Debrecen is Hungary’s second city and a city worthy of a day trip, or alternatively it serves as the perfect base for exploring Eastern Hungary and the Hungarian Great Plain.
A Little History
Debrecen is a 13th century settlement that was first given a charter in 1361. It served as a market town for many centuries and no buildings exist from its medieval past. The greatest event in its history was during the Hungarian revolution of the 1840’s when the Revolutionary Government fled Budapest and set up camp here, making Debrecen the Hungarian capital in the process. It was short-lived, they soon fell to a Russian army on a battle ground outside the city. The city prospered after this time, but World War II took its toll with a vast percentage of the city destroyed. It was rebuilt after the war by the citizens.
The city is centred on an attractive main square known as Kossuth square and most of its sights are to be found within walking distance. The square is completely pedestrianized except for being dissected by a tram. Both sides of the square are lined by attractive bars and restaurants and it really is a pleasant place to take a stroll. Fountains and water features really add to the ambience.
Many impressive buildings surround the square such as the Financial Palace, the County Hall and the First Savings Bank, but the most impressive is the Hotel Aranybika. It is a wonderful piece of art-nouveau architecture and the lobby is blessed with a stained glass ceilings. Sadly the rooms have aged badly and it is best appreciated for its aesthetics.
The Great Church or Nagy Templom in Hungarian is the symbol of the city of Debrecen and the centrepiece of Kossuth Square. It’s bright yellow neoclassical facade really stands out and it’s twin clock towers are its main draw. They remind me of a diving bell helmet.
The church is also the symbol of the protestant church is Hungary since its construction in 1824. Opening hours vary drastically throughout the year, but on summer weekdays it is open from 9 to 6. Entry to the church is 700huf and this gives you access to climb the clock towers. I rarely decline the opportunity to climb a tower.
The west tower consists of 210 steps and centred within is the four and a half tonne Rákóczi Bell. This bell is significantly older than the church, dating from 1642 and was constructed from Austrian cannonballs. It survived the fire of 1802 that decimated much of Debrecen including the church that previously existed on the site.
The principal reason to climb the towers is not the invincible bell, but to gain entry to the viewing platform that gives good views down over the square and across the city. The views are decent if not spectacular.
Much of the rest of the church is filled with curios such as models of biblical structures such as the tower of Babylon. The actual church floor borders on bland with the exception of the organ to the rear of the pulpit.
Two castle-like Reform Churches
There are two very contrasting Reform Churches to be found within the city. The first of these, the Reformatus Kistemplom is on Kossuth square. It has seen a difficult past since 1661, being burned down, and having its spire destroyed in a storm which inspired those rebuilding it to give it a castellated parapet. It is known locally as the truncated church. It’s one of those difficult Hungarian churches to visit only opening between 10 and 1. But it’s worth the effort. It’s unique in image amongst Hungarian churches, and unlike the Nagy Templom, the interior is beautifully decorated. The tower can be climbed also.
The other reform church that is worth investing your time in is not located in the city centre. It is on Arpad Ter about 2km outside. My first impressions were it was made of Lego, but later I assumed Walt Disney had a part to play.
Originally built in 1912 but altered several times since the most recent in 2017 presented it with a major facelift. Whatever they did it worked on me. I can’t attest for the interior as it was unfortunately closed with no obvious opening hours but those magical turreted towers won over my heart. The roof was also decorated with colourful tiles. It was an inspired renovation.
The Deri Museum is located near the rear of the Great Church in a neo-baroque building. The exhibit while isn’t huge is centred on an art exhibition of Mihály Munkacsy. His paintings on the Passion of the Christ are amongst the most treasured of Hungarian art. It also contains artefacts from the surrounding region and the best of its international offerings are a Japanese section on Samurai’s and the Egyptian mummies presentation.
Big Forest Area
It won’t be winning prizes for imaginative titles but this area north of the city is a refreshing break from the city centre. It covers a large area and a plethora of sights. We spent some hours at the Aquaticum, it’s wellness centre and indoor Waterpark, but the green areas surrounding it feature some genuine pleasures. Hungary’s most modern football stadium can be visited as well as the one hundred year old University of Debrecen. For those wishing to nurture their fun side, take a walk along the stepping stones through the lake (careful I fell in) or climb the water tower and abseil back down. If Kossuth square is the city’s soul, then the Big Forest is its heartbeat. Tram number 1 runs regularly connecting the two of them.
Hortobagy National Park
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is within easy reach of Debrecen. You can read all about this location in my blog here.
When to visit
The main event in the Debrecen Callander is the Festival of Flowers an event which takes place every August 20th. Floats built from thousands of flowers partake in a parade through the streets. It is a ticketed event and there is a need to book it in advance should we wish to attend this seated street event. Try to schedule a visit around this time as the whole city comes to life, stalls fill the square and live artists perform.
How to get there
Debrecen is easily reached by the M35 motorway from Budapest in around two hours. We drove there from nearby Nyiregyhaza, having rented a car from Rentalcars.com. There is also an international airport serving a number of European cities. For those wishing to visit by train, Ferihegy station in Budapest has direct trains to Debrecen.
Where to stay
Debrecen has a number of good hotels. They are split between the city centre and around the Big Forest area. With good transport routes into the city I would recommend to avail of those with the added bonus of the spa nearby. The Aquaticum runs its own hotel. Most hotels are reasonably priced as is expected in this part of Hungary.
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I hope my guide to Debrecen helps out any aspiring visitors. Feel free to share, like, or ask a question.