Debrecen is Hungary’s second largest city in the east of the country (two hours’ drive from Budapest) and for those that have already visited and loved Budapest, it offers an alternative destination to explore and learn a little bit more about Hungary culture. The city is small by UK standards, a population of around 200,000, but has plenty of attractions to keep you busy for a few days.
The city has several excellent museums, great restaurants, thermal spas and the unique Great Forest, an actual forest in the city that comes alive during the summer with lively bars and eating places. It is also the gateway to Hungary’s first national park, Hortobágy National Park, and, further afield, the Tokaj-Hegyalja Wine Region, where the world’s first vineyard classification system was born in 1772, ahead of both Oporto in Portugal and Bordeaux in France.
Arrive in Debrecen with a direct flight from London Luton. Take the local bus from the airport, which takes about 20 minutes to the centre and is the cheapest option costing around HUF 500 (under £2). Alternatively a taxi will set you back around HUF 3,500 (around £10-£12).
Check-in at the 5* Hotel Divinus located just outside the main centre on the edge of the Great Forest – a short tram ride from the city centre. This contemporary styled hotel is one of the best in the city with all the facilities and comfort one would expect from a five star hotel, including an excellent wellness and spa centre.
Take the tram just outside the hotel into the city centre. Tickets can be purchased at the small supermarket on the corner and despite the shop assistants not speaking English, they usually know what you are looking for. It takes just 10 minutes to reach the city centre.
Time for lunch and you can’t beat ‘lángos’ a type of fried flat bread covered traditionally in garlic, sour cream and cheese, although other toppings are available. There is a small kiosk selling lángos on the main street for around £2, and its makes a delicious and filling lunch. For other cheap eats there are a number of street food restaurants and bars in the city centre selling cheap, good quality fast food.
Wander around Kossuth Square, the main square in the centre of town with the striking yellow-coloured Reformed Church, one of the most important buildings in the city and the hub of the Reformation movement in Hungary.
Make sure you check out some of the museums, especially the Déri Museum, best known for the monumental paintings of the Christ Trilogy. These huge paintings cover three walls of a large hall and at certain times there are various 20 minute light show presentations with biblical, art history of musical themes that really bring these canvas’ alive.
Head back on the tram and take a walk in the Great Forest to the Aquaticum Mediterranean Spa and Water Park. A hotel and spa complex with thermal baths that are open all round the year, featuring three different pools, inside and out filled with medicinal waters of different temperatures. It can be a bit of fun trying to get in, as the staff have very limited English, but persevere and you should manage to get yourself a bathing ticket, towel and key to a locker for around £10. Remember in this part of Hungary English not as widely spoken as in Budapest.
Dinner at Ikon a modern Hungarian restaurant with an extensive wine cellar – aiming to be the first Michelin star restaurant outside Budapest. Chef Péter Pataky used to work at Hampshire’s Lime Wood and puts together his refined, modern Hungarian cuisine in part from produce plucked from his own kitchen garden.
Dine on sumptuous dishes such as roast loin of venison, sunchokes and wild mushroom jus or roast mangalica pork sautéed brussel sprouts, pearl barley risotto. There are also vegetarian options. Find yourself there on Sundays and you can even enjoy a traditional Sunday lunch.
Head out to Hortobágy National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site around a 30 minute drive from Debrecen. This beautifully haunting landscape of infinite horizons and heat mirages is home to peacefully grazing herds of cattle and horses and water habitats teeming with flocks of wild fowl.
The Hortobágy Máta Stud Farm, just outside Hortobágy Village, is the place to take a horse riding lesson or trek out to the park, join a horse and carriage tour or see an equestrian show. You can also admire the unique skills of the Hungarian Cowboys out on the ‘puszta’ (plain), who as well as riding with saddles with no girths can get their horses to lie down on their sides to command. This is apparently a throwback to the time when they needed to hide from bandits as they crossed the puszta and they taught their horses to lie down completely still.
This 300-year-old stud farm is a non-profit company and one of Hungary’s main horse breeding centres. One of its primary roles is to preserve the traditional Hungarian Nonius horse, once used for agriculture, and today bred by preservationists for use in agriculture, leisure riding, and competitive driving sports.
Lunch at Hortobágy Csárda, a 300-year-old inn which was a typical watering hole and place to rest for Hungarian herdsmen. The interior and traditional local fare, including the delicious fish soup served in a small silver cauldron, are a reminder of the world of herdsmen-turned outlaws who roamed the puszta in bygone eras.
Visit the small museum for a history lesson into the life of the herdsmen and see the Hortobágy ‘Nine-hole’ bridge, a 167-metre bridge that spans the river, the longest stone bridge in Hungary and a proud symbol of the park. Constructed in 1826 it replaced a wooden bridge and is seen as the parks leading architectural monument.
