Draped across two hills by the River Danube, the royal city of Esztergom is the place where St Stephen, the first King of Hungary was crowned at the start of the 11th century.
The city is also the seat of the Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest and in keeping with its dignified status, Esztergom’s Neoclassical basilica is both the largest church and the tallest building in the country.
Esztergom castle is a thrilling melange of architecture Medieval and Renaissance architecture, a lot of which had been lost for hundreds of years until archaeological digs began in the 20th century.
From the castle’s Ottoman roundels you can see into Slovakia, which is literally on the other side of the Danube, while Budapest is a scenic 50-kilometre drive through the Duna-Ipoly National Park.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Esztergom:
1. Esztergom Basilica
The seat of Hungary’s Catholic Church is a dumbfounding Neoclassical monument that also blends hints of Ancient Egyptian architecture in a cavernous crypt.
Esztergom Basilica isn’t just the largest church in Hungary; it is also the tallest building of any kind in the country, with an epic dome that tops out at 118 metres.
Another record-breaker in the chancel is the altarpiece, painted by the Italian Girolamo Michelangelo Grigoletti.
At 13.5 x 6.6 metres it’s the largest painting on a single piece of canvas in the world.
The building was started in 1822 and completed in 1869, and is on a site of national significance to Hungary.
The nation’s first cathedral was founded here at the start of the 11th century by King Stephen I, who is also believed to have been crowned at this spot around the year 1000. Adjoining with the Basilica is the 16th-century Bakócz Chapel, shaped from red marble and considered the greatest piece of Hungarian Renaissance art.
2. Castle Museum
In the same ensemble, Esztergom Castle was built in the early 1070s by Géza I of Hungary on the remains of a Roman Castrum.
What’s left now are bastions, roundels and defensive walls on the very edge of cliffs rising above the Danube.
The castle has a medley of styles from Romanesque through Gothic and Renaissance to Ottoman.
Whole wings of the building were ruined and covered over during the Turkish Wars, and excavations have take place almost continuously since the 1930s.
Inside a small labyrinth of alleys, passageways, arches and gates you can call in at the Castle museum, documenting the history of the building and Esztergom.
The palace chapel is a must-see, embellished with frescoes from the 1100s to the 1300s, and one of the rooms of the palace has an enchanting cycle of Hungarian Renaissance paintings that have only just been restored.
3. Víziváros (Watertown)
On the right bank of the Danube under the castle walls, Víziváros is an episcopal neighbourhood set up in the 13th century by the archbishop Matthias Rátót.
The area was transformed by the Ottomans who built Turkish baths and mosques.
On Berényi Zsigmond Utca the Öziçeli Hacci Ibrahim Mosque is the oldest Ottoman-era mosque still standing on the banks of the Danube.
Later, refined Baroque and Neoclassical mansions began to crop up.
One, the Primate’s Palace, houses the Museum of Christian Art, which follows below.
That palace dominates the Erzsébet Park, where a piece of the old wall still has a stone with an Arabic inscription celebrating Suleiman the Magnificent’s capture of the city in 1543. Along the Danube you can look back for an unbroken view of the castle bastions, walls and roundels on their rocky pedestal.
4. Museum of Christian Art
On the upper floor of the Primate’s Palace in Víziváros, the Museum of Christian Art was founded in the 19th century by Archbishop János Simor and abound with liturgical paintings, sculpture and decorative arts from the 1200s to the 1800s.
There’s a wealth of Hungarian, Austrian and German Gothic painting from the 15th and 16th centuries, one of the most celebrated being the Calvary Altarpiece by Master Thomas of Coloswar.
You can also pore over Dutch, Italian Renaissance art, and later Baroque Hungarian, Austrian and German paintings.
The museum has an extensive collection of tapestries going back to the 1400s, as well as ceramic art, ivory, goldsmithery, clocks, tabernacles, stained glass and medieval oriental carpets.
5. Széchényi Square
Esztergom’s central plaza was the scene of the Medieval marketplace and is walled by Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical buildings.
The square is almost 10,000 square metres and around half of the monuments around it are listed.
After Esztergom was liberated in 1683, Széchényi Square was the first place to be repopulated and its houses were occupied by the city’s richest merchants.
The highlight is the Town Hall, on the south side, which had previously been the residence for János Bottyán.
He was a key figure in Hungary’s war against the Ottomans, and then in the struggle for independence from the Habsburgs at the start of the 18th century.
The building has been the Town Hall since 1723, making it the oldest in Hungary.
In the centre is the Holy Trinity statue, fashioned from white limestone György Kiss in 1900.
6. Cathedral Library
Also known as Biblioteca, the Cathedral Library is at the southern end of Víziváros.
This is the oldest and richest public library in Hungary, founded in 1853 and boasting more than 170,000 volumes.
The building is also striking, with early Eclectic architecture and with a statue of St Jerome above its cornice.
Among the many valuable books and manuscripts on its shelves are the Jordánszky-Kódex, a Hungarian translation of the bible from 1516-19, the Filipecz Kódex from 1470 and the 11th-century Tractatus.
The Cathedral Library is open all day Wednesday, as well as Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
7. Szent István Tér (St Stephen’s Square)
This monumental square atop Castle Hill extends east from the basilica and is bordered by resplendent historical architecture.
