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What should I know about Szentendre?
If you're curious to see first-rate Hungarian art, both old and new, and enjoy getting lost in a picturesque Baroque town with narrow, cobblestoned streets, then I recommend that you make the 40-minute journey from Budapest and spend half a day in Szentendre. The food scene of this small town, which stretches along the Danube’s bank, has a long way to go, but I’ve included below several cafés and restaurants that won’t disappoint.
How can I get there from Budapest?
The quickest and cheapest way to reach Szentendre from Budapest is via the HÉV suburban rail line, which you can take from Batthyány Square or Margit híd, budai hídfő. You'll need a valid Budapest public transport ticket (€1) and an extension ticket (€1), both of which you can buy from the machine. A river cruise is the more scenic option (€9 for a one-way trip). The boat’s schedule changes seasonally, but they usually leave from downtown's Vigadó Square at 10:30 a.m. and return from Szentendre at 5:00 p.m. Unless you want to spend an hour and a half journeying upriver, take it on the way back to Budapest, when it takes only 50 minutes.
On the train, it's worth keeping your eyes open as it passes the remains of Aquincum, the thriving Roman town from the 2nd century AD; also, the ruins of an ancient aqueduct run along the rails between the Kaszásdűlő and Aquincum stations. When you arrive, don't let the communist-era buildings around Szentendre's train station break your spirit, and instead head toward the charming Old Town through the underpass and then down Kossuth Lajos Street. The Ferenczy Museum, soon on your left, operates most museums in town, and itself hosts top-notch temporary exhibits.
A little Szentendre history
As you approach the main square from the train station, you might start noticing something odd: plaques written in Cyrillic letters, a Serbian orthodox church named Pozsarevacska, Slavic-sounding streets like Kucsera, and myriad labyrinthine alleys and side streets as in a Mediterranean town. Fleeing from the Ottomans during the late 17th century, throngs of Serbian and also Dalmatian and Greek immigrants settled down in Szentendre after Habsburg Emperor Leopold I granted them civil and religious liberties. Thanks to these newcomers, the city began to thrive.
At its peak in the 18th century, Szentendre had a Serbian population of some 6,000 people, a total of eight orthodox churches, Serbian schools, and a flourishing economy based on trade—using the nearby Danube for transport—and wine-making. Interestingly, in the early 20th century, when the Balkan was freed from the Ottoman Empire, this close-knit community of local Serbs returned to their motherland en masse—more than 200 years after their arrival. So today, there are only a dozen or so Serbian families in Szentendre, and some of the Serbian Orthodox churches have been converted to Roman Catholic and Calvinist churches.
Your step-by-step guide
But let's get back to the street level. The outdoor terrace of the Adria Café is a good place for a drink before you hit the downtown. Or, alternatively, try Folt Café around the corner, which draws a young local crowd with low-priced coffee and craft beers, and serves a mean túrógombóc dessert—sweet-tart cottage cheese dumplings blanketed in sour cream.
The main promenade, named after the late Greek-Hungarian mayor Jenő Dumtsa, is lined with unremarkable restaurants and gift shops. One of the more inventive one is the Marzipan House, which doubles as a store and a museum and showcases marzipan figurines of celebrities like Michael Jackson and Princess Diana. If you have a sweet tooth, visit the pastry shop next door, Szamos, a national chain that originated in Szentendre and serves tasty local favorites like krémes and isler.
To see some subversive contemporary Hungarian artworks, take a quick detour on Péter Pál Street to the below-ground exhibition hall of the Lajos Vajda Studio. Note that they’re open only in the afternoons, Friday to Sunday. Back on the main street, turn right. The cross atop the pink marble platform marks the center of the Old Town (Fő tér). It's flanked by Baroque houses that once belonged to wealthy Serbian merchants. The Kmetty Museum houses a small exhibit about Hungary’s first cubist painter, János Kmetty.
