Budapest has always been famous for its beautiful bridges. As many bridges have so many stories, some of them are truly tragic. Let’s get to know them!
Buda and Pest are like two old pals, who lived together for a long time, and cling to each other in the sometimes wild and sometimes calm sea of history.
Their bond is strengthened by 8 vehicular and 2 railway bridges, which are overarching on the majestically streaming water of the Danube. They are gorgeous and massive, symbolic and simple, famous and functional.
There are so many bridges, so many differences, so many stories but they do have one thing in common: with them, Buda and Pest will become the Hungarian capital city, Budapest. Let’s get to know them.
The Széchenyi Bridge (Chain Bridge) – Symbol of Hungary
It wasn’t a mistake that I started the list with the oldest and most famous bridge in Budapest.
I dare say, that anyone who has ever searched for “Budapest” online or may have been searching for a new destination overwhelmed by the smell of a good old travel guide, has already met the image of the Chain Bridge. The lion’s gaze at a distance, the blue chains, and the precision processed gates give an artistic look that is nowhere near similar anywhere in the world.
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A lot of emotions swirl inside me when I look at the sluggishly streaming gray water of the Danube while I am bending over the railing. For me, the Chain Bridge is like an old, noble queen, who, despite her age has preserved the charisma of her beauty, which mostly comes from herself.
A ruler who has seen and experienced many things, who has dutifully tolerated her fate, and who is at the mercy of everyone who has just started to learn the real meaning of life. And similar to the life of a queen, there were ups and downs in the history of the Chain Bridge too.
The name of István Széchenyi became inseparable with the developing Hungary of the 19th century. The idea of a bridge came into the mind of a great noble when the ice was blocking the ferry crossing the Danube.
He designed and realized what Hungarians dreamed of that time: the permanent bridge connecting Pest and Buda. In order to finance the work, Széchenyi offered one year’s income of his estates and several Hungarian nobles joined the initiative.
He traveled all the way to England for the great bridge design engineer William Tierney Clark, who took on the grandiose task on the side of young Adam Clark.
Even the “birth” of the Chain Bridge wasn’t easy. Some of the clashes of the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-49 took place on the semi-finished bridge: where once the Austrians tried to cut off Buda from Pest by blasting off certain elements of the bridge, other times the Hungarians tried to barricade themselves.
Finally, after the fall of the Revolution, the first bridge of the capital was officially opened in 1849, in a less ceremonial way, in front of the pedestrian and horse traffic. Until WWI, a more peaceful era began with renovations and extensions tailored to the needs of the developing city.
During WWII, Budapest, like most European capitals, was made to suffer too. The retreating German army blew up the bridges in a row; the last one was the “first bridge”, the Chain Bridge.
After the combats, it was a heartbreaking sight for those on the shore as the pillars and chains of the bridge disappeared beneath the waves of the Danube and the lions waited on their side for a better tomorrow. Another collaborative effort made it possible for each of the bridges near the Chain Bridge to glow back in its old light.
In his youth, my grandfather used to say these words to my grandmother: “I will stay with you as long as the lions guard the Chain Bridge!” This statement was made almost sixty years ago and both the love of my grandparents and the pride of the lions are unbroken.
I was a little kid when I first heard about the legend of the lions from my grandfather. According to the story, during the consecration of the bridge, when the lions were unveiled, someone exclaimed that the animals didn’t have a tongue. When the sculptor realized the defect, he threw himself straight into the Danube, ashamed of the audience’s laughter.
I probably had a very sad look because my grandfather quickly added so I wouldn’t be sad that the story wasn’t true and the sculptor really lived a very long time. As a bet, he even went to the circus with his pals in the city to see if the lions’ tongue could really be seen from that angle. The sculptor soon became rich.
At Széchenyi Square, standing at the Pest Bridgehead of the Chain Bridge, sometimes I try to imagine myself as the Count who gave the name. What kind of feelings swirled in him when the foundation stone of the bridge was laid? Did he (dared to think) think that the symbol of Budapest and even of Hungary stands out from nowhere?
