When the Archabbey of Pannonhalma was built more than a thousand years ago, it was the centre of a plan to ‘civilise’ the Hungarians.
Whether they needed civilising, and whether the Christian rulers of Western Europe leading this crusade were actually civilised, is probably a matter of debate. But, regardless, this magnificent complex was the first educational institution in Hungary and still plays that role today.
Set amongst a verdant forest at the top of a hill, you can see its looming shape from almost anywhere in the small town that’s grown around its base in a rural part of northwestern Hungary, about 100 kilometres from Budapest.
A school and a religious centre, it may be, but at first appearances it looks more like a castle or a palace, with thick fortified walls, large wings of buildings, and a soaring central tower.
Visiting Pannonhalma as a day trip from Budapest, as I do, is not just about discovering the heritage of the site, but marvelling at its art collection and treasury of priceless artefacts.
To take the hassle out of your visit, this day tour from Budapest will organise everything and also show you Gyor and Lebeny.
This Hungarian World Heritage Site is also still in use, with the resident monks gathering for prayer three times a day, performing religious ceremonies in the community, and running s social care home. More than 300 people are employed by Pannonhalma Abbey – so no wonder it feels a bit like a small city!
The history of the Archabbey of Pannonhalma
To get the whole picture of the Achabbey of Pannonhalma’s story, you need to go all the way back to the year 996, when monks from the Bohemia region settled on the hill.
They came here to spread Christianity under the patronage of Prince Géza, who ruled the Hungarian tribes at the time. He was known for maintaining his power through extreme cruelty – and he was also the first Hungarian leader to allow Christians from Western Europe.
Pannonhalma began to thrive under Géza’s son, Stephen, who was the first King of Hungary and the first devout Christian of his family. The abbey was the base for the religion’s teachings to be spread, leading to the general Hungarian population being converted.
The buildings that the original monks lived in, worshiped in, preached from, were eventually destroyed by time and fire, and the first iteration of the church you see today began construction in 1224.
Over the centuries, the site was expanded and altered many times, with the cloister getting its present Gothic form in 1486, and the rich Baroque decorations coming in the 17th and 18th centuries. And even in modern times, because it’s still in use, there are continuously repairs and improvements.
Although the exact functions performed here have changed over the millennia since its inception (as you would expect), their general nature hasn’t.
In 1055, the first document in Hungarian was written here and, even today, there are still theological and cultural writings produced at the abbey.
From the very beginning, Pannonhalma Abbey was a place of teaching (even King Saint Stephen sent his son here), and there is now a school on the site. (The Pannonhalma Benedictine Boarding School is one of Hungary’s most prestigious religious institutions.)
And, ultimately, the site was about inspiring people to follow the Christian traditions. From missionaries to grand monuments, it still serves that purpose.
Things to see at Pannonhalma Abbey
The hill that supports Pannonhalma Abbey is almost 300 metres high. I arrive by train at the station at the bottom of town and, walking up the road towards the complex for about half an hour, I catch glimpses of it along the way.
The buildings are surrounded by trees that cover the slopes beneath it, forming an approach of forest, creating a dramatic effect that gives an extra sense of elevation and sanctity.
On the way up to the Archabbey of Pannonhalma is a modern concrete visitors centre with a small taste of of what you’ll find, but the building is more for school groups or events and it’s easily skippable.
Emerging from the forest, there are high stone walls – necessary defences over centuries of conflict. The main entrance takes you up to the top of the wall, with sweeping views across the countryside.
From here, you can wander through the complex and see the main sights that are open to the public. The included audioguide has a recommended route and I suggest you follow it. It’ll lead you to the best things to see at Pannonhalma.
The basilica at Pannonhalma is officially called Saint Martin’s Basilica, named after Martin of Tours who is said to have been born at the foot of the hill.
The basilica, first built around 1224, feels cavernous, with a large space and only limited light coming through the windows at the end. Its undecorated stone columns are austere but create a sense of history and gravity.
But this old style of the basilica is actually a new remodelling, an attempt to regain some of the simplicity that the monks felt reflected their spirituality, after the space had become more colourful and crowded over the centuries.
From the basilica, you can go through the red marble gates that imitate the Roman style, through to the crypt.
The crypt appears to be held up by six pillars resting on octagonal bases, with the column heads decorated in a thick budding leaf motif. Looking up into the western dome, there are carved figures that look like human heads.
