Home to cheerful architecture and a lively student atmosphere, the southern city of Szeged is one of Hungary’s most endearing destinations. Wedged by the borders of both Serbia and Romania, Szeged is the third largest city in Hungary and not one to disappoint visitors. Like much of Hungary beyond Budapest, Szeged is sorely overlooked by travellers to this corner of Europe. Taking all that into account, it seems like a perfect place for another “Elsewhere” feature.
City of Szeged
Much of Szeged’s history is rather unceremonious. While it had some early ties to the Romans and Huns, it apparently wasn’t of much importance until the 15th century. Like the Mongol invasion before it, Szeged fell to the Ottomans, despite its agreed importance as a strategic location on the frontier. It wasn’t until the late 17th century when the city was freed from Turkish rule. The city also has the dubious honour of being known for its witch trials held between 1728 and 1744. These came at a time where witch trials had been in decline elsewhere in Europe for quite some time.
Szeged blossomed in the 20th century, vastly growing in population and size. This was in part due to oil being found near the city. It is also home to one of the nation’s most respected universities. This student atmosphere becomes quickly apparent to anyone visiting.
Home to a plethora of art nouveau buildings, Szeged instantly reminded me of Oradea in Romania, another border city with great architecture. The city owes its architectural legacy to a forceful flood that swept through in 1879, destroying most of the city. The rebuilding effort, spurred on by Emperor Franz Joseph, gave rise to the city’s current splendour. Today Szeged really is best explored on foot, especially with so many pedestrian streets at its centre. Despite its lack of name recognition, Szeged certainly leaves an impression.
A perfect place with which to start is the vibrant City Hall of Szeged. With its distinctive yellow and green colour scheme and exceptional tiled roof, the building is very typical for this corner of Europe. Rebuilt after the flood of 1879, the City Hall was even unveiled by then Emperor Franz Joseph in 1883. In the centre of the building’s facade sits a phoenix, emblematic of Szeged’s renewal. Visits to the City Hall, including its Bridge of Sighs, must be booked in advance.
Directly across the City Hall is the playful and lovely park of Szechenyi Square. A delightful public space with big shady trees, the square has everything from fountains to various intriguing statues. One of the nice things about Szeged is that there’s a lot of green spaces and avenues lined with big trees. You never feel like you’re trapped in a dense urban space.
Working our way into the heart of the city centre to another main squares, this time the confined Klauzal Square. Surrounded by stately buildings, Klauzal Square is a crossroads of sorts for some of Szeged’s main pedestrian streets. This makes the square the nexus for Szeged’s cafe and restaurant scene, so a good place to head if you’re peckish. The square is also home to the Millennium fountain, featuring four winged lions protecting a royal orb.
An important corner of the Szeged city centre is the area around Dugonics Square. Another beautiful park, the central spot is lined with more beautiful buildings, many of them related to local government and the city’s university. The Unger–Mayer House on the corner is one particularly notable and grand building.
Palaces and Towers
Through the city centre of Szeged, visitors can come across all sorts of architectural gems. In particular, Szeged is home to many residential palaces from the turn of the 20th century. One such noteworthy building just off Dugonics Square is the Reök Palace seen above. This elaborate art nouveau palace was built in 1907, incorporating water lilies into its overall water-themed design.
A fellow art nouveau gem of the Hungarian Secession style is the resplendent Grof Palace on the far side of the city centre. Built in 1913, the palace sits on a corner so that you can admire its lavish design from all sides. Pity about the tram lines invading every photo angle but they have no hope of ruining the view. With so many beautiful palaces to see, its worth considering a local walking tour that takes you to all these spots.
One particularly unusual landmark near the Grof Palace is the Szent Istvan Water Tower. Despite being a great big concrete tower, there’s something to be said for its pleasant design. Another addition of the early 20th century, I only later learned that there is a viewing deck at the top. Open in the warmer months, entry to the tower is 610 HUF.
Situated just off Aradi vértanúk square is one of the city’s landmarks that truly doesn’t mesh with Szeged’s normal aesthetic. Seemingly carved out of a building, the Heroes’ Gate bears all the hallmarks of a Soviet-era memorial. While it may not fit in stylistically, this monument to the soldiers who died in World War I is worth visiting for the vivid illustrations that adorn the underside of the arches.
The Tisza Riverfront
A defining feature of the city of Szeged is the Tisza river that flows by it. Its languid waters and green banks are surprisingly low-key and quiet compared with similar spots in other European cities. I made my way there to recreate a cityscape photo I had seen but never quite worked out the angle. Regardless, it’s nice place to watch the sunset over the city.
Várkert Park / Stefánia
Running along the riverfront, Varkert Park known locally as Stefánia, may not be much to look at itself, but its neighbouring buildings are definitely something else. In the general vicinity around the park you’ll find plenty of elegant buildings in a mix of architectural styles. For instance, the Deutsche Palace one street over is a fantastic art nouveau building, but quite different to many of its immediate neighbours.
A little further along the edge of the park you’ll also find the city’s National Theatre. This building really reminds me of the Volkstheatre in Vienna, albeit in the region’s distinct pale yellow. I didn’t venture inside but I now wish I had as I’m curious what the interior is like.
It was to my great misfortune that the Dom Square, the largest in the city, was out of commission during my visit. They were in the middle of constructing a large outdoor theatre in the square. This meant that while I could admire the outer arcades around the square, I missed out on one shot I really wanted. You see, the Dom Square sits directly before the city’s most famous landmark, the Votive Church.
Also known as the Szeged Cathedral, the twin-towered building is made from a striking mix of brick and marble. This gorgeous landmark is best viewed from directly in front in Dom Square. The best I could hope for was an up close view on the Cathedral steps, wedged up against the theatre scaffolding. Sadly also obscured in the square was the Dömötör tower, the oldest building in the city. Safe to say that I’d be to open to returning just to see the square properly.
Staying in Szeged
For my stay in Szeged, I opted for the Garden 39 Vendégház Guesthouse. While a little removed from the city centre, the family there were so friendly and welcoming. Rooms came with full kitchen and dining area, so you can really make yourself at home. Of course, there are plenty of other options available for every sort of traveller.
As a major Hungarian city, Szeged is well-connected by public transport. Regular trains run up to Budapest, as well as across the border into Serbia. The train station is roughly a kilometre from the city centre. For a wider variety of connections, travellers should look to the bus station, with plenty of local and international connections.
Have you ever visited Szeged before and if not, has this article swayed you? Have a suggestion of other destinations in Hungary that deserve more attention? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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