As I pass under the staring eyes of the lions, I must bypass some staggering, stunned tourists. I understand their reaction, as it takes time to capture the spectacle: the Chain Bridge stretches over the wandering waves of the eternal Danube, while it sits proudly over our heads as it sits on the mountainous throne of the Buda Castle.
However, we shouldn’t be ashamed of the Pest side either. Looking back from Clark Ádam Square in Buda, it becomes clear to everyone that the Gresham Palace, which hosted the Four Seasons Hotel and was built in 1907, provides the perfect backdrop to the Chain Bridge.
From a higher point on the Pest side, the uninitiated eyes can be deceived – especially at night – the sight as two towers rise from the top of Gresham Palace with an impressive dome. Just a sensual disappointment, the farther Saint Stephen’s Basilica demands some attention.
There is more to see around the double-lane roundabout on Clark Adam Square than we first thought. It is no exaggeration to say that this place is the beginning of “everything”, as it is the “beginning” of the Hungarian motorways, the “0” kilometer stone, from where the funicular of Budavár leaves, and we can cross the Tunnel through the Castle Hill.
There’s a secret place above the Tunnel. The stairs carved into the mountainside give you access to a wide terrace that offers magnificent views of the Chain Bridge. Every New Year’s Eve, be freezing cold or waist-high snow, I’m always there. With a glass of champagne in my hand, through the mist of my breath, I look at this majestic building, the most beautiful Hungarian bridge.
In the final hour of the Old Year and in the first minutes of the New Year, who could understand the mysteries of the past, our present, and hope for the future, better than the Chain Bridge bathed in fireworks?
Margaret Bridge – the maid of honor
The second oldest bridge in Budapest humbly fits into the view of the Hungarian capital. She’s a real maid of honor in the Queen’s shadow: she does her job in silence during the day unobtrusively, but when the night comes, her lights are as captivating as those of the monarch.
Thirty years after the handover of the Chain Bridge, the thriving capital city was wishing for another permanent bridge. The city administration, seeing the overload of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, this time entrusted the design of Margaret Bridge to a French engineer, Ernest Gouin.
Its construction was supported by the “queen”: thanks to the toll charge collected on the Chain Bridge, the construction began. By 1876, a seven-pillar arch bridge was completed and named after the daughter of the Hungarian King Béla IV, which breaks on Margaret Island between Buda and Pest. It is interesting, that the wing bridge was built only in 1900, to connect the Margaret Bridge to the island.
Like its older companion, history doesn’t handle the second bridge with gloved hands either: in 1944, the Pest side of the bridge exploded, buried hundreds of victims under, for reasons that remain unknown. After one year, the retreating German troops destroyed the remaining Buda arches.
The distempered XX century Margaret Bridge resembles a squawking queen rather than a baronet in the royal court. Renovations, extensions, and modernization followed each other as Budapest became more and more busy.
While at first glance, the Margaret Bridge has a much more modest appearance than the Chain Bridge, at second glance, we can discover more artistic details, such as the Hercules statues of the French sculptor Adolphe Thabard, which adorn the pillars of the bridge.
Walking along Margaret Bridge, I often get the feeling that the whole of Budapest is there. People walking in love or in a hurry purposefully, cyclists racing at a crazy pace, and the wheels of rollers and roller skates clatter mischievously.
The bridge trembles as the city’s busiest trams, trams 4 and 6, rumble through on it, almost suppressing the hustle and bustle of impatient cars and buses.
I feel here, that Pest and Buda meet, where I can see the canopy of the dark green Margaret Island, the majestic Buda Castle and the Parliament building stepping out of a fairy tale. The bridge reminds me at once the strawberry-flavored cotton candy summer, and winter spiced mulled wine.
Margaret Bridge isn’t really a queen, it won’t be featured on the cover of travel guides or on the headlines of travel blogs. But if you want to experience the thrilling charm of Budapest for a second, the “made of honor”, which lies modestly across the Danube, is the perfect place for it.