The properties around the square belonged to the clergy, and include the Old Seminary and Auxiliary Episcopal Palace, which sits across from the basilica on eastern flank.
North of the basilica, and on the northwest corner of the square is a sculpture of St.
Stephen at the top of one of the castle’s roundels, overlooking the Danube.
Representing Stephen I’s coronation that supposedly took place nearby at the start of the 11th century, this work is 12 metres high and was carved by Miklós Melocco.
8. Duna Múzeum (Danube Museum)
In a Baroque former administrative building from 1730, the Duna Múzeum is a family-oriented attraction all about water.
The museum came through a three-year restoration in the 2000s and quickly garnered a variety of awards and was recognised by the European Museum Forum.
The galleries are packed with moving models, multimedia and interactive games all relaying information about different aspects of water and the Danube.
Some of the spheres to explore are water’s physical and chemical properties, the water cycle, floods and flood protection, the history of water supply, sewerage and the history of Hungarian cartography.
9. Balassa Bálint Museum
In Víziváros, the headquarters of the Balassa Bálint Museum are set in a Baroque mansion that became the Esztergom’s first county hall after the town was liberated from the Ottomans.
The museum is a regional institution operating a few attractions like the home of the poet Babits Mihály, which we’ll talk about later.
The main branch in Víziváros has revolving exhibitions about the history of Esztergom and its wider county, with archaeology, art, ethnography 19th and 20th century photography and numismatic exhibits.
Some pieces to seek out are fragments from the portal of the 11th-century St Adalbert Cathedral and some stonework from the excavated Bakócz Chapel.
On its eponymous hill, the eastern portion of Esztergom is named “St Thomas” and until 1895 was a separate village.
The first sight to see in Szenttamás is the hilltop calvary, mostly Baroque in style but made up of stations and sculptures from different periods.
Partnered by a Neoclassical chapel, the ensemble was built to remember people who gave their lives defending Eger.
At the foot of the hill are the ruins of the Fürdő Szálló, a hotel attached to a bathing complex, where the Hungarian commander Lajos Kossuth stayed in 1848 while drumming up support for the War of Independence.
Also lower down the hill are Esztergom’s synagogue and the Baroque Chapel of St Stephen.
11. Dark Gate
Dug in 1824, around the same time that Esztergom’s basilica was started, the Dark Gate is tunnel built to link the seminary with the canonical houses.
The passageway is 90 metres long and has a Neoclassical style, with a barrel vault.
It was totally renovated in 2006 and contrary to its name is now brightly illuminated.
The Dark Gate opens onto the archdiocese’s wine cellar, and you can use the tunnel to get from the Seminary to the centre of Esztergom.
In the 1956 Revolution a bus heading to the Seminary, then a Russian military base, was attacked by a T-34 tank, causing 14 deaths.
There’s a plaque commemorating the event at the tunnel entrance.
12. Babits Mihály Emlékház
One of Hungary’s most celebrated cultural figures moved to Esztergom in 1924. Babits Mihály used the money from a Dante translation to buy this house on the east side of the city, and made repeated of extensions right up until he passed away in 1943. The interiors were painted by Einzinger Ferenc, a friend of Mihály.
On the south side of the property is the glass veranda where Mihály composed many of his most famous poems.
In his study you’ll find his typewriter and death mask, while there’s a wall where many of the leading lights of mid 20th-century left their autographs.
Among the many illustrious names are the poets Dezső Kosztolányi, Lőrinc Szabó, novelist Zsigmond Móricz and the pioneering Modernist painter Ödön Márffy.
13. Duna-Ipoly National Park
There’s unadulterated nature north and east of Esztergom at the Duna-Ipoly National Park, maybe the most biodiverse natural environment in Hungary.
The park encompasses over 60,000 hectares on both sides of the Danube.
Certain plant species, like the fragrant leek and lenten rose, can only be found in this park.
A good first step if you want to get acquainted with this nature is the Eco-Tourism Centre at Esztergom-Kertváros on the western limits of the park and hardly ten kilometres from the centre of Esztergom.
The Pilis Hills on the way own to Budapest are limestone formation that are perforated with more than 330 caves.
If this piques your sense of adventure in you the Benedek Elek Caving Club provides tours.
Above the apex of a scenic loop in the Danube, Prédikálószék (Pulpit Rock) is a 639-metre mountain in the Dunazug Range, part of the Duna-Ipoly National Park.
The peak is only 25 kilometres from the centre of Esztergom and the road to the mountain hugs the right bank of the river.
In 2016 a 12-metre wooden lookout tower was placed at the summit, commanding very picturesque views of the u-shaped meander in the Danube and the Börzsöny Mountains behind.
You can also step to the edge of the cliff for a more dramatic photo and bring a picnic to the tables below the tower.
Moments from Prédikálószék is a kilometre-long canyon with volcanic origins.
This gash in the landscape extends from Dobogókő deep in the national park and Dömös close to the right bank of the Danube.
In places Rám-Szakadék is 35 metres deep, and you can shuffle along ledges using handrails, and waterfalls have rickety-looking ladders to climb.
Due to erosion and shifting soils the canyon’s course changes by the year and as the catchment area is small flash floods aren’t uncommon, so it’s best to come when there’s been sustained dry weather in summer.