Southern Hungary: Szeged & Pécs

On the southern border of Hungary there are two popular cities to visit about 3 hours from Papa. Both are college towns and both have great food, culture and atmosphere. However, Szeged is the third largest city in Hungary and is slightly larger than Pécs (145,000) with around 160,000 people. Szeged has more of a spread out, big city feel, while Pécs feels more quaint. Between the two we preferred Pécs. It is nestled in the southern hills of Hungary and the elevation changes make for a unique and beautiful square and town center punctuated by three main holy buildings – a Catholic cathedral, Muslim mosque (no longer used), and Jewish synagogue. Both places were clean, with lovely streets to wander and plenty of shops and eateries to check out. The food we had in both cities was great! There are parks and plenty of great things to do with kids and families in each place, and both are well worth the visit. In addition to the cities themselves, there are also great spots to check out nearby as well. Below are highlights of both cities and the surrounding countryside!

Szeged

Szeged is located on the south-central border of Hungary and Serbia. When we arrived in Szeged we noticed right away that people were very friendly, but they didn’t speak English as readily as we anticipated, given that it is a large city and college town. It didn’t inhibit our travels as we have learned to communicate here just fine, but it is definitely of note. We also noticed Szeged is a bike friendly place. We loved seeing how the Tisa river intersected the town and the lights reflected off the water from the bridge at night. On one side of the river a the large Elizabeth Park has a lovely promenade flanked with leaning trees and plenty of fun things for kids to explore. Nearby is the Szeged Fürdő “Sunshine Aquapolis” with plenty of outdoor and indoor pools to satisfy all your thermal bathing desires. When we visited (during the lighter side of the pandemic), the indoor portion of the pool was closed but it looked amazing!

Over the bridge the town opens up into a series of streets that lead from one end of the “old town” at Votive Church (cathedral of Szeged) to Szechenyi Square and Móra Ferenc Museum on the other. Szeged was established in 1498 but was pillaged shortly after by Turkish forces and occupied for almost 150 years. The whimsical statues and monuments really bring the place to life!

Szeged has notably intricate and colorful architecture, some of which is can be seen below. During festival season, the bridge and streets of the city are loaded with tents and stalls and the city is mobbed with people. This is a very popular place to come for the Pork and Palinka Festival, Szeged Wine Festival, International Beer Festival, and Deja Vu, Youth, and Fish as well as an Air Show, and hopping Christmas Markets. Obviously public events have been cancelled until further notice due to the Coronavirus.

We weren’t able to visit the Móra Ferenc Museum this time, but the dinosaurs make it a must-see for our little ones! It was founded in the late 1800’s and still serves as a place of research for archaeology, ethnography, natural science and history. (Images below from google images)

The impressive Votive Church was being renovated when we visited, but its presence is powerful in Dom Ter (square). This is a 20th century cathedral built between 1913 and 1930. On the other side of the square is a glockenspiel, and to the left of the church is Dömötör Tower, built between the 1100-1200’s. The porticos surrounding the square reminded me of Bologna, Italy!

Situated between the Mayor’s Office Building and the adjacent House of Labor is the Bridge of Sighs. If it looks familiar that is because it resembles the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, Italy. This bridge was built in the late 1800’s during the reign of Franz Joseph. The Szeged Synagogue, built in 1907, is incredibly ornate and is supposedly the fourth largest in the world! (Google images)

We enjoyed good food, beer, and breakfast in Szeged. There seemed to be plenty of patio dining establishments and even though we are still in “be cautious” mode, most places were open. We had a delicious dinner in the outside beer garden at Maláta kézműves sör- és grill kert, including BBQ and burgers, and terrific craft beer! This is the first Hungarian craft beer we have tried and every single variety was great. The next morning we ate breakfast at the quaint Kelesztő. It has a small menu but everything is fresh and made to order and delicious. The staff was friendly and service was quick! We also had yummy ice cream at A Capella Cukrászda – all of which we recommend!

As we only had one overnight in Szeged, we would like to go back and explore more. There is also a zoo, and plenty of popular festivals to join when things are safe again for large crowds!