Liberty Bridge – The Fairy-tale Prince
Liberty Bridge is like the prince in the tale: he is the third and smallest. Well, but how many adventures can such a fairy-tale prince live?
The fairy tale began in 1896 when the last silver rivet on the Liberty Bridge – known as the Francis Joseph Bridge – was struck by the Hungarian king himself in the structure of his third road crossing over the Danube (officially the Liberty Bridge is only the fourth as a connecting railway bridge was already completed in 1890).
Its construction was made possible by the amount collected from the toll charge of the “olds”, The Chain Bridge and Margaret Bridge.
After the blasting of the retreating German army, the Liberty Bridge was the first to be rebuilt from the damaged crossings of the Danube. It was neglected by its distinctive green color for nearly 40 years, as there was only gray paint in post-war renovations.
The Liberty Bridge carries the meaning of free life, not only in its name. As I sit on the lower pillars of the bridge hanging my feet and watching the Turul birds decorating the gate, for a moment I believe there is no problem in life.
I still feel the soft grass between my toes, which in 2004 honored, the Liberty Bridge in honor of Hungary’s entrance to the European Union. In the spirit of belonging, which seems invincible, we could walk across the green crossing.
But it is not necessary for an event of this magnitude to experience a liberating feeling. On the so-called “Freebridge” program, every summer weekend, the bridge is completely closed to car and tram traffic to allow it for the pedestrians for a few days.
The initiative came about spontaneously in 2016 when the bridge was closed for several days due to the reconstruction of tram rails. The residents immediately took possession of it and started a family-run, never-ending picnic.
Yoga classes, smaller concerts, barbecues and deck chairs – the city leaves behind a busy life and comes together to celebrate freedom and cheer.
As I watched the sunset from the shimmering bridge, I only understood really the moments that would stay forever in my memory.
Elizabeth Bridge – the memory of the beloved queen who lives on within us
The story of the modern, clean appearance bridge is just as tragic to me as the death of its eponymous, beloved and respected by the Hungarians, Queen Elizabeth, Sissy.
Following the consecration of the Joseph Ferdinand Bridge (now known as the Liberty Bridge), the city administration launched a new competition to design a permanent bridge. This time, the plans of two Hungarian engineers, Albert Czekelius and Antal Kherndl, won the competition and in 1897 they started to build a new bridge.
Six years later, in 1903, the public could marvel the unique and inimitable architecture of that time: the world’s first long-span chain bridge over the Danube, which had no pillar in its bed.
The cruel grimace of fate, that Queen Sissy, who gave her name to the bridge, had been a victim of an assassination in Geneva barely a year after the start of work so that she could never see the world-wide technical sensation. Yet, in its splendor and modernity, Elizabeth Bridge was a perfect match for the enlightened and beloved Queen of Hungary.
As shocking as Queen Elizabeth’s death was, the fate of the bridge named after her was just as dramatic. The German forces retreating at the end of WWII blasted the bridges of Budapest in a row, and the beautiful Elizabeth Bridge was no exception.
For some inexplicable reason, only the bombs mounted on the Buda bridgehead exploded, and although the collapsing structure dragged the entire roadway into the Danube, the Pest bridgehead remained intact. For nearly fifteen years, the damaged pillar stood on the Danube as a sad memento, like a forgotten witness of the war.
The Elizabeth Bridge was the last of the Danube bridges to be renovated. There has been fierce debate among city leaders about whether to rebuild the bridge in its original splendor or to come up with a whole new solution.
Eventually, the arguments broke the road and the only standing Pest element of the tragically fated Hungarian Queen’s bridge was finally demolished in 1960, replacing the new Elizabeth Bridge, designed by Pál Savoly.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that all kinds of land vehicles, including two locomotives, have turned around at the new Elizabeth Bridge. During the load test, nearly 200 vehicles were crowded on the bridge, and the event nearly paralyzed downtown traffic due to the curious crowds.
