In Hungary, Budapest gets all the attention and deservedly so, it’s a magnificent city with all a tourist could ask for. Yet Debrecen, Hungary’s second-city, exudes a charm all its own. Who wouldn’t want to escape the hordes of foreign tourists in the capital, and head for a more subdued yet fascinating cultural experience in Hungary’s far-east?
Debrecen has actually been the Hungarian capital twice: Once during the revolution of 1848-49 and again following WWII. Despite being only a 2 ½ hour drive from Budapest, Debrecen and its environs offer visitors a glimpse into the “real Hungary” so often missed by travelers.
A city that’s literally risen from the ashes of multiple devastating fires and WWII bombings, Debrecen continues to evolve: Newly renovated museums stand tall on the shoulders of a rich intellectual history; creative green spaces and thermal spas provide ample recreational options; regular festivals create a convivial atmosphere; and stylish restaurants and bars inject fresh energy into this dynamic college town. It’s fitting that Debrecen’s coat of arms features a fiery phoenix rocketing skyward. This is a place perpetually re-defining itself, yet remaining rooted in a foundation of significant cultural importance.
Being in Debrecen, you don’t feel like you’re missing out on something elsewhere—historically and today—this is a happening place.
Downtown: walkable history
After checking in at the Hussar themed Hotel Óbester (pictured below), Anita and I headed down Péterfia Utca towards Kossuth Square. Hungary was in the midst of a summer heat wave, and at 10am the sweat was already dripping down my face. Emblematic of Debrecen, the colossal Great Reformed Church (Református Nagytemplom) and Kossuth Square are the heart and soul of local happenings. The church was the center of Hungary’s 16th century Protestant reform movement, and the square continues to host regular gatherings and festivals.
A church has existed at this site since the middle ages. Multiple fires have led to multiple rebuilds. The current church was completed in 1821, after the fires of 1802 which destroyed much of Debrecen. It was here, on April 13th 1849 that Lajos Kossuth declared Hungary’s independence from the Austrians (the Declaration of Independence passed the following day). In typical puritan style, the interior is devoid of embellishment, yet I found the soaring white walls and arches decidedly calming.
By way of a modern elevator and spiral stairway we climbed into one of the two bell towers. From here, inspiring views of the huge Kossuth Square and the downtown skyline tickled my sense of curiosity. The 56 ton Rákóczi Bell, made from Austrian cannonballs, can sometimes be heard from 30km away.
Back on street level, Anita and I passed through Kálvin Square and entered the neo-classical Calvinist College, home to the Museum of the Reformed College of Debrecen. The college has functioned since 1538 and has attracted many notable Hungarians, including famed author János Arany. At one point the college paper press produced over 50% of Hungary’s books. The Ecclesiastical Exhibition, despite its boring name, displayed intricately beautiful tapestries and carved wooden pulpits that were anything but sleep-inducing.
The neighboring school history exhibit was also nicely done, yet it was the upper level attractions that left a truly lasting impression. A sprawling mural led us up massive, well-worn wooden steps to the college library. Named one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, the teal painted pillars and shelves support over 600,000 volumes and vibrant local art fills gaps between shelving. Across the hall we stepped into the oratory. White walls and rows of pews surrounded a simple wooden pulpit. I could see Anita’s fascination as she sat in the very chair Lajos Kossuth, the father of Hungarian independence, occupied during sessions back in the mid 1800’s. A vintage Hungarian flag with “1848 March 15th” stitched into it hung on the wall above.
A few minutes walk down the aptly named Múzeum Utca led us to the Déri Múzeum. Here, inside an elegant neo-baroque building one finds the Christ Trilogy, the crowning achievement of Hungary’s most revered painter, Mihály Munkácsy. The three massive canvases combine to create a truly compelling experience; the largest measures 16ft X 24ft. Munkácsy’s attention to detail and the flow of movement and energy in his work had my eyes scanning the canvases in awe. Behind the Déri Múzeum, at Baltazár Dezső tér, one finds the enormous MODEM Modern and Contemporary Art Center.“The Real Da Vinci” exhibit attracted approximately 160,000 visitors in 2007.
Ikon: a tasty new twist on classic Hungarian cuisine
Many find Hungarian food to be delicious, if not a bit heavy. Ikon Restaurant & Lounge, which skirts the edge of Kossuth Square, has found the perfect balance. Sleek and luxurious, with perfectly coiffed waiters and walls of backlit Hungarian wine bottles, Ikon serves old-favorites with a modern flare.
Ikon sources its meat and produce from local farmers, and makes each meal fresh to order. Debreceni kolbász (Debrecen double sausage) came first. Served with crusty bread, homemade mustard and horseradish, the paprika infused link was sausage heaven. Mildly spicy, the aromas and flavors represented everything I love in Hungarian gastronomy. Their new-school take on the region’s famed Hortobágyi Palacsinta (crepe stuffed with chicken in a paprika sour cream sauce) was full of piquant yet smooth flavor.
