When my sister was here in Budapest, I wanted to show her more of Hungary than just the capital. We were planning an outing to Lake Balaton in her second week, but because the weather cooled, we skipped that. Instead, we went to Esztergom, a city north of Budapest.
And not just any city: one of the oldest cities in Hungary (even the former capital!), the location of the biggest church in the country, and you can just walk across a bridge to Slovakia! Esztergom plays an important part in Hungary’s history, and as a Hungary-fan, you can’t skip a (short) visit.
I say ‘short’ on purpose because there’s not a whole lot to do in Esztergom. Besides the Cathedral, the old castle, and the Mária Valéria bridge to Slovakia, you can have a drink at the central square. And that’s about it. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be entertained for a for hours and can fill your whole day. But I’ll get back to that.
History of Esztergom
Esztergom is one of the oldest cities in Hungary: it’s been the seat of an archbishop since the 11th century (which is why this is where the biggest church in the country can be found, the Esztergom Cathedral).
Esztergom is the place where the Árpád family lived. Árpád is the founder of Hungary. There you have it: the reason why Esztergom is so important in Hungary’s history.
One of Árpád’s offspring (Géza) got himself baptized as a Christian as he got older, and his son St. Istvan/Stephen was the first Christian king of Hungary. He was the one who had the Esztergom Cathedral built in the castle and founded the diocese. He’s also the one whose name the Basilica in Budapest carries, and who has his own holiday: August 20th
Sights in Esztergom
Although Esztergom only has three sights worth mentioning, it attracts many tourists. We mostly ran into (cycling) Germans and Austrians. There are several cruises going by Esztergom, and we even saw one of those tourist trains going through the city.
Esztergom Castle and Basilica
The Basilica is built next to the castle on the hill. Part of the castle still stands, here you can find a museum for Christan art, and admire several rooms. Another part of the castle is mostly ruins. From here, you have a great view over Esztergom’s surroundings: nature, the Danube, and Slovakia.
You can also go into the Basilica. If you have the time, or you’re joining a day tour, this is worth a visit. If you’re visiting Esztergom on your own, it’s also nice to walk around this part of time (also down the hill). A little authentic Hungary, with cobblestone streets and colored houses.
Mária Valéria bridge
This bridge is actually only special for one reason: it connects Hungary to Slovakia over the river Danube, that makes up the border between these two countries in this location.
The architecture isn’t special, most bridges in Budapest are more impressive. Still, both my sister and I thought this was the most important sight for our trip. Because how often are you able to just walk into another country?
The Mária Valéria bridge was destroyed during bombings in World War II. After that, it took a while before the new bridge was built. The works didn’t start until 2001.
Our day in Esztergom
We took the train to and from Esztergom. It’s almost an hour walk to the bridge, the castle and the Cathedral. A good way to enjoy the weather and stay in shape, huh? There are also buses in the city that you could take.
Anyway, we walked. I thought the bridge was most special. Or well, not the bridge, but the experience of being able to just walk across the border. Of course, that’s quite normal in Europe but I’ve only taken cars, buses, planes, and trains across borders. And now I took a step, and was in another country! How cool!
On the Slovakia side, we sat down next to the Danube. From here, you have the best view over the castle and Cathedral of Esztergom. There are some benches on the banks, a great place to have something to eat and take some pictures.
Then we walked to the castle. According to Google Maps, you can walk up on the streets, but it’s faster to take the ‘cat stairs’, macskalépscő. There are signs pointing the way on the streets. If you’re in okay shape, I’d recommend the stairs. I also saw a couple taking their senior mom (80+ years old) upstairs, and I seriously thought the mom was going to pass out of exhaustion. Not good.
We walked around the Cathedral, that really is huge. From the castle, you can see far and wide, but since you’re standing on the most beautiful attraction in the area, there’s not a lot to see besides nature and some colored buildings in Slovakia.
After this, we went to the central square and had a drink. The square was super cute, exactly what you’d expect. Fountains, trees, old buildings, and terraces. Not the cheapest spot in most cities, but me and my sister both had a drink for 660 HUF (around €2,15) in total.
To get back to Budapest, I can totally recommend booking the ferry back to Budapest. I did that after hiking in Visegrád earlier this year. You’ll go past Visegrád and Szentendre, and arrive back in the middle of Budapest.
Combine Esztergom with Visegrád and Szentendre
Because there’s not a whole lot to do in just Esztergom, a visit to the city is often combined with visits to Visegrád and Szentendre. All three these cities are located next to the Danube, so there are several cruises and day tours to visit all three cities in one day. You can also do it on your own by public transport if you don’t mind some planning.
I haven’t been to Szentendre before, but I’ve been hiking in Visegrád a while ago. Nature is stunning (famous for the ‘Danube bend’) and Visegrád has two castles.
Esztergom is a city with a ton of history. If that doesn’t interest you, Esztergom might not be the best destination for you. Are you interested in history and old buildings? Esztergom is a great destination to see more of the country if you’re staying in Budapest a little longer.