Take a jeep tour around Hortobágy Wildlife Park and Puszta Zoo to see some of the old Hungarian breeds of domestic and wild animals that are living protected in their natural environment. Animals roaming the park include small wild horses, oxen, wolves, jackals, eagles, vultures and flocks of waterfowl.
Dinner at the Krúdy Restaurant, at the historic Villa Hotel, named after a famous Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy who started his journalistic career in Debrecen. Its cosy restaurant serves traditional Hungarian dishes such as Jókai bean soup, goose leg with red cabbage, and for desert, the wonderful Somlói sponge cake or pancakes with poppy seeds. The boutique hotel offers 15 rooms and is ideal for those looking for a quiet and relaxing ambience, within easy reach of the city centre.
Take a trip out (around 1.5 hours’ drive) to the Tokaj wine region, a UNESCO World Heritage wine region that has been producing the fine sweet Tokaj wines since the 17th century. Nowadays, as well as the famous sweet ‘Aszú’ wines many wineries are producing dry white wines and sparkling wine that are gradually gaining a great reputation outside of Hungary.
In a day it’s possible to visit up to around five wineries for tastings and there are a wide variety of wineries dotted throughout the region, from small boutique producers to larger modern wineries.
One of the oldest cellars is the Erzsébet Pince winery in the town of Tokaj, which was thought to once be the cellar for Hungary’s most famous queen, Queen Erzsébet and was built in the 1700s. A surprising new addition to this winery’s repertoire is coffee (www.tokajcoffee.com) and they now run a coffee roasting business and small cafe in Tokaj, as well as producing some exceptional wines.
The Patricius Winery is a fine example of a contemporary winery developed from a reconstructed winepress house dating back to around 1867 and featuring state-of-the-art technology. Its location is sublime with far reaching views over the vineyards of Tokaj, especially in the soft afternoon sunshine.
The winery produces many award winning wines across the whole Tokaj spectrum (sparkling, dry, late harvest and Aszú) including the rare Essencia – the most exclusive of the Tokaj wines which costs around £240 for the Patricius Tokaji Eszencia 2000. This extremely sweet wine is only around 2% in alcohol but its sugar content is around 85%.
Lunch at Gusteau in the town of Mád. This small village is home to one of the most respected wine makers in Hungary István Szepsy and it’s the delicious wines from his Szent Tamás vineyard that we get to taste over lunch. The restaurant serves modern Hungary cuisine in an opulent dining room or in the summer outside on the terrace. They also offer culinary workshops, wine dinners and palinka tastings.
For those that want to stay in this region, the 4* Gróf Degenfeld Castle Hotel and winery is a luxurious choice in a stunning location in the village of Tarcal. Owned by the aristocratic Degenfeld family who played an important role in the Tokaj wine region in the 19th century, the family has converted the former wine-dresser school located on the Gróf Degenfeld vineyard into a four star hotel. Guests can learn about wine making and do tastings with a range of different tasting packages or just relax and enjoy the hotel’s excellent facilities and fine dining.
Those that prefer a smaller establishment the small boutique winery Tokaj Nobilis, owned and ran by Ms Sarolta Bárdos, named winemaker of the year in Tokaj in 2012, plans to open a small bed and breakfast in late 2014. The winery produces hand-crafted dry, sweet and Aszú wines from the region’s four main grape varieties Furmint, Hárslevel?, Yellow Muscat and Kövérsz?l?.
A late return to Debrecen and it’s time for drinks and something to eat at Decrecen’s first and only ruin pub the Roncs Bár to round off your stay. The bar often has live music in the evenings and is usually packed with a mixed crowd of students and trendy professionals, as well tourists looking for a lively night out.
Flights with Wizzair from Luton start from £90 per person return. To book visit www.wizzair.com.
Double rooms at the 5* Hotel Divinius start from €140 for two people in the low season, including sumptuous buffet breakfast and use of the wellness facilities. To book visit www.hoteldivinus.hu/en.
• The Debrecen Flower Carnival in August is one the highlights of the Hungarian festival calendar. It’s a week-long festival culminating in the spectacular carnival parade on 20 August with flower floats decorated with thousands of flowers.
• Visit the local Tourinform office close to the main square, when you first arrive to collect information and find out about special events and tours, including how to travel to Hortobágy National Park. Tourinform Debrecen 4024 Debrecen, Piac u. 20.
• The Old Post Office Inn is a boutique hotel in the city centre housed in one of the oldest buildings in the city that dates back to the 1690s. The hotel offers an excellent Hungarian-style cellar restaurant, well worth a visit even if you are not staying here.