint of heart; you can easily spend two hours in this one exhibition alone.

This museum is a good place to start though; the Hungarians will be surprised and pleased by your intimate knowledge of their 31 failed revolutions, and you’ll be able to recognise key figures via the street names of the city. If your interest has been piqued and you wish to learn more, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Most famous is probably the Terror Museum at 60 Andrássy utca – a street you are likely to become intimately familiar with during your visit. The house itself was the main base of both the Nazi Arrow Cross movement and the Soviet Secret Police who followed them, and thus has itself been made into a monument.

Terror museum © Bachtrack Ltd / Hannah Marcus
Terror museum
© Bachtrack Ltd / Hannah Marcus

As you wander through the museum, it will occur to you every so often that this was the actual location where the atrocities you are reading about were carried out, and there is something slightly unsettling about this, particularly in the labyrinthine cells that make up the final part of the exhibition. Again, there is a slight tendency to over-inform – the English is mainly provided in the form of A4 information sheets of dense type – but the constantly unsettling music, stylistic differences between each room and interesting mixture of genuine propaganda and reconstructed environments (from a Russian leader’s office to a maze made of fake lard) help create a sense of how much damage these two entities inflicted upon this country.

Synagogue at end of Holocaust Museum © Bachtrack Ltd / Hannah Marcus
Synagogue at end of Holocaust Museum
© Bachtrack Ltd / Hannah Marcus
However, you cannot help but note that the Soviet section of the museum is much more comprehensive, if for the very good reason that they occupied the country for much longer. The Holocaust Memorial Center is therefore a good place to consider visiting, particularly since it gives a uniquely Hungarian aspect to this terrible time. The atmosphere is muted and deliberately uncomfortable, with the black and white walls evoking a prison-like feel, and whilst the klezmer music which plays every so often is an interesting choice, it certainly gives a sense of what was lost, particularly when combined with the real stories of people affected which are scattered throughout the museum. Obviously, this can be quite a harrowing visit, and you should bear that in mind before going.

Memorial to murdered Jews by the Danube © Bachtrack Ltd / David Karlin
Memorial to murdered Jews by the Danube
© Bachtrack Ltd / David Karlin
If you’re “museumed out”, but still want a taste of history, then there’s plenty to see around the city. Buda Castle is an obvious choice; the grounds are gorgeous, and in September they are host to an annual wine festival – whilst the building itself plays host to both the National Art Gallery and the Budapest History Museum (just in case you hadn’t had enough). On the other side of the River is the famous neo-Gothic masterpiece that is the Parliament Building, on Kossuth tér. Whether or not you can go inside seems arbitrary, but the exterior is attractive enough to merit a look, and if you’re really lucky you’ll get to see the changing of the guards, which is always fun.

Not far from here, on the banks of the river (which is a lovely walk in any case), you’ll find the low-key but poignant memorial to the Jewish People who were shot into the Danube during the Nazi occupation. Even though the feelings evoked are terribly sad, it is just as moving to note the city’s insistence upon remembering all of its history, both good and bad.

And if you wish to see this point made real, there is no better place to finish than Heroes’ Square, which lies right at the top of Andrassy St. (In fact, you can get there by riding another piece of history – the Millennium Underground line is 100 years old, and yet much prettier and much more efficient that much of the rest of Budapest’s underground transport). Arranged in a semi-circle are several large statues of the Heroes of the city – mostly leaders of those revolutions I mentioned – a proud testament to Hungary’s dramatic and colourful past. With these museums and sights as a starting point, you'll be more than equipped to venture out and find the other historical sights around Budapest, from the Memorial to the Russian Soldiers to the Hungarian Agricultural Museum, which is itself in a castle (as per the rule). You won't be able to see it all. But that's no reason not to try.

Houses of Parliament at night © Bachtrack Ltd / Hannah Marcus
Houses of Parliament at night
© Bachtrack Ltd / Hannah Marcus