City of Museums, University City, Gate of the Balkans – Pécs has many monikers. Hungary’s fifth largest city, which spends much of the year basking in sunlight from the south-facing perches of the Mecsek mountain, offers plenty for a visitor. And thanks to a large and well-heeled foreign student population – mostly from Germany and Scandinavia – there are more excellent cafés, bars and restaurants here than in other Hungarian cities of comparable size (150,000). Pécs is located about two hours from Budapest by car, a little bit more by train; refer to this map for the places mentioned below.
2 p.m. Zsolnay Negyed, a beautifully revived ceramics factory with plenty to do
The east side of Pécs is still anchored by a cluster of brick industrial buildings, once home to the Zsolnay porcelain factory. At its peak, Zsolnay employed 3,000 people and produced household and building decorations across Austria-Hungary, from Transylvania all the way to Vienna. The company’s finest period was its collaboration with Ödön Lechner, Hungary’s leader of Art Nouveau, who relied on Zsolnay’s colorful and frost-resistant ceramics to brighten up his facades.
With WWI and the advent of decor-free modern architecture, the company’s performance nosedived and – through Communism (1947-1989) and many ownership changes – it never fully recovered. In 2010, the dilapidated plant and the Zsolnay family’s once lavish residential quarters were rehabilitated and transformed into the Zsolnay Negyed, a massive cultural hub of museums, craft shops, and art colleges (confusingly, there’s also a Zsolnay Museum in Pécs’s downtown, unrelated to the Zsolnay Negyed but also featuring wonderful Zsolnay items, many that once decorated Hungary's well-known public buildings).
The highlight is the Gyugyi Collection, which presents a cross-section of Zsolnay’s household products. Through astonishing vases, bowls, and statuettes, one can trace the company’s evolution from historicism to Art Nouveau. There's also a glove manufacturer where visitors can learn about Pécs’s long tradition of glove-making, observe the production process, and buy the products. Even if you don't go inside every single building, it’s fascinating to roam freely the Zsolnay Negyed.
4 p.m. Lunch with locals, then pastries and shopping
Time to head to the city center for an immersive local lunch experience. Off Király utca, the main pedestrian street, hides István Pince, an old-school, below-ground bar and restaurant. You’ll share the weathered, wood-paneled interior with local intellectuals, alcoholics, and students. The bean goulash is notoriously tasty, and I’ve had excellent schnitzel here with a side of fries and pickled veggies. As do others around you, order a fröccs, wine spritzer, for pairing.
Next destination: Jókai Cukrászda, a pastry shop with excellent classics, such as the Eszterházy torte and the isler cookie. Once refreshed, you can scan Pécs’s shopping options, which center in and around Ferencesek utcája. There’s a small gift shop at the Zsolnay Negyed, but a wider assortment is available at the company's retail store on Jókai utca. Pécsi Kesztyű Márkabolt and Hamerli Pécsi Kesztyű sell high-quality gloves from various local manufacturers, and Coollab is a tiny store of local designer clothing.
8 p.m. Dinner at a wine bar, then more drinks
For dinner, try Eleven, a chic wine bar with a wide selection of local options and an informed staff. Keep an eye out for the wines of Pécs and nearby Villány and Szekszárd. The menu comprises tasty daily specials and various cheese and meat platters (Eleven doubles as a wine store, so you can pick up a few extra bottles). Explore Pécs’s nightlife on Király utca: Nappali bar is always lively with a mixed crowd and concert on many evenings.
Pécs Hotels: few and far in between
Pécs has a surprising shortage of accommodation options, meaning that you're better off booking early. Corso Hotel, with four stars but far from luxury, is an excellent all-around and affordable option right by the center. For something a little nicer, Palatinus Boutique Hotel will serve you well, in the heart of it all.
10 a.m. Immerse yourself in Pécs’s museums
Start the day with breakfast at Reggeli, a lively breakfast joint on Király utca, then head to what’s known as Museum Street – officially Káptalan utca – conveniently home to most exhibitions. In fact, Pécs offers more culture per square meter than any other city in Hungary.
The Modern Magyar Képtár has a jaw-dropping permanent collection of modern Hungarian paintings, ranging from the post-impressionist Nagybánya Colony to the present day (only Budapest’s National Gallery can rival it). Károly Ferenczy, József Rippl-Rónai, Lajos Tihanyi, Lajos Kassák, Dezső Korniss, Ilona Keserü, Imre Bak. The list goes on. You could do some prep reading ahead of a visit. Also here: a few works of Macel Breuer, the world-famous architect and furniture designer, who grew up in Pécs and initially aspired to be a painter.
Steps from the Képtár is a museum dedicated to the Pécs-born Victor Vasarely, father of the global op-art movement, a strain of minimalist painting that peaked in the 1960s.
One more picture gallery before breaking for lunch. Walk around the corner to the Csontváry Museum featuring paintings by Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry, a lonely, mad genius often regarded as the greatest painter of Hungary. He was a pharmacist and didn’t start painting until age 41, when, prompted by a vision, set out to travel the world and fulfill his mission to “surpass even Raphael.”
