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The Complete Guide on What to do in Debrecen

by Roberto
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Should you find yourself in the east of Hungary, then chances are you will also find yourself based in Debrecen. Debrecen is Hungary’s second largest city and with excellent transport links to Budapest it comes fit for purpose. Not as celebrated as the capital, this city still carries some heft for the visitor. Now that you are travelling there, are you wondering what to do in Debrecen? Then read on for my suggestions on all the city has to offer. Debrecen also serves as the perfect location from which to explore Hortobagy and the Hungarian Great Plain.

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A Little History on Debrecen

As the capital of the Great Plain, an area covering 20,000 square miles, Debrecen serves as the commercial and bureaucratic centre for eastern Hungary. It is also the base of the Protestant church in Hungary, with the highest concentration of Lutheran’s in the country.

Debrecen is a 13th century settlement that was first given a charter in 1361. It served as a market town for many centuries and no buildings exist from its medieval past. The greatest event in its history was during the Hungarian revolution of the 1840’s when the Revolutionary Government fled Budapest and set up camp here, making Debrecen the Hungarian capital in the process. It was short-lived, they soon fell to a Russian army on a battle ground outside the city. The city prospered after this time, but World War II took its toll with a vast percentage of the city destroyed. It was rebuilt after the war by the citizens.


Budapest to Debrecen

Debrecen is easily reached by taking the M3 & M35 motorways from Budapest in around two hours 30 minutes, with a distance of 230 KM (143 miles).

For those wishing to visit by train, Ferihegy station in Budapest has direct trains to Debrecen, which take around 3 hours.

There is also an international airport serving a number of European cities. It is serviced by airlines Lufthansa, Wizz Air and Smartwings Hungary. The airport is 6 Km outside the city, and buses R1 and R2 provide connections.


Public transport in Debrecen

Should you arrive by train, then you will take Piac Utca to the city centre. The tram service outside the station is very efficient and Tram number 1, links the station, centre, and the great forest. A tram fare is around 330 huf (€0.95, £0.80, $1.02 at time of writing) and tickets should be bought in advance, and validated on board.


Things to do in Debrecen

Walk Piac Utca

You could take the tram, but I’m endorsing walking the length of Piac Utca. Many impressive buildings line the street, many influenced by the secessionist architectural movement at the turn of the 20th century. The first on the right is the Court House, before the wonderful County Government Office. Built in 1912, it’s facade is fascinating and it features stained glass windows depicting the seven chieftains who founded Hungary.


Further along the Financial Palace, and the rather pink frontage of the First Savings Bank catch your eye. Finally we have the Hotel Aranybika, rebuilt in 1915.. It is a wonderful piece of art-nouveau architecture and the lobby is blessed with a stained glass ceiling. Sadly the rooms seem to have aged badly and it is best appreciated for its aesthetics.

Hotel Aranybika, Debrecen
Hotel Aranybika, Debrecen
Hotel Aranybika, Debrecen
Hotel Aranybika, Debrecen

Visit Kossuth Square

The city is centred on an attractive main square known as Kossuth square and most of its sights are to be found within walking distance. The square is mostly pedestrianized except for being dissected by the tram line. It is named after Lajos Kossuth, who led Hungary during the revolution of the 1840’s. Both sides of the square are lined by attractive bars and restaurants and it really is a pleasant place to take a stroll. Fountains and water features really add to the ambience. For a thrilling ride over the city, the Debrecen Eye rises to 45 metres over the square, at a cost of 2000 huf per person.

Kossuth Square, Debrecen
Kossuth Square, Debrecen

Tour the Great Church

The Great Church or Nagy Templom in Hungarian is the symbol of the city of Debrecen and the centrepiece of Kossuth Square. It’s bright yellow neoclassical facade really stands out and it’s twin clock towers are its main draw. They remind me of a diving bell helmet.

The church is also the symbol of the protestant church is Hungary since its construction in 1824. Opening hours vary drastically throughout the year, but on summer weekdays it is open from 9 to 6. Entry to the church is 700huf and this gives you access to climb the clock towers. I rarely decline the opportunity to climb a tower.

