The Favorite Budapest Places of a Star Professor

Domonkos Wettstein is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the Budapest University of Technology (BME). He's best known for his pioneering work about the urban development of Lake Balaton in western Hungary. In 2019, at the age of 34, he was appointed vice chair of the university’s Department for Urban Planning. True to his profession, his responses amounted to an impromptu lecture, one that is illuminating, thoughtful, and original.

Which neighborhood do you like to hang out in?

I feel most connected to District 11, especially the inner parts, Szentimreváros and the Gellért Hill. Both my apartment and the university where I teach are in this neighborhood. During the week, I try to get around by foot, practicing the concept of “neighborhood unit” which says that everything should be within walking distance.

The local architecture is very interesting, which is another reason for walking. The apartment buildings were gradually built up from the early 20th century and reflect the various periods, ranging from the classic wrap-around style with inner courtyards to those with cour d'honneur facades and modern or socialist modern layouts. Every day, I can appreciate the urban development, which shows itself also in the makeup of local community, an interesting blend of middle class residents.

Where do you usually go for coffee or a drink?

In the summer, I most enjoy hanging out with friends around Lake Feneketlen with beer in hand. During the year, Libella Cafe is the favorite haunt of the architecture community, an important place for knowledge transfer. It’s great for meetings or to unwind in the evenings with my fellow teachers. There’s a unique, unpretentious atmosphere to it which hasn’t changed over the decades.

I’m not a fan of artificially made specialty café brands, I prefer places with an authentic story. This is why I also like the nearby Gdansk bar, operated by a Polish owner and selling Polish books and fostering cultural connections. And finally, Borpatika is a legendary neighborhood bar with homemade foods.

Architecturally, I like spaces that take advantage of the past, showing continuity between old and new. For example, Pagony kert, a restaurant and garden bar, inhabits what used to be the children’s section of Gellért Baths. I still have memories of going there as a kid. There are similar concepts at Budai Parkszínpad, a bar which was formerly the seating area of an open-air theater, and Tranzit, a drinking joint beneath the reinforced concrete ceiling of an old bus terminal.

Is there a lowkey restaurant you like to drop in for a quick meal?

Because of my tight teaching schedule during the week, I usually just drop in to Stoczek. It’s a popular campus eatery inside a classic socialist modern building which is in serious need of a renovation. But I can recommend it to people who enjoy a journey back in time.

How about for a sitdown dinner?

I’m not very fond of too fancy establishments, which is why I really liked Beltér, chef Viktor Reiner’s restaurant located inside his own downtown apartment. It feels very personal as he himself serves and explains the dishes. Recently, he opened another place in Dörgicse by Lake Balaton, run in a similar vein. It’s called Lelkem Kisvendéglő and I hope to try it soon.

Domonkos Wettstein standing in the staircase of the Budapest University of Technology (BME).
Domonkos Wettstein standing in the hallway of the Budapest University of Technology (BME).

What are some places you visit to see local art?

On my way to the university, I pass by the galleries of Bartók Béla Boulevard so I see many of the latest exhibits. These small galleries are the result of a conscious urban development plan. A decade ago, many retail storefronts were vacant as the shopping malls siphoned people away from the streets. The local district came up with the Bartók Béla Boulevard project, whereby they rented these spaces to art galleries and cafés and successfully revived the street and created a vibrant cultural scene with many events.

I also like to go to Fuga Architecture Center, which is located in downtown Pest. Some of our university projects are exhibited there but Fuga is home to an array of cultural events, lectures, and classical music concerts too. There’s also a bookstore inside with a wide selection of architecture books, both in English and Hungarian.

What are some places fans of architecture shouldn’t miss while in Budapest?

The Déli pályaudvar (train station) is most fascinating to me. I have fond childhood memories as the trains to Lake Balaton depart from there. It’s a large-scale structure which elegantly implants itself into the everyday life of the city. Despite being an exceptional modern building, it has been in an undeserving condition: Instead of the panoramic Castle Hill, the gently curving horizontal windows of the waiting hall currently overlook a boarded up wall. Unfortunately, other worthy buildings from this period are in a similar state.

I also recommend roaming around Castle Hill. Architects in the 1960s and ‘70s did an excellent job reconstructing the buildings which were destroyed during WWII. With grace and understanding, they healed the wounds and exposed the historical layers beside the modern additions.

On the contemporary side, there’s currently a vibrant activity in the building of public spaces fueled by the creative work of young landscape architecture firms. I’d highlight Újirány Csoport in particular. One of their pioneering projects in the early aughts was Millenáris Park, featuring community-oriented interactive spaces. Sadly, parts of it have been altered. They also recently did the public park on Teleki tér, an exemplary case of participatory design which has contributed to the neighborhood's rehabilitation.

Which Balaton village or town has the most interesting buildings?

In part for personal reasons, I’m most attached to Balatonszemes. It’s a small settlement on the south side of Lake Balaton but with a strong community of vacationers. The turn-of-the-century summer estates are graceful but uncomplicated, expressing the regional architecture of the time. The public spaces, parks, and rows of trees are all the result of local civil initiatives and still shape the overall image of the town. True, this is only a seasonal community but every year the lakeside is lively with people.

Domonkos Wettstein standing in the staircase of the Budapest University of Technology (BME).

What tip would you give for Budapest visitors to get the most out of their time in the city?

Look behind the facades and discover the city’s micro communities! Budapest has eye-catching historical buildings and avenues, but it pays off to visit some of the lesser known parts and unearth what’s hiding behind the entrances. Architecturally exciting spaces will reveal themselves and an honest cross-section of the local society.

When they were built at the turn of the century, Budapest’s apartment buildings brought together a highly mixed group of people; the well-off middle and upper class residents lived in the larger, street-facing apartments, while those with little money were in the rear sections. Today, this living arrangement is outdated but it did prevent the ghettoization of neighborhoods for a long time. Unlike in other big cities, there was a more symbiotic and sustainable relationship between rich and poor city dwellers.