A long time before I thought of taking a trip through Hungary, I’d been looking at possible day trips from Vienna. The border between Austria and Hungary isn’t all that far from the capital and several promising spots had popped up in my digging. One of these was the small town of Kőszeg. The day trip to Kőszeg never materialised but it was a perfect candidate for my Hungary trip back in June.
I’m guessing you haven’t heard of Kőszeg before. Small town in Hungary, who can blame you? It’s not even on the main highway that runs from Vienna into Hungary which is further north at Sopron. But despite all that, Kőszeg packs a lot of delightful sights into such a small town. So much so that is often dubbed the “Jewel Box” of Hungary. Hopefully, once you’re done reading you too will be excited to explore this quieter part of Europe.
A Walled Old Town
The very heart of Kőszeg is where you’ll find its historical centre, still partly protected by its old town walls. I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I’m particularly fond of walled old towns, so this was a quick fire way for Kőszeg to win me over. Anyway, the walls are an extension of the defences for Jurisics Castle, which I’ll talk about in more detail later.
Due to its strategically important position on the border of Austria and the Habsburg Empire before it, Kőszeg saw a lot of war. In 1532 the town even repelled an attack by the Turks with a vastly outnumbered, makeshift army. The walls and bastions don’t seem so vital these days, draped in ivy and separated by unkempt fields of grass. Still, they are mostly intact with their patchwork of stones and certainly ooze character.
The original main square of Kőszeg within the historic city walls is Jurisics Square. The square, like the castle, is named after Nikola Jurišić, the famed defender of Kőszeg against the Turks. Jurisics Square is lined with some truly charming buildings, parading a variety of different styles that really elevate the square’s appearance. One particular building, Sgraffito House, is lauded for its Renaissance facade.
Across the square is the Town Hall, decorated with several coat of arms on its facade. It’s actually the oldest town hall in all of Hungary and has been used since the 14th century. In the middle of the square, is both a statue to Mary and rather elegant well that gave me Moorish vibes despite zero link.
It is on Jurisics Square that you’ll also find the mighty Heroes’ Gate, another remnant of the old town defences. In the past it was the Southern Gate and main entrance to the castle-town. Inside the gate, you can see memorial plaques to the soldiers who died against the Turks and in the First World War.
True to its name, Main Square (Fő tér in Hungarian) is where the action is, so to speak. Around the square and its cute fountains are more of the town’s charming houses. It’s here that you’ll also find many of Kőszeg’s cafes and restaurants. There are also plenty of public benches scattered about the square and it does seem to be a hub for locals and tourists alike.
Sacred Heart Church
Arriving on Main Square is when you should finally get your first proper view of the towering Sacred Heart Church. This remarkable building is really unlike any other church I can think of and stands out in Kőszeg in a good way. It’s slender, tall spire-like appearance reminds me more of a Disney castle than a house of prayer. Built in the 1890s, it may not be all that old (relatively speaking), but it surely is an architectural triumph.
Its exterior and 57 metre high tower may be enchanting, but once you take a look inside, you’ll be truly compelled. It’s not its stain glass, or organ that draws your eye, but the light and sophisticated paintwork that truly makes Sacred Heart Church stand out.
In and around the two main squares of Kőszeg are many minor streets that offer equally pleasant views if you go for a stroll. Again it’s not a very big town, and even smaller old town, so it won’t take you long to explore. It’s these streets though that have more of your shopping and eating options, as well as Kőszeg’s various wine cellars. Yes, in Kőszeg you’re in wine country. It wasn’t something I tried, but it definitely seems like there was plenty of choice.
The star attraction of Kőszeg has to be Jurisics Castle. Originally built in the 13th century, the castle saw multiple renovations, altering its architectural style each time. Jurisics Castle also passed through many hands over the years, but was held the longest by the Estherhazy family. The name of Hungarian nobles may be familiar to those who have been to Vienna, Eisenstadt or other parts of Hungary. The castle still maintains some Renaissance paintings and sgrafittos along the edges of some interior windows.
While the walls and gardens directly around the castle are free to the public, the castle hosts a museum on it and the town of Kőszeg’s history. This includes – among other stories – the town’s seizure, inclusion in the Habsburg Empire and other affairs of the royal courts during the 15th century. One particularly fascinating story recounts how the Hungarian crown jewels were secretly smuggled out of Budapest in 1944 by members of the Crown Guard. This was done to keep them within Hungary and preserve their divine power. The lengths that the Crown Guard went to in the midst of war are quite remarkable.
At the castle, there is also the option to walk through the grounds and out to one of its towers. From here it’s a climb up and you’re rewarded with views out across the rooftops of Kőszeg. Worth it for a little cardio.
Kálvária Church in the Hills
If the views from the castle tower weren’t enough, then there’s always the Kálvária Church up in the hills over Kőszeg. Sitting only about a kilometre from the Austrian border, this small church is surrounded by vineyards and forest. It’s quite a nice walk up out of town and has some nice views back down if you get right up over the grapevines.
There are a couple of lookout towers also scattered throughout the surrounding hills of Kőszeg but they are further away and out to the west. Those with a car won’t find reaching those spots much of a challenge.
Somewhat of a surprise on my way back down from the Kálvária Church was coming across the small lake of Csónakázó-tó. Very much an outdoors area on the outskirts of the town, there were plenty of people sitting by the shore with fishing rods dipped into the water. Even with a bit of wind, a very serene spot.
Getting There and Staying There
My choices for accommodation and dining were kind of intertwined. My stay at Varkőr Panzio left a bit to be desired, but it was one of the more affordable options in Kőszeg. It did however come with a discount at Bécsi Kapu Étterem, which had decent food at quite a good price. For breakfast and coffee, I found Ibrahim Café to be a pretty reasonable option as well.
For those with a car, Kőszeg sits on the road between Szombathely in Hungary and Wiener Neustadt in Austria. It’s actually about the same distance to Graz as well. Regarding public transport, the town’s train station is 1.5 km away from the town centre and the train only runs to Szombathely where you have to connect. The bus station is much closer, with services to small regional towns as well as Szombathely. There may also be a daily service to Vienna but I can’t confirm that.
Does Kőszeg look like somewhere you’d like to stop at while exploring Austria and Hungary? Which part of the town appeals most to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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