The west tower consists of 210 steps and centred within is the four and a half tonne Rákóczi Bell. This bell is significantly older than the church, dating from 1642 and was constructed from Austrian cannonballs. It survived the fire of 1802 that decimated much of Debrecen including the church that previously existed on the site.

The principal reason to climb the towers is not the invincible bell, but to gain entry to the viewing platform that gives good views down over the square and across the city. The views are decent if not spectacular.
Much of the rest of the church is filled with curios such as models of biblical structures such as the tower of Babylon. The actual church floor borders on bland with the exception of the organ to the rear of the pulpit.

Nagy Templom Debrecen
Nagy Templom Debrecen
Nagy Templom Debrecen
Be prepared for a few steps
Nagy Templom Debrecen
Views from the viewing deck of the Nagy Templom Debrecen

See Debrecen’s Reform Churches

There are two very contrasting Reform Churches to be found within the city. The first of these, the Reformatus Kistemplom is on Kossuth square. It has seen a difficult past since 1661, being burned down, and having its spire destroyed in a storm which inspired those rebuilding it to give it a castellated parapet. It is known locally as the truncated church. It’s one of those difficult Hungarian churches to visit only opening between 10 and 1. But it’s worth the effort. It’s unique in image amongst Hungarian churches, and unlike the Nagy Templom, the interior is beautifully decorated. The tower can be climbed also.

Reformatus Kistemplom
Reformatus Kistemplom

The other reform church that is worth investing your time in is not located in the city centre. It is on Arpad Ter about 2 km outside. My first impressions were it was made of Lego, but later I assumed Walt Disney had a part to play.

Originally built in 1912 but altered several times since, the most recent being in 2017 which presented it with a major facelift. Whatever they did it worked on me. I can’t attest for the interior as it was unfortunately closed with no obvious opening hours but those magical turreted towers won over my heart. The roof was also decorated with colourful tiles. It was an inspired renovation.

Reformed Church, Debrecen
Reformed Church, Debrecen

Learn about local history at the Deri Museum

The Deri Museum is located near the rear of the Great Church in a neo-baroque building. Admission to this quite excellent museum is 1800 huf. The collection was donated by Frigyes Deri to the Hungarian government in 1920, on condition that a museum would be built in the city of Debrecen. The exhibits have at their heart a trio of paintings by Mihály Munkacsy. His works on the Passion of the Christ are amongst the most treasured of Hungarian art. Occupying one room of the museum, they cover the walls and are sure to wow.

  • Munkascy trilogy


Many artefacts from the surrounding region that define this part of the world form the rest of the collection. These include period home furnishings, book bindings, honey cake moulds, and jewellery and armoury. The best of its international offerings are a Japanese section on Samurai’s and the Egyptian mummies presentation. However the first room, dedicated to the burial rituals of the area, was in its dark way the most captivating for me. It was truly fascinating how warriors would be buried with their horses.

Deri Museum

Another branch of the Déri Museum is found on Peterfia Street. Dedicated to Ferenc Medgyessy, a Hungarian sculptor who produced some great works in the 20th century. Medgyessy produced four statues which represented the different departments of the Deri Museum, and subsequently won the grand prix at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937. These can be seen in Deri Square. The Ferenc Medgyessy memorial museum contains some 200 works by the artist, as well as a substantial amount of information on his life. The ticket for the Deri museum also covers admission here, as well as the house of arts and literature, known as the Irodalom Haza.


Wander and see the other sights of the center

Within easy walking distance of the centre there are many other fascinating sights. To the west of the centre, lies St Annes Cathedral, and also the cute sight of lovers locks adorning a door at Kulcsos-fal. Nearby the stunning Csokanai Theatre is well worth a look or indeed a visit to catch a show. The theatre was built in 1965 and was in fact heavily influenced by Moorish architecture.

Csokanai Theatre

Crossing eastwards take a stroll through Kalvin square. It runs to the rear of the Great Church. Here you will find the Lycium Tree, a symbol for the reformation in Hungary. It was said the religion would develop if a tree would grow from a branch planted in the ground. Case in point.

The Debrecen Reformed College forms one side of Kalvin Square. This college is in continued use since 1538. During the Hungarian revolution, its oratory was the seat of the Hungarian government. With some excellent murals and quite unique designs throughout, it is indeed worth a visit.