For ten years after the 1964 handover, it made significant tram traffic, and finally, in 1975, the last pair of rails was picked up due to damage to the structure.
As I take the bus through the white bridge chains, I accidentally break out of the present. The Elizabeth Bridge, with its noble simplicity, is in perfect harmony with the view of the waterfall from Gellert Hill. The gates look like frames of meticulous painting, moving from a busy Pest side to a fairytale world.
We have got used to the image of a clear white bridge, the new generation, this is the Elizabeth Bridge. But just as the spirit of its name doesn’t exhaust the Hungarian public consciousness so does the spirit of the old Elizabeth Bridge floating above the Danube.
Petőfi Bridge – Born in turbulent historical times
If we look at the bridges crossing the Danube by the exterior, then Petőfi Bridge would probably win the title of the modest bridge. But its name means much more to the youth of Budapest than a simple river crossing.
Although the construction of a new bridge was already underway in Budapest in 1908, the project had to be postponed due to the outbreak of WWII. Finally, the 1930s were going with the spirit of construction and in 1937, the bridge, which was named after Prime Minister Miklós Horthy, was handed over.
The infinitely primitive functional bridge, free from all manner of decoration and frippery, perfectly illustrated the economic stagnation between the two world wars: they had put in as much money as was absolutely necessary.
The bombings by the retreating German troops at the end of WWII couldn’t have been avoided by the youngest bridge either. Soviet soldiers built a military bridge on its wrecks, passing the gas pipe from Buda to Pest.
Shortly after the removal of the bridge wreckage, bridge renovation began, although work was postponed because almost half of the steel structure had to be completely remanufactured. So, in 1952, the capital regained its permanent bridge, now under the name of the Hungarian poet Petőfi.
The Puritan Bridge became a concept among young people in the 2000s, thanks to the proximity of Budapest and many campuses of the Budapest University of Technology (BME), the largest university in the country. Although I was an undergraduate at another university, I always ended up at the “BME” parties.
From Thursday to Saturday, the Petőfi Bridge was covered by young people eager for music and fun, the laughing faces were lit by the lights of cars and trams pulling over the bridge, and we sang the latest hits from our throats as loud as we could until dawn.
At the Buda side of the bridge, the cult, open-aired nightclub, the Green Pardon kept us in excitement. If a Hungarian band didn’t perform in Green Pardon, it didn’t really exist. The Petőfi Bridge was the eyewitness to the rise of popular singers and bands, and it accompanied the participant of the night that had passed, on trams 4 and 6.
The Golden Age ended in 2012. According to the municipal silence ordinance, along with the Green Pardon, the popular nearby Rio nightclub had to close its gates permanently. Since then, the Petofi Bridge has been quiet, the students have not flocked off the trams and can no longer be part of many memorable, joyful or sad summer stories.
Árpád Bridge – three in one
Hearing the name of the Árpád Bridge, the transports appear in front of my soul: metro, tram, local bus, coach. No wonder, since the crossing of Pest, named after the Hungarian prince, is one of Budapest’s largest transport hubs, and the bridge itself is the busiest between the Danube bridges.
After the completion of Petőfi Bridge (formerly Miklós Horthy Bridge), in 1939 the construction of the longest bridge in Budapest began. However, the outbreak of WWII stopped the works, which eventually saved the bridge.
With only the bridgeheads and pillars standing at that time, due to its incompleteness in 1945 the retreating German troops didn’t waste precious explosives. The construction of the bridge continued in 1948 and was completed in two years.
At the time of the conquest of socialism, the original name Árpád was replaced by the name of Stalin, which it wore for eight years, but the name of the prince remained in the people’s mind. So, it was easy for the capital city to remember again when the bridge was “re baptized” in 1958.
The Árpád Bridge was named the longest and the most northern bridge of the Danube for decades until the Megyeri Bridge took it away in 2008. But there is a secret that very few know.
The Árpád Bridge was built much narrower than the original plans due to the tight budget after WWII. But development couldn’t be stopped and the increasingly busy capital demanded a wider bridge.
