Step out of the ruin bars of the VII District and head southwards. Once you cross over Rákoczi Avenue you’ll enter the VIII District, an eclectic area rich in character. The outer parts of the VIII District beyond the Grand Boulevard are known for its dilapidation, diversity, upcoming art scene and also for its shady reputation, while the inner part of the district has a completely different flavour. Dubbed the Palace District for its opulent apartments, there is a sense of fading grandeur in these narrow streets and open squares. Today, because the inner city streets in the Palace District feel too tight for its dense population of villas, it’s easy to miss the beautiful details of these wonderful palatial buildings.
However, I believe that in order to appreciate Budapest you’ll need to look closely to really see its beauty. Come and explore the hidden palaces in this wonderful district and ignite your curiosity about what lies behind those grand doors!
Populating the Neighbourhood with Palaces
After the great Danube flood of 1838, much of the inner city was destroyed or damaged, especially the area in the inner VIII District, but in the mid to late 19th century, this neighbourhood saw a new injection of life.
The construction of the National Museum, National Riding School and the former House of Representatives transformed this simple area into an aristocratic property hot spot. This was gentrification on a grandiose scale, as the area underwent rapid development since any aristocrat worth his name wanted to build a palace here. Aristocrats, nobles and even rich citizens and country-dwelling lords built impressive residences in the VIII, stacking the district with one palace right next to each other.
To really explore each villa in the aptly named Palace District is something that will take days to explore, so for now let’s just look at a few highlights, beginning down by the Museum on Bródy Sándor Street and ending around Mikszáth Kálmán Square.
The Dessewffy Palace
Located at number 4 Bródy Sándor utca, this grand palace was constructed in the mid 1870s by Weber Antal and owned initially by Ádám Károly, whose fortune came from his lingerie and linen business. After his death in 1908, Miklós Dessewffy then acquired the property (hence the name).
Today, the palace is mostly a residential property, but you’ll find the Hungarian Language School located on the upper floor.
Inside the building, the entrance opens up into a large courtyard sporting a neoclassical fountain and flaking walls, topped with a netting that has caught random objects and leaves in its mesh above it. To the right, an old spiral staircase winds up around a vintage lamp post that sits above missing mosaic tiles.
The apartment area where the school is located retains the original features of the palace, with decadent wallpaper in gold and burgundy, along with old furniture and simple chandeliers. The highlight here is a visit to its flaking balcony, which was being repaired on my visit, to pay a visit to the elaborate frescoes painted on top.
It was tricky to make them out among the scaffolding, but I could pick out classical figures with horses and chariots between the wooden slats.
Once restored, the balcony is sure to be magical, with its view over the museum gardens.
Gróf Festetics Palace (Andrássy University)
Further up behind the museum grounds, on the corner of Bródy Sándor and Puskin streets you’ll find this palace which is now home to Andrássy University, which is a German speaking establishment with a history, law, politics and economics slant.
Even though this no longer functions as a palace, this beautiful neo-classical building by the esteemed architect Miklós Ybl retains most of its original features both inside and out. The interior follows a baroque aesthetic, with elaborate stucco moulded into the walls, chandeliers and wrought ironwork.
The highlight here is the ball room, where with the flick of a switch, the Czech crystal chandeliers light up and sparkle into infinity among the walls lined with Venetian mirrors.
This palace is simply stunning, and it’s no surprise that Ybl modelled it on the grand Italian Palazzos.
Gróf Károlyi Alajos Palace
Located further down the square, this palace’s grand facade carries a sad story. Another one of Ybl’s wonderful palaces and once belonging to Count Alajos Károly. The detail and the artistic elements between the arches of the building are exquisite, and it’s definitely one of the most beautiful buildings in the area. However, in 1945, the palace burned down and to add insult to injury, it also had several botched renovations. Today the interior is deemed unsafe to enter, but what we could see through the windows looked like terrible 1960s or 70s office decor which do not bode well with the palace’s aesthetic.
Local rumour has it that the palace will be converted, either into a boutique hotel or something else in the service industry. Here’s hoping some life will be injected back into such a beautiful building.
Szentkirályi utca 32/b
Not really palace, but more of a curiosity. I love walking through the Palace District on my way into the city centre, and I have walked past this house a number of times. From the outside, it looks like something out of a Verona dream. The building’s exterior has been lovingly renovated in a rusty Roman red, with white details. The balcony looks like the perfect setting for Romeo and Juliet, but step inside this Italian fantasy, and we’re back into the world of dilapidated grandeur.
The interior of the house still bears the scars of World War II. Bullet holes and shrapnel marks still scar the building’s facade. The house looks like a post apocalyptic setting, which makes it a convenient filming location for those studying at number 32/a – which houses the University of Theatre and Film Arts. In fact, the courtyard has actually been used to shoot scenes that require a bombed out looking building, either for a disaster movie or a war film.
The Palace District could tell stories for days, and I am sure I will be back with more palatial discoveries in the future of this remarkable district. So next time you’re in the area, take time to really look and explore. What are you favourite palaces in the Palace District? Do you know the stories behind them? I’d love for you to share!
I had the chance to visit these palaces with Budapest Beyond Sightseeing on their group Palace District Tour in Hungarian, however they also organise events in English. For more information, check out their website!