Blagovestenska Orthodox Church, on the opposite side, still holds services during the winter, when it's too costly to heat the main Serbian church nearby. Seeing its ornate iconostasis is worth the €1.5 admission fee (it’s open every day, except Monday). The Kovács Margit Ceramics Museum in the nearby Vastagh György Street is the most popular in Szentendre. While many of the folk-inspired figures are verging on cheesy, some, especially the collections of elderly ladies, are gentle, contemporary, and poignant.
From the main square, next to the ice-cream parlor with a lavender awning, leads a very narrow alley up Church Hill. Before you reach the top, stop by the food stall on your right for a wallet-friendly lángos, a Hungarian fried flatbread topped with sour cream and cheese. Also good is their palacsinta, Hungarian filled crepes. The Roman Catholic church atop the hill is the oldest building in Szentendre, with its original structure dating back to the 13th century. Besides the sweeping views, the highlight here is the Béla Czóbel Museum, displaying the works of Hungary’s prominent modern painter, who was a regular at Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon and a friend of Picasso and Matisse.
Czóbel wasn’t the only painter who spent part of his life in Szentendre. In 1926, Szentendre started an artists' colony, replacing Nagybánya, which fell outside the post-WWI borders of Hungary. The picture-postcard views and the proximity to Budapest drew many major figures of Hungarian art to Szentendre, including Lajos Vajda, Imre Ámos, and Jenő Barcsay. Today, still, Szentendre has an active art scene; apart from its numerous museums, there is a revived artists’ colony, and every year the city hosts Art Capital, one of the main art events in Hungary.
The imposing maroon steeple on the other side of the hill belongs of the Belgrade Cathedral, which is still the seat of the Serbian Orthodox bishop in Hungary. The church is open only Friday to Sunday, but meandering through its mysterious garden, always partly shaded under a canopy of chestnut trees, is an experience in itself.
Most of Szentendre’s few-hundred strong Jewish population perished in the Holocaust. The Szántó Memorial House, just steps away, remembers the victims and is also home to a teeny-tiny synagogue that the attendant claims is the world’s smallest. From here, stroll up Hunyadi Street until you hit Martinovics Street, then turn left to the Serbian cemetery. With unkempt, knee-high grass and crooked headstones, it’s an apt metaphor for the disappearing Serbian life of Szentendre (it's open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
Turn back toward the Danube and climb the quaint Bartók Béla Street. It’s here, away from wondering tourists and flanked by handsome residential homes, that Szentendre feels like a village. If you get tired, stop by Dalmát Szamár Bistro's tiny terrace for a drink. A bit further uphill, by the 18th-century cross, there is an excellent vantage point of this densely built city, with the Danube, the Szentendre island, and the rolling hills as backdrop.
Amble down Angyal Street all the way to the tranquil park peppered with playful statues. My favorites are the bronze Czóbel (Imre Varga; 1977), looking charismatic even at his advanced age, and the abduction of Europa theme carved from limestone (Jenő Kerényi; 1975). Take Bogdányi Road if it's time to head back toward the center. On your left are the resurrected studios of the artists’ colony. There is usually a small exhibit in the entry hall, so it’s worth dropping by. If you haven’t tired of art yet, also visit Artmill, a bit further down on your right, a repurposed wood mill now home to a rotating set of contemporary art shows.
The last section of Bogdányi Road is a kitsch apocalypse, but after so much high culture, it can be satisfying to get lost in a sea of fridge magnets and keychains. In fact, it’s possible to unearth pretty textiles and clothes embroidered with elaborate Hungarian folk motifs, and there’s also a Herend store in case pricey porcelain sets get you going.
The most fitting way to round out your Szentendre sojourn is with a Serbian meal. Settle in to Corner Szerb Étterem, take in the river views, and order the meat-heavy Serbian platter, featuring pljeskavica, cevapi, and other grilled meats paired with a side of ajvar. The boat back to Budapest docks right across the street from here. Otherwise, walk back to the train station, either along the Danube, or through the city center, where you came from.
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