Insider’s Guide: St Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest

  • 13 Jun 2023 10:01 AM
Insider’s Guide: St Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest
Our wonderful capital is home to a stellar selection of architectural wonders. Continuing our new series, we explore the fascinating stories and key facts about these remarkable structures. Here we put the spotlight on St Stephen’s Basilica, Szent István Bazilika to Hungarians.

What is St Stephen’s Basilica?

Its dome dominating the skyline of downtown Pest, the grand Catholic basilica is dedicated to the first king of Hungary, Szent István or Saint Stephen.

Crowned in 1000, St Stephen is considered the founder of the nation and responsible for making it a Christian state. His right hand, or Holy Dexter, is kept in the Basilica and taken out once a year as part of the procession to mark 20 August, St Stephen’s Day, a national holiday in the Hungarian calendar.

The basilica serves as the principal place of worship for Catholics and continues to attract countless visitors thanks to its striking beauty and cultural significance. It’s also the grand showcase for events of great national importance, most notably funerals of notable Hungarians and major presentations.

Equal with the Hungarian Parliament Building, the Basilica is one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest at 96 metres. This is no coincidence, for both were planned to mark the millennial celebration of Hungarians settling in this part of the Carpathian basin, marked during the seminal year of 1896.

Why was St Stephen’s Basilica created?

The construction of St Stephen’s Basilica was driven by a desire to honour Hungary’s first king, Stephen, István to Hungarians. He was canonised in 1083, and his right hand is preserved as a holy relic here. The basilica’s dedication to King Stephen symbolises Hungary's strong Christian heritage.

According to legend, his right hand was miraculously preserved after his death, and it is believed that it possesses healing powers.

When was St Stephen’s Basilica built?

Construction of the basilica began in 1851 and took over half a century to complete. The initial plans were designed by József Hild, a prominent Hungarian architect, but he passed away before seeing the project through.

Miklós Ybl, another renowned architect also known for building the Opera House, then took over and introduced a Neo-Classical style, incorporating elements of Renaissance and Baroque architecture. The basilica was eventually consecrated in 1906.

Where is St Stephen’s Basilica?

Located in the heart of Budapest, St Stephen's Basilica lends its name to the showcase square it towers over, Szent István tér. Its prominent downtown location makes it a key landmark and its graceful presence can be seen from various vantage points across the city, not least from the Buda side.

Walking up Zrínyi utca from the Gresham Palace by the river is one of Budapest’s great urban experiences, as the basilica looms into view at the end of your field of vision.

The square is also the backdrop for one of the city’s main Christmas markets during December, as well as a major outdoor film festival.

What else should I know about St Stephen’s Basilica?

The basilica is steeped in myth and intrigue. Its original architect, József Hild, lived in very modest circumstances and died of pneumonia in March 1867. A year later, the dome of the basilica he had been working on for the previous 16 years collapsed.

When Miklós Ybl then took over the project, he had to demolish what had gone before and start from a clean slate.

As he had done for his other constructions, Ybl brought in sculptor Leó Fessler to work on the intricate decorative elements. A perfectionist, Fessler undertook the commission but was never satisfied, and died in abject poverty in Újpest in 1893, only a week before his 53rd birthday.

On a brighter note, today’s visitors can access the dome by taking an elevator of climbing 364 stairs for outstanding panoramic views from the top. The basilica also hosts regular concerts, and is known for the quality of its acoustics – Miklós Ybl, as mentioned, also designed the Opera House.

To sum up, why visit St Stephen’s Basilica?

As you explore Budapest as a first-time visitor or long-term expat, you’ll constantly come across St Stephen’s Basilica, its dome providing a captivating backdrop to many memorable moments.

You can also enjoy a concert here in sumptuous surroundings, or join a guided tour in English as a group numbering from two to 15 people, or 16 to 40.

Words by Peterjon Cresswell
Peterjon has been researching the byways of Budapest for 30 years, extending his expertise across Europe to produce guidebooks for Time Out and his own website

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