The engineers came up with a novel solution: they didn’t actually touch the original bridge, but they added a bridge from both the right and left side. The middle, “old” section remained for trams, and three lane highways were created on both sides. This is how the “triple” Árpád Bridge was created, carrying 150,000 vehicles a day.
On tram 1 scooters, it is worth looking out of the vehicle window: they might discover the 5-5 centimeters that remain between the old bridge and the two new bridges.
Rákóczi Bridge – the unfulfilled dream
Whenever I drive through the Rákóczi Bridge, which seems a little surreal to me, I always remember the dreams in the well. The dreams, which became ambitious, but reality swept them away.
The “southern route” of the most southern bridge of Budapest was already marked in the 1860s, but the actual plans and construction were still awaited for a long period. Finally, in 1993, the influence of an unfulfilled dream, the construction began.
The dream was the World Exhibition “EXPO ’96 Budapest”, which were planned for 1996, the main scene of which would have been the still bare Lágymányos and the opposite Pest Danube bank. Finally, due to the enormous costs and low international interest, the Hungarian government was forced to resign from the World Exhibition in 1994.
Only the construction of the Rákóczi Bridge (at that time the name of the Lágymányosi Bridge, the name of the planned expo area) could be completed, so in 1995, another crossing of the Danube could join the capital’s circulation.
We never know what would have brought a world exhibition to Budapest or the country, but the Rákóczi Bridge will always be ready to make the forgotten dreams finally achieved.
Megyeri Bridge – which almost became “Stephen Colbert Bridge”
The Megyeri Bridge is a young, modern family member of the Danube bridges, which doesn’t carry classic beauty but is still impressive. At the same time, it is insolently modern and innovative, yet we feel we have met it somewhere, sometime.
The Megyeri Bridge had no defenseless fate, and thanks to the achievements of the modern age, the work begun in 2006 was completed by 2008. The young bridge swept the Árpád Bridge off the throne with its nearly two kilometers and is now known as the northernmost Danube bridge near the city edge.
It was handed over at a huge ceremony, but the people of the online space almost joked about the cabled bridge. The government has launched an internet referendum on the bridge’s name.
In the first few weeks, the American actor Chuck Norris had a good chance of being the bridge’s name. The American newspapers and TV shows picked up on the subject, and soon it came to the ears of comedian Stephen Colbert, a popular comedian in the United States.
Driven by a sudden idea, he asked his viewers to vote for him on the Hungarian Voting Portal so that he, too, could run as the new bridge’s eponymous. By the time the Hungarian government realized, Colbert had already overtaken Chuck Norris and the famous Hungarian military commander, Miklós Zrínyi too.
The government finally stated that, under the Hungarian law, the bridge could only be named after a Hungarian and no longer living person, so it rejected the vote and was given the name Megyeri Bridge with a geographical indication, the youngest bridge in Budapest.
Anger for the joke didn’t remain, and although Stephen Colbert couldn’t be the name of the new bridge, the Hungarian ambassador handed over a diploma to the American comedian in a live show for raising his country image with his campaign.
Each bridge in Budapest is an individual with its own story and world
Sitting on the banks of the Danube, the pillars that strike the sky offer a spectacular view. When the sun goes down and the golden lights of the bridge light up, I always feel that the Danube has found its crown.
Each bridge is an individual with its own story and world. Different emotions take hold in the lavish lights of the Chain Bridge and under the snow-white chains of Elizabeth Bridge. It takes the summer smells on Margaret Bridge and Árpád Bridge invites you to new paths.
The memories of young years swell over the Petőfi Bridge and the Liberty Bridge offers carefree time. On warm, sunny days, I would love to cruise along the Danube and admire them all, from Rákóczi Bridge to Megyeri Bridge.
Make sure to walk through them if you want to experience the Hungarian lifestyle. In the stones of the bridges and steel structures, there is Budapest’s entire past, and if we listen closely, we can hear their stories.
cover photo: ng.hu