Our ‘underguide’ to Budapest’s ‘underworld’
From natural caves to cold war bunkers and underground railways to prison cells, there’s plenty going on beneath the surface in Budapest. Here are some subterranean attractions that are worth going underground for.
Natural caves in the Buda Hills: the Pál-völgyi and the Szemlő-hegyi caves
The thermal waters rising from the deep and feeding Budapest’s famous thermal baths are also responsible for creating a large network of caverns. There are about 200 natural caves in and around Budapest. They are unique because they were formed over millions of years by water rising up from below, as opposed to rainwater. Most of them were discovered by chance on construction sites. The most famous natural caves open to visitors are the Pál-völgyi Cave and the Szemlő-hegyi Cave. The Pál-völgyi Cave, the second largest cave in Hungary and the longest cave in the Buda Hills, is known for its beautiful stalactites. While the Szemlő-hegyi Cave doesn’t have any stalactites, it has amazing crystal formations. If you are up for some caving, both caves offer guided tours. Pál-völgyi’s narrow passages and up and down climbs are perfect for adventurous types. Families with kids will enjoy Szemlő-hegyi’s less challenging tours.
Cellars and caves beneath Castle Hill: the Labyrinth of Buda Castle and the Hospital in the Rock Museum
The largest interconnected cellar system in Hungary can be found beneath the cobblestone streets of Castle Hill. This parallel world consists of natural cave formations created by thermal springs as well as man-made passageways. The earliest traces of human life found here date back half a million years. During the Middle Ages the caves were used for storing food and belongings and its natural wells provided fresh water. The Turks were the first to connect the separate caverns in the 16th century, primarily for military purposes. During WW II the interconnected caves and cellars were fortified and used as an air raid shelter and a hospital. In the Cold War period the caves were upgraded to serve as a nuclear bunker. The entire network of caves, cellars and passageways is approximately 6 miles (10 km) long. Today, parts of the cave system can be toured at the Labyrinth and the Hospital in the Rock Museum.
Underground museums in Pest: the Underground Railway Museum and the cellars of the House of Terror Museum
Man-built underground structures in Budapest represent both technological achievements and the cruelty of former regimes. In 1896, when mainland Europe’s first subway line opened in Budapest, it was considered a major technological accomplishment. Vintage carriages are on display in part of the original line at the Underground Railway Museum beneath the Deák tér subway station. Just a few stops away on Andrássy Avenue, in the cellars of an ordinary looking building, lie the secret prison cells first used by the Nazi-affiliated Arrow Cross party and later by the Soviet backed State Security (Hungarian version of the KGB). Hundreds of people were tortured and executed here. Today, as part of the House of Terror Museum, the underground prison cells and torture chambers are open to the public.