A Weekend in Pécs, Hungary’s Culture-Packed City In the Southwest
Find out how to spend an event-filled few days in this charming city with plenty of food and wine along the way.
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. Pécs is located about two hours from Budapest by car; 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 made decorations for countless buildings across the Austro Hungarian Empire, 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 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).
The highlight is the Gyugyi Collection, which presents a cross-section of Zsolnay’s top products. Through beautiful vases, bowls, and statuettes, one can trace the company’s evolution from historicism to Art Nouveau. One of the neighboring buildings is taken up by 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 each building, it’s fun to roam freely through the Zsolnay Negyed.
4 p.m. Lunch with locals, then pastries and shopping
Time to head to the city center for a deeply 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 alcoholics, intellectuals, and students. The bean goulash is notoriously tasty, and I’ve had excellent schnitzel here with fries and fermented vegetables. As do others, order a fröccs – wine and carbonated water – for pairing.
The next destination is Jókai Cukrászda, a pastry shop serving excellent classics, such as the Eszterházy torte and the isler cookie. Once refreshed and rested, you can scan Pécs’s shopping options, which center in and around Ferencesek utcája. While there’s a small gift shop at the Zsolnay Negyed, a wider assortment is available at the Zsolnay retail store on Jókai utca. Pécsi Kesztyű Márkabolt sells high-quality gloves from several local manufacturers, and Coollab is a tiny store of local designer clothing.
8 p.m. Dinner at a wine bar, then more drinks with locals
For dinner, go to Eleven, a chic wine bar with a wide selection of local options and an informed staff. Keep an eye out for the red wines of Pécs, Villány, and Szekszárd. The food consists of 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 and draws an eclectic crowd of locals, with live music acts on many nights.
10 a.m. Immerse yourself in Pécs’s modern art scene
Start the day with breakfast at Reggeli, a buzzing breakfast joint along Király utca, the main pedestrian street. Then head over to what’s known as Museum Street – officially Káptalan utca – conveniently home to most exhibits in Pécs.
The Modern Magyar Képtár has a jaw-dropping permanent collection of Hungarian paintings, ranging from the 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 your visit. A few steps away is a museum dedicated to the works of Pécs-born Victor Vasarely, father of the global op-art movement, which peaked in the 1960s.
One more museum before breaking for lunch. Walk around the corner to the Csontváry Museum featuring paintings by Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry, a lonely and 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, he set out to travel the world and fulfill his mission to “surpass even Raphael.”
His works – of enormous size and made between 1898 and 1909 – portray spectacular panoramic scenes. There’s palpable tension, vivid colors, and strong contours. Csontváry didn’t have an obvious inspiration, but his naive and expressionist elements show parallels with Henri Rousseau and Van Gogh. The exhibit 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 city of the Ottoman leadership during Hungary’s century-and-a-half-long occupation (Pécs lay inland, away from the battle lines). Today, only two of the seventeen mosques are standing, since many were destroyed after the retake of the city in 1686. The Yakovalı Hasan Mosque has even retained its minaret, while that of Pasha Qasim, still anchoring Pécs’s main square, has been converted to a Roman Catholic church. Here, the contrast between the Christian-themed frescoes and the Ottoman architecture – octagonal base, red-and-white stripes around pointed windows – make it worth going inside.
Time to marvel at some buildings! In the 1920s, many students from Pécs attended the Bauhaus, the experimental art school in Germany (most famous is Marcel Breuer, the architect and furniture designer, but he has no buildings in town). Under 9-11 József utca, there’s an elegant modernist apartment building by Fred Forbát, who practiced together with Bauhaus Director Walter Gropius.
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 a master of these, as evidenced by a glance at Római Udvar (13 Jókai utca) and Munkácsy Udvar (9 Munkácsy Mihály utca), 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 shows 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 to a comical extent, while the menu is a mishmash of small plates including duck cracklings, 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 beautifully refurbished historic buildings belong to the Diocese of Pécs. One of them is Magtár Café, inside a former grain storage facility, which is a good place to begin the day with breakfast pastries and coffee. The medieval Cathedral’s current Romanesque Revival look dates from the 19th century, hence the Byzantine-inspired golden frescoes and dim interior. Note that the admission ticket includes access to one of the church towers, in case you’d like to experience the city 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 date back to the 4th century A.D., when the town (Sopianae) was the capital of a Roman Pannonia Valeria province. Today, these remains are part of Unesco’s World Heritage List.
12 p.m. Holocaust memorial at the Jewish cemetery
As elsewhere across the Hungarian countryside, Pécs’s Jewish population was deported in 1944 and most of them murdered in Auschwitz. 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 Alfréd 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 restaurant serves delicious, seasonally changing dishes. During my visit, I had tender fogas (pike-perch) followed by lamb with a side of szilvásgombóc, which are plum-filled dumplings. The wines are sourced from the village producers.