Ikon’s roast of Mangalica (a prized Hungarian breed of pig that some call the Kobe Beef of pork) was tender beyond belief. I’ve never had pork that literally melts in your mouth—until this occasion. For dessert, apple pie was on offer—but this wasn’t your granny’s apple pie. Layers of flaky pastry filled with a creamy apple sauce and topped with ice cream, had me sweetly satisfied.
Aside from the rather loud techno-pop music, Ikon was a remarkable dining experience. “This was the best restaurant I’ve ever been to,” Anita said after downing a glass of perfectly paired Kadarka, a Hungarian wine from the Szekszard region. As for me: Ikon was hands down the best restaurant I’ve been to in Hungary.
Green Space and Brown Waters
Minutes from downtown on Debrecen’s sleek new tram line is the Nagyerdő Park and protected forest. The word “park”, however, doesn’t begin to describe this vast playground of trails, ponds, thermal baths, sports facilities and eateries. Our explorations began at the University of Debrecen’s beautiful main building. Grand fountains and manicured hedges lead to a royal looking edifice which has nurtured the minds of some of Hungary’s most celebrated poets and journalists. Inside, the cavernous inner yard was staggering in size and beauty.
Walking the park, over wooden bridges and past art installations, I began to feel that I could in fact live in Debrecen. Cyclists rode past, birds chirped overhead, children frolicked in fountains and couples picnicked in the grass. I began to see Debrecen as a very livable city. It all seemed rather—dare I say it—utopian. Thanks to a European Union Grant the Nagyerdő Park went through a series of improvements begining in the summer of 2014. I don’t know how it was before, but if I were a local, you’d find me here.
We strolled onto a large square where burly men were setting up for the Campus Festival, an annual four day music festival which attracts some of Hungary’s top acts. It all takes place in the shadow of Debrecen’s Nagyerdei Stadium, an award-winning asymmetrical structure home to the DVSC football team. Beside the stadium we ducked into the circa 1912 water tower which now doubles as an art gallery, café bar and the perfect lookout point over the park. They’ve even affixed rock climbing holds to the tower’s central pillar. This is definitely my kinda place.
After a day of near constant walking in the mid-summer heat, it was time to relax. This being Hungary, that means a dip in a thermal bath. As evening fell, Anita and I eagerly entered the Aquaticum Debrecen Thermal Wellness Hotel. The natural thermal water here has a brownish tinge due to naturally occurring iodine. Natives swear by its healing powers. After an hour of soaking in pools of varying temperatures my sore joints were good as new.
Down the narrow and buzzing Simonffy Utca, Anita and I headed to Hal Köz. Now an atmospheric square with arching fountains and people overflowing out of laid back bars, this space once housed Debrecen’s fish market. At Mokka Drink Bar we were joined by Debrecen native Nora Erdei. Over a few drinks we discussed her love for her hometown. “People say Debrecen is too far,” she told us. “But too far from what? We have everything here like a big city, but with a small town feel.”
All around us, stylish, amiable people occupied the patio. The buzz of dozens of voices peppered by the occasional chorus of laughter had me smiling. I felt relaxed, happy, much like I did back in my early twenties. Anita, Nora and I discussed issues in Hungary and in the U.S. We chuckled and sighed at our respective nations’ stereotypes and shortcomings. “So what do you think of Debrecen?” Nora asked me. I thought about my answer for a while: I thought about Debrecen’s history, its place in Hungary’s dramatic past, about its revamped museums and revitalizing parks and baths.
“I like it here,” I said. “I like it here a lot.”—
Our trip was supported by the Association for the Tourism of Debrecen and Hortobágy. My opinions and recommendations of course remain my own.
If You Go:
Best time to visit: Unless you like the cold, head to Debrecen April-October. For a truly memorable experience go for Debrecen’s famous Flower Carnival. The party starts on August 15th and culminates in a flower parade through the city on August 20th, which is also the day of Hungary’s biggest national holiday.
Getting there: By air Debrecen is accessible from London-Luton every day of the week and from Eindhoven two times a week via WizzAir. On October 25th Wizz Air will operate new flights from Milan-Bergamo. Three new routes from Brussels Charleroi, Malmo and Paris Beauvais will start December 16th.
By car, Debrecen is an easy 2 to 2 1/2 hour drive from Budapest via the M3 motorway. Click here for directions.
Ikon Retaurant & Lounge
Address: 4025 Debrecen, Piac utca 23.
Monday-Saturday: 11:30 – 23:00
Sunday: 11:30 – 15:00
Phone: +36 (30) 555 7766
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