His works – enormous in size and made in the decade between 1898 and 1909 – show spectacular scenes imbued with palpable tension, vivid colors, and strong contours. Csontváry didn’t have an obvious inspiration, but his naive and expressionist strains show some parallels with Henri Rousseau. This permanent exhibition in Pécs features many of his most important pieces (Vihar a nagy Hortobágyon, Mária kútja Názáretben, Siratófal, Magányos cédrus).
1 p.m. Lunch with Hungarian-Balkan food, then coffee
Enjoy a well-deserved lunch at Blöff Bistro with a plate of goulash followed by a cevapi platter. This Balkan dish of grilled meat patties with a side of ajvar and flatbread is popular across the nearby border in Croatia and Serbia. For excellent coffee, stroll over to Pécsi Kávé, hiding within a nondescript interior courtyard off the main square.
3 p.m. Ottoman remains & (post)modern architecture
Pécs was a favorite of the Ottoman leadership during Hungary’s century-and-a-half-long occupation, because it lay inland, away from the battle lines. Today, only two of the seventeen mosques still stand, since most were destroyed after the allied European army recaptured the city in 1686. The Yakovalı Hasan Mosque has even retained its minaret, while that of Pasha Qasim, still anchoring Pécs’s main square, is now a Roman Catholic church.
Here, the fusion of 16th-century Ottoman architecture and 1930s modernism complete with emphatically Christian frescoes create a rare and fascinating stylistic eclecticism that's more than worth the admission ticket.
Time to marvel at modern buildings! In the 1920s, many students from Pécs attended the Bauhaus, the experimental art school in Germany (most famous is Marcel Breuer, but he has no building in town, only the painting at the Képtár mentioned above). At 9-11 József utca, there’s an elegant modernist apartment building by Fred Forbát, the Pécs-born architect who practiced together with Bauhaus Director Walter Gropius.
If this type of stuff gets you going, be sure to hike up to Pécs's hillside: the Bálványosi Villa (Kaposvári út 17), also by Forbát, is a sort of Tugendhat Villa of Pécs, and nearby is the strangely adorable Kallivoda Villa (Surányi Miklós út 18) designed by Farkas Molnár, another Bauhaus student from Pécs who later became Hungary's leading modernist.
Less known is the fact that Pécs is the center of postmodern architecture in Hungary: weird and playful buildings from the 1980s and 1990s adorned with overblown and colorful historical shapes. Local architect Sándor Dévényi was the master of these, as a glance at Római Udvar (13 Jókai utca) and Munkácsy Udvar (9 Munkácsy Mihály utca) will manifest, which are two of his especially ebullient works.
5 p.m. Drinks & art gallery
Take a breather at Partisan, a hip specialty cafe and bar also serving tasty grilled sandwiches and cakes. Then drop in to Nádor Galéria next door, located on the ground floor of a striking pink-and-yellow Art Nouveau building. The large exhibition space is dedicated to the works of young local artists.
8 p.m. Dinner and drinks
Part bakery, part restaurant, Pécs’s most upscale (and expensive) dining establishment is Morzsa. The sleek interior exudes Scandinavian vibes, almost comically so, while the menu is a mishmash of small plates, such as duck cracklings, long-aged pork loin, mushroom paprikash, and fried carp. The wines, as you might have guessed, lean toward natural producers. After your meal, for a change of pace, check out Szabadkikötő, a free-spirited bar favored by local alternatives just down the street.
9 a.m. Breakfast, panoramic views, Roman-era remains
A group of stunning historic buildings ring the Archbishop's Palace. One of them, a former grain storage facility, contains Magtár Café, a good place to start the day with breakfast pastries and coffee. The giant Cathedral's striking Romanesque Revival look dates from the 19th century – designed by the same Friedrich von Schmidt who did Vienna's Gothic style City Hall – but its beginnings are indeed medieval. Note that the admission ticket includes access to one of the church towers, in case you’d like to experience Pécs from above.
Underneath the church but accessed separately hides an underground system of early-Christian burial chambers complete with ornate sarcophagi and wall paintings. They're from the 4th century A.D., when the city (Sopianae) was capital of a Roman province, Pannonia Valeria. Today, these remains are part of Unesco’s World Heritage List.
12 p.m. Holocaust memorial at the Jewish cemetery
As across the whole Hungarian countryside, the Jewish population of Pécs was deported in 1944 to Auschwitz and most of them killed. It’s worth visiting the neglected Jewish cemetery, a ten-minute drive from the city center, for its poignant Holocaust memorial designed by the city’s own Fred Forbát.
1 p.m. Farm-to-table farewell lunch
Finish your trip on a high note with an elegant lunch at Hosszú tányér, located in Hosszúhetény, a village outside Pécs. This farm-to-table tasting menu restaurant serves delicious, seasonally changing dishes. During my visit, I had tender pike-perch (fogas) followed by lamb with a side of plum-filled dumplings (szilvásgombóc). The wines are also sourced from the village.