During my frequent stops in Vienna, I became increasingly curious about visiting the awfully close border towns of Hungary like Kőszeg and Sopron. While both are perfectly manageable day trips from Vienna, I simply never got around tot hem while I was there. So when I decided to spend some time in Hungary this July, Sopron made for a natural first stop on my visit to Hungary.
The city of Sopron sits at the closest border crossing to Vienna between Austria and Hungary. This has led to it becoming quite popular with Viennese locals popping over to shop and get cheap dental work. However, that’s not all Sopron is. At the centre of Sopron is a precious little old town, full of elegant buildings and intriguing history. Allow me to share with you this grand little city, only a stone’s throw from Vienna.
Let’s start in the centre and work our way out. At the northern end of Sopron’s Old town lies the European staple, the Main Square. They’re usually a good place to start, right? Sopron’s certainly is. Around the sides of the Main Square, visitors are treated to some wonderfully elegant buildings. There’s the stately City Hall, another government building opposite and plenty of well-preserved homes.
The square centres on a detailed and graceful trinity column, often found in old towns of Central Europe. Also known as “plague pillars” they were built to honour the end of the plague affecting the city.
Then there’s the Goat Church. Yes, that’s not a typo. Seen below to the left of the column, the Church of the Assumption (the actual name) has quite the origin story. According to local legend, a local goat herder uncovered a treasure on the site of the church, which led to the building of the church on that spot. There’s even a goat with pride of place on the previously mentioned trinity column.
The most iconic landmark for the city of Sopron is the city’s Fire Tower. A symbol of the city, the tower and its gate dates back to the 13th century when it functioned as the northern entrance into the town. Back in the day it served as a watchtower, alerting the city to fires, invaders and most importantly wine caravans. It underwent a Baroque redesign in the 16th century and actually reminds me quite a bit of Michael’s Gate in Bratislava.
The tower received a major restoration in 2011/2012, which also included the reopening of the city gate below. This includes the restoration of the sculpture that adorns the gateway, a scene of Sopron locals paying homage to Hungaria, a personification of the Hungarian nation.
Of course, the big reason to visit the Fire Tower is for its views across the city. Once at the observation deck, visitors are treated to all sorts of views of the city. Not only do you get to look down on the main square and old town, but you can appreciate the surrounding neighbourhoods and look back towards the Austrian border. Entry to the tower costs 1150ft from the tourist information centre.
One of the more glamorous buildings in the city’s Main Square is the Storno House. Today this house hosts a museum that combines the beautiful interior of the Storno family, with their impressive art collection and the history of Sopron as well. While the exterior of the medieval house predates him, artist Ferenc Storno renovated the interior when he bought the house in the 1870s. A travelling artist and former chimneysweep, he eventually moved to Sopron for work. The beautiful family home now sits as an example of homes from that era but as a gallery for their impressive collection.
A highlight of visiting is the family art collection displayed in the family’s old living quarters. I’m not usually one for tours of bedrooms, kitchens etc. but the art and design of the rooms really intrigued me. I particularly liked all the German sayings that lined with ceiling of one room. They included “Travel is a beautiful thing but there is a lot of mischief” and “Calm blood always good” which rhymes in German.
The museum also reveals Sopron’s interesting history, from never falling to the Ottomans to its musical pedigree which featured the likes of Haydn and Liszt. Entry to the museum costs 1000ft for adults (all prices as of July 2017). Sadly you can’t take photos for free inside the museum, hence their absence here.
Sopron Town Walls
While only sections remain now, Sopron was for a long time a walled city. The medieval town walls seen today where built over the remnants of ancient Roman walls. The city was defended by several rings of walls with ramparts, battlements and intermediate towers. Over time sections of the walls became submerged and hidden by houses and urban growth. It was only because of damage sustained by bombing in WWII that the original middle wall was uncovered.
Today you can walk along sections of the walls on the Bailey Promenade. The path that passes between houses and the walls is dotted with information boards that detail the history and design of the city’s old fortifications.
Old Town Streets
Away from the main square, the rest of the old town is mostly a series of typical old cobbled streets. This means it’s the perfect place for my favourite thing – wandering. Unfortunately for me, my visit coincided with significant roadworks going on in the Old Town. This meant some streets were blocked off and one of the main squares. Still, the ones that free from construction showed me just what Soron has to offer.
One of the more striking buildings you can come across away from the main square is the Cezar Pince. Looking a bit worse for wear because of the local roadworks, the building’s shape and facade are quite special even in this state. Inside you’ll find an elegant tavern, one of the city’s better rated restaurants.
Arcades and Courtyards
One of the interesting holdovers from the medieval period is the number of arcades and courtyards found scattered about the old town. Here and there you’ll notice a small arcade cutting through residential buildings. In fact my first time finding the main square was after wandering through a series of arcades to avoid the roadworks.
Heading south away from the the Old Town, you’ll come across a series of parks. Firstly there’s the one in Széchenyi Square, lined with some beautiful public buildings. Further on as you near the train station, you come across Deák Square seen above. A quiet residential area, it’s another nice green spot surrounded by central European architecture.
Throughout the parks you’ll of course come across statues and memorials to local figures and events. One particularly expressive memorial is the above one to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Stuck under a Soviet-backed government, the people revolted for over 2 weeks near the end of 1956. Sadly it led to a fierce reprisal and 2,500 civilian deaths.
Assuming you’re coming from Vienna, the drive is quite straightforward and takes around an hour. Simply head for Eisenstadt and then keep going to the border. For those on public transport, there are direct trains to Sopron from Vienna Hauptbahnhof every two hours. Direct, the train will take about 80 minutes. With these kinds of travel time, visiting Sopron is clearly a viable option for a day trip from Vienna.
Where to Stay
If you don’t decide to make a day trip to Sopron and choose to stay the night, there are a surprising number of places for you to stay. I opted for the Vadászkürt Panzió, an affordable combined guesthouse and restaurant and was quite pleased. Despite being a little way out from the old town on the opposite side of the train line, the rooms were spacious and had a lodge look to them. In the end, I also decided to eat there and really enjoyed the local cuisine they offered. This even included cherry strudel with cherries from their own trees.
While you can pay for entrance to individual attractions like the Fire Tower and Soproni Museum, museum passes are also available. There is a pass for the above two spots for 2500ft or a pass for any 5 of the city’s attractions for 4000ft. Details can be found here.
Have you heard of the the small Hungarian city of Sopron before? Would you consider visiting Sopron to see its elegant old town? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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