On one wall is a seat that’s carved out of red marble. The legend says that this was a throne for King Saint Stephen – but it’s more likely it was just a chair for the abbot.
The next section in the audioguide (and the suggested route) is the cloister, traditionally one of the most important parts of the monastery. In the Middle ages, the most important community areas opened from the cloister and it’s where the monks would’ve gathered for liturgies.
Originally the cloister was built in the Roman style but it was reconstructed in the Gothic style in 1486. The inner garden, known as the Paradise Garden, was planted with herbs and you can still see the water tank in the centre.
There are plant symbols decorating different parts of the cloister, which are a nod to the importance of the herbs, which were considered to be remedies for problems of the soul. Perhaps some of those problems are represented in the human faces carved into stone that depict the deadly sins.
While the basilica may technically be the most important part of Pannonhalma Abbey, I think the library is the most spectacular. It’s this room that, in many ways, captures the significance of Pannonhalma.
At the end of the 11th century, there were about 80 volumes in the library, in 1786, there are about 4000 volumes, and now there are about 400,000 volumes!
It’s a striking room, with the walls covered in bookshelves, interrupted by grey marble columns. An upper level with a low wooden fence has more shelves and books along the wall.
The ceiling is painted with frescoes – the central one an image of Minerva, the Greek goddess of Science. There are also statues with important figures from the abbey’s history
Visiting Pannonhalma Abbey
Not all of the complex at Pannonhalma Abbey is open to the public, with areas like the monastery and the school just for private use. Other than the main sights I’ve mentioned, you can walk around some of the open air terraces and pathways.
But beyond the complex itself, is the forest and the large gardens that are free to enter. The garden in particular is quite large and has a few different sections to explore.
It’s easy to spend at least two hours seeing everything – possibly even longer if you spend a while in the outside areas.
There are lots of great things to do in Budapest, but it’s worth exploring out of the city too. Pannonhalma makes an excellent day trip and I’ve got some information below on how to get to Pannonhalma from Budapest.
If you don’t want the hassle of working out the logistics yourself, you can join this tour from Budapest, which also takes in Gyor and Lebeny.
Where is Pannonhalma Abbey?
Pannonhalma Abbey is about 100 kilometres west of Budapest, in northwestern Hungary. It is located within the small town of Pannonhalma.
The official address is Pannonhalma, Vár 1, 9090 Hungary. You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Pannonhalma Abbey
Pannonhalma is an easy drive from Budapest that will take about 1h 30m, going through the outskirts of Gyor.
Getting from Budapest to Pannonhalma by public transport is easy, but a bit time-consuming. First get the express train from Budapest-Keleti to Gyor (about 1h 20m) and then transfer onto a local train to Pannonhalma (another 24m). The walk to the abbey is about 30 minutes, or you can get a bus from the station.
The train between Gyor and Pannonhalma can be a bit irregular so I recommend checking the return times in advance and planning accordingly. (You might also like to spend some time in Gyor on the way back.)
When is Pannonhalma Abbey open?
Pannonhalma Abbey has different opening hours throughout the year. They are as follows.
First two weeks of January: Closed
Third week of January – 20 March: 10:00 -15:00, closed Monday
21 March – 30 April: 09:00 -16:00, closed Monday
1 May – 31 May: 09:00 – 17:00 every day
1 June – 31 August: 09:00 – 18:00 every day
1 September – 30 September: 09:00 – 17:00 every day
1 October – 11 November: 09:00 -16:00, closed Monday
12 November – 30 December: 10:00 -15:00, closed Monday (Closed 24, 25, 31 December)
How much does it cost to visit Pannonhalma Abbey?
The entrance fee for Pannonhalma Abbey is as follows.
Adults: 2500 Ft (US$7.15)
Concession: 1800 Ft (US$5.15)
Family (2 adults and 4 concessions): 5000 Ft (US$14.30)
Children under 6 are free
The small town around Pannonhalma doesn’t have much else to see, but there are a handful of nice restaurants and cafes, so feel free to take your time and have lunch here.
The Abbey also has a winery you can visit to see the production of 300,000 bottles a year. There’s also a restaurant and wine bar next to the visitor centre, if you would like to try some.
At Pannonhalma Abbey and the surrounding area, there may be 1000 years of heritage, but there’s always something new happening. The small religious community here doesn’t rest on its past, and it’s likely to have a long future.