PÉCS

Beautiful Pécs (pronounced “pay-ch”) is located about 2 hours west of Szeged on the southern border of Hungary and Croatia. It rests at the foot of the a series of hills and we decided to climb one after our 3 hour drive south from Pápa. The trail we found was about 10 minutes outside the city in the village of Kővágószőlős. We hiked up the trail to a series of rocks that overlook the valley called the Babás rocks. These are shaped like big round roly poly babies! They were super fun to climb around on and the views were spectacular. The hike was fairly steep (not recommended in or just after rain) but not too difficult for children. We parked along the small road leading to the trail head, here.

After our hike, we checked into our hotel. There are many options for hotels and apartment stays via booking.com or Air BnB, but we recommend finding a place that is a walkable distance to the downtown, which is where we spent most of our time exploring. Everything is walkable here, although the northern part of the city can get quite hilly! We stayed just outside the city walls near Calvary Hill which turned out to be a perfect location.

We walked the streets for a while getting our bearings and scoped out a few places to eat and snag gelato later (see below). The streets were clean and the square was spacious and beautiful!

The square in Pécs is unique in that there is a Mosque (rather than a Catholic church) at one end of the square, and it is located on a gradual grade – watch your footing! As usual in Hungary, the surrounding buildings are colorful, and statues can be spotted throughout the city.

Not only is the Mosque a centerpiece of the square, but there is also a massive Catholic cathedral on the northwest side of the city and a Jewish synagogue on the southeast side of the city. The mosque was built by Pasha Qasim the Victorious in the mid 1500’s and is an impressive example of Turkish architecture of the time. It was used for around 150 years in the Islamic faith and then was converted to a church during the Hapsburg reign in the 1700’s. Today it is used as another Catholic church!

The Pécs Basillica (cathedral) has an impressive history. Its foundation began in the 4th century and it was modified with various occupations and throughout history in Romanesque and Gothic styles, most recently in the 1800’s. The iron door greeting parishioners is especially ornate with a sprawling grape leaf pattern.

You simply cannot visit Pécs without exploring the Cultural Quarter. This artsy old factory district has been given a facelift from the years it was used to manufacture porcelain. Now it still has a small factory used for those purposes, but there are also eateries, shops, playgrounds, and plenty of places to explore including a lab, planetarium, exhibitions, and tours. Of course we visited during the pandemic, so not everything was open, but it is worth going even when shops are closed to wander the streets!

We enjoyed a few delicious meals while in town. We highly recommend the spacious, hip Reggeli restaurant for sweet or savory brunch dishes and drinks. Everything we had was to die for! We also enjoyed our dinner Streat Burger – made to order with delicious homemade fries that reminded us of Five Guys! For the vegetarians or vegan travelers, LYR is a great stop. They have a fresh take on lunch and desert items that will please even the pickiest of eaters! All three places had a great atmosphere. We also wanted to try Juice & Co, but they were closed over the holiday weekend. Every restaurant looked great – there was even a craft brewery restaurant and plenty of sidewalk seating for nicer weather. Pécs is the kind of place you can’t go wrong, wherever you choose to dine. Even our quick pizzas (and big fun drinks!) at Azzurra were delicious.

Lavendula gelato has the most unique flavors – and they were all delicious! We went twice!

Pécs is the kind of place you can wander around for hours just looking at all the artwork and sculptures, chilling at a sidewalk cafe, or relaxing in the square. It is quite clear that this is a college town. We loved the overall vibe! Most people spoke English here, too, unlike in Szeged, where we were surprised to find that in that college town, many people did not.

Heading up the hill towards the Tettye district there is plenty to do and see. An awesome playground is at the base of the hill with a few really long slides and tons of equipment as well as a hand ball court. The kids enjoyed this playground twice and begged to go back again! The Tettye ruins are located further up the hill and provide a beautiful view overlooking Pécs. There are also places to stay and restaurants up this way that our friends recommended to us including Tettye Vendéglő étterem.

For those who love love locks, Pécs has no shortage of these! This wall below (Lakatfal) rivaled the one we saw in Prague, and the art instillation outside of the Pécs Cathedral is quickly becoming another hotspot for locks!

Pictured below is a view of the four towers of the Cathedral from the little park atop Kálvária hill.

For a fun weekend getaway, you can’t go wrong with Szeged or Pécs! For more fun, both places have a zoo (although we are spoiled with the Veszprém Zoo…), and if you love wine tours, it is popular to hit up the wineries in the town of Villány, about 30 minutes southeast of Pécs. It is also fun to check out “desert of Hungary” on your way to Szeged! There is plenty to see and do in Southern Hungary!

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