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Old buildings with new functions – 5 fascinating palaces and mansions to visit

In a city as old as Budapest, it is almost inevitable that stories from different eras overlap in the most famous sites. We are surrounded by buildings of remarkable beauty, which have acquired new functions over the decades and centuries. Still, the memory of their original, extravagant, or even very rule-abiding owners, their dark souls or benevolent inhabitants and their stories live on. Let’s embrace the past by visiting these places – in keeping with their new function – for a coffee, a pizza, or even some quality reading time.

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Almássy Palace

The former Almássy Palace, located just a stone's throw away from the Hungarian National Museum, is a charming and picturesque site that evokes the romantic ambience of Italian villas. Standing among the grandiose mansions of the Palace Quarter, the building feels small and intimate. It was originally designed for 19th-century landowner Count Kálmán Almássy Jr., but since 1945, has served as the headquarters of the Association of Hungarian Architects. The palace's real gem is the ivy-spread inner courtyard (green in summer and red in autumn) with charming flower-patterned cobblestones.

For many years, the courtyard had no function, but in 2022, a tapas bar opened. Arquitecto Pitpit fits perfectly into the Mediterranean feel of the space and it is great to have some vermouth and tapas in the shade (they have a covered area for the rainy weather, too). The restaurant also houses a large wall tile composition by famous Hungarian ceramist Margit Kovács. It is worth planning your visit in advance and making a reservation, as it is usually full on sunny days.

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Matild Palace

The elegant Matild Palace opened within the iconic Klotild Palace in 2021. That is one of the twin buildings guarding the Elizabeth Bridge on Ferenciek tere. They are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known as the Klotild Palaces, built by Archduchess Marie Clotilde in the late 19th century. The Duchess' social life was vibrant, and her palace refelected that. One of the most mysterious functions was the enigmatic decadent movement, hidden from prying eyes on one of the building’s floors, through which the princess sought to institutionalise her love of luxury and the pleasures of life in the upper classes. The exact nature of the activities in these halls – befittingly for a decent secret society – remains a mystery to this day. 

However, the mysterious atmosphere of the past is best captured by The Duchess cocktail bar. Located on the rooftop of the Matild Palace, you can approach it through a secret side door, feeling as if you had entered a princess’ boudoir or a secret sanctuary for luxury admirers. And on the vast rooftop terrace, the city lies at your feet, offering a truly regal view. Make sure to book in advance!

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Király Bazár

Not far from Matild Palace, Király Bazár stands as another fascinating testament to history and intrigue. Nestled within its storied walls is the legendary café/bar Ibolya, which has become an institution in its own right. Stepping into Ibolya can feel like a journey through time, where it seems as though the world has paused since its opening in 1968. Generations of students have been raised in the café, and love affairs have blossomed since then. Although it almost feels as if it has been here longer than the house hosting it, the history of Király Bazár is even more fascinating. The building was once occupied by the renowned architect Frigyes Spiegel's furniture shop, adorned with Art Nouveau marvels, and even housed a shooting range.


However, perhaps the most tantalising detail of all is the fact that this very building was once the residence of Fanny Spitz, the madam of the nearby Gentlemen's resort. It witnessed a romantic proposal: a client fell so deeply in love with a 'Spitz girl' that he sought her hand in marriage. The young lady was eager to accept, but tradition demanded that the proposal be made to Madam Fanny herself. So, the hopeful suitor knelt before Madam Fanny, and her heart was so moved that she granted her blessing to the union.

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Wenckheim Palace

On a weekday, sleepy students and researchers make their way to the magnificent Wenckheim Palace. Once, this was the place where journalists eagerly waited to spot the imperial couple. Stepping inside the opulent walls of the palace, the sight of 24-carat gold wallpaper and Harry Potter-style library rooms suggests that the building was not built for public use. And that is correct. Visiting the Szabó Ervin Library today, one is transported to the former elegant home of the Wenckheim family. Frigyes Wenckheim, a member of the aristocracy of his era, was a direct legal advisor to Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. He and his family, however, spent most of their time in Budapest during the ball season and parliamentary events, preferring to retreat to their country castle at other times.

Although the palace was one of the last buildings of its kind in the excessively wealthy ‘magnate quarter’, it is not inferior to its surroundings in terms of luxury. Its ballroom, adorned with Venetian mirrors, was the scene of dancing and entertainment for 500 distinguished guests while political conversations took place under the wood-panelled ceiling of the old meeting room (now the Philosophical Reading Room). Paparazzi lined the streets, hopeful to capture the imperial couple arriving for a party, but their efforts were in vain, as Franz Joseph and Sissi did not attend these events. The palace found a new purpose in the 1920s when it was purchased by the Budapest Library. However, its transformation into the reader's paradise it is today was not without its detours and challenges.

5/5

Unger House

Unger-ház (Unger House) is a historical building, standing proudly on the Small Boulevard for more than one and a half centuries. Now it serves as an arcade and houses MANU+, the Neapolitan pizza place of the owners of the local favourite Pizza Manufaktúra. MANU+ has become so popular that you might have to queue up for a slice of this heavenly flatbread and while at it, it is not only worth checking out the new additions to the Könyvudvar (the ‘Book Court’, said to be the cheapest bookshop in Budapest) but also taking a look at the house.

The building is named after its builder, Henrik Unger, a real estate businessman who gave free rein to the designer's imagination, world-famous Hungarian architect Miklós Ybl. The exterior of the building is richly decorated with griffins and star motifs, and the interior is perhaps even more exciting, even if the courtyard is in dire need of renovation. The inhabitants of this extravagant house were a colourful bunch, the most naughty of whom were certainly the ladies infiltrating from the brothels of Magyar utca. It is said that the famous Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy visited these establishments on a few occasions.

Cimkék

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