Day Trip: Visegrád & Esztergom

Visegrád High Castle

Less than an hour north of Budapest lies a crowning castle atop a steep hill overlooking the winding Danube River and the shores of Slovakia. Parking is ample and facilities are great, including eateries and plenty of souvenir shops. The entrance fee is reasonable ($10 for me and three kids – six and under were free) and parking is too, at under $2 for the whole stay.

This “High Castle,” in the town of Visegrád, Hungary, has a fascinating history. The hilltop citadel was built in the early 13th century and housed Hungarian Kings as well as Turks during the occupation of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 150 years. Today, after significant reconstruction, the castle serves as a museum. The exhibits are as follows:

  • Holy Crown Exhibition
  • Castle History Exhibition
  • Panopticon (in memory of the Visegrád Royal Meeting of 1335)
  • Medieval Weapons History Exhibition
  • Gentleman’s Hunt in the Middle Ages
  • Outdoor Medieval Military Equipment Presentation

When we arrived at Visegrád, right away Beau exclaimed, “Hey! I’ve been here before!” I thought for sure that had to be a mistake, because I know everywhere he has been, but apparently he was right! Two years ago during his “Week Without Walls,” his class took a detour from Budapest and came up here. It wasn’t on the original itinerary, and I never saw photos, so it stands to reason he had a great educational experience including Visegrád without remembering the name! Sure enough, he excitedly showed us all through the property as our private tour guide.

At the beginning of the castle there is a wonderful display of medieval punishment and military equipment, as well as a royal throne display, massive wooden carts and weaponry. The kids got a kick out of trying them all out and noticed right away they were rather uncomfortable.

They also enjoyed navigating their way around the castle, as it felt a little bit like a maze. Each new room had a lifelike display that sparked their imaginations. They were especially impressed by the weapons display and the hunting display. These people were like us in many ways, but we feel so removed from them with our modern lifestyles.

Outside there is an absolutely stunning view of the Danube River on the border of Slovakia. The river bends to the west into rolling hills and winds back down in the east towards Budapest. There are several impressive lookout points and plenty of space to stay socially distanced!

This probably isn’t a great place to come if you have difficulty with stairs or climbing. There are steep ramps, too, that wouldn’t work well with a stroller either. Plan accordingly!

Although we didn’t do it this time, it is possible to pay a small fee and hold a hawk (I think?), dress up as kings and queens for a photo op, and shoot archery. They have done a wonderful job creating a place of learning and wonder that is well worth the trip! This visit can be done in an hour or you can take your time and relax with a picnic lunch for the afternoon taking in the views.

Esztergom

Twenty minutes down the road to the west lies Esztergom. When traveling along the Danube River on the Slovakia side, Esztergom looms large on approach thanks to the great Basilica of Esztergom at the top of the hill, again overlooking the Danube River. As you cross the bridge from Slovakia into northern Hungary, the view of the Basilica is amazing. And it ought to be, as it is the largest church in Hungary!

Instead of just driving across the bridge, we wanted to be sure to take our time and absorb the views with a little walk. It was fun to stand on the border of Hungary and Slovakia, and it was a great vantage point for taking in the pride of Esztergom. Along the river there lies a walkway and plenty of areas appropriate for picnics.

The Basilica, built in 997, celebrated its millennial anniversary back in 1997! The outside facade, complete with eight enormous columns and huge dome, reminded us a little of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Of course, as it is during a slow summer with the pandemic, they were doing refurbishments on the outside, leaving us with a view of unsightly scaffolding. Nevertheless, it left us amazed and impressed!

The castle ruins below the Basilica (visible above, red roof) are the remains of one of the first royal seats in Hungary, in a town that boasts some of the first settlements in this region at nearly 20,000 years ago – during the Ice Age. Talk about history!

It is possible to climb the tower and walk along the dome of this cathedral for a bird’s eye view of Esztergom, the Danube, and the border of Slovakia. We didn’t do it as we had a little one with sore feet, but we have heard it is well worth it!

Inside the Basilica we were quickly scanned for our temperatures (thanks, Covid) and we wandered around admiring the massive organ, domes, statues, paintings, and trompe l’oeil. Willow said, “I wish we could listen to that organ!” I couldn’t agree more! YouTube has some pretty great videos, so we got a hint of what it might sound like, but nothing would compare to the musical chills in person!

Outside the Basilica on the riverside lies a park, a cafe, and a statue of St. Stephen’s Coronation. It, too, has some damage, and it appears it is being renewed, but at a Hungarian snail’s pace.

Down the road from the Basilica is the old town of Esztergom. Here, too, construction workers were rebuilding the walking street, which was good because it wasn’t very busy. Perhaps it was an eye sore for us, but we still got a feel for the place, which had plenty of shops and eateries lining Széchenyi Tér. It was easy to find gelato and take a stroll past colorful buildings, fountains and statues.

We did notice that mid week the people who were out and about were a little rough around the edges, including a handful of homeless people and park bench sleepers. The town itself felt a little depressed compared to others we have visited in Hungary, but it had a decent looking furdo (thermal water park) and plenty of good eateries to entertain a longer visit if we decided to stay for more than an afternoon. It is well worth the visit!

For more info on Esztergom, check out my friend Ashlyn’s terrific blog: Middle World Adventures!

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