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.

Pécs's main square, Széchenyi, is anchored by the 16th-century Mosque of Pasha Qasim. The building was later converted to a Roman Catholic church and still functions as such. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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.

FRIDAY

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.

gyugyi exhibit zsolnay negyed pecs vases eosin
A sample of Zsolnay's glazed vases. The green metallic sheen belie their ceramic origins. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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).

pecsi kesztyumanufaktura
Pécs has a long history of glove making. At the Zsolnay Negyed, visitors can observe the production process and buy the products. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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.

istvan pince pecs
Part bar, part restaurant, István Pince is a true local hangout in Pécs, drawing everyone from alcoholics to students and intellectuals. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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.

jokai cukraszda pecs
Jókai pastry shop serves many classic pastries, such as the Eszterházy torte and the isler cookie. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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.

eleven wine bar pécs
Eleven, a wine bar in Pécs's city center, has a wide selection of local options. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

SATURDAY

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.

reggeli pécs
Reggeli is a trendy breakfast joint in Pécs located along the main pedestrain street (Király utca). Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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.

vasarely painting pecs vasarely museum
Pécs's Vasarely Museum is dedicated to the works of Victor Vasarely, the father of the global op-art movement which peaked in the 1960s. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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.”

siratofal csontvary painting pecs
Siratófal (The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; 1904), one of my favorite paintings of Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, is shown at the Csontváry Museum. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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.

jakovali hasan mosque pecs
Pécs's Yakovali Hasan Mosque was a musical and literary center of Muslim life in the Carpathian Basin in the late 17th century. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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.

romai udvar pecs sandor devenyi
A playful building designed by Sándor Dévényi (1991). Pécs is considered to be the capital of postmodern architecture in Hungary. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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

morzsa restaurant pecs
Morzsa, Pécs's most upscale restaurant is going for Scandinavian vibes. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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.

SUNDAY

9 a.m. Breakfast, panoramic views, Roman-era remains

pécs cathedral dome
The medieval Pécs Cathedral obtained its current Romanesque Revival look in the 19th century. One of the four towers is accessible with the admission ticket. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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.

early christian tombs roman era pecs unesco world heritage
Remains of an early-Christian burial site in Pécs from the 4th century A.D. In the Roman era, the town (Sopianae) was the capital of Pannonia Valeria province. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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

holocaust memorial pecs jewish cemetery
The Holocaust memorial inside the Jewish cemetery. "The remaining Jews of Pécs mourn their 4,000 deported brothers and sisters," says the inscription. It was designed by Alfréd Forbát, a Pécs-native, who practiced together with Bauhaus Director Walter Gropius. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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

hosszu tanyer restaurant hosszuheteny plate of lamb and plum dumplings
A plate of lamb and plum dumplings (szilvásgombóc) at Hosszá tányér, a farm-to-table restaurant in the village of Hosszúhetény, outside Pécs. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

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.

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