In the streets to the east, do also seek out the beautiful Pasti Utcai Synagogue.

Pasti Utcai Synagogue.

Renowned local artist Hollo Laszlo is commemorated in the Hollo Memorial Museum in a street named after the artist. It can be found about 5 minutes walk from the centre. His works are displayed in a what was his family home, turned museum.

Take in some fresh air at the Big Forest

It won’t be winning prizes for imaginative titles but this area north of the city is a refreshing break from the city centre. It’s known locally as the Nagyerdei park. If Kossuth square is the city’s soul, then the Big Forest is its heartbeat. As earlier mentioned it is easily reached by Tram 1 from the centre or train station. It covers a large area and a plethora of popular sights, which I’ll list below..

  • Spend some hours at the popular Aquaticum Mediterranean pleasure baths. This hotel hosts a wellness centre and an excellent indoor waterpark;
  • Visit Debrecen Zoo, home to 170 species of animals. Within the complex also are an amusement park and the Debrecen botanical gardens;
  • The Nagyerdei Park contains the most modern football stadium in the country and the home to Debrecen FC;
  • For those wishing to nurture their fun side, why not take a walk along the stepping stones through the lake (careful I fell in). Or alternatively climb the Nagyerdei water tower and abseil back down. You can just relax with a coffee in the cafe at the tower of course;
  • Go and admore the one hundred year old Debrecen University. The main university building, of neo-baroque style, is a glass ceilinged beauty. Take the time to explore the arcaded corridors and stained glass marvels within. Stretched out in front, are French gardens, lined by statues and centred on a pool;
  • Part of the university campus, is the Agora Science Museum. Featuring a planetarium, and no end of science experiments to reproduce, its guaranteed to fill some hours.
Water Tower, Debrecen
Water Tower, Debrecen
Forest Park, Debrecen
Forest Park, Debrecen
Debrecen University
Debrecen University

Day trips from Debrecen

Hortobagyi National Park

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is within easy reach of Debrecen, via a thirty minute train ride. Trains run throughout the day. It is truly one of the hidden gems of Europe. The domain of the cowboys of Europe, a visit to the Mata Stud Farm will take you into the world of Gulyas and Csikos. For a step back in time, it really holds no parallel in Hungary, or possibly even in Europe. Travel here to see the indigenous Nonius horses, Racka sheep and Hungarian Grey Cattle. For more on this unique location visit my blog on Hortobagy.

Hortobagy

Hadjuszoboszlo

The surrounding area of Debrecen has some unique sights. The rather difficult to pronounce Hadjuszoboszlo, 25 km away, is famed for thermal waters. At its heart is a complex of pools and waterparks.


Nyiregyhaza

This small city to the north is notable for a fine pedestrianised centre, and its Sosto area outside the city. Sosto plays host to a sprawling series of thermal pools and parks. Its zoo is regarded as the best in the country, while the open air Sosto museum recreates village life of the 19th century. Its also the hometown of one half of CarpeDiemEire, and we have made many visits to Nyiregyhaza.


Mariapocs

The small village of Mariapocs is particularly noteworthy for its byzantine catholic church. The church is famed for the huge iconostasis that hangs above its altar. Its receives yearly pilgrimages, on account of the phenomenon that occured here on three occasions. Known as the weeping madonna, tears were seen coming from the face of the painting of Mary, mother of Jesus. The phenomenon lasted many days on each occasion. The church is incredibly beautiful within, and well worth a detour to delve into its history.


When to visit Debrecen

The main event in the Debrecen Calendar is the Festival of Flowers an event which takes place every August 20th. Floats built from thousands of flowers partake in a parade through the streets. It is a ticketed event and there is a need to book it in advance should we wish to attend this seated street event. Try to schedule a visit around the flower carnival as the whole city comes to life, stalls fill the square and live artists perform.

Where to stay

Debrecen has a number of good hotels. They are split between the city centre and around the Big Forest area. With good transport routes into the city I would recommend to avail of the latter with the added bonus of the spa nearby. The Aquaticum runs its own hotel. Most hotels are reasonably priced as is expected in this part of Hungary.

Have you visited Debrecen, Hungary? Let me know what you enjoyed in the comments below.

Debrecen
Debrecen

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