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The National Theatre in Budapest, completed in the early 2000s, marked the dawn of a new age of modern architecture in Hungary’s capital. Photo: Getty Images

Budapest makeover: how modern architecture is transforming Hungary’s capital

  • From the National Theatre to the Museum of Ethnography and the Palace of Arts, Budapest’s portfolio of new buildings just keeps growing
  • Hungarian architects Maria Siklos and Gabor Zoboki as well as Dutch designer Kas Oosterhuis and Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto are transforming the city

Maria Siklos remembers well what the banks of the Danube used to look like. “It was totally run down and terrible. There were warehouses and empty lots. But the area itself was beautiful.”

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, the National Theatre was built to the designs of the 83-year-old architect. It was the dawn of a new age in Budapest, which Siklos helped usher in.

Since then, the cranes haven’t stood still and Hungary’s capital has been in constant transformation. The most recent prestigious projects are located in the city park not far from the Eastern Railway Station: the House of Music, which opened at the beginning of the year, and the new building of the Museum of Ethnography, which is nearing completion.

With the House of Music Hungary, the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto has achieved great success: a forest of columns as a continuation of the surrounding park’s greenery. A curved roof with holes through which trees grow. Ceilings are decorated with thousands of stylised, shiny gold leaves.

The House of Music in Budapest designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. Photo: Shutterstock

Across the city modernity mixes with historic architectural styles and old socialist relics. City guide Peter Balogh calls it “a nice architectural chaos” and recalls: “Architecturally speaking, half of Budapest was built in the 19th century in only three decades and was determined by eclecticism. Everything was neo back then, be it neo-Renaissance or neo-Baroque.”

Budapest’s modern architecture does not always reveal its beauty at first sight. The Palace of Arts by architect Gabor Zoboki, near the National Theatre, is a concrete block from the outside, but is impressive on the inside with its concert hall and the Ludwig Art Museum. Plush red carpeting and runners have been laid throughout the interior of the building.

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Its past as a rail maintenance facility has left its mark on the Eiffel Art Studios cultural centre, which opened last year and in whose halls almost 100 steam locomotives could be repaired at the same time. Today, the main hall is an insider’s tip for ballet and modern opera.


The “whale”, as it is popularly called, is worth a look. The elongated round building made of glass and steel, which rises above the banks of the Danube, was designed by Dutch architect Kas Oosterhuis. With the final use of the building yet to be determined, an exterior view is enough.

In contrast, the metro stops of line 4, built from 2004 to 2014, are integrated into the everyday life of Budapest residents as underground art. The rough aesthetics of raw iron walls and concrete shafts are softened by mosaic walls and colourful rectangles. Szent Gellert ter and Moricz Zsigmond körter are two must-see stations.

The Palace of Arts in Budapest.
The Budapest Parliament lit up at night. Half the city was built in the space of three decades in the 19th century. Photo: Shutterstock

Modern Budapest is also about revamping and restoring the old. After 4½ years of being closed and an investment of €150 million (US$156 million), the State Opera has been shining in new splendour since spring, with innovative new stage technology and more comfortable seats.

The renovations at Castle Hill, a must-see for visitors to the Danube metropolis, are ambitious.

As part of the project, the neglected gardens are being spruced up and new opportunities to stop and reflect are being created. The restored Saint Stephen’s Hall of Buda Castle has been accessible since last year, and the former main guardhouse is now a restaurant.

The Eiffel Art Studios in Budapest, Hungary, once a maintenance shop for steam locomotives.

In keeping with the overall picture, design hotels and fine-dining addresses have been popping up across the Hungarian capital.


Siklos is following the developments with curiosity while at the same time remaining loyal to her National Theatre. “I always get a good seat at performances,” she says and admits with a smile when asked: “